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The journey comes to a close in Italy

Flowered Balconies

Before our trip, everyone said, “You don’t really need to spend much time in Venice because there isn’t a whole lot to do.” Well, that is true to a certain extent, but what they forgot to say was how beautiful that city is. It’s like walking through a giant postcard. Walt Disney must have spent time in Venice before creating Disneyland. It’s one of the few places on earth with no cars, and that in itself is truly something special.

Gondolas

Florence, Italy (sunset)

Da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Galileo. The history in these places is so rich and deep, I felt like I was getting smarter just being there. Florence is also beautiful, a degree less picturesque than walking through Venice, but what it lacks is made up in legend and art.

Ponte Veccio (night)

We watched several World Cup games in Florence, on a giant Sony PSP. After Brazil beat Japan, the fans flooded the streets in celebration. Everywhere we went, there were Brazil fans and a samba band nearby.

Foro Romano

And then there’s Rome. A few steps in any direction and you’re standing on something you’ve read about in some book some time ago. It really seems unreal to be standing in front of so much history. The stones hold thousands of years of untold secrets.

Roman Colosseum

Walking into the colosseum, the scale is actually much smaller than I imagined. The movie Gladiator clearly exaggerated. But the basic violent premise is still there. Our tour guide told us of “working ladies” who were only allowed on the top level, and that because women weren’t allowed to use the bathrooms, they tossed their waste over the edge to the street. Lovely.

We spent a day wandering through the Vatican. It would have been best to be wheeled around on a cot so I could stare at the ceilings the entire time. They put more on the ceilings than anywhere else. The Sistine Chapel, like the colosseum, was smaller than expected, impressive nonetheless. They keep guards there who constantly declare “no photos” and “shhhh!” The point of the shushing is to keep the place quiet and reverent. But the only thing you could hear was their shushing.

Vatican Skylight

And from Italy, we returned to the states, a week before the Italians would win the World Cup and Zidane would take his place in history with the headbutt that rang around the world.

Berlin during the World Cup

I don’t know what Berlin is like when it isn’t hosting the World Cup, but it was definitely the place to be in June of 2006. The Brandenburg Gate became the backdrop for a public soccer sanctuary of big screen worship. Besides the fanatic crowds and beer (great combo btw), Berlin treated us well.

Watching the Games

World Cup

We took a bike tour through the city and checked out what’s left of the Berlin Wall. It made me wonder if future generations will take tours of the U.S. México border and see pieces of the wall in museums.

Bike Tour

Berlin Wall

Berlin Wall Footprint

Parked on the Berlin Wall Marker

I couldn’t help being impressed by Berlin’s public transportation system. It made NYC look like the third world.

Berlin Transit System

After an all too short stay in Berlin, we set off to meet up with family in Italy.

Game day: Mexico vs. Angola

Arriving in Hanover just after midnight, I was pleased to find the lone service agent at the information booth spoke English. So did the taxi driver. And so did the receptionist at the hotel. A pretty good start to the four days we would spend in Germany for the World Cup. I think we only found 2 or 3 people the entire time who didn’t speak English.

After a brief night of sleep, Rosario began unpacking the outfits she’d brought. She handed me the five piece costume custom-made by her mother. I’m a team player, so I suited up. Rosario broke into laughter, but reassured me I looked the part. I decided I might as well lose my ego for a day and give into the World Cup spirit. Even though I’m not from México, it couldn’t hurt to pretend. This was, after all, a dream come true for Rosario and I didn’t want to party poop.

Rosario & Nathan

We walked to wait for the tram and all eyes seemed to be on me. But once we emerged from the underground station, the streets were red, white and green as far as the eye could see. Small groups in every direction erupted in spontaneous celebration.

Crowds entering the stadium

Watching World Cup games in plaza

We stopped to watch the last half of the Netherlands vs. Ivory Coast game with the crowds at the public screen. Our snack choices were beer, corn-on-the-cob, beer, sautéed mushrooms, or beer. I can only imagine what it must be like during Oktoberfest. I ordered the mushrooms but couldn’t quite finish. I needed a plate full of sausage and potatoes to round it out. It started sprinkling, so we headed toward ground zero. The closer we got to the stadium the crowd only intensified.

The Wave 1

Once inside, it was clearly a Mexican majority. We heard estimates that out of a total 45k sold out seats, 40k were Mexican. The wave circled the arena many times, along with “olé olé olé,” “culero,” la chiquitibum and others. The token drunk fresa sitting next to Rosario broke one of her maracas. I’ll never understand why people get plastered to enjoy themselves at events like this. I ordered the bockworst (extremely long dog) which had about three times as much bockworst as bun. Not bad, but the atmosphere made the absence of diced onion and tomato even more apparent.

One of México's few shots on the goal

Meanwhile, on the other side of the earth, Cindylu was blogging the game live. Unfortunately, it turned out to be one of the more boring games of the Cup. No goals. No winner. A disappointment that we didn’t get to shout GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOL, but still a good time.

Rosario & Nathan after the game

We made it back to the hotel for another brief night of sleep before taking the train to Berlin the next morning.

Ah, Barcelona…

Pigeons in the square

Going through the photos and remembering our time in Barcelona, I’m still fascinated. The history, architecture, food, city life, language. The first phrase I asked to learn in Catalan was “What, you think I’m a tourist?” They said I had the accent down pretty well, but then again, I had nothing to follow up with except to ask for help finding the bathroom. Good thing they speak Spanish, too.

Mercat de la Boqueria

My favorite food of the entire trip was at the Boqueria, a famous market downtown. We stopped at a seafood vendor that both sells and serves it fresh. I had a plate full of grilled scallops, calamari, octopus, shrimp, and a variety of clams and muscles. I get hungry just thinking about it.

Pathway by Gaudí

And then there’s the famous Catalonian architect Gaudí. This guy must have been busy, because it seemed like he designed half of the city. After seeing his sculptures, buildings, park, and basilica, I was hooked. Fun fact: Gaudí was killed in his home town by a trolley car. He left a masterpiece unfinished.

Workers take a break

Under Construction

As the proud owner of a digital SLR camera, I notice other people’s cameras. At Gaudí’s Park Güell, I noticed the guy taking pictures next to me had an Olympus digital SLR. I heard him speaking English to his family, “Oh come on, you always complain when I’m taking the pictures but gush about how much you love them afterward.” I kept my distance from the obvious US American tourist and maintained the discipline of speaking Spanish to try and blend in. A few minutes later, our Catalan guide Marta said, “Hey, that’s Leonardo DiCaprio! Take my picture with him!”

Leonardo DiCaprio & Grandmother

He was walking away at that point, and I was caught off guard. I’ve never had the opportunity to be a paparazzo. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be one. Marta approached the guy who appeared to be the body guard. He affirmed it was DiCaprio, but denied the request for a photo. I couldn’t help sneak one in while no one was looking. Rosario and I went through the video footage and could see him in a few of the shots. On the tape, we could see the body guard positioning himself to block the camera. We were clueless at that point anyway. Sooner or later I’ll upload the footage.

Night Over Barcelona

Three days later, we were boarding a plane to Hanover. Next stop, the World Cup in Germany.

Cannons, tigernuts and stone women, oh my!

Gema and Sergio

Gema (from Spain) and Sergio (from Cuba) were our tour guides through Elche, Alicante and Valencia. We visited the Lady of Elx, the City of Arts & Sciences, and the Castle of Santa Barbara.

Lady of Elx

Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències

Coast of Alicante

Before meeting Gema, I had never heard of Elche. Unfortunately, the one evening I didn’t bring my camera, we walked through the most scenic areas. It looked like a Hollywood backlot, some kind of Spanish Disneyland. Everything was clean and beautiful and layered with history.

On the drive from Elche to Valencia, we drove past three castles each only a few miles from the next. I tried to imagine what kingdom life must have been like, but scenes from the Lord of the Rings started overtaking my own royal hallucinations. Amidst the shame of my pop culture brainwashing, I did decide a future dream home must be a castle. Or at least have cannons.

Castle Cannon

At the City of Arts & Sciences (Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciéncies / Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias), we were surprised to see a cart selling orxata. For two euro, we sampled this local drink made from tigernuts (chufas), sugar, and water. It tasted surprisingly like Mexican horchata. It definitely hit the spot in the heat.

Orxata

Gema's home in Elche

Back in Elche at Gema’s parents’ home, we ate home cooked Valencian cuisine and had our fair share of healthy political discussions with lots of loud voices. Rosario brought several jalapeño chiles with her, and shared a few pieces with our hosts. Gema’s 86 year-old grandmother proved to be the macha of the bunch, enjoying several large pieces of a raw jalapeño. After the first bite, I was afraid Rosario had just killed her. But after the initial shock dissipated, she went back seconds.

Orxata Fresca

Now four days into our trip, we flew to our next stop, Barcelona.

A few hours in Madrid

Madrid Barajas Airport

Thirty six hours after leaving San Diego, we arrived in Madrid. I was immediately impressed by the architecture of the Madrid Barajas Airport. I’m not sure if the lack of sleep from two red-eye flights had anything to do with the euphoria I was feeling on my way to the baggage claim, but I was fascinated nonetheless.

Hector and Gracielita

Our hosts for the 24 hour stay in Madrid were relocated Peruvians Graciela, Hector and their little girl Gracielita. It was my first time meeting them; Rosario met Hector and Graciela in Perú four years ago. They’ve moved to Madrid in search of a “better life” as the saying goes. I typed out “American Dream” and then deleted it because I suppose it couldn’t be accurate since they are in Spain . . . but it’s basically the same ambition.

When we arrived at their flat, Graciela offered us the famous Spanish jamón serrano with cheese on triangles of white sandwich bread. It’s a good thing my understanding of “authenticity” is already well warped, because a Mexican and U.S. American served a traditional Spanish food on white bread by Peruvians would otherwise seem strange. I ate my serving and Rosario’s as well (she hadn’t warmed up to the idea of eating raw pig yet).

Graciela describes the scene for Rosario on camera

People Watching 3, Metro

We took a nap to recover a bit from the jetlag and then headed downtown for a tour. The urban train system was much cleaner than the NYC metro we used 12 hours earlier. We wandered around and took a few pictures. The central downtown area was beautiful. It’s no coincidence the architecture reminded us of older cities in México; many of these buildings could have been built by the same people at the same time in México.

Downtown Madrid

We left the next morning on route to Elche.