holmes sweet holmes

sucking marrow and seeking more

Archive for the month “December, 2012”

Mountains, Monasteries, Moms and Monet

Mmmmm, this glass of sangria tastes delicious with my new perspective.

View from Monserrat

View from Monserrat

These desert dames have spent the last two days scampering around the mountains in Spain. Yesterday, we sat in the dirt at Park Güell, another Gaudí creation, reflecting and processing as we wrote in our respective journals in our private pieces of forest. Today, we traveled 50 km outside of the city to visit Montserrat, the multi-peaked mountain which is home to a Benedictine monastery (and also rumored to hold the Holy Grail. Yes, that Holy Grail).

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The Holy Grail may be hidden in a cave or crevice in these mountains somewhere.

The last thirty hours could easily be renamed, “Contemplative Hour with Rebecca and Katie.” If you are not into deep and profound today (did you read that with your best movie trailer voice? I hope so), then just enjoy the pictures. Otherwise, read on.

As Rebecca and I descended from our perch in Park Güell yesterday, weaving in and out of tourists, dancing past the Rastafarian-mariachi-ska band’s performance, we discussed the topic of the day. Soul Pancake asked her of what she was certain, and that provided plenty of fodder for our walk home.

Becs and I arrived in Cairo around the same time, and although our pasts differ significantly, our hearts do not. Unsurprisingly, we are both certain of two truths:

1. We are on the right path. It’s cliche, yes, but it is truly about the journey rather than the destination. And neither Rebecca nor I have ever felt as content on the journey as we do now. In part, it’s because we’ve both fulfilled our most recent dream.

2. In part, it’s because of our second certainty, which is  we are both living in the present. I moved to Cairo with the intention of living more deliberately, of focusing on the current moment instead of constantly looking towards whatever milestone, goal, or desire is next.

Both of these certainties provide an earth-shattering sense of balance, but a shattering that puts back together rather than pulls apart. As we finish up 2012, take a moment to think about the things of which you are certain. It’s harder than it seems, but naming them can make a world of difference.

Where is your path taking you? Does it really matter?

***

Monserrat sits atop mountains just outside of Barcelona. One must take el tren from Plaça Espanya, an hour long trip (unless you take the wrong train first, like a couple of novice travelers  I know, in which case you will arrive three hours later…), and then you get to choose if you want an additional 15 minute rail ride up the mountain, or if you prefer the 5 minute cable car ride, which provides panoramic views and panicked thoughts as you careen toward the mountain walls, free of charge.

The ride down was much smoother, alhumdilillah.

See that tiny yellow speck? Yep, that's the cable car to Monserrat, photo snapped as we waited for our turn.

See that tiny yellow speck? Yep, that’s the cable car to Monserrat, photo snapped as we waited our turn.

A trip to Monserrat provides another certainty: the beauty is indescribable, the energy is calming and centering, and the air is clear and refreshing. (My lungs have appreciated the reprieve from Burn-Your-Garbage Saturdays in Cairo.)

Rebecca and I spent the day meandering through paths in the mountains. For about an hour, we did not see another soul. We heard the occasional bark of a dog from a village below and tires of a sleek sports car on the mountain roads winding below us, but we did not hear any voices other than our own.

A path meanders around the mountainside, with pictures of saints attached to the mountain wall every 10 feet or so. We walked the entire thing, distracted briefly by a random porch attached to nothing, where we reenacted senior portraits…

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…by three stone steps that led to a cliff, where, naturally, we parked ourselves for better contemplation…

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…and by the smell of trees and the taste of the woods, which we miss desperately in Cairo.

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When we finally reached the end of the path, we were elated from fresh air and sore feet. We climbed as high as we could in our “European hiking boots,” and then we sat, quietly.

Quick background on my good friend B: her mother died of lung cancer a year ago in October. Her mom was the kind of parent whose death left a huge, gaping hole in her daughter’s life. Rebecca and I have spent a significant amount of time on this trip discussing our beliefs on coincidence, fate/destiny, and connections between people and events, as well as across time and dimensions.

So, there we are, at the end of the current path, Becs still leaning against the mountain wall, me sitting on large stone in the middle of the cul-de-sac, with a week’s worth (and more) of these thoughts a-churning. I muse about the juxtaposition we feel on mountains; they remind us how miniscule we are, yet we often leave the mountaintop feeling renewed strength. The strength of the mountain comes from so many things, including the fact that there are nearly 7 billion people in this world, yet at that moment, it felt like we were the only two.

“Or  three,” Rebecca responded, petitioning the universe. “Now would be a really great time for you to drop in and make an appearance, Mom.”

Then she did. An acorn fell from someplace above B, passing in front of her face, and landing with a distinct clunk. Both of us froze, shared a questioning look, and nearly lost it. We waited and waited for more acorns to fall. None did. It was the only one that made itself known in the 20 minutes during which we were alone in the world.

Rebecca’s mom? Who knows. Coincidence? Doubt it.

The acorn fell of its own accord. The sticks were placed strategically.

The acorn fell of its own accord. The sticks were placed strategically.

***

A few days of contemplation and walking — my feet are tired, my head is spinning, and my soul is full. Lots of pictures to share to end this today. First, the remainder of the pictures from Monserrat.

Can you spot the cross on the right cliff? We never made it to that section of the grounds. Next time.

Can you spot the cross on the right cliff? We never made it to that section of the grounds. Next time.

Hanging out in Monserrat

Hanging out in Monserrat

It's a little "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," and I like that.

It’s a little “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” and I like that.

The Abbey

The Abbey

Another beautiful cathedral in Spain

Surprise! Another beautiful cathedral in Spain.

Intricate, unique lamps lined each wall of the cathedral

Intricate, unique lamps lined each wall of the cathedral

Candles galore, lit for St. Mary. One of the Black Madonnas was found at Monserrat, so pilgrims come to this site from far and wide.

Candles galore, prayers to St. Mary. One of the Black Madonnas was found at Monserrat, so pilgrims come to this site from far and wide.

One path I don't plan on taking. Ever.

One path I don’t plan on taking. Ever.

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***

Park Güell, Friday’s destination, also provided ample reflection and renewal. The Park is a massive combination of rocky mountainside, mosaic-ed art, and stone architecture. Every piece was significantly different.

The entrance of Park Güell

The entrance of Park Güell

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Path in Park Güell

Path in Park Güell

Trees that remind me of home

Trees that remind me of home

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View from Park Güell

View from Park Güell

One thing I marinated on for awhile yesterday is what we have termed The Monet Effect. From far away, each piece is extremely beautiful. Up close, the colors lose their cohesion, and each part does not appear as lovely as the whole.

Life is the same way. You get an impression of someone or something (hence Monet’s style Impressionism), and that impression often changes upon closer inspection. While journaling yesterday, I stared at this plant basking in the sunshine, loving the contrast of the colors, the curvature of its arms, the jumbled mess.

Part 1: The Monet

Part 1: The Monet

Upon closer inspection, I could see the flaws, the distortions, and the pain the plant has suffered.

Part 2: The Monet

Part 2: The Monet

It’s a different kind of beauty when you can see the damage.

***

We have two and half days left in Spain, including New Year’s Eve, which we will spend visiting France and Andorra. And then we will return home to Cairo, with just under half of our winter break still remaining.

We can slap a big fat “W” on this trip. Premature, maybe, but I’m fairly certain of it already.

Looking Up

In this city, the beauty is above you.

La Sagrada Familia

La Sagrada Familia

We spent 3+ hours on December 23rd walking around La Sagrada Familia. It is the largest structure in all of Barcelona, with the tallest spire some 560 ft high, and it is exquisite. Construction began in 1882, and it is still continuing today. Barcelona’s hometown hero, Antoni Gaudi, was the architect who designed much of the beauty here. The outside of the cathedral is detailed and cool, but it does not prepare you for the majesty of the inside. Pictures do not do it justice, but we’ll give it a whirl anyway:

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See? The photos are beautiful, but they can’t share the actual experience of being there. That, I’m afraid, is an undefin’d delight.

We took the lift (see how European I’m becoming already?) to the towers on the Nativity Façade to see aerial views of the city.

Buen Dia, Barcelona.

Buen Dia, Barcelona.

Now looking out towards the Mediterranean Sea

Now looking out towards the Mediterranean Sea

Shadow of La Sagrada Familia over Barcelona

Shadow of La Sagrada Familia over Barcelona

Hai B!

Hai B!

Lurking in the shadows, channeling my inner gargoyle

Under Construction

Under Construction

The views were breathtaking, but the descent was more than we bargained for. About 350 steps later, our legs were weak and we had a bit of vertigo. Spiraling down will do that to you.

Told you to look up, not down.

Told you to look up, not down.

We survived!

We survived!

La Sagrada Familia is the largest structure in Barcelona, looming over the rest of the city.

La Sagrada Familia looming over the rest of the city.

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***

Wherever life finds you at the end of 2012, remember to keep looking up.

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Benvingut a Barcelona!

I was alone in Melrose for about 24 hours on Dec 21, and it felt like the apocalypse actually happened and I was the last survivor. I brought Charlie out to use the bathroom twice, and I did not see another soul. It wasn’t until I brought the pup to his home for the next 10 days (thanks, Family W!) that I was finally convinced I was not the last person standing. It was a bizarre feeling, being alone in my new home, and I was ready to fly on Saturday morning.

I landed in Barcelona in the early afternoon, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that when I moved across the world, I settled in the wrong city. That’s not entirely fair to say — there are things I love about Cairo that Barcelona will never be able to offer. But, this incredibly huge open air market could never exist in Cairo, unless we wanted our fruits to taste like dust and diesel, and the seafood to be covered in flies.

Fresh fruit and veggies. We finally have spinach!

Fresh fruit and veggies. We finally have spinach!

Monstrous lobster, waving hello

Monstrous lobster, waving hello

After we purchased our meals for the next few days (including ham!), we wandered around the city, observing and exploring. We are staying in an apartment on the outskirts of the Barrio Gotic, or the Gothic Neighborhood, and the architecture here is stunning.

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Catedral de Barcelona

Catedral de Barcelona

Catedral de Barcelona

Advent Wreath in Catedral de Barcelona

Advent Wreath in Catedral de Barcelona, where we plan to attend a Christmas Eve service

Barcelona Christmas traditions are something else. They all center around poop. Here is the summarized version of the Caga Tió, for your reading pleasure: In the early days, pagans would celebrate the lengthening of days after the Winter Solstice by burning a log in the fire. The log represented warmth, light, and the sun. Once Christianity rolled into town, the Caga Tió changed a bit. It is still a wooden log, but they now add a face, legs, and “barretina,” the traditional Catalan cap. The tió appears on the landing or knocks on the door a few days before Christmas, and the family will treat it well, covering it with a blanket for warmth and feeding it Christmas treats. Then, on Christmas Day or Boxing Day, it will “empty” itself — after days of feasting — and provide gifts for everyone in the family. The kids sing a song (which goes something like this, according to the pamphlet I received when I bought my own tió: “Tió, Tió, shit turró [nougat], do not shit herring, which are very salty, shit turrons, which are really nice…”), and then they beat the tió with a stick. The song and the beating obviously entice the tió to provide gifts, so he poops out presents for the whole family. Merry Christmas!

It's an entire community of Caga Tios!

It’s an entire community of Caga Tiós!

The second excrement-based tradition has to do with the nativity scene. All of the Christmas markets here have the makings for a personal nativity. They include the typical pieces: creche, manger, three wise men, shepherds, baby Jesus, angel. They also have baskets and fruits and veggies and inns and tables and chairs — you can build the whole Bethlehem village. And, somewhere amongst the city of Jesus’ birth, you include a defecating statue, called the Caganer. A little gnome of sorts pulls down its pants and poos, and you need to find him. It’s like Where’s Waldo, but with a Pooping Peasant. I haven’t yet learned the origin of this tradition, but it too has transformed over time. No longer is it only a Pooping Peasant — we saw stalls filled with celebrities, politicians, royalty, even Darth Vader, all with their pants around their ankles. 

Build-a-Bethlehem

Build-a-Bethlehem

The traditions of Catalonia are not limited to poo and poo alone. We also saw many wishing trees, filled with desjitos of passersby. It was  sweet touch.

The Wishing Tree - or Desjitos. They litter the sidewalks.

The Wishing Tree – or Desjitos. They litter the sidewalks.

The Christmas trees, strings of lights, and carol singers remind us constantly that we are away from home, as do the short skirts and PDA. The city has a different vibe, and it is much quieter. Cairo has its own language through the honking of horns, and the silence of Barcelona is almost deafening. I have clearly become comfortable living in Cairo: I continually step into the street whenever I feel like it here, without regard to the crosswalks, and I have said “shokran” and “la’a” more times than I can count. When I first moved to Cairo, I had to train myself to say “ana asfa” instead of “lo siento,” and now I am dealing with the opposite problem. My Spanish is slowly returning, though, and it is fun trying to translate Catalan into Spanish into English.

***

Rebecca and I have challenged each other to find the beauty everywhere on this trip. For today:

A charming little bookstore

A charming little bookstore

Have Yourself a Maadi Little Christmas

We celebrated Christmas with our Cairo family on Friday, complete with Egyptian-style puppy chow, a visit from Santa, white camel gifts, and reindeer games. Our host, Kirk, pulled out all the stops: a beautifully decorated tree, Christmas music softly playing in the background, and the yule log brightly burning on TV. We enjoyed quite the celebration.

Happy Christmas!

Happy Christmas!

Puppy chow, made with Cheerios. You take what you can get, right?

Puppy chow, made with Cheerios. We have creative friends.

***

A surprising amount of Christmas is sprinkled into Cairo: lights strung on a tree on Road 233, platters and Santas and singing snowmen for sale at the stationary shop, and Christmas trees in random storefronts. Unlike in the States, I do not feel a pervading sense of “Christmas time” in the city, but that’s okay. It’s a new way to celebrate Christmas. And I will be in Barcelona, celebrating Christmas with even more new traditions, in just 2 days.

Santa hanging out at Lebanese Nights, where we celebrated a Melrose Christmas

Santa hanging out at Lebanese Nights, where we celebrated a Melrose Christmas

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Christmas on Road 233

A lovely treat from Hayah

A lovely treat from Hayah

Christmas wishes from kids all day

Christmas wishes from kids all day

This kid is a patriot and a suck up, my favorite combination.

This kid is a patriot and a suck up, my favorite combination.

***

I spent an evening earlier this week perusing the best bookshop in the city that I have stumbled upon thus far. It was hiding next to a brightly lit, outrageously priced bedding store selling Egyptian cotton and down comforters, and facing the LaSilke, a loud, bustling street. I walked inside and the noise outside melted away. It was quiet but not silent, warm and cozy, and carried the smell of a good book. Shelves filled with crisp paperbacks and colorful spines, titles ranging from The Maltese Falcon to The Things They Carried to my ultimate purchase, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I cannot wait to sip coffee in Barcelona, alternating between reading and writing.

There is something enchanting about a beautiful bookstore, and I found a gem in Cairo this week. As soon as I walked out, I was hit with a wall of sound: horns honking, car doors slamming, people talking. The juxtaposition of calm and chaos reminds me of why I love this city.

***

Before I went to the bookstore, I paid our internet bill, and on the walk over, we paused to watch a true Cairo moment unfold. Traffic was insane, with three or four unmarked lanes merging into one another and people quickly darting in between these “lanes” in order to get to the other side. Bread and banana vendors were offering their goods up on the midan, and the call to prayer was echoing from the neighborhood mosque.

It was pure Cairo.

Speaking of, Charlie has turned into a true Egyptian dog. His listening skills have regressed and his “independence” has blossomed. He will eat anything he finds. Check out the present he brought me the other night:

The hoof of a [goat, sheep, calf]

The hoof of a [goat, sheep, calf]

***

Ben and I are spending our first Christmas apart. He’s heading home to see family and keep us connected on the home front, and I am heading to Barcelona for 9 days to explore and relax. It will be odd, but hopefully we will both return to Cairo renewed and ready for the new year. No matter how you spend your holiday season, I hope you are safe, loved and happy.

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Or HAAPY, if you’re really lucky.

Be well, be safe, be celebratory this Christmas.

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