Luchana CouchSurfers – September

27 09 2011

For some, too much is never enough: my enormous flat bulges at the seams with its ten international residents, plus their various and frequent guests, yet at the beginning of the month we collectively elect to open our couches to travelers passing through the city using the CouchSurfing website. I’ve had an account since just before I moved to Thailand, where I used it not only in terms of surfing and hosting, but also as a means to establish an ever-dynamic social base. CouchSurfers are all over the map, coming from every country and camino, sharing a passion for meeting other travelers and swapping stories.

After introducing the idea and the website to the uninitiated of the Luchana house, we collectively decide to give it a go; I use my account to filter and organize incoming requests, posting the schedule of anticipated guests on a calendar print-out in the living room. September turns out to be particularly high-traffic, owing to the frequent presence of two further guests occupying the other sofas:

1) Gio, Columbian photographer/videographer and previous resident of my very own room in the house, has just returned from months of solo travel through Spain and Portugal. He’s a Luchana institution by this point, ever the wanderer but always returning to beloved Madrid, picking up new kitchen skills in the process.

2) Max, German-American bartender/egg-eater/entrepreneur, is suddenly one of my longest-standing friends: we met six years ago living on the Earlham Wellness Hall, of all places. Philosophies have since shifted, and Max has spent the past while bartending in his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. He’s got his sights set on ambition, however, and I like to think I was a large part of convincing him to apply for the Madrid auxiliar program, which he’ll be beginning along with me next week (although not in the same Instituto).

Apart from couch-crashers Gio and Max, Luchana has racked up five official CouchSurfers during the month of September:

1) Viktor, Mexican currently studying Latin and Greek in Romania, inaugurates the CouchSurfing experiment the very next day; he notices my profile proclaiming me “Online Now!” and inquires as to whether he might be able to stay that same night. I waver just a moment before responding positively, deciding that getting the ball rolling immediately is the best way to keep enthusiasm high.

Viktor arrives in the afternoon and we set out for a stroll, during which he teaches me much more about Spanish history as reflected in the city statues and structures than I think I ever managed to glean from SPAN 402: Histories of Spain. He is linguist, writer, and philosopher; together we successfully complete a mission to locate blank sheets of paper, his preferred tool of the trade. Over rooftop cañas, we discuss the Meaning of Meaning, singularity vs. author vs. reader, and the above pictured Vaso de la Libertad.

Upon departure, Viktor leaves the house a lengthy letter of thanks pegged to the living room wall, complete with verbal flourishes in antiquated Spanish. He’s an ideal introduction, and has extended an invitation to visit Romania that I may just accept.

2) David, Brit touring the country by thumb, arrives shortly after my return from Berlin. He’s on the quiet side, and unfortunately we don’t end up coinciding a great deal, to the extent that I even lack a proper photo of the guy. He crashes here for a couple nights, then heads out.

3) Alessandra, Napolitan living in London for the past year, is quickly revealed to be a kindred foodie heart; we sample sardine-stuffed olives at El Mercado de San Miguel and whiskey-topped tinto de verano at La Paca. Neighborhood touring takes us further south to calle Argumosa in Lavapiés, where we talk ex-punk phases and living with mainly males. We share a lively ensalada mixta and grilled squid dinner with Max and Gio at a traditional-style Spanish spot in Malasaña.

The following evening we reconvene over a bottle of La Rioja’s best Alessandra’s thoughtfully brought to the house, and I whip up an extra-large batch of palak paneer as a spicy accompaniment. New housemate Miguel joins in the feasting, which is followed by a miniature art exhibition on the sofa consisting of of work of the present creative types. Longtime Luchanero Eugenio reveals himself to be of multiple talents.

4) Sylvain, French computer engineer brought to the city by his company, elects to extend his stay in Spain over the weekend as well. We share morcilla, pimientos de Padrón, pan de jamón y tomate, bacalao, and fried eggplant with salmorejo, along with a glass or two of cool white wine at nearby Lateral. Around 1AM, post-stuffing ourselves well beyond the point of sheer gluttony, we venture back to the piso to check out the party that’s surely happening. We enter into darkness and silence – shit! Looks like the piso’s taking the night off. However, Max arrives soon after, followed by CouchSurfer Eddie and his hosts Kaeli and Fernando, who I’ve invited to the assumed party at my place. The plan quickly shifts to checking out the Malasaña scene, and we kick it in funky Tupperware. The night wraps up with absolutely all present breaking it down on the dance floor to early 90s hip hop jams.

5) Eddie, born in Ukraine with roots in Israel and high-school experience in Boston, is currently working for CERN in Geneva, Switzerland. He’s a major player in the get-down-stay-down that goes-down Friday night in Tupperware, and the beat refuses to go out for the count; next up is a daytrip to Toledo, in which I rediscover the best asadillo Manchego in España. Nighttime brings the much-anticipated piso party, including guest appearances by Kaeli and Fernando, and all proceed to boogie their pants off into some wee corner of the nearly-morning.

The next day brings gastronomic experimentation even for me; Eddie’s heard tell that they enjoy pig ear ’round these parts, and of course I’m game. Supercutre Bar El Jamón in Lavapiés has the porky goods, and I sample glutinous, vaguely meaty oreja for the first and last time. The pimientos de Padrón go down much easier, so much so that I’m beginning to think they may be a new obsession. Evening wanderings include an attempt to take part in a swing event that leads us instead to talking public art at La Tabacalera, then meeting up with Max for red wine plus caviar-flecked ensalada de mariscos at La Buga del Lobo.

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País Vasco/La Rioja: Misjudgements and Re-conceptions

13 12 2010

Recently I’ve been remembering the Histories of Spain days with Chris, those endless Friday afternoon classes in Carpenter achingly watching spring come to the Heart through windowpanes. You wouldn’t believe just how many rich and detailed tales weave together the intricate Spanish fable that I managed not to retain whatsoever. I feel it can only be partially attributed to the oh-so-distracting allure of frisbee in the sunshine; the central issue was that the stories lacked tangible context. Even the following semester in Valencia didn’t provide more than a seriously myopic understanding of the country; anyone who has had the pleasure of Jesús’ Historia y Cultura de Valencia lectures will cringe at the very mention of the Riuà.

Despite the inundación innundation, I’ve been exploring bits and bobbles of the Iberian Peninsula for three years now – holy jamón, Batman! Valencia served as intimate introduction, with weekend sneak peeks at Andalucía, Barcelona, and Cuenca. El Camino de Santiago took me through a snippet of Castilla-León followed by a healthy slice of Galicia, which was further augmented by the following year’s summer stint just outside of Lugo. Through Fulbright, I’ve established my own nooks within the sprawling cosmopolitan center of Spain; I now feel I can rightfully call Madrid home.


Yet the more destinations I explore, the more I realize there is to this amalgamation of autonomous communities than meets the average traveler’s eye. The word choice truly suits: the various puzzle pieces of Spain were brought together under one flag chiefly due to historical agreements made by those in power, most recently serious baddie General Francisco Franco. Under the Franciscan dictatorship, all languages apart from Castellano – incidentally, what English speakers often think of as “Spanish” – were forbidden. The fact is, there are plenty of Spanish languages, among them Catalán, Gallego, and Basque, this final one especially intriguing to linguists as it has no known roots in common with any other language on earth.

The first thing Americans tend to learn about El País Vasco – in Basque, Euskadi – is something about terrorism having to do with the Basque separatist movement. (“Didn’t they blow up that Madrid metro train? And they have something to do with Al-Qaeda, I think.“) Even the Jornada de Auxiliares gave ETA a nod; in addition to not getting too tipsy on the cheap delicious wine, we foreigners have got to be ever! cognizant! of the threat of lurking evil where we may least expect to find it (under the bed, maybe? god forbid, 100 Montaditos??).

Like a good liberal arts grad, I keep questioning everything, particularly my own suppositions. When considering where to visit over the long break from work in December, I know I want to stay in Spain for convenience, and I find myself wondering why el País Vasco seems to be shrouded in eerily foreboding mystery. It’s funny what you’ll pick up when you’re not paying attention – most of my mental Spanish map is coated with thick rays of sunshine, but this unassuming little section to the north is marked off as somehow darkly threatening, or, at the least, somewhere you’d probably not choose to go voluntarily (however, the devious Basque separatists, decked out in black bandito masks, might sequester the less vigilant American tourist up there in the night).

After a few hours’ investigation into the area, it is obvious I can await my would-be kidnappers no longer – sequestering must be done through SpanAir, and in cahoots with the loveliest of girlfriends, Sam, Emily, and Leah. What better way to eradicate absurd preconceptions than to walk through a place in your own rainboots? We split into two pairs and seek Couchsurfers with whom to lodge in Bilbao, Donostia-San Sebastián, and Logroño – the last of which is actually in La Rioja, famed for its wine production and unmissable given that we are going to be just a few hours away by bus.

In Bilbao, Emily and I are welcomed by local Oihane; in Logroño we will stay with Polish Erasmus student Justyna. None of us manages to find any leads in Donostia, so we book a shared hotel room slightly out of town but well-connected by train. I still want to kick it with CSers – my experience tells me that you ought to take full advantage of any time you can involve yourself with knowledgeable locals – so I make a post on the boards inviting any and all in town to a Saturday night pintxos crawl. The responses come pouring in, we confirm a time and place to meet, and that’s the extent of the planning we do for the entire trip. Yup, I fall heavily in the “spontaneous” camp, and I arrive at the airport Thursday evening hot on the scent of the promise of possibility.

Continued in:
Nibbling the North
Brushstrokes and Spraypaint





Couchsurfing El Grito Fiesta

17 09 2010

I awake from my siesta – I don’t think I will ever stop deriving enormous pleasure from spending 6-7:30 PM deep in dreamland – to find the piso transformed.

I’m far from a good Hippiehamite; it never occurs to me to decorate with a few candles. The soft flicker they cast on the kitchen is is gorgeous, though, and a marvelous way to ease towards full wakefulness.

I tell Fausto I love them, and he proceeds to get quite bashful (“ah lo que pasa es que no suelo usarlas, que no son nada, asegurate que las apagas cuando salgas,” etcetera etcetera). They’re so classy-grunge. I love my stylin’ piso.

Tonight I’ve done my research on the Couchsurfing Madrid message boards; there is a fiesta going down tonight in La Latina in celebration of El Grito, Mexican Independence Day! I’ve told Alice about it, and then Emily, and then Sam and Leah and Charleen, and then Jaselyn, and soon enough there is a whole troop of Fulbright ladies hankering for a Mexi-style get-down. I explain what Couchsurfing is, but I get the sense that it’s tricky to understand the vibe of it without experiencing an event for yourself – so plunging ahead blindly it is. Fingers crossed that the Madrid group is as warmly inclusive as the Bangkok bunch.

We convene in La Latina, bustling tapas-central of Madrid (still need to do this! weekend plans, anyone?), and head down Calle Cava Baja towards the deceptively named Chez LouLou, which turns out to be an itty-bitty bar/restaurant completely overflowing with chatty revelers. I approach decisively, stowing my trepidation and boldly introducing myself and my compatriots to some eccentric-looking tall man with a frizzy afro.

A beat passes – then – “Eres de Couchsurfing?”
“AHHHHH CHAN-EL DORK-INK-TOHN!!!”
“Uh. Me investigaste?”

I guess I invited it when I posted on the event listing that I was going to arrive with a plenitude of amigas. Oh Couchsurfing, always toying with that fun little line between informative and creeptastic.

Luckily for all involved, no one else attending is quite THAT well-versed in who I am, although there are a handful of others who recognize my face from the board (“Eres la con las gafas!!“). The atmosphere is totally bumpin’, both in terms of energy and running into other bodies attempting to occupy the same sweaty space, and I quickly move outside with my cool Coronita.

Couchsurfing events are unlike any others I’ve ever experienced; everyone is looking to meet you but (normally) sans flirtatious overtones. There’s a general appreciation of working together to have the best time possible, rather than each-man-for-himself, and just about everyone wants to know your story. Plus, because we’re all connected on this network of references, anyone who makes a bit of a cabron@ out of him/herself is then subject to nothing but the truth the following morning.

As a group of seven attractive chicas (Sam’s brought along a British newbie to Madrid), we are quickly invited out for drinks/dancing following the fiesta. None of us has anything slated for the morrow, so we accept and march our way towards the center.

It is ladies’ night at Dreams, which means the mere presence of your twin mammary glands nets you a free drink every fifteen minutes. None of us go quite that hog wild, but the emphatic booty-shakin’ definitely revs up as the night wears on. Interestingly, the tradition here seems to be that the men dance in front of the womenfolk, showing off their finest groovy maneuvers. For the most part, everyone cycles around the group, trying out different style combinations to the familiar American beats (“heyy! must be the monayy!“).

We duck out around 2:30 AM or so, quite early by Spain standards, but it feels sufficient tonight. The metro’s closed by now, but the 20-minute walk back to Calle de Las Delicias isn’t so bad – although Em and I are certainly enthusiastic about kicking off our heels once happily back in the piso.