Hair Journey Part IV: Caramel Balayage.

Well, I have a lot to catch up on.

And although there are a lot of things I’d like to start writing about, I have to start with my hair because I am seriously behind the game on that one. I’ve gone through two different colors since I last wrote about my hair journey, and I’m going in on Saturday for my next stage. And since I am absolutely dedicated to chronicling this adventure to the end, I have to get my thoughts out before I fall further behind.

Back in September, when I first started talking to Elizabeth about my plans for dying my hair, she told me I should try a “balayage.” I had never heard of this word before, but I pulled out my cell phone and looked it up. Essentially, it’s a super fancy way of highlighting your hair from one color at your roots to another at your tips. It takes a lot of blending, but the result is more natural looking and super cool. We talked about a few options for where I could do a balayage, and the original plan was to do it as I transitioned from chocolate to a lighter color. Elizabeth thought chocolate with red ends would be cool, but in my mind I didn’t like the thought of going from red to chocolate back to red again, So when the day came, I asked for her to do a warm caramel color.

Because I wanted this hairstyle to last for two months while I was in Spain, we chose a root color which we thought might blend in with my natural roots as they grew back. (Balayages in general are a more forgiving hair color, because they tend to fade well over time.) I sort of fell in love with the ash brown we chose, and I sort of wish we’d used it when I did my all-over brown. Maybe someday. Elizabeth also left some of the dark brownish-red I already had in my hair in place as the blending point from dark to light. This ensured I would keep some warm tones and that everything would blend more naturally.

What followed was truly epic. Elizabeth busted out her foils, and spent the next… two hours? carefully painting my hair, piece by piece. I have a lot of hair. It’s thinned a little since starting this whole process, but still—it’s a thing every single stylist I’ve ever visited has commented on, usually when they’re about halfway through blowing it out. And I have to emphasize: Elizabeth was painting tiny pieces at a time.

She started with the root color, painting in the dark brown a certain distance down the strand. Then she used the bleach to start lightening the ends, leaving a certain portion in the middle untouched. And I think she might have used some more dye to help blend the dark and the light together so that the gradation would be smooth. In a few places she let the dark root color go all the way to the ends, and in others she let the highlight go almost all the way to the roots. It took forever, but in my excitement I didn’t feel bothered by that. When she finished painting everything in, she left me for a bit so that the dye and bleach could do its thing, and then used a caramel glaze when she washed everything out to give it that rich, warm color.

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A close-up of the paint job. Look at all those different colors!

I don’t know if I’ve gotten more used to having dyed hair, or if this color just worked for me. But something about this color felt right to me in a way that nothing previously had done. As much as I loved my earlier colors, they took a little getting used to. Every time I saw myself in the mirror I had a bit of a pause. It’s also true that the caramel color was closer to my natural hair color than anything previously, so maybe that was a factor. In any case, I felt happy and excited by this style the entire time I had it. I got a bit used to twirling the ends around my finger when I was distracted to see all the different colors. And, as Elizabeth though it would, this color held strong for a full two months. My roots definitely showed by the end, but only noticeably in strong lighting.

I was in a hurry the day I took pictures, so I struggled a bit trying to get a good pic that really captured the balayage in all its glory. So here are three. One of the things I learned about this style is that curling brings out more of the variations in tone. I’ve included pictures of both so that you get the idea.

 

 

Drawing nostalgia.

I opened my sketchbook today for the first time in a while.

Not to draw. In fairness, I have a couple other random places where I’ve been sketching lately, just not this particular sketchbook. Sketchbooks and I have a relationship similar to the one I share with my books and journals: I often have several going at once, each guided by a different purpose.

But this particular sketchbook has remained unfinished longer than any other. I began it in the fall of 2011, during my second year at Edinburgh. I took it with me to Russia, and to Austria, but I left it behind when I went to Madrid. Maybe it would have helped to have brought it with me.

When I opened the pages today, they crackled. They’d gone noticeably yellow and turned a bit frail. I remember purchasing it in an office supply shop, and it would seem the paper doesn’t hold up as well as my previous sketchbooks did. My highschool sketchbooks are just as sturdy as when I purchased them, even if they are dirtier and somewhat worn around the edges. But then, I used to finish a sketchbook or two a year during highschool. I used to draw every day.

It makes sense that I stopped in college. Sometime in university, I realized I would have to choose between drawing and writing. And I picked writing. But looking at my sketchbook today, I felt an ache in my heart. Not that I’d made the wrong choice, but because I’d ever had to choose to begin with.

I don’t think I’ll ever be the graphic novelist I’d once dreamed of becoming. Back in highschool, I drew enough to be at the head of my peer group. I thought if I kept going, I could become a great artist. Now, I look at people younger than me, and they’re beyond what I ever was. I invested my time elsewhere, and the only way I could catch up would be by taking time away from areas where I have gotten ahead. That doesn’t seem like a smart tradeoff to make.

But it doesn’t feel right to not be drawing anymore. As an outlet, it fed other areas of my life. It made me more relaxed. Inspired me to keep writing. So I’m tempted to find a way, just a little bit at a time, to keep the embers glowing. To finish that sketchbook, and start a new one. And do it again, and again, and again.

Some day, I will start a sketchbook that I will not finish. I hope I never know which sketchbook is my last. I hope I’m still drawing in one when I’m 90. But I imagine this will not be the last time I start a sketchbook and take over half a decade to finish it.

Finding Focus.

Well, I can’t believe it’s gotten to this point.

By which I mean both: “I can’t believe it’s my last Saturday in Madrid,” and also: “I can’t believe it’s March 25th and I haven’t blogged all month.”

I would be like “so much for my blogging every day goal,” but honestly the whole month has been a litany of “so much for this-or-that goal.” So much for learning Spanish, so much for getting up on time in the morning, so much for finishing work early and going out to explore the city. I’ve been struggling, and I think it’s only right in the interests of honesty to admit it. Working abroad is an amazing opportunity, but it is primarily that: an opportunity, and whether or not it actually proves to be amazing is up to you. It doesn’t happen automatically, and it can be frustrating to live under the pressure of having to make the most of your time abroad, especially when you are hyper-aware of what everyone else imagines your experience to be, and you want to live up to those expectations. Why yes, I am working from a bar, sipping my wine, watching the bustling streets of sunny Madrid pass by instead of holed up in my apartment, frantically trying to finish my latest assignment while there’s still daylight.

Does this sound whiny? It shouldn’t. I’m not trying to complain, I just want to be honest. I think we’ve fallen into a trap in the way we present our lives to others, in that we feel compelled to present the best face at all times, but feel false in doing so, and yet are afraid to admit when things aren’t all hunky-dory for fear of appearing glum, depressed or ungrateful. Well that’s the kind of nonsense I’d like to keep off my blog. This space is meant to be a real and honest exploration of shit I’m doing with my life, and that ought to include the things that aren’t working as well as the things that are.

So: I’ve had trouble pulling things together in Spain. And I’ll get into more of that in a second. But first I’d like to cover what I did over the past four weekends, which form part of why I’ve been so negligent in keeping this space up-to-date.

  1. Granada. I loved Granada. It was freaking incredible. If I come back to Spain for an extended period of time again, I may go to there. My last blog was on the Alhambra, and I meant to write more about the gypsy caves up by Sacromonte, and the city itself, but I got sidetracked by the other things and didn’t get to it. More on that to come.
  2. Barcelona. This was my other main travel destination when I came to Spain. It was nice, but much larger than I anticipated, and many of the attractions I wanted to see were quite far away from each other. Still, I discovered Gaudí, and that made the whole trip worthwhile. I think he would have made a great Hobbit architect.
  3. My friend Alaina came to visit. We had an excellent time exploring the city and discovering awesome places to eat and drink. We discovered my new favorite gin bar together. Good times.
  4. The UK. Originally, I had planned to devote my time in Spain to all things Spanish. But once I realized I was too distracted by ALL THE THINGS to do this (more on that later), I decided to pop over to the UK for a quick catch-up with some of my Uni friends. This is 100% the right decision, and did the more to help turn my month around than anything.

So there you go. Four pretty packed weekends sure put some perspective on why I’ve been remiss on, well, lots of things. In fact, they’re part of what helped me realize something very important about myself: I’m not a travel blogger. You know that last post I made about the Alhambra? It took me days to get that out. I was nearly to Barcelona by the time I managed to get it published, and that put me behind my schedule. I couldn’t decide if I should finish blogging about Granada before I moved on to Barcelona, or if I should skip the rest of my Granada post. Then I got back from Barcelona, and everything I felt I “had” to write about became this massive burden. I couldn’t write about what was actually on my mind because I hadn’t written these other posts yet. Blogging wasn’t an enjoyable experience, it was a task to cross off my list. An obligation.

And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I can only handle so many obligations. And if I’m prioritizing them, blogging is sure not at the top of my list. If I’m going to focus a lot of energy on making sure I get a thing done regularly, that energy should go toward something like my novel, or improving my languages.

All of which leads me to that “thing to come” I’ve mentioned in my preceding paragraphs:

I’m swamped. I’ve over-committed. I’m burning out. All the things I tell myself I’m going to do every day, they’re too much. I need to re-prioritize, and that mostly means that I need to cut back.

This is not an easy thing for me to admit. I like doing ALL THE THINGS, but in my excitement, I find I can’t focus on my actual priorities. So I planned my trip to Spain thinking that if I put in some intense study beforehand, and then really dedicated myself to practicing during the two months I was here, I could go home speaking Spanish. I think this would have worked, if I’d made my priority. Only I couldn’t bear to leave behind the books on Russian history I’d recently purchased, so I’ve spent most of the past two months desperately wanting to dive back into Russian practice. It doesn’t help that I made a stop by basically the most amazing fabric store in the world on my way to Madrid, and I’ve been antsy to get back home and sew again. Then there’s the apartment I’m moving into, which has probably cost me hours of productive work time as I’ve distractedly browsed the Internet for furniture and decor that I can’t actually afford. And of course at the bottom of all this is the thing that I really, actually should be prioritizing above all those other things, which is writing my novel. You know: that thing I said I had to do or else risk being a pretentious asshat for saying I would do it and then not.

I came to Madrid thinking it would put me back into that “everything is possible” mindset I had while I was in Vienna, only now I’m realizing that mindset was not a good place to be, even if it did make me happy. Because that happiness was an illusion built on a daydream of things I hadn’t done. And when the things you thought you would do don’t align with the things you actually can do, it leads to a pretty big crash. The kind that lands you in the doldrums for months as you beat yourself up for being less-than-awesome.

So Spain has been a reality check, which is not what I wanted, but certainly far better for me in the long run. I can’t do all the things—or at least, I can’t do them all well. I need to do the thing. And do that thing right.

Does blogging still have a place in all this? Oh most definitely. But not travel blogging. Not the kind of blogging that leaves me feeling drained for failing to live up to yet another obligation. Instead, this is my progress blog and my think space. This is where I’m going to keep dumping my spare thoughts, because it helps me focus. It keeps me accountable.

If that’s not useful or interesting or enjoyable to you, please be reminded that this is an opt-in space: you’re not obliged to keep reading. If you care to join me for the ride: thank you. I really do like knowing you’re here with me.

The Alhambra.

One day, about a decade ago, while shelving books at my library, I came across a book which intrigued me.

It was Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra, and because at the time I was reading through a lot of classic fairy tales, I checked it out and brought it home. But I didn’t manage to read it. Who knows what got in the way: work, school, other reading material. I probably only read a chapter or two, and then returned it to the library before heading out of the country again. And that was the last I thought about the Alhambra for some time.

I wasn’t even particularly thinking about it when I booked my ticket to Spain. But somewhere along the line, the dots connected, and suddenly the Alhambra became one of my top travel goals during my visit. For someone all too used to winging her travel plans, it felt a bit odd to have such a specific destination. So, true to form, I procrastinated, delayed making specific plans or buying any tickets until one Wednesday I finally sat down and purchased a bus ticket and booked a hostel for the coming weekend. I was going to Granada.

I didn’t purchase my ticket to the Alhambra, however, for another two days. Every guidebook I read said that I should book tickets ahead of time, but I figured: it’s winter, I’m sure it’ll be fine. And then on Friday my anxiety overcame my procrastination, and I spent the last few hours before I had to catch my bus to Granada tracking down and purchasing a guided tour for the very next day. I was lucky: had it been summer, it’s likely the tickets would have been sold out weeks in advance.

My trip got off to a rough start. I’m quite used to using Google Maps to navigate cities, but it is not always the most convenient for using public transportation. The routes it gives are fine, but they often rely on your flawless ability to make a connection from one transport service to another, and if you happen to miss that connection, suddenly your “fastest route” changes to something completely different. It didn’t help that the bus station I needed was waaaaaaay out on the other side of town, and that the only transport system I really knew was the metro, and that for some reason this wasn’t on any of Google’s fastest routes. In any case, I gave myself 45 minutes to make a 28-minute trip, but partway through I caught a train in the wrong direction and so missed my bus. Happily, I was able to purchase a new ticket for a bus which departed only a half-hour after my original trip, and bus fare is cheap so I only lost about €18 in the whole fiasco.

That said, these sorts of near misses proved to be a rule for the trip. My tour of the Alhambra was set for 9am the next morning. As before, I left with what I thought would be plenty of time. And, as before, I made a wrong turn and nearly missed my tour. The way up to the Alhambra is easy to find, but once at the top it’s easy to head toward the entrance rather than to the visitor parking lot where the ticket booths are and where my tour was meant to begin. By the time I realized I was in the wrong place, it was 8:53 and I had a 10-minute trek to get to catch my 9:00 tour. I hustled, made it to the parking lot, frantically showed my tour reservation to 3 or 4 people who finally pointed me in the right direction. I managed to join my tour group just as our guide started to lead us up to the palace. Had I missed it, it’s quite possible I wouldn’t have been able to buy another ticket for the day, and I may not have been able to book a new tour for the next day. And either way, the tour cost far more than the bus fare, so I lucked out.

PRO TIP: if you want to see the Alhambra, especially if you’re traveling during the summer, book well in advance and give yourself plenty of time to find your tour group. During peak tourist season, the Alhambra gets 6,000 visitors a day. You don’t want to be navigating that mayhem while you’re late and frantically searching for your group.

That said, once we started the tour everything became instantly amazing. I’m not used to booking tours, and usually opt for an audioguide, which I then find more annoying than worthwhile often as not. On this tour, our guide passed out radio receivers that you wore around your neck and which came with an earpiece that covered one ear. The tour guide was then able to talk into a microphone so that we could all hear her, and none of us had to push to get close to understand what she was saying. I think this made all the difference, as it allowed me to explore and look around whatever area we were in without feeling like I had to stand directly next to the guide to catch every word.

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A view of Albaicín, the medieval Muslim quarter, as seen from the ramparts of the Alhambra.

Once the tour started, we had to pass through multiple checkpoints depending on which area of the complex we went to visit. The Alhambra wasn’t just a fortress: it was a walled city, meaning it extends over an impressive amount of territory. And because of it’s location on top of a hill, it commands an impressive view of the surrounding city. To one direction you can see the old Muslim quarter, and a view of Sacromonte where the gypsy caves are. In another direction rise the Sierra Nevada, the tallest mountains on the Iberian peninsula. I couldn’t see them well during my visit, because although the sky shone blue, the atmosphere was thick. You would not have called the day “cloudy” at first, but yet the horizon seemed closer than it ought to be. Nonetheless, the views were stunning.

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An example of the decorative plasterwork which adorns the walls. Note the Arabic calligraphy: much of it repeats the name of Allah, or forms the words to prayers or holy verses.

Inside the royal complex, the wall decorations are almost overwhelmingly complex. Between molded plaster, tile work, and carved wood, the intricacy of pattern and detail are almost too much to take in. This is where our tour guide proved particularly helpful. She drew our attention to a number of elements I would have overlooked or else not understood on my own, including different religious symbols hidden in the math of the geometric forms. In particular, the significance of the numbers 8, and 7: 8 is the number for God, because the Arabic numeral 8 represents infinity, while 7 is the number of heavens, with the seventh heaven being closest to 8, or in other words to God. The subtlety here struck me, because of how pervasive this symbolism was throughout the entire structure, each archway, courtyard, and carved panel meant to draw the mind abstractly to God in one form or another. Through mathematics, of all things.

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The Alhambra means “The red one” in Arabic, due to the red clay with which it was made.

The whole tour, from the fortress, through the palace, and then to the gardens, took about 3 hours. The gardens were our last stop, and as relaxing and beautiful as the rest. The fountains you see in the photo below, however, are a new addition: our tour guide grumbled about how noisy they were, and seemed to feel they ruined the tranquility of the space. The original gardens had a much smaller fountain, whereas these struck up quite the cacophony. I found myself agreeing with our guide, and wishing for a more peaceful sound.

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Part of the gardens known as the Generalife, derived from the Arabic Jannat al-Arif, which means “Architect’s Garden.” The “architect” in this case probably refers to God.

We had one small break during the tour during which I tracked down a coffee vending machine. Then I wandered around looking at the cats. There were several, each glorious and beautiful it a different way, serenely meandering through the visitors, almost demanding attention as their due. They did not shy away when I went to pet them, although I wouldn’t have called them affectionate. One was kind enough to pose for me, as you can see in the photo below.

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One of several very content cats which I noticed wandering around the Alhambra. This one was kind enough to strike a regal pose and let me pet her for a bit.

It feels cheesy to say, but the Alhambra felt like stepping into a fairy tale. The entire time through, my mind kept wandering to all kinds of tales and legends. I wouldn’t say I’m a romantic person, generally speaking, but it’s hard to stand in a place of such splendid beauty and not give in to it a little. As a place, the Alhambra was meant to be a small piece of heaven on earth—somewhere which could draw one into a peaceful and meditative mindset. Not a place of revelry, pageant, hedonism, or war, but of quiet self-reflection.

In reality, it was certainly a fortress, commanded by a mixed bag of rulers. From my brief exposure to their stories, some seemed genuinely noble, living their lives to some degree according to the piety displayed in every detail of their architecture, and extending religious toleration within their city to Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. Another ruthlessly beheaded an entire family (according to legend) because one scion managed to seduce one of the sultan’s wives.

Nonetheless, while walking through the Alhambra I felt strangely at peace and at home. In terms of architectural beauty, I have certainly never seen anything which could compare, and it may not have its equal in the world. Probably for that reason, I feel at a loss to describe it, drawn irrevocably toward clichés which undermine the true beauty of the place. In the week before my trip, I found Washington Irving’s account on Audible and tried listening to his stories. But I couldn’t quite connect to them as I’d hoped to. They felt too romantic, too starry-eyed, not quite real. Having now seen the Alhambra for myself, it’s true they don’t do it justice. Now I doubt anything ever could.

 

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The Alhambra, viewed from the Generalife gardens.

 

Becoming local.

I set out on a mission last Wednesday: find a cobbler, and get my shoes repaired.

Some stitching in the leather uppers had come undone, and I knew it would be a quick fix. The biggest question was: how would I find someone in Madrid who could repair my shoes?

This turned out to be not a problem, actually. Cobblers are more of a thing in Europe, and Madrid is large city regardless. But I’m not in the habit of tracking down cobblers while abroad, so it felt like a real adventure.

Cobblers, like barbers, are people you only need of you’re a local. I imagine few tourists ever track down a cobbler to fix burst stitching or a detached sole. For one, it usually takes a few days to a week for the repairs to finish, and many travelers can’t wait. So taking the time to look one up and track it down felt like mastering some aspect of daily life. It felt like I’d established myself in my neighborhood.

As it turned out, there was a cobbler less than a quarter mile from my flat. Even so, I’d never wandered down those particular streets, and they felt narrower, and a bit dingier than the ones I was more used to on the other side of the road. They also seemed targeted to a more local group of people: your typical corner shop, your hole-in-the-wall flower stand.

I’ve noticed a pattern in Spanish shop signs. They all derive their names from whatever product it is they chiefly sell. This in itself would be normal enough, but they can get oddly specific, probably because they’re small and only do one thing.

You get fruit from the frutería, and flowers from a floristería. You wash your clothes at a lavandería, and (most importantly of all) you drink your beer at a cervecería. So after all this, I suppose it should not have surprised me when I showed up to the cobblers and found a faded awning above the shop with the word zapatería in peeling white paint.

I went inside. “Hola,” says the shop owner sounding tired. It’s just past noon, so he has another hour and a half till he closes up for the break that always seems to come between 2 and 4pm. I set my shoes down on the counter and point to the areas that need to be restitched. He leans forward, nods, rattles off a bunch of Spanish I don’t understand. I think I catch the word “Thursday,” and I think that means they day he’ll have them finished. I suddenly forget the day, and holding up two fingers I ask “Dos días?” (My Spanish is truly awful.) The shop keep nods and repeats what I’ve said.

He has me write down my phone number, presumably so he can call when they’re done. I know I won’t be able to talk to him, but I go through the gesture. Two days? I repeat, and he nods. I’m about to walk out when I remember another thing. “Y hora?” I ask. He speaks more Spanish that I don’t understand, shrugging and pointing to the counter in what I assume means “come back at about this same time.” “Gracias,” I say, heading out the door.

I didn’t realize my confusion about the day till I got home and realized it wasn’t Tuesday. Whether I’d misunderstood the day, or he’d just agreed with “two days” because it was obvious I hadn’t understood I’ll never know. But I waited two days and went back today for my shoes. There they were, neatly stitched, just as I’d asked.

It cost me €3. I wandered home, feeling proud.

Keep on keeping on.

Well that was short-lived.

I’ve given up on the whole night owl thing. It’s impossible, and it makes me miserable. I like seeing the city by daylight, but seeing as it’s still winter here, the sun sets about 7pm, which isn’t horribly early, but it’s still before I’m done with work. So I feel like I’m not getting to see the city as much as I’d like, except when it’s already dark. On the other hand, it made me feel for all those night owl folk who have to live according to early bird schedules. The good news is, I have a solution for you guys: move to Europe, but work for Americans.

Actually, I’ve discovered the hardest part of this particular working abroad experience has to do with syncing my schedule to my colleagues back home. I don’t intend to. I keep meaning to get up early, start my day at a reasonable time, and get several hours of work in before my stateside coworkers are out of bed. But instead, I keep putting off the start of my work day. No one’s asking for anything yet, so I may as well slip in a bit more reading, right?

Only slipping into this habit means I don’t start work till early afternoon, and then to get in a full day I’m working well into the evening. And after 9 or 10:00, I’m too tired to study Spanish. Which means that if it didn’t happen in the morning, it won’t happen at all. And most days, I’m not up to blogging, either, or anything but talking, or reading, or Netflix.

All this to say that: 3 weeks in to being in Madrid, I’ve spent 1 week jet lagged, 1 week reasonably productive, and 1 week crashing and burning. I feel like I should disclose this because I saw something on social media today talking about how easy it is to make life seem awesome when sometimes it’s not all as awesome as it seems. And there’s a lot of pressure, weirdly, to make working abroad in Spain for a couple months seem like the absolute dream.

And it is! Don’t get me wrong. I am super happy to have worked out a way to live my life this way. And I feel like I’m whining when I say but this is HARD, you guys! Like somehow admitting that while in the middle of this cool thing means I’m unable to appreciate the joys of life.

But it’s also the truth. I had a bad week last week, simply as a result of being massively underproductive. This week has been a slow but steady recovery. It’s hard not to panic a little when I spent time earlier this week booking various weekend trips and realized that I only have two more weekends left in Madrid. The time! It flies! What if I don’t make the most of it!

Well, for starters, I’m pretty sure the time is flying by because I actually have made good use of quite a bit of it: I spent a weekend in New York, checked out the Prado, popped over to Toledo for a weekend, and have generally done a good job getting used to the everyday life of living here. I’m getting better at ordering food in restaurants, and I’ve even found a few places that I would like to go back to and settle into for a while.

So things don’t go perfectly. And because of all the expectations, the bumps in the road jolt more than otherwise. But you recover, and you do your morning exercise, and you read your book, and you take your walk, and you work your full day, and you write your blog. And after all that doing, you realize you actually are accomplishing the things you set out to do.

I’d like to think I’m getting better at balancing, as well. That I work to get all my things done in a day, but when I get to the end and I realize I’m not going to make it through all of them, I accept it. “I’ll do it tomorrow” isn’t always procrastination. Not if tomorrow comes, and you get up and do that thing.

Not every day is going to be a perfect, 5-star day of productivity. I won’t get in Spanish practice today. I’ve only put in 8,000 steps. And neither of those will change, because it’s nearly 11:00, and if I don’t settle down with a book I won’t get the sleep I need to be productive tomorrow.

But today was really good. And even though I didn’t get everything in, it’s helping me get back on track. I’ll do those other things tomorrow, and it will be good.

Until then, goodnight.

The better Toledo.

I hadn’t planned to visit Toledo when I arrived in Spain.

That’s mostly because I didn’t know where it was. Turns out, Toledo is super close to Madrid. As in: a half-hour ride by train. This came as awesome news to me! And it left me full of questions:

  • What’s in Toledo?
  • Is it a nice city?
  • Was it important?
  • What should I do when I’m there?
  • Is it worth going?

Basically, what all this should tell you is that I am profoundly ignorant of a lot of things in this amazing and beautiful country I’ve come to visit. My closest association with Toledo has been with it’s namesake in Ohio, a city about forty minutes south of my home town in Michigan, and the chief point of conflict during the Toledo War of 1835—proof that Michigan’s feud with Ohio has roots far deeper than football.

With a population of not quite 300,000, Toledo, Ohio is a reasonably sized midwestern town, good for its minor league baseball team and the occasional roaming Broadway performance. Somehow I expected its Spanish namesake to be much larger, but in reality, Spanish Toledo‘s historical consequence is far greater than it’s size might suggest. With a population wavering at the 84,000 mark, it feels almost diminutive. But oh boy, does it pack one heck of a historical wallop.

In short, it’s played host to a succession of rulers, from the Romans, to the Visigoths, the Moors, and the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. That makes the art and culture of the place a fascinating blend of Arabic and European, which—I am coming to realize—is somewhat characteristic of Spain more broadly.

This became readily apparent almost as soon as I stepped off the train. The moment I walked into the station, I (and half the other passengers) paused to gawk at the stunning distinctive arches and stunning tile work on display.

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Inside the Toledo train station.

Only, to be honest, it wasn’t actually on display. It was just there. Casually hanging out like it was no big deal. Honestly, Toledo: way to make a first impression.

Being, as usual, unprepared, I hadn’t made any particular plan for getting in to the city. Would I have to take a bus? Could I walk? I checked Google Maps, and the answer was yes: I could walk. I headed off in the appropriate direction, and a few hundred feet down the road the city came into view.

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Why yes, that is a city I would like to go explore, thanks.

This is one of the few moments where I’ve looked at a city and thought: Oh yeah, I see why this would be of such great strategic importance. Not that I’m an ancient military commander by any means, but the whole thing is built on a big rock with a river making a natural moat around a decent chunk of it. Add in those walls you see and some fortified gates and bridges, and I’d definitely want this to be my medieval stronghold.

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The Puente de Alcántara, the Roman bridge leading into the city.

I should also add that the moment I looked at the map on my phone, I knew this would be the place for me. Just check out those streets:

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A map of the old part of the city, looking like the cross-section of a brain.

Hardly a straight line among them! You could get so lost in there! And all built on a giant freaking rock promising all the ups and downs and twists and turns? YES PLEASE.

Again, actually being in the city did not disappoint:

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A narrow street in the more tourist-friendly part of town, a spire of the cathedral rising ahead.
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Well lost at this point, my strategy basically being: Ooh! This street looks promising!

I had a few things I definitely wanted to see, but as I’d arrived late I knew I probably wouldn’t make it to all of them. I decided to head first to the Cathedral, as I understood it was not only an incredible piece of architecture but also housed a small-but-impressive museum with some more El Greco, and a Goya, and super famous and also gigantic monstrance.

I spent way longer inside than I’d intended, and because I’d rushed straight there I was feeling nearly faint from hunger. And then, by the time I’d finished eating, most of the other places I’d wanted to visit were closed. Most importantly, the Alcázar.

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The Alcázar, the fortress which made Toledo such a strategic key.

Apparently, this has been a major fortress for years, and unlike some of the other castles I’ve visited, was actually used as such. It played a significant military role as recently as the Spanish Civil War, and I hear there are places where you can still find bullet holes in the walls from that conflict. Today, it houses a museum, crypt, and documentary room.

By this point I was also too late to visit the El Greco house, so instead I wandered around the city looking at the tourist shops. Most of the time, this isn’t of particular interest to me, but it turns out that souvenirs in Toledo are actually incredible, and may even be worth more than sentiment.

Toledo is famous for its steelwork, which wouldn’t sound like glamorous souvenir material until you see what they make of it:

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Toledo is famous for its gold and steel. These decorative plates are made by hand, with the drawings inlaid in gold and the steel blackened afterward.
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More examples of Toledo’s signature souvenir.

The black and gold form a truly stunning combination, as does the mixture of European and Arabic influence in the design. And these don’t come cheap: unlike what you find elsewhere, these are the kind of souvenirs that you might want to actually use.

Most of the rest of my time I spent wandering the city, taking pictures and admiring the views. One thing I appreciated about my sojourn from Madrid was getting a chance to see a bit of the Spanish countryside. I’d seen pictures, but part of me always feels pictures are portraying the most stereotypical features, and that the reality will be quite different.

In this instance, although pictures I’d seen showed the country to be fairly sparse and rugged, I’d yet expected there to be more trees and foliage. Instead, I was surprised by how much scrubs and bushes dominated the landscape.

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The Río Tajo, which encircles a good two thirds of the city. This is about as lush as the land ever looks.
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Looking out over the rugged, sparse countryside.
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More rock, crowned by the Academia de Infantería, which I don’t think is actually meant for tourists.

In short, Toledo delighted me at every turn. And since I missed some of the key sights, I’ll have to make a return trip some other day.

I’m already looking forward to it.