My Biggest Travel Fiasco (or, the time I spent New Year’s Eve alone in Romania)

Budapest, Hungary

The clock reads 7:32 a.m. The man in the front seat is antsy, nervously playing with the manual lock system on the minivan. 

“Where are these people? Don’t they know we could be late for our flights?”

I assure Fidgety Floridian that the Budapest airport is quite small and easy to get through, but his wife isn’t convinced. She rolls her eyes and says, “We have the worst luck with planes. We nearly didn’t make it on the cruise.”

My flight to Tirgu Mures, Romania doesn’t leave for four hours, so I’m cool. I settle into the jump seat at the back of the van, wedged between luggage.

Three hours later, I’ve sailed through security and pursue the food options. I decide to wait until I land in Tirgu Mures, as I will need something to do for three hours before leaving for Madrid. My foot taps impatiently against the floor as we begin to embark. Wedged into an airport bus, I choose to stand next to someone who hasn’t showered.

For thirty minutes.

After which we are unloaded back  into the terminal and delayed another thirty minutes. I settle into my third book of my holiday break and return to tapping my foot again while doing the mental math: I have a one hour flight, a one hour delay and a one hour forward time change. I have just enough time to grab my bag, check in again and head to my gate once we touch down in Tirgu Mures. 

My foot taps faster.

In the air, I relax a little, as I’ve been assured that it will be taxi, takeoff, ascent, quick passage of the metal cart for snacks, descent, landing, taxi. Plus, I’ve snagged a seat on the aisle in the third row (thank you, Amazing Race, for teaching me how to get on and off planes quickly). Flipping through the inflight magazine for the third time, the captain announces something in Hungarian. Then, in English: Due to zero visibility in Tirgu Mures, we’ve been rerouted to Cluj, to which we have begun our descent. There will be buses on hand to take you to Tirgu, unless you’d prefer to stay in Cluj. We apologize for any inconvenience.

My heart skips a beat and I call the flight attendant, slightly panicked. How long until the buses arrive? Is it a far drive to Tirgu Mures? Will I have to go through customs here? I continue to fire, but she comes back with two responses: first, I don’t know anything about Romania and second, we are a point to point airline, sorry.

No shit. 

Cluj-Napoca Airport, Romania

Once on the ground, I call the Novio, fighting tears. Our New Year’s plans were to spend the night with his extended family which had come from London, Peru, Murcia and Madrid. He assures me they’ll come and pick me up from Madrid when I get in, whenever that may be. I hastily get through customs, and my checked bag comes barreling down the belt first.

My first stop is the tourist information counter. Unfortunately, the woman speaks limited English. There is no bus to Tirgu Mures out front, and I check my watch: with the time change, my flight closes in 90 minutes. I return to the desk and slow down: How long in taxi to Tirgu Mures? 

“One hour thirty, maybe two.” Remembering my Romania road trip, I think of the poor state of most highways in Romania and bite my lip.

Other travelers are taking pity on me, asking if there’s anything they can do to help me or if I’d like a lift to the center of Cluj. I rack my brain – I’ve been here before. It’s a large university city where we made a quick stop, and the food was cheap. A large, domed church with a fountain in front gets shaken from my head as I try to think straight.

The Cluj airport flies to many more destinations, including Barcelona and Madrid, I tell myself. If I fly out of anywhere, it will be here.

I have to say, I have never been a nervous flier. I always arrive to the airport early, pack my bag without liquids and know how planes work and why they just don’t fall out of the sky. Yes, I even pray to the Virgin of Loreto, patron saint of pilots (and I can’t believe I just admitted that). But now I’m antsy, channeling Kevin McCallister’s mother as I half-run to the Wizz Air ticketing office in the departures terminal.

The woman is quite nice and speaks English, and looks up flights to anywhere in Spain – Valencia, Alicante, Palma. Nothing more will fly out today to Spain, just to Budapest at 8pm, more than six hours in the future. She assures me there are flights from Budapest to Madrid the following day for a mere 145€, and the woman in the other information booth looks up overnight buses and prices for me.

Just then, a young Lufthansa worker touches me on the shoulder. Nothing is flying out of Targu this afternoon – there’s no ground visibility and they’ve already sent word that we’ll be getting flights bound for other destinations here, he tells me.

Feeling a stroke of good luck, I buy myself a cold sandwich and a warm Orsus beer and pace the empty departures hall.

For the next five hours, I jockey between the Wizz Air office, the check-in counters for news and the information desk. Passengers from other flights to Lutton and Beauvais pass through, looking at me as if I am in the movie Terminal. Time ticks by slowly, but I don’t pick up a magazine until several hours into the ordeal. Food doesn’t appeal to me, and even the nice Romanian girl who offers me tea gets a no, thank you.

The Lufthansa worker is nowhere to be found, so I ask another for help. Thankfully, he speaks English perfectly and makes a call. 

“We’ll know in thirty minutes, but I think you’re in luck. Just stay within sight.” Doing as I’m told, I finally start to try to occupy myself, returning to my e-book. Still distracted, another hour flies by and the Novio calls back. He tells me, pity in his voice, that no one could help him in Barajas, then, angrily, “And the call costs 1,15 a minute, joder!”

Just then, nice Lufthansa man steps out from around the heck-in desk with a long face. “Yeah, so, your flight will leave in 15 minutes. From Targu Mures. I’m sorry, the weather has cleared up.”

Well, crap.

Nice Lufthansa man turns into an angel when he gets on the phone with Wizz Air and scores me a new ticket, free of charge, for the misinformation he alleges I’ve received. An email in my inbox confirms this. I could hug him, but instead I give him the bottle of wine I was carrying home for the Novio’s family. One good deed deserves another, and he gladly accepts it, saying that he was made to work an extra eight hours with the influx of re-routed flights.

I grab my things and find a taxi after seven hours in the terminal. There is general confusion, as the taxi driver asks me which bus station I want to go to. I dart back into the terminal to find it completely deserted. I leave it to blind faith and nod when he asks the name of the company and just takes off, racing towards the city.

Cluj-Napoca City Center

We pull up to what appears to be an abandoned junk yard with a few plastic huts. “Bus!” the driver calls out and dumps my bag on the cold, wet ground. Never mind the vintage stein I’m bringing back…or the other bottle of wine.

Everything is dark. I can’t read anything. My watch read 8:22, or one hour, forty-eight minutes until the bus apparently passes. Music is playing at the hotel around the corner, so I go in and plead my way into sitting in the still-cold lobby, tired enough to want to cry, or just curl up and say to hell with an overnight bus.

Welp, turns out there was no overnight bus, or any bus or train on New Year’s Day, so I turn on my Internet data (happy Christmas bonus, Vodafona) and look up hotels, figuring it would be money well spent. There’s a Hilton.

There’s a Hilton.

The closest I can get to home is a Hilton, and they would definitely have wi-fi and breakfast. I realize, rubbing my eyes, I’ve barely eaten or even drank since 6:30 in the morning, adding to my drowsiness and overall pity party.

The Hilton glows green on the empty street, just a few yards from the city center. I practically collapse as the receptionist charges my credit card and writes down my information to the tune of 58€. Giving him the cliff notes of my sob story, he promises to call me a taxi.

Upstairs in my room, I’ve just taken off my bag when the phone buzzes. “Um, yes, my friend can take you to Budapest Airport tomorrow. It is five, maybe six hours. It will cost 250€. Yes?” Without even thinking, I say yes. Besides, I already did the mental math. If I waited another day, I’d have to spend another 58€ for the hotel room, over 300€ for the flight from Cluj on the 2nd, and then another train ticket from Madrid. 

I kick off my shoes and run the shower. I stare at the water and steam for about a minute before I decide I’m too tired to even stand under the jet of water. The clock says 11:23 p.m., a full 15 hours since I left the dock in Budapest. I should have arrived to Spain three hours ago.

My night is sleepless, punctuated by fireworks, whatsapps from well-wishing friends and a very nervous mother. My in-laws send pictures of themselves eating my 12 lucky grapes, and all I can think is, vaya suerte. 

Rural Romania

The driver nods his head at me as I slip in the back seat of his car. He punches something nervously into his GPS and I wish him a happy new year, surprisingly sunny, given the circumstances and the money I am about to fork over to him. It doesn’t seem that he speaks English, which both relieves and disappoints me.

One thing I can say since my road trip through Transylvania and Mures: the roads have definitely gotten better. We speed out of Cluj along the E-61 towards Hungary, and I am flooded with memories of my trip. The intricately carved wooden crosses on the side of the road, the haystacks behind homes and the women in black fly by as we take the twisting roads west.

There’s definitely a common theme amongst Romanians – they’re all so damn nice, and it’s amazing what a terrible night of sleep did to me – I feel 100 times better and pray to the travel gods that I will be back in Spain on the first day of 2014.

Romanian-Hungarian border

The driver is nervous. He backs his car up, pulls it back in, changes positions, smokes his smokeless cigarette pipe thing. I’m sipping down water in small amounts, not sure if he speaks enough English to know I need a pit stop. After seven long minutes (for him, not me), the guard approaches the car and hands me back me passport and Spanish residency card.

On the first day of 2014, I’ve already got two freshly stamped entries in my passport. Every cloud…

Budapest, Hungary

Once we’re into Hungary, the roads become straight and the hills disappear. While I can understand some words in Romania because of its Romantic language roots, Hungary has me completely stumped. All I can make out is the ever-dwindling number of kilometers between our car and the airport.

The driver drops me off right in front of the terminal. I’ve given him a tip of close to 30€ (after all, he charged me in Romanian leu and that conversion is not easy on a sleep-deprived brain) for his trouble on New Year’s Day, and he shakes my hand firmly after helping me put my heavy bag on my back. I thank him on the only word in Romanian I know, multumesc. Thank you very much.

My phone picks up the wi-fi immediately in the airport, and I re-book a train ticket for 9:30 p.m. I have three hours before my flight, which will give me time to finally have a beer, get checked in and get through security…and maybe eat fast food and not feel ashamed about it. Spanish permeates my consciousness and I relax.

Once on the plane, the sky is a dreamy pink with streaks of red until night falls.

Madrid, Spain

As soon as the plane touches down, the first thing that comes to mind is Manolo Escobar’s famous Spain anthem, Que Viva España. My phone is turned on before we reach the gate, and I send whatsapps to everyone I know. I feel like I’ve returned to a place where everything makes sense and where language is no longer an issue. I get Spain. 

Time seems to pass by in three seconds as I grab my bag, transfer to terminal 4, hop on the cercanías line and make it to my train – the last of the day – with 20 minutes to spare. Being a holiday, my car was only half full, so I could curl up across both seats and sleep for two hours. Stepping onto the platform and seeing ‘SEVILLA – SANTA JUSTA’ as I take a deep breath reminds me that I am, at long last, home.

Sevilla, Spain

I arrive home five minutes to midnight on January 1st. The travel gods heard my plea, it seems. I’ve traveled, by my estimate, over 3900 miles in 40 hours. The Novio hasn’t changed the sheets in two weeks, but I hardly notice as I sleep, finally, in my own bed for 10 hours.

I’ve since recounted the short version of the ordeal to my friends. While some are shocked and glad it didn’t happen to them, I can say this: I am relieved that I am a seasoned traveler and that I’ve watched my parents navigate standby and weather delays like champs. My nerves and even my tear ducts were put to the test, but I got home, unscathed (just poorer). Had I been new to international travel or unaware of European flight compensations, I may have made rookie mistakes.

One thing I have realized? I am not cut out for round-the-world travel. While it seems challenging and fun, I’m too accustomed to my comforts and hate wearing dirty clothes (there, I admitted it). I can handle when things don’t go as planned, but I don’t like it because I am not spontaneous. I like feeling grounded. I like the feeling of familiarity. I like having wi-fi and no roaming data (my bill came yesterday…ouch).

That’s not to say that I won’t travel for extended periods of time – I most certainly will travel as far as my body and my salary will take me, and have big dreams when it comes to doing it. But I think I’ve finally mató el gusano. The idea of round-trip travel is no longer a little tickle that flares up once in a while.

The idea of becoming an expat in another city or another country? THAT is the new gusanillo.

Have you had any travel disasters recently? I’d love to hear them, and if they’re Spain-related, feel free to send me the story for publishing!

Paddle Surfing in Calpe

I don’t know what I was more afraid of – the translucent jellyfish that floated near the surface of the water, or the fact that pictures of me in a bikini were circulating around twitter and instagram. Malditos blogueros.

Patricia was quick to offer up the switch: “No, no. You take my spot in the paddle surfing class. I prefer to stay on dry land, or at least sail.”

I was in Calpe on a blog trip, rubbing away the early morning goosebumps on my legs as I agreed to give her my spot in the sailing class for hers in the stand up paddle class, known locally as SUP. Calpe’s location in the northern region of Alicante is planted right on the water, its enormous Peñón de Ifach splitting the old fisherman’s city into two bays. That morning, I’d be learning how to surf standing up.

My legs already ached thinking about the six-hour ride back to Seville and the inability to stretch out after a vigorous morning workout.

I’d tried surfing before in La Coruña, but the lack of waves meant that as soon as I’d paddled out to the middle of the Riazor and stood up on the board, I’d sink. I was thankful that the crystalline waters of the Mediterranean were calm that day.

Chris from Gravity Cartel Surf Shop met us with a dozen boards. Resembling those used commonly for surf, the SUP boards were wider, sturdier and easier to get on, meant not for speed but for stability. He breezed through an explanation on how to correctly use the oars, how to stabilize a board and how to make turns. His abbreviated monologue was due to the calm waters – we had no need to learn how to battle waves nor how to pick up speed for the hour we’d be on the water.

I watched as Miguel Angel, Carolina and Fabio all paddled out, made it to their knees and then stood up without so much as rocking the boat. I cautiously waded out until the water reached the top of my bikini bottoms. Too cold to stay in the water, I climbed on top of the board, gingerly getting to my feet. The others were all paddling quickly through

The day ended up beautiful, the sun already high in the sky and reflecting off of the sea. The other instructors from Gravity Cartel helped me perfect my skills, talking about the village and how long they’d been there – they were all adopted calpinos, drawn to the villa for its sand and surf. Calpe seemed to be a city that has been able to retain its fishing village charm while meeting the demands of the tourism that fuels the local economy.

As Fabio and I began paddling back onto shore nearly an hour, I asked Laura to take our picture. Once she’d done it, a small wave rippled behind my board, knocking me right into the water as Fabio laughed. Turns out I should have stuck around to listen for how to deal with waves.

Have you ever paddle surfed? Are you as deathly afraid as jellyfish as me?!

Major thanks to both the Calpe Tourism Board and the instructors at Gravity Cartel for the lessons and not laughing too hard when  I fell off my board. My opinions, as always, are all my own.

My Biggest Medical Mishaps in Spain

One of the first words the Novio ever taught me in Spanish was torpe. Clumsy, klutxy, prone to running into things, falling off of things and hitting my head on things.

To my credit, I have never broken a bone. I think (my current toe situation is cloudy).

When I first came to Spain as part of the Language and Culture Assistant program in 2007, I was promised a student visa, a teaching gig and private health insurance during the eight months of the program. Great for being in Spain, but what about my long weekends to travel when my health insurance was not valid outside of Iberia?

The Spanish Health System is a relatively good program and free to all residents and workers, who pay their social security taxes to receive coverage. Still, there’s been a great deal of backlash with expats who have tried unsuccessfully to use their NHS card in Spanish clinics and hospitals. I myself wish I had considered an annual holiday insurance coverage policy for the times I tried to push myself to the limits unsuccessfully. These days, coverage plans such as Debenhams annual holiday insurance, seek to not only offer crazy affordable health services for expats and holiday makers, but also to go as far as insure flight cancellations and free coverage for the kiddies. These plans are extremely helpful for families moving to Spain or taking long holidays to the land of sunshine and siestas.

So let’s get to the good stuff…me beating myself up and spending far too much time in a hospital waiting room while they take the more “emergent cases” and not “esa torpe guiri” cases:

Running into the Sevici Station. Sober. While on my Phone.

Yes, this happened, and I had a black eye to show for it during my entire Semana Santa trip to Croatia and Montenegro. On my way to go out and meet Ryan and Ang, my blogger friends over at Jets Like Taxis, I checked the bus schedule on my phone and ran smack into the stationary Sevici station. I made a run for the arriving bus, and the driver even asked if I was alright when I paid onboard.

I began getting looks from other passengers who gasped as I passed by, looking for a rail to hold onto. Catching a glimpse of myself in the reflective glass, I saw that I had a bump the size of a ping-pong ball on my right cheekbone, just underneath my eye. Then the throbbing began. I exited the bus at the next stop, calling the Novio to pick me up and take me to the hospital. He shook his head disapprovingly, once again proving that I am, quite literally, a walking disaster.

I’ve been to the ER in Spain a few times before, and it’s always a time-consuming nightmare. I’m always standing the wrong line (and often in the longest), or my name gets so mutilated that I don’t understand when I’m being called, or I’m forced to wait for hours, only then to get so turned around in the hospital, I end up in the maternity ward and not the triage. Even on this calm Saturday, I had to have a doctor escort me to the ER, having my wishing I’d considered some sort of private health coverage to cut through the red tape (and have a smaller building to navigate).

I had clobbered myself so well that I had nearly fractured the bone, but still being able to talk and bite were good signs. The doctor, who was actually quite friendly, uttered the words “hematoma” and must have seen my eyes widen. For someone who studied words and not pathologies, my obsession with Grey’s Anatomy has made me a hypochondriac, but the doctor told me I would merely have the bump until the hematoma broke, after which I would have a bruise for five days. Mentira, it lasted nearly two weeks, meaning all of my pictures from the Balkans looked like this:

Attack of the Pollen (and the olive blossoms and the animals and the hay….)

My childhood nickname was “Honker” (my mother’s was “Grace” because she is just as torpe as I am!) because of my terrible hay fever and my tendency to go through more tissue packets than a vendor on any given street corner in Seville sells in one day.

I hoped that coming to Spain meant exposure to different allergens that wouldn’t bother me as much as my mother’s horse did as a kid.

In May, the sunflowers greeted the warm weather and end of the course in Olivares, the town where I taught for three years. With the sunflowers came olive blossoms as well, and it turns out I’m allergic to them, too (self-diagnosed). Teaching with the window open was no longer an option, so I headed to the pharmacy for anti-histamines.

“Take this once a day, at the same hour every day, and maybe invest in a pill slicer and just take half. They’ll knock you out.” Ah, over-the-counter medicine in Spain. The pills, which were nearly the size of a quarter, had me falling asleep in an English class just a few hours later.

They say the years without rain are the worst for allergy sufferers, and last year’s spring had me blotchy, covered in hives and with red, watery eyes.

One morning it was so bad, I woke up at 6am and headed to the ER for some relief. The halls were deserted, but I waited over two hours to get an allergen shot and prescriptions for inhalers, nasal spray, eye drops and allergy pills when a private doctor could have just scribbled them away without taking my vitals while I heaved and death-rattled.

And then there was the Tough Mudder...

My friend Audrey can’t be described in ten words, or even 100. So when she asked me to do the Tough Mudder and described it as an “obstacle race in London,” I thought we’d knock back a few pints and have one last hurrah before she moved back to America in the form of a scavenger hunt.

I was so, so wrong.

For 20 kilometers, I literally defied death while scrambling over 10-foot walls, plunging into icy water and even getting electrocuted. For the entire grueling race, we picked one another up, hoisted one another over obstacles and had our clothes get torn, blood- and mud-stained and racers drop out. One of the guys on our team even needed to have medical attention at the end for muscle strain, and we were concerned that another was hypothermic.

Because I didn’t have valid insurance for the UK, I was happy to skip the extremely dangerous obstacles and to play it safe when it came to my health. Besides, I had the bumps, bruises and swollen joints to show for it for over a week.

The biggest problem I had was the stench from the river water that evening when I flew back to Spain.

Accidents happen, and often while you’re away from home. Even the most meticulously planned trip can go awry, so having a comprehensive health insurance when moving to Spain or any other country – even for the short-term – can mean a great deal of savings, both in hassle and money.

Have you had any medical incidents abroad? Were you insured?

Camping on the Islas Ciès of Galicia

Julie and I had set out from Coruña after a two-day search for a tent. I have to admit that I’m much more of a luxury Spanish villa type of girl, but the prospect of camping on what has been called the Most Beautiful Beach in the World had me willing to sleep on the hard ground in the cold on the middle of an island in the Atlantic.

Oh, I’m also a mountain girl, for the record.

When my pulpo-guzzling, beach-loving friend mentioned the Islas Ciès, a small archipelago whose only residents are seagulls, I wasn’t immediately keen. Her father’s house on the port of nearby La Coruna was as close as I needed to get to the water because I am a chicken (tuna?) when it comes to getting my hair wet and swimming in the ocean.

The following week, we were on a ferry from Vigo, Spain to Cangas across the river mouth and onto Playa de Rodas with little more than our swimsuits, a towel and some snacks.

The boat docked in front of a small bar and restaurant 40 minutes later. The archipelago is comprised of three mountainous islands, the two northernmost joined together by a sandy bar and jagged rocks. Playa de Rodas, which the Guardian UK called “The Most Beautiful Beach in the World” the year earlier, was nestled between the two, idyllic and blocked from the harsh atlantic waters on the other side of the islands.

Not three minutes after we’d waded from the boat onto dry land, we’d already stripped off all of our clothes. Out came the towels and reading material, the plastic bottles of tinto de verano and all of my qualms about having gone to the beach in the first place.

We spent the rest of the day exploring smaller, beaches tucked away in small, rocky coves and paths that lead up the crags and to clandestine lighthouses. The crescent of white sand was dotted with colorful umbrellas and beach babies, while the bay was full of small yachts bobbing gently against the tide. The squalls off the Atlantic are broken up over the craggy rocks, meaning we had a day of glittering sunshine and occasional breezes.

My phone rang. The campsite had been calling me all day, but our lack of a tent meant we were going to have to slip in after the sunset and find a bar spot of land in between the packed-in tents and call it a night. While we watched the sun sink down behind the ocean, I hatched a plan.

We walked over to the bar on the island, ordered two beers and a plate of fried squid legs and I asked to speak to the owner. I explained that we had been robbed when we fell asleep on the train, and that our tent has been stolen. He told us there were no physical structures on the island, save the bar/supermarket, the lighthouses and the park warden’s cabin. He promised to try and find a few blankets.

Julie and I huddled together for warmth, splitting the last few sips of wine as we sat on a park bench, the lights from Vigo shimmering on the water. A voice came from behind us.

“Are you the girls who had their tent stolen?”

Turns out, the owner of the bar mentioned to the owners of the camping that we were the delinquents who hadn’t checked into the camping that afternoon. They sent their son to hunt us down. I figured we’d be facing some sort of fine, but the boy whose name but not sculpted biceps has long been forgotten invited us to his tent. Sunburnt and with sore muscles, Biceps had a tent with two rooms and a queen-sized bed for the two of us.

The following morning, we woke up with Biceps, who was off to man the camping himself. We unzipped the screen, letting the light breeze in as our bare feet dangled over the end of the mattress. The rest of our day was filled with hiking, random rendezvous with other sevillanos and a shaky ride back to the mainland, leaving behind the gorgeous stretch of beach.

If you go: The Islas Cies can only be reached by boat from Vigo, Cangas or Baiona. Prices and hours will vary, so confirm online. There’s just one place to stay overnight, the Camping Islas Cies (7,90 adults, 8,50 per tent). Reservations should be made before reaching the island through telephone or the website, and the campsite is open from March 1. There are basic facilities for washing up, a small supermarket and a restaurant, but anything you take onto the island must also be carried off.

This is my entry to the March 2013 Carnival of Europe hosted by DJ Yabis of  Dream Euro Trip with the theme “Beaches.”

How a misguided GPS lead us to a good find, but bad luck

“BUT I CAN’T FIGURE OUT HOW TO GET OUT OF THE PARKING LOT!” I wailed, confused at how to even put the rental car into reverse.

“Dude, let’s ask PSY,” T suggested, and the site of a Gangnam-style doppleganger set me into a fit of giggles. Today was going to be a good day. After loads of back luck during 2012, I finally felt blessed, and that our trip would be as lucky as playing partypoker.es at the end of a bad streak.

I asked the car rental guy the easiest way to get out of Madrid, and he asked our destination.

Burgos, I said, as H responded with Logroño, our final destination.

The GPS navigated us out of Madrid and out towards Burgos. Being together outside of camp felt almost strange, but we chattered away to make the kilometres pass by as quickly as they got racked up on the dashboard.

Just past the border of Madrid and Segovia, the GPS spoke again to tell us to turn off the main road and onto a secondary highway.

“It’s probably just avoiding the toll roads or something,” H suggested when I told her that the Internet had suggested driving up past Burgos and veering off on the highway that stretches across the North, following the Ebro river that feeds the grapevines of La Rioja.

The mountain range that separates the two comunidades rolled out on the right side of the window as the vegas turned into golden-leafed forests. As we snaked into Soria – the most sparsely populated region of Spain – my eyes and brain begged for a coffee.

The GPS sounded, as if it read my brain. It directed us into a town on the banks of the Duero, San Esteban de Gormáz. I saw the town’s castle spires on our way in, and we drove as high as the rental car would take us into the town’s midget bodegas with cracked, wooden doors. The place felt a bit like Guadix with the homes carved into the walls, the creaky stairs and catwalks leading acriss the sides of the mountain. The ancient stones of the small town had lead the namesake to write El Cid Campeador, the famous novel of Spain’s chivalrous knights of the middle ages.

After a quick stop for coffee, we set out towards Soria, passing small towns not big enough for even a church. Coming around a bend in a small aldea, we came across a truck and a guardia civil car. The young office signaled us over to the shoulder and I gulped hard, stone silent in my fear.

Here’s the thing: I knew that the crime for driving without a license could be a 500€ fine and up to six months in prison. 

“Play STUPID!” T hissed as I rolled down the window and uttered hola with my best guiri accent. The cop asked for the car’s registration and my driver’s license. Kike had warned me something like this could happen not two days before, and to be extremely careful. I wasn’t breaking the law, but had been pulled over by a routine check on small country roads.

Using his iPhone as a translator, the cop told me I needed an international driver’s license to be able to rent a car and that we would be fined 100€ on the spot and get a “get out of jail” card until we made it to Logroño. I felt waves of nausea as I forked over two fifties and tried hard not to let onto the fact that I understood, even stifling a small shudder when his partner said, “Wasn’t it 500€ for driving without a license?”

As we drove away after a hurried buenos dias at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, I felt my heart stop racing as we laughed nervously. Luckily, wine country was our destination, and it wasn’t long before I was taking the edge off with a glass of Rioja and cheap tapas. My friends were glad I was driving and that my guiri-speaking-Spanish impression was spot-on.

The rest of our weekend included me losing a cell phone, breaking a few wine glasses and having the worst wine hangovers of our lives, but there are few things I appreciate more than a good glass of tinto, my friends and new places.

I heart Rebajas

While Liz was busy talking about how minimalism in your suitcase is a good thing, I was busy roving the stores for bargains, wardrobe staples and a little but of color for my monochrome style.

Yes friends, it’s rebajas time. Hide your wallets.

By Spanish law, shops are required to dump all of their old merchandise onto the sales floor and mark it down, sometimes up to 70%. Little orange or red tags start sticking to the bottom of my soles, popping out of my wallet on spare receipts and then my orange bank card starts acting up.

Thank God my mom raised me to search EVERY item on EVERY sale rack at EVERY store, because I always have the patience to try just one more shop and scour each rack until I am convinced there is nothing else for me.

WAIT these shoes are burgundy and it’s summer and they’re suede and I have zero anything that matches? Sure, toss them in the bag. Oh, sorry, sevillana stink face chick at Mango, for impulse buying them and then deciding against it, hence multiple trips to Nervion Plaza and a whole new wad of shopping bags.

Ok, self-confessed. You get the idea.

I’ve survived Rebajas - which for the record happen in January, February, July and August all over the peninsula - nearly a dozen times. I shudder to think how much money I’ve spent on the garments that have been purchased in that time, even if in the name of bargain basement prices. Hey, I worked in a Banana Republic outlet store and learned some simple stats – the longer it sits on the sale rack, the lower the price goes. This, sadly, is related to the decline in your size (which, in European size, means that all the Mediums and size 40s are loooong gone).

Despite the money spent and the time wasted in line (DIOSSSS the Spaniards love to hacer cola!), I’ve had some pretty memorable finds.

Exhibit A: A flamenco dress for 125€. And the other for 100€. And the third for 60€

Exhibit B: The Mango Blazer I wear like I have nothing else (half-off at 25€)

Exhibit C: My birdcage necklace that I get complimented on constantly and wear with everything (70% off, totaling 7€, not to mention the Cariocca dress marked down from 135€ to 36€ that I bought at the same time)

Exhibit D: a Panasoic Lumix, my faithful companion before NYE in Switzerland, a trip to the toilet and old age did it in, for 129€

Exhibit E: In true rebajas style, three pairs of shoes (including a Franco Sarto) at the Zappos outlet for $71 this summer (it counts because it was a super ganga and it was technically during the tail end of Rebajas in Spain anyway)

Even today, to avoid a long line at Vodafone (where I eventually threw away two hours of my life and never made it to Mango), I shopped. For just under 9€, I got two pairs of underwear and a summer skirt (2€, 3€ and 4€, respectively) at Women’s Secret, along with a pair of loafers (9,99€), a light sweater (8€), a lace shirt I’ve been looking for (not on sale, but only 10€) and a mustard-color skirt (4€) for 32€ at Lefties. Forty for alllll that loot. Call me a rebajas champion.

Or call  me a maximalist, a hoarder or someone who will never have any life savings. I have two-thirds of the closet full of finds, and nothing on my body currently was bought at full-price. I call myself Spain’s only way to fight recession, really.

What did you all find at Rebajas this season, or are you taking Liz’s approach to things and steering clear of the shops? How much do you normally spend at Rebajas? Do you love my super amateur photography?!

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