The Year That Was: 2022

Another one bites the dust.

Is it just me or was this a reeeally long year? It feels like spring was a decade ago. Perhaps it’s because the summer was the hottest on record, the unrelenting heat making every day just drag on. Even more than 2020’s pandemic-elongated year, 2022 has felt markedly divided into periods. Three distinct ones.

First, of course, there was the winter/spring period. I’m sure some interesting stuff happened in the first months of 2022, but since that was 17 years ago, it’s hard to remember. I think there was a party or two. Whatever happened, it all culminated in a two week vacation to Greece (Athens and Hydra) and Sicily, Italy, my first trip to either country.

Upon returning from that trip, the summer immediately kick into high gear. From June to September, Madrid was smothered in a bracing heat, only occasionally breaking enough to breathe. Helen and I stayed in the city most of that time, only getting away to the slightly cooler Cercedilla for a weekend with her parents. Otherwise, our only escape was frequent trips to Madrid’s various pools, which, thankfully, are cheap but very nice.

Helen and I also saw The Smile in concert during one night of Madrid’s Noches del Botanico. If you’re unfamiliar, The Smile is the side project of Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood (both of Radiohead) with jazz drummer Tom Skinner. Their album, A Light for Attracting Attention, splits the difference between Radiohead’s In Rainbow era and Thom’s solo material on Anima. With a slightly more improvisational spirit. A highly enjoyable concert experience (even if some random girl dumped her red drink on my white shirt two minutes before the concert began).

Then came October; the heat broke and we had a couple months of pleasant weather. That meteorological shift was marked by a trip to the south of Spain where I visited Cadiz for the first time and spent a week on the beach at El Palmar de Vejer. If you haven’t been, add it to the list.

This was perhaps the most prolonged autumn I recall having experienced since moving to Madrid, with a sustained string of warm days and cool nights, the leaves gradually changing colors. Of course, that all led into December, which has easily been the wettest I’ve experienced here. It might not be record-breaking (yet), but it’s notable that the sun has been in hiding the majority of the month (though it’s peeking through today), and more rain is expected up through Christmas.

But, we won’t be here for that. Helen and I are hopping on a plane soon and will be back in the UK for Christmas, followed by New Year’s Eve in Ireland—which will make it three new countries for me in 2022. Huzzah.

Highlights of 2022

At times, with the various posts about my trips, this managed to be the “10 Cities/10 Years Travel Blog.” But, of course, most of the year didn’t involve travel. There were long stretches of time that I was just here in Madrid, working, listening to music, writing, listening to music, seeing friends, and listening to music. There was a lot of music this year. (Last.fm can confirm.)

I don’t have a Top 10 Albums of the Year, per se (I love end-of-year lists, but some albums need more time to be appreciated), but these are the 2022 releasees that have gotten the most play in my ears this year, in no particular order (and with the possibility some will fall off in the future):

  • The Smile – A Light For Attracting Attention (Favorite track: The Smoke)
  • SZA – SOS (Favorite track: Nobody Gets Me)
  • Spoon – Lucifer on the Sofa (Favorite track: The Devil & Mister Jones)
  • Hurray for the Riff Raff – Life on Earth (Favorite track: SAGA)
  • Death Cab for Cutie – Asphalt Meadows (Favorite track: Foxglove Through the Clearcut)
  • Florence + the Machine – Dance Fever (Favorite track: My Love)
  • Kendrick Lamar – Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers (Favorite track: Mirror)
  • Carly Rae Jepsen – The Loneliest Time (Favorite track: Western Wind)
  • Orville Peck – Bronco (Favorite track: Daytona Sand)
  • Beyoncé – RENAISSANCE (Favorite track: VIRGO’S GROOVE)
  • The Mountain Goats – Bleed Out (Favorite track: Mark on You)

I wish I could do the same for 2022 movies and books, but I rarely catch up with those until the next year (at the earliest). I did see a couple new releases; while I didn’t love it as much as I had hoped, Everything Everywhere All at Once was probably the most fun at had in theaters this year. Off the top of my head, the best movie I watched this year was Florian Zeller’s The Father (from 2020). There’s a slew of new releases coming out in the States right now that I hope reach Spain in the next few months.

As far as favorite books, again, I rarely read anything that came out in a given year. The only one I managed was Devil House by John Darnielle (lead singer of The Mountain Goats); definitely a fun read, especially if you’re interested in the Satanic Panic era of modern American history. Darnielle’s gift, both as a songwriter and a novelist, is his unflinching empathy for people of all types, particularly the “losers.”

Other books I read and loved this year (but written before 2022) were Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slapstick, Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, Andrea Levy’s Small Island, and Richard Wright’s Pagan Spain (easily the best book I’ve ever read about Spain). I also want to give a special shout out to Sapphire’s Push, which I had always dismissed out of hand (undoubtedly for ingrained racist bias), but which I found to be a reliably effective dramatic work.

To the Future

As far as personal creative output, it’s felt a bit underwhelming, despite finally finishing a novel that began as a short story idea over a decade ago, getting published in Newsweek, doing my first public talk about the 10 Cities Project, and bringing this very blog out of hibernation. I’m hoping 2023 will allow me to build on that momentum into something more productive and sustained. We’ll see.

But, whatever the year brings, I’ll try to be right back here recapping the year that was next December.

I hope your year was more ups than downs and more Scotch than soda.

See you in 2023.

Portugal, Part 2: Porto (& back to Lisbon)

We return, now, to the second and final leg of my trip to Portugal, which involved two days in the northern city of Porto, and a return to Lisbon.

First, though, a brief aside:

Ryanair

There are worse airlines than Ryanair. So I’ve been told. Ryanair’s reputation has been trash for so long that it was inevitable they would make some minor improvements and allow one of the other discount airlines to slip below them. But, being the second or third biggest turd in the pile doesn’t make you a Snickers bar.

Look, discount airlines exist to sell cheap tickets for the bare minimum of luxuries (i.e. none), and that’s fine. Greyhound buses can be excruciating means of transportation, but I know what I’m paying for when I buy the ticket. With Ryanair, though, on top of offering no amenities, they find every possible way to charge you more once you’re in the airport.

RyanairOne of their sliest, sleaziest techniques is charging a printing fee if a ticket isn’t pre-printed before the gate. No, it’s not a massive ordeal to print a ticket, but a) it is inconvenient when literally every other airline has adapted to 21st century digital tickets, and b) people of modest means (i.e. their customer base) likely don’t own a printer. It’s essentially a “poor tax” and like all such fees, it can seem like a minor quibble, but it penalizes the least well-off.

Another one of their less than reputable techniques is making their maximum sized carry-on luggage slightly smaller than the industry standard (55 centimeters instead of 56). Again, a seemingly insignificant difference, but one with a massive 53€ fee for owning luggage that almost every other airline accepts. And as my travel partner, Calla, and I learned, quite unhappily, they don’t make exceptions.

In summary, screw Ryanair.

From the Banks of the Douro

Porto

Other than that aggravation, visiting Porto (Oporto) was quite possibly the highlight of the trip for me. Two weeks ago, I posted some of my first impression photos of the city; check them out to get a sense of the grandeur. When people – or, at least, I – imagine charming European cities, it’s places like Porto we are conjuring.

Mixing vibrant, classical architecture with intoxicating riverside views and, of course, excellent wine, Porto charms effortlessly; even the city’s dilapidated areas still exude a historic dignity. Like many European cities, Porto has known better economic times, and perhaps that is why it felt so welcoming to visitors.

As was our routine throughout the trip, Calla and I were guided by the recommendations of others, and the one culinary must-have everyone was in agreement on was the Francesinha.

Francesinha
A decidedly not vegan-friendly meal.

Ostensibly a sandwich, this Porto original stuffs various hams and sausages between two pieces of white bread covered by melted cheese and gravy; often (but not always) an over-easy egg rests on top. This is a fork and knife affair, to be sure. To reiterate, it’s meat, cheese, bread and gravy: how hasn’t this become a standard in every American diner?

There are many places you can get a Francesinha in Porto, but just as there are only a few places to get an “authentic” Pastel de Nata in Lisbon, we were told to seek out the Café Santiago for the real deal.

Our waitress, like most of the people we interacted with in Portugal, spoke English well, which was good since the only word of Portuguese I know (that isn’t the same as Spanish) is “obrigado” (thank you). She was very excited to learn my surname as it was hers as well, and she took to calling us “cousins” (though, she was perhaps disappointed when I admitted I knew very little of my family’s Portuguese roots).

Guindalense Pana

After lunch, Calla and I explored Porto by foot, eventually coming to the Dom Luís I Bridge, which spans the Douro River. Heavily trafficked by pedestrians, this two-level bridge connecting the city center of Porto to the more suburban Vila Nova de Gaia provides mesmerizing views of the city. 

From the Bridge

At night, we reconnected with our friends from Madrid for drinks and dinner. It was a Saturday night and the city was abuzz with tourists and revelers. We patronized a few bars and even a Jazz Club on only its second night of business, but for me, the most diverting aspects of Porto at night were its gently lit streets and, at times, almost ghostly pathways inhabited by stray cats.

To The Light

Our second day in Porto was Easter Sunday, which seriously hampered our ability to find lunch. Calla and I wandered for upwards of an hour and a half before we finally settled on a restaurant directly across the street from Café Santiago (itself closed for the holiday).

Suitably fed, we allowed ourselves to get a little lost, crossing the Douro not on the Dom Luís, but by the Ponte Infante Dom Henrique, the less pedestrian-friendly bridge. Our aimless wanderings eventually brought us to a seaside cliff and to a series of stairways and passages that led to a row of burnt out and decimated buildings that once must have boasted the best views in the entire area.

 

 

After our detour, we returned to the waterfront to drink port wine at a riverside café. That was the plan, at least, but the server seemed to have a hard time remembering two drinks. After 20 minutes, we vacated our table having received 50% of our order.

That evening, back at the Yes! Porto hostel, we dined on a purportedly authentic Portuguese fish-based dinner with a group of fellow travelers from the U.S., Canada, Bulgaria, and elsewhere. Hostel living has its downsides (snorers, louder talkers, people humping each other three feet from your head), but it also helps you feel connected to the world of travelers, like a slight stream feeding into a roaring river.

Before leaving Porto, we had one other recommendation to track down: the Prego. Not, in fact, a pregnant lady, the Prego is another Porto must-have sandwich, this one consisting simply of succinctly steak and melting cheese on a roll. The cheese is optional, and like the Francesinha, an egg is a not uncommon part of the recipe, but we were told that the best Prego was found at Venham Mais 5, and after tasting a little bit of heaven there, I’d consider their steak-and-cheese only version the standard.

Inside the Arco

Lisbon (Again)

We returned to Lisbon with two days before our flight back to Madrid and a few more items on our to-do list. First up was finding one of the best views in the city at Miradouro de Nossa Senhora do Monte. We were informed by both our walking guide, Luis, and the manager of the Travellers House where we were staying, that even though Castelo de Sao Jorge draws the most tourists, the view from “Our Lady of the Hill” was just as good, and free (plus, it includes a view of the castle).

We made the trek through the winding roads and up the hill to be greeted by spectacular views, as advertised, but also by gusting winds that could have likely carried us out over the city if we had skipped breakfast.

Lisbon View (Our Lady)Before we could leave Lisbon, I had one final stop on my list: Restaurante Ponto Final.

Located on the banks of the Tagus River, reaching the restaurant and idyllic viewing spot requires a short ferry ride to Almada, across the river from Lisbon. After exiting the ferry, head west along the water by the pop culture-infused street art that decorates the cement pathway. At first it’ll seem like you’re walking to nowhere, but eventually you’ll come around a corner and see your destination.

 

Resaurante Ponto Final

At this point, I wasn’t hungry, I simply wanted to enjoy a glass of wine along the water while looking out over the city I would be leaving in less than 12 hours.

Self Ponto Final 2

With the day fading, we walked back to the ferry. We had just a few hours until we needed to head to the airport for an uneventful (albeit, a tad delayed) return flight on Iberian.

It was just after midnight, Thursday morning, when we landed in Madrid, having left the previous Tuesday night. In the course of our travels, we drank our respective weights in wine and beer, enjoyed a smorgasbord of Portuguese cuisine, and stood in quiet appreciation of some of Portugal’s most inspiring views. We also didn’t kill each other; a successful trip by all standards.

Porto Sepia

I look forward to going back someday soon.

Porto Panorama

I’m in the midst of an eight day trip through Portugal right now (writing this in the Travellers House in Lisbon), so I’ll be keeping this brief and simply posting some of my favorite images from Porto, an absolutely beautiful and enchanting city that I wish I had spent more time in.

Enjoy, and I’ll return next week with more photos and details about the trip.

~L

Calem PanaInfante Douro PanaGuindalense PanaPorto from the Docks PanaDouro PanaStreet Art PanaPorto Douro PanaDouro Banks PanaPonte Suis BW Pana

Six Months

Months have roared passed – September, October, November, December, January, February – and I have arrived at the sixth month mark. This moment has traditionally represented a pivotal moment, the halfway point to something new, the vantage point off a mountain’s peak from which I could see where I’ve been and where I was headed next.

The View from San Francisco

In this moment, though, I do not feel like I’m on higher ground.

It has been half a year since I moved to Madrid. I have no idea what point on the timeline that represents. At the very least, I expect (hope) to be here in Madrid through next September, which means this isn’t even my halfway point. It is possible that I will stay in Madrid another year or two, or maybe I’ll move to Valencia or some other Spanish city. My intention is to spend at least two years in this country, but my intentions are subject to whims and laws (moreso the former than the latter).

I don’t have any great desire to return to the United States – though, I miss New York City terribly, in ways both obvious yet also unexpected – but that’s about all I know. There’s no denying that America is my home, and I know I will be back there, someday. Just, not yet.

Six months in, I am adrift.

Estanque y Monumento

Of my time in Spain, three of those months are three of my favorites of the year, and the other three are my absolute least favorite. My apologies to T.S. Eliot, but December through February are, in fact, the cruelest months.

On this blog, I’ve discussed quite openly my mental health: I am Bipolar II (severe depression, hypomanic episodes) with seasonal affective disorder. There is a regularity to my cycles that is simultaneously calming and infuriating. To know that a prolonged period of mental desolation is inevitable, to know it but be unable to preempt or mitigate it, is, in a word, cruel.

We all have our medications. Mine is moving.

I travel because I am alive, and I am alive because I travel. To explore somewhere you’ve never been, to begin over again in a new home, that’s to allow oneself to feel both small and enormous: a lonely stranger, yet member of a nearly eight billion-strong club. I’ve been traveling long enough to know that new scenery isn’t a magic elixir for mental illness. It is, however, a reprieve. 

Crowds at Plaza Mayor

I talk about such matters on this blog because it’s something I so rarely see discussed in this arena. Travel blogs and Instagrams are all shimmering vistas and words of infinite optimism, inspirational quotes etched over mountain ranges; people proclaiming that they quit their jobs without looking back and they have never been happier. I suppose some of them could be telling the truth. I know some of them are full of shit.

This is a hard life. Sorry to break the illusion. I don’t aim to inspire.

To travel, to step out on the wing, is to feel lost and out of control far more often than you feel certain. The doubts, the anxiety, the depression: they are companions of a constancy far greater than any friend. They travel for free and are already unpacked before you arrive at your destination 

Like life itself, traveling is a solitary endeavor, so I’m thankful for the friends who stick around, and for those who allow themselves to be vulnerable and admit their own struggles. They make the road less lonely. It is not weakness to admit you feel weak. I’ll type that up in Helvetica and plaster that on a photo, for sale in the gift shop.

Los Portadores de la Antorcha (Alcanzando)

Six months down another road. It’s still true, I don’t know where this one leads. The more I think about my future, the harder it is to see an endgame. When I was 22, I had a picture of what my life would look like; I knew it was just a dream, but at least I could envision it. Now, all I can see are all the things might life will never be. The future is unwritten.

If the past is any indication, it doesn’t really matter. All I can do is hope that I don’t run out of a fuel before I run out of time.

Sunlit Palacio