The Movies and Books That Inspire My Travels

As I grow older I realize how difficult it becomes for me to find a book that really fascinates me. One that I would read while waiting for the train instead of listening to music or that I would secretly get lost in,  the pages hidden under the desk, instead of listening to a lecture I find rather shallow in content.

With time it also becomes difficult to sit through a movie when watching it at home, which is one of the reasons I started learning how to crochet to keep myself in one spot while watching something.

But sometimes there are books and movies or sometimes even songs that just get to you and keep you captivated to the last page or the last scene. In my case books and movies, as early as since 2009, have inspired me to travel to certain places or at least put them on my “To- Do in a Lifetime” list. This is not to say that books and movies always describe places as they really are but at least they have the power to make us curious, which is what I love about them.

So today I have thought of putting together a list of these books and movies. I am not so great with content descriptions so I hope the links will be enough and that you might find something interesting for yourself among these.

Frida (Mexico City): I stumbled upon this film while looking for something autobiographical and based on a true story. I loved the portrayal of this artist’s life so much that at the age of 19, I had decided that one day I must save enough money to go to Mexico City and have a look at her paintings.  I even remember searching for an exhibition of Frida Kahlo art in Germany, only to discover that the last exhibit was in 2010. As it so happens, I seem to have won the lottery of destiny since I now get to live in Mexico City for the next 6 months.

The Fault in Our Stars (Amsterdam): The books of John Green became popular around my peers during my last year while studying in Kosovo. I was touched by this book so much that I felt affected by the events described in the book for the next few days after finishing  it. Since part of this book takes place in Amsterdam, it was an easy decision to choose between the capital of the Netherlands and the city of Prague for my first ever solo trip in Europe at the age of 18 (which has started a series of other solo trips around the world from then on). Too bad some of the places mentioned in the book were fictional. 🙂

The Millenium Trilogy (Stockholm):  Have you ever read a book whose content is actually kind of disgusting but it is that exact detailed description of gruesome things that makes it so irresistible (which is kind of how I feel about Game of Thrones)? I am not a fan of thriller literature by nature but Stieg Larsson definitely convinced me. Since I read this book in 2010, Sweden is on my list of places to visit, so I can follow the steps of my favorite protagonist Lisbeth Salander.

My Beautiful Country (Kosovo): I had seen this movie almost two years after I had left Pristina to return to Germany but I feel like having lived there and with the basic knowledge I had about this place’s history, I enjoyed this movie even more. This is the only movie about Kosovo I know of so far, so dear friends from the region, if you know another movie worth seeing, please let me know in the comments below!

Travels in Blood and Honey: Becoming a Beekeeper in Kosovo (Pristina, Kosovo): If dramatic war movies as mentioned above are not really your thing to get you interested in a place, try this memoir by Elizabeth Gowing. There is something about this writing style and the love of detail that makes me love this book, especially since the author writes about her encounters with the locals and her trips in the region. It’s such a shame I didn’t buy a  signed hard copy of this book when Mrs. Gowing was presenting her work at our school.

The Cemetery of Forgotten Books Trilogy (Barcelona): I have never read a book so vivid with such a variety of characters as the books of this series by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. This way of writing actually made me overthrow and start anew my own book writing project at the time. It tells a very beautiful story and once Barcelone ceases to be either too expensive or too hot for me, I am definitely off to see it!

Eat, Pray, Love (Italy): By the time I read this book and saw the movie, I had actually already been to Rome once. Especially since this seems to be a memoir sort of book, I found it to be very exciting to read about a woman starting life anew abroad and while this book mentions India and Indonesia as well, I was more inspired to get back to Rome once more especially since all of my photos from my first visit are gone. I wonder how much longer until I have the savings to take a language course in Italy!

My Life in France (Paris):  I have started reading this book just yesterday after watching the movie Julie & Julia but by the looks of it, the writing style of Julia Child might get me even closer to my plans of re-visiting Paris. Likewise, The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris by John Baxter should be equally inspiring although I must admit that I have not read it yet.

The Museum of Innocence (Istanbul): I have read that book only months after I had already visited Istanbul and this long, tedious and yet captivating novel by Orhan Pamuk made me regret that I had not read it sooner. Had I read it before going to Istanbul, I may have known to visit the actual museum of innocence. What’s most interesting about it is that the museum was based on the book and not the other way around.

Dancing with Cuba: A Memoir of the Revolution (Havana): While the “sequel” to Dirty Dancing gave me a visual inspiration to visit Havana, the memoir by Alma Guillermoprieto gave me something to imagine and think about so I am very excited that Cuba is only three hours by plane from here.

 

If there are any books or movies that have inspired you to travel, feel free to share them with me in the comments. I am always happy to receive suggestions and make new discoveries.

 

Aztec Vocabulary for Your Trip to Mexico

Looking for something to add to my much loved travel blog, I came across an article I wrote for Youth Time Magazine a while back, so I decided to share it with my readers once more. 

Travelers with an affinity for languages may often come to the conclusion that the language they learned in the classroom is not quite the same as the one spoken in the country of their destination. One of those languages is Spanish, and the way it is spoken varies according to the region.

Most of the time, the regular Spanish taught in school provides a basis for communicating during travel, while the rest of the language, depending on the place, consist of specific idioms or single words that originate from a different time and culture. Therefore, while you may be able to get around well with your Spanish in Spain, the experience might be different in Cuba, Argentina, etc.

In central and western Mexico, Nahhuatl has had a great influence on the way Spanish is spoken today. About 600 words of the Spanish now spoken in Mexico derive from this Aztec language and are part of the vocabulary of everyday life. Among the Mexican people, these words are known as Nahuatlismos.

The following words and their Nahuatl origins might be good to know for your next trip to Mexico, be it for excursions to local markets, shops and restaurants or just for getting to know the language. Keep in mind that even though some words in Mexican Spanish seem very specific and unique, the Spanish alternative words are also very likely to be understood by the locals.

Aguacate (ahuacatl): meaning avocado.

Atole (atolli): a corn-based drink that is very popular in Mexico, especially during the Christmas season.

Cacahuate (Tlacucahuatl): meaning peanut, though also known in Spanish as cacahuete, in Mexico it is an alternative to the more common Spanish word mani. So keep that in mind if you are thinking about feeding the squirrels in Chapultepec Park and are looking for a vending cart.

Elote (elo-tl): A word widely used in Mexico for corn, as opposed to the Spanish word maiz.

Esquite (izquitl): A popular Mexican snack made of grains of corn, from the Nahuatl word izquitl meaning “toasted corn”.

Guajolote (wueh-xōlō-tl): meaning turkey, as opposed to the Spanish word pavo.

Mayote (mayatl): meaning mosquito

Mexico (Mexchico): Although the original meaning is still being debated, one of the theories suggests that the name of the country translates to “the center of the universe”.

Mole (molli): A chocolate sauce made with chili that is usually served with meat.

Nopal (nopalli): meaning cactus. A useful word to know since cactus leaves are a specialty in Mexico and can be found as edible plants or sauce in any market.

Petaca (petlacalli): meaning suitcase, as opposed to the Spanish maleta.

Popote (popotl): meaning drinking straw, rather than the Spanish equivalent pajilla or pajita.

A Breakfast of Coffee and Waterfalls

Travel begins where the  supply of modern-day coffee as we know it ends.

Since I wasn’t in Italy or any other coffee-famous nation at that very moment, this first full thought of the day made more sense than one might think. All American (coffee) chains of Mexico City were left behind hours ago. What lay ahead of us was the unknown, a small village with an extra serving of desperately needed fresh air, where women in traditional clothes and men with sombreros on horseback were simply part of the picture.

Maybe and just maybe, the most authentic travel experiences begin when we leave our comfort zones behind and everything we’ve ever known. I thought so, as I looked down at the coffee in front of me. My original order of café con leche, por favor must have been interpreted to suit the local setting.

20170826_090924There was something nearly artisanal about the way that coffee stood in front of me in its unusual mug and its strong smell.  Café de Olla: what an interesting union of so many spices and so little coffee. I imagined it being prepared in one big pot with an indefinite amount of spices floating around in it, like it is common with mulled wine in Europe.

When the milk to your coffee comes steaming hot in a small, separate glass, be sure that the usual  mechanically produced cappuccino or latte macchiato which have once introduced you to the world of coffee , for now, belong to the past.

Before I left for Mexico, I was sure that the person coming back would be a different one from the one who left. Part one of this transformation consists in getting used to a lot of things. Things like realizing that far away from the big cities growing more modern every day, it is totally fine to eat your quesadilla with your hands. There is no need to worry about the locals watching, most of whom are likely to be doing the same with their breakfast as you.

I bit into my quesadilla and registered the flavor dominance of the corn tortilla enclosing the melted cheese and the champignons. Another thing worth getting used to.

Our new friend, the dog, first curious about the contents of our plates had quickly come to understand that cheese was not his thing after all. He remained seated patiently with his head on my lap, waiting for occasional pats on the head. How is it that dogs always come to the people who are afraid of them the most?

I don’t think he was anyone’s dog. Just the village’s as a whole. The 11th article of the constitution of the Republic of Uzupis in Lithuania comes to mind, which states:

“Everyone has the right to look after the dog until one of them dies.”

Near the village of Valle de Bravo we ate our breakfast in silence while the air was heavy with the smell of spices, corn tortillas and moist soil.

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I wished for the skillfulness of a mountain goat as  I came up and down the path to the waterfall of Cascada Velo De Novia. But no matter what any of us do, no matter our hiking experience, I am certain that the women of the village in their colorful, traditional dresses and worn moccasins will always be a step ahead of us.

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Tuesday Was Market Day

 

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(originally posted on “Maps and Solitude“)

Sometimes there are things you associate specifically with the cities you live in or visit on a regular basis. Mexico City has many such unique characteristics that I may return to in future posts but one of the things that I will always associate with it is the smell of corn. If Mexico City would have to bring out a signature perfume it would smell of corn (and maybe some vegetable oil). I mean there is already a town named after it. From this point on, only the sky is the limit.  If I had to explain it the most basic way there is, then corn is in Mexico what dates are in the Middle East. Staple food.

Maybe it was for the various corn tortillas frying in the round, hot grill plates in the narrow streets. Or maybe it was all due to the fresh or dried tortillas that one could find in abundance at any supermarket. Or it was because almost any pastry in this town is somehow related to corn. If you don’t like pastries, there is still no way around the yellow vegetable for you. Ever wondered why the chicken meat here is always yellow? Well, guess what chickens are fed.

Even though my last visit was quite a while ago, I am not sure I still like to eat corn or anything made from it.

On Tuesdays there was finally a change of scenery for my corn-tortured taste buds. On Tuesdays, all the way down Pachuca street, stretched out a tremendous street market, luring in  visitors with its colors and smells and the piercing cries of the local vendors.

It was a labyrinth of all sorts of goods with unusual names, bright colors and exotic scents. I walked past stands with fruit I could only find occasionally at my favorite Turkish supermarket in Berlin, or which I have never seen before to begin with, one of those being light green tomatoes or avocados with edible skins.

Elderly women with silver hair and white traditional dresses walked in the dense crowd, their braided baskets full of caramelized nuts. From time to time they would pick a shopper at random, Mexican or not, offering him or her a sweet treat for as little as 10 pesos.

The vendors at the stands all of whom were men on this particular ocassion addressed me with guapa, complimenting my natural beauty and held pieces of fruit out to me on the tips of kitchen knives. Some of them would literally run after their potential customers with their knives in hand and had there not been a piece fruit on the tips of their kitchen knives, one could have mistaken the whole ongoing for a murder scenario.

The numerous packets of medicinal charcoal which I had brought with me from Europe kept crossing my mind while I bit into a slice of avocado sprinkled with lime juice. The vendor had eventually caught up with me.

A few stands past the avocados lay stacks of round, light green cactus leaves. The Mexicans use the word nopal, originating from the ancient language Nahuatl to name it. The bundles were available for 10 pesos each (a common price for most things on Mexican markets). When faced with exotic foods, markets are the best if not the only place where you will always find someone to explain  how to prepare this mysterious… fruit? plant? vegetable? How do you categorize a cactus anyway?

“Toss it in a pan with some onions, then add salt  and pepper to it”, said the vendor and handed me my change along with a full plastic bag of cactus. Luckily at this point, my Spanish had gotten good enough to not ask for everything to be repeated twice.

Done as told, even without salt or pepper, the green leaves had a sour taste to them. I could have been eating fried gherkins or pickles for all I knew. Other countries, other dishes.

Airport Stories You Tell Your Grandchildren

Whenever you make a mistake, you intend to do it better next time. So when for example, you find yourself running around Shiphol airport in Amsterdam to catch your flight at the last second, next time, you tell yourself, you’ll do everything differently and everything will go smoothly.

When my next time came along, however, I imagine destiny just decided to lean back with a bucket of popcorn (probably salt and lime flavored like the one I am eating right now) and let itself be entertained.

The machine at the airport in Berlin would only print a ticket to Frankfurt. While the other passengers who have been waiting in line with me, as it is custom in Germany, nearly an hour in advance kept staring holes into my back, the Lufthansa employee told me to try again once I arrived in Frankfurt. Meanwhile my luggage would go all the way to Mexico. All I had to do now was hope to see it again any time soon.

But even in Frankfurt, the computer system kept asking for a visa before it could spit out a boarding pass for a plane to Mexico City. Another lady from Lufthansa, very optimistic at first, kept staring at the screen, growing even more confused by the minute. She looked at my Belarusian passport, a poor little thing visibly marked by endless journeys and visa stamps over the past seven years, and couldn’t stop wondering.

“The database says you are a german citizen. You have a biometric german passport. Why do you keep travelling with this then?”

Whatever it was that the computer knew about me, which was probably everything from what I have had for breakfast that morning to the color of my underwear, this time it knew something I didn’t. I did actually not own a german passport in the physical sense but it seemed like the Big Brother was already aware of the fact that my application for citizenship had gone through and had apparently been approved. What an irony to hear the good news from a Lufthansa employee with less than an hour left till my connecting flight across half the planet. Was this it? Was I going to get a firm handshake, a copy of the constitution and be welcomed to my new identity as a german citizen? Was this just part of an episode of Candid Camera?! Could somebody help me out here?

“There it is”, the woman’s voice got me out of my mess of thoughts. You have to re-book your returning flight to an earlier date. You have crossed the 180 day deadline for the tourist stay. ”

Indeed I had. My mistake of mixing up the months when booking my flights chased me down the hallway to the service terminal. It was like “Shiphol marathon” from two years ago all over again. Why did I choose Frankfurt with a longer layover and pay half a grand more? Why? It was definitely so I could gasp for air like a dying fish while, after a generous extra payment for changing my returning flight, the visa recognition system decided to die on me for good it seemed.

With less than half an hour till take off, I still had no boarding pass. My last hope was the check-in desk at the boarding gate. That hope however, was slowly dying, too just like I was on the inside from running up the stairs all the way to terminal B. Those of you who have ever been to Frankfurt airport will feel my pain.

Ahead of me stretched out a sea, no a whole ocean of travellers waiting for passport control. Right before me in line, stood a kuwaiti family of six. The policeman at the desk seemed to be in his best mood and as I watched him let one of the kids put the stamps into the family’s passports, I realized that there would be no more flights today to Mexico City and that I should probably start imagining what it would be like to spend the night on the floor of an airport.

But at the very end, destiny decided it had enough fun for the day and here I am, arrived on time, writing this.  The jetlag is still tearing at my nerves. For now, sleep to me are just two shifts of naps, each lasting for about 4 hours but nevertheless, the most intense emotions will always make the best stories.

A Berliner in Mexico

Two hours before my high school graduation ceremony on Saudi Arabian soil, I met Catherine. I have never been good at talking to random strangers but when constantly traveling from one place to another you eventually realise that, in the big picture, making a fool of yourself is really no big deal. So during my very last hours in the air-conditioned hallway of the science department, the photographs of the past students of the month on the wall being our only listeners, I asked Catherine to tell me her story.

The part of it that I remember until today makes me think of her as an adventurous, spontaneous person. How else would you describe someone who, 24 hours before starting a new life in Oxford in the company of an old friend, has not even started packing yet and feels totally relaxed about it?

Today, almost three years later, just like Catherine, I am standing in front of an empty suitcase and don’t feel a thing. I must have wasted all of my nervous emotions on the previous months, filled with getting additional travel documents, several health check ups and paying a fortune for health insurance.

What I love most about life is that you have the chance to be defined by the people you meet over the years. I like to think of myself as a product of all the stories and observed behaviors of those who have crossed my path of life so far. I like to think that a little bit of every friend of mine stays alive within me, even if said friends have left my life a long time ago.

Between university term papers, Spanish vocabulary exercises and  E-Mails replacing actual office hours with professors , came all the farewell dinners with friends and family that I have eventually lost count of. This is not my first new beginning as I have come to call it. In a way it feels very familiar, almost nostalgically welcoming. However, it is the first new beginning that I am responsible for largely by myself. Each journey is so different and yet the process of getting there is all the same.

Such things are worth writing about as much as they are worth experiencing. Maybe this is one of those moments one may look back upon and say that this is where an old life ended and a new one took its course. It is one of those turning points when you begin to understand that between now and the following  months you will become a new person with new memories, new friends and maybe even new world views. I am curious to see how much I will recognize my old self once this is over.

So from now on, because this blog is already somewhat known to a couple of readers, I’ll document my journey to and through Mexico City on here, happily inviting you to read along!

Dear Coward From Platform 5,

you will probably never read this because you have no idea who I am but I am sure that there are many more of your kind out there so why not just say it anyway?

I still wonder what you were thinking, sticking your hand up my skirt. You did it in passing by. Casually, like it’s something one would just do every now and then. Not brushing slightly against it, not accidentally touching it because you were in a hurry. ALL. THE. WAY. UP.  UNDER. THE. DAMN. FABRIC. Don’t tell me there wasn’t enough room for your cold, bony fingers otherwise on a perfectly empty escalator as you were walking up the stairs.

Some may say that I shouldn’t make a big deal out of this. That these things happen and that I should maybe even be “grateful” you  found me attractive enough to touch me in that manner. I know such people and I wonder how much respect they have for themselves (and others) if this is the way they think.

I don’t see any show of affection or attraction here. What I see is some self righteous coward. You are a coward, sir, because apparently this is the only way you can manage to get your hands on a woman instead of just having the balls to approach one the normal way.

I bet you can’t stand rejection. I bet this is why you do things like that. You compensate your own failure by pretending to own the world. You think you can do whatever the hell you want because you are a man and all the women in this world could be at your feet in an instant. You  are the sexiest beast on earth, you think, but you just didn’t feel like making use of that today, am I right? Today you just wanted something quick. To remind yourself of how great you can be if only you want to.

Just because you think I have a nice body doesn’t give you the right to touch it when you feel like it. Regardless of whether I am single or married. I don’t care if this doesn’t count as intercourse to you or anyone who shrugs their shoulders at this. You want something from a man or a woman, you ask for it first! Just like you may not take a picture of someone without their permission, you may not grab them and check out their body parts for softness like they are a piece of fruit on a market stand.

This is not about wearing skirts or dresses either. If she’s wearing a skirt, if she’s showing too much skin, she’s asking for it, they say.

Let me tell you something: Not every person is into short skirts. Not everyone gets their brains blown out at the sight of legs. Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder as they say. For some, an Amish style outfit totally does it. Some people like curvy blondes, some are fascinated by Tomboys in biker boots and piercings. It is not up to me to account for every single taste that’s  out there when getting dressed! It’s about men (and women) keeping their shit together when their brains get fried from deprivation of sex.

I had men who were old enough to be my father whistle at me in the streets of Riyadh as I walked by, dressed in an abaya with a hijab on my head. Black from head to toe, shaped like a walking tent. So don’t you dare telling me that this is about clothes. Men who catcall after women or try to get their hands on them without permission are a type of men who will do such a thing regardless of what a woman is wearing. The fact that she’s a woman (or a man if the harasser is female) is enough to get them going. THAT plus their own imagination is all it really takes.

That said, you are not being nice, you are not being masculine, you are not doing me a favor. You are being a fucking coward, sir.