Saturday, May 29, 2010

O Espain Pt 2

Today I had another one of those "hey, man, I'm in Spain" realisations. I was walking home from the grocery store with my friend, and as we walked by a man sitting at a terrace cafe, his dog sniffed us. As we walked away, I heard the old man say grumble at his pet, "Duke, you can't just go crazy every time a pretty girl walks by, geez!" Only in Spain!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Man Edition Part II--The 7 (ok, 8) Deadly Habits of Spanish Men

Yesterday I was browsing a local dating website I have an account on. To clarify, I am not looking for a relationship--much less one sparked by wifi and keyboards--but after hearing countless stories about it from my Spaniard friends, I decided to see what all the fuss was about. And if I'm honest with myself, looking at the profile photos of the nation's eligible bachelors is my new favourite way to kill time.

Within an hour of making an account (and this is purely for kicks) my inbox was filled with messages and, as I skimmed them, I couldn't help but laugh. And that's when I paused to read one that caught my eyes. It read something like "Hola, Rubia, I really would like to meet you" before the writer asked me if I'd be willing to perform certain acts I don't feel like repeating.

As I thought about how to word a witty rejection, it occured to me to write a letter to Spanish men as a whole and relieve myself of the many feelings I have concerning these strange, elusive creatures. So if I had to write an epistle to all Spaniards it might look something like this:

Esteemed Spanish Men:

I have spent over 4 months living in the wild of your habitat, you elusive creatures. During which time, I have carefully noted your walk, your talk, and of course your good looks. Gorgeous! Crikey! But after taking a closer gander, I have observed your comportment and noted that you are indeed stranger than I could have ever imagined, and I'm not quite sure I always approve. The following points are my scientific observations and suggestions concerning the evolutionary improvement of your species:

1. For one thing, my name is NOT Rubia. I'll admit, this one is partly my fault for turning around and looking back at you when I hear "RUBIAAAA" being shouted at me down the street. I'm sorry, I'll try to stop. But I would like to go back to being called what my mother intended: Veronica. Vero will do in a pinch.

2. My name isn't "Guapa" either. Trust me, Spaniards, you are preaching to the choir on this one.

3. Pants in colours better sutied to sorbets and other tropical desserts are not under any circumstances a practical choice of legwear. Also please refrain from wearing rooyal blue rugby shirts with red (acceptable) trousers. You look like a fruit salad (and it makes me hungry at inconvenient times).

4. Speaking of fruit, you men have broken my gaydar. As if your lisp, your flamboyant trousers weren't enough, you insist of public displays of affection with your fellow varones. Being a rubia myself, I can't help but be a little insulted when you'd rather hold the hand of some guy named Jesus instead.

5. Also, why do so many of you shave your legs? This is something that just does not fit in my brain. I do not enjoy being prickled by the stubble of your growing calf hairs. I shudder at the memory of my friend's story about the time she came face-to-face (so to speak) with a landing strip. I just picture a gaggle of Javier Bardems watching me walk down the street, all of them holding hands and their freshly shaved chests gleaming in the sun. All of them laughing at the Neanderthal woman who is hairier than they are. And frankly, your rumoured hairiness was part of the tourist attraction for me. I had heard tales that you had bristling arm hair and beards for days! Way to disappoint, guys.

6. You do not know how to drive, and don't try to convince me otherwise. If I had a Euro for every time I've nearly flown through your windshield, I could buy you a new car. I admire you for driving stick (it's actually kind of sexy), but even my 16-year-old sister knows how to use a turn signal.

7. I don't care how many times you emphasize it, but aceite (olive oil) is not "muy sano" (very healthy). If I had a euro for every time you did this, I could buy you a Lipitor prescription and some cooking spray.

8. Mullets: NO.

But for all your faults and all the ways you stray from the Antonio Banderas mystique, I guess you have some redeeming qualities. For one thing, though it may take me days (sometimes weeks) to confirm your sexual orientation, you are largely confident in your sexuality. I dig your courage to wear loud clothing, that you can hold your wingman's hand or touch his breast, that you don't feel the need to act like a caveman in front of me to prove your masculine mettle.

For another thing, you are amazing cooks. The best paella I ever had? Made by a man. Who taught me to make Spanish tortilla? My friend Juan Carlos. Your ability to feed me delicious food (even if drenched in aceite) is a beautiful thing.

Thirdly, you respect your mothers. This is particularly admirable, because most of you live with yours. God knows I have not the patience to live with mine. But I will be the first to tell you that there is nothing more attractive than a man who respects the woman who raised him.

And really, there are the little things too. The way you say "teepecal Espaneessh". The fact that you blow dry your hair more often than I do. The way you mispronounce the word "egg" (ech). That all of you apparently shop for earrings in the same coconut-wood-jewellery store. That you teach me your slang, and then tell me how good my Spanish is getting. That you kiss on two cheeks to say hello. The hairy awesomeness of your shapely beards (when you do have them). The fact that I can walk home alone at night instead of calling a cab. That you are always gentlemen without being pushy. Sigh, I guess, even when you call me Rubia it is sometimes cute.

I have drawn up mixed data in my purely scientific observations of you, but ultimately I have concluded:

Spanish men, you are the best men.

Love (love love love), Veronica

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

O Espain

Today I was walking home from downtown, waiting for the light to turn green at Plaza del Mio Cid. As I waited, I squinted into the sun and stared at the back of Spain's Braveheart/Hercules/Robin Hood, I had one of those moments where I realised "Hold, I'm in Spain". Every time I've travelled before, I've always had this feeling of being outside myself somehow. But the transition to Spanish life was so fluid I hardly even noticed. And here I was, staring at the national hero riding off into the horizon and thinking, "you go, Cid, you go."

Monday, May 24, 2010

Behind the Scenes

You know how people with big hair say it's "where I keep my secrets"? Well, I feel sort of the same about the poofy, damaged spools of blonde hair covering my head. My hair can get so wild when I wake up, my friends refer to it as "sex hair" or "the poodle". And now that it is getting hot in Burgos, it only gets wilder. But I digress. On this fine Monday morning, I took the time to deep-condition my hair, which I'd put through the wringer over the past few days. As I stood bent over my bathroom sink rinsing it free of conditioner, I was thinking about the reason my hair needed some special treatment to begin with. And the reason wasn't great sex. I'd been straightening, curling and teasing my hair for a part I was playing in a short film.
a horribly appropriate still from our production, WRONG
For the final project in my Film class, it was my assignment to write, shoot, and produce a short film with a group of classmates. My fellow Bostonian Sima and I joined a group consisting of our classmates Isabel, Juan, and Juan Carlos, who quickly became our amigos. As I thought about the four grueling days of night shoots, hectic schedules, and wardrobe malfunctions I realised how lucky I was to be here at that moment: hunched like Quasimodo and half-dead. But in Spain.
with my co-star Amiran, who is Georgian originally, but who cares
I've come to realise that coming to Burgos to participate in an immersion program so obscure that my own university's renowned international relations department doesn't even know it exists ... was probably one of the best decisions I've ever made. There are times that I wished I lived in a bigger city, like Madrid. But not only have I begun to appreciate the quirks of little Burgos, I take into account the unique opportunity I've had here.

For one thing, my castellano (español for español) has improved from the level of a slightly stupid five-year-old's to practicamente fluido. I still need to learn some situational vocabulary, but if I tried to count the number of words I have learned in addition to my newfound mastery of the vosotros form, my head would explode.

For another thing, and this being the main reason, I think of my Spanish friends. And this morning in particular, I was thinking about my Film group and our project. Being in a program of 3 American girls, we can tend to get tired of being together 100% of the time and get a bit snippy. And while being in a group of 20 American students (like in other study abroad programs) would be fun, it's been a really wild ride so far making friends with the teepeecal Espanissh.

We started out as classmates and ended up as housemates/pets/family and above all, friends. By the time we had to shoot the production, Sima and I had been sharing a mattress in Juan Carlos and Isabel's living room, dubbed ourselves their pets, made a giant American breakfast for a group of 8, and started calling Juan Carlos "Mom". It goes without saying we're very close.

* see footnote

The next time I have a calimocho, I'll be sure to toast to any given experience I've had with my co-stars/writers/producers. I now know how to make a Spanish tortilla (potato omelette), thanks to Juan Carlos. I've developed a mental rolodex of curse words and slang. And I'm never going to forget the muy interesante night our group and their housemates took us out to a teepeecal Espanissh joint called Patillas. With its walls plastered with newspaper clippings, wallet-sized ID photos, and mounted guitars, Patillas had character. As we sipped 1Euro Mahou's a man played guitar while a woman sang Spanish folk songs. And pretty soon, the whole bar was singing and clappign right along with them, requesting encore after encore. We ended up sharing a table with a middle-aged ballet instructor named Blanca. The woman defined hot mess as she drunkenly yet gracefully handed out her business card to us. All of 5 feet tall, she had three times my constitution for beer, so naturally, we all got along well. When the ancient bartender waved a picket sign that said "a la puta calle" (Get the fuck out!), we invited Blanca to come with us. The next stop was a rockabilly bar where Blanca and I decided we shared one soul. At the end of the night, we all exchanged phone numbers with our middle-aged reincarnated Spanish Tinkerbell.
One of my favourite photos ever, a very intense still I'm super proud of

That was only two weeks ago, but it has felt like forever considering how hard we've been working. The past 4 days have been non-stop line-memorizing, filming, and editting. Early mornings involved filming at Historical Burgos locations, such as the Gothic Cathedral or pilgrims' hostels. Late nights involved filming dinner over tapas and a brutal fight scene. Several brief scenes took hours to film if there were too many people in the street or one actor had trouble with his or her lines. And on the second day of shooting, someone forgot to pack the most important prop and we were stalled by over 90 minutes. After 4 days of stifling this exhausting assignment, we wrapped at 1 a.m. last night, set a date for the premier party, and said goodnight before going our separate ways to bed. All for a film we've calculated to be less than 10 minutes long.

Now on the morning after, I'm not just washing the grime of hard work but a little glamour of partaking in the film industry. What I do want to leave in my tangled mop of blonde, though, is the memory of being a part of something longer-lasting than a calimocho or a digital photograph. For the same reason that I have developed a lisp, consider clapping an art form, and drink Bailey's at lunchtime: because I've got reasons to call Spain home.
* photo courtesy of fellow blogger Sima Kalmens. To see her Spain/travel blog go to

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Denmark is for Brothers

I AM sterdam. Or at least I was for a little over two sweet, sweet days that I spent getting an overview of Holland. I've made a mental note to come back, and hope that Tobias and I cross paths one day again. But as sad as I was to leave Utrecht on April 10th, I was more excited to go to Copenhagen.

For one thing, my obsession with Scandinavia would finally come to fruition by travelling there. And for another, my brother from another mother, Jason, is studying there this semester. In Copenhagen, no less, which I discovered was a beautiful, colourful city full of well-dressed Vikings, Polish-vodka-peddling dance clubs, and more bicycles than my poor ass could handle. In short, Kobenhavn is for lovers. Or brothers. Thanfkully, my brother Jason was an excellent tourguide and thanks to two trusty bicycles (ok, mine wasn't so trusty) I saw more of the city in four days than I could have in a week on foot.

Kirk--Danish for Church. From the top of a gold domed Church, Jason and I overlook the City. Here behind us you can see the Free State of Christiania.

Copenhagen (pronounced KOO-ben-haun in Danish) from the spire on Vor Frelsers Kirk

My brother is fancy. Even when he climbs trees and nearly falls into rivers.

So two guys walk into the Marble Church... Jason on the right and Mar on the left.

Jason waits for an episode of Will & Grace to load on megavideo.
When he is awake, Jason is rather dapper. Here he is with his trusty bike.
My bike's chain kept falling off, but up until the last day, it got the job done.
The Free State of Christiania from outside. Inside, though I couldn't take
pictures on Pusher Street on pain of death, I did get to walk around, spend
time with my friends and sip on an elderflower soda in one of the bars.

My second night in Copenhagen, Jason cooked dinner for me and Mar.
He looked quite dapper (again) in his apron, which looked like this:
Dinner (or at least one dish) looked like this. Why yes, that would be
a baked pear topped with goat cheese on top of a fresh salad.
I daresay it's even fancier than Jason's apron.

The Sky looks like a painting here.

Below, my first Danish. With my hand next to it for reference.
Best and worst experience of my life. I'm sure my cholestrol
will thank me when I hit forty-five years.

Inside the Art Gallery. The sculptures in this museum--ranging from impressive
collections of Gree and Etruscan pieces to things much more modern--were the pri-
vate collection of the founder of Carlsberg (yes, like the beer). This man passed the
collection onto the city of Copenhagen provided the city built a decent building to house it.
And here you have this museum.

At the museum: Jason with his friend Stephanie.
I love this picture.

a Leaf

Obviously partying was the first thing on the agenda. This is Jason at
Student House on our first night.

and the view from Jason's room. This view will be (is) sorely missed.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Baby went to Amsterdam (and Utrecht)

The things you cannot photograph.

Some things you really cannot plan, no matter how flexible your itenerary, and this idea is no more perfectly embodied in any segment of my trip than in Holland. My agenda was meager, and therefore, I figured, flexible enough. I had planned to stay in Utrecht for two nights, and take the 20 minute train ride to Amsterdam in the mornings. There I planned to see the Secret Annex and the Van Gogh Museum. I had my agenda and figured I wouldn't get into my host's hair very much. Needless to say, neither of these things occured. Even less so did I expect to get along so famously with my host Tobias, go to Belgian bars, come home on a death wish of a bicycle ride and the following evening pull an all-nighter in a 70s punk bar off the Red Light District. But these things happen I suppose.

My only regret is that I didn't take more pictures, but all things considered, half the things that happened in Amsterdam could not be photographed, and therefore...will stay in Amsterdam. I could not photograph, for one thing, the smell of the curry dinner Tobias was in the midst of preparing when I arrived. Much less the taste of spice paired with the sweetness of coconut milk and the savouriness of fresh peppers, the oaky dryness of the accompanying wine. I must find out where he got the recipe.

After dinner, some wine, and a little shisha Tobias took me out around Utrecht, explaining some of the town's charms (such as Miffy the Bunny from the children's books) before popping into a Belgian bar that boasted an impressive selection of beer. After much French wine and Polish vodka in Paris (Julien was obsessed w/the latter) and Belgian beer in Brugge, I didn't know how much more alcohol I could take. But by Beer Number Two, I was in the middle of a fascinating conversation with Tobias about travel and books. Somehow, we both discovered a shared love of The Beach. And as he began to cite specific pages that he had liked, I knew exactly which paragraphs he was talking about. This book, after, was/is my travel bible. I couldn't help myself and burst, "THAT BOOK IS IN MY SUITCASE RIGHT NOW!!"

Over the next few hours, Tobias and I were joined by a guy he had met at work once and his girlfriend, who were at the same bar by chance. Roeland and Ana talked with us, and we got along so well they offered to show me Amsterdam the next day just like that. Soon after, we were joined by Tobias' girlfriend. When it was finally time to go home for the night, we realised it was a bit slow going since Tobias' girlfriend had a bike. Tobias did what occured naturally. He hopped on the bike himself, commanded her to hop on the handle bar and me on the back.

I gaped at him, and wondered how a girl's bike would support not just one but two girls and a giant, beardy Dutch man. "Oh no! Oh no."

Like a scene from any given comedy, not a minute later all three of us were cruising down a hill at god-knows-how-many kilometers per hour, screaming. Perhaps I was the only one screaming. In fact, it is quite probably. As I held on to Tobias' midsection with fear, I yelled, "IF YOU KILL ME I WILL WRITE YOU A VERY BAD COUCHSURFING REFERENCE!!" If you had a camera with you, and a knack for good timing you still could not have recorded more than a blur whizzing past you. Thankfully, Holland's culture of bicycling got us home safe and sound.

The next was comparatively calm, as I met up with Ana and Roeland at the bus station, and they swept me off to Amsterdam. There I saw everything but the Anne Frank House and the Van Gogh museum. But ultimately, I think I fared better that way. I ended up seeing Amsterdam as the people that live there do. When I decided to travel, I decided to stay with locals, because I was spending so little time in each place. I figured that staying with the natives would give me a better taste at how these people see the world.

Turns out it was a very good decision. Had I done otherwise, I could have seen the museums like anyone else, but not the vintage shops with overpriced teacups and other hipster kitsch that amused Ana. Nor the cafe where Roeland used to go with his father when he was small. Not the lifesize statue of David and Goliath that he remembers from his childhood. Little places and things that touch other people.

Tobias joined us in the evening to meet up with some of his friends, who had us over for dinner and then went out to some bars. The first bar of the night was fairly normal. It was a novelty that it was mostly outdoors and that I had to guzzle hot Irish coffees to stay warm, but normal enough. The last bar of the night, however, ... well. Somewhere just off the Red Light District was a punk bar that Ana suggested and we all went to. And nowhere else have I felt more out of place and so comfortable at the same time.

Surrounded by very pushy Sid Vicious wannabes of all ages smoking joints and playing pool, I put myself in the middle of Tobias and his circle of manly friends to keep from getting knocked over. Whereas outside this ring of 6 to 8 Dutch men I felt out of place due to my lack of a mohawk, a joint, and a leather jacket, inside I realised how short I was in comparison. In Spain, I stuck out like a sore thumb because of my blonde hair, and in Amsterdam I got lost in crowds for bieng easily a foot shorter than any of these fun, fine men. As enormous as these men were in size, they were bigger in spirit as I found them to be some of the most open and easy to relate to folk I had ever met. We talked about politics, music, and of course, touched on cultural differences between Holland and...all the places I had ever lived.

Naturally, we spent the whole night in that bar. We left at closing and had to run to the station to make the last train home. We barely made it, but 40 minutes later we made it back to Utrecht. Again, home in one piece. Barely, but safe. Tobias and I had our last chat in the kitchen over a post-drinking breakfast of grilled cheese. At this time it was 6:30 and I had a train to Amsterdam in an hour, where I had to catch a plane to Copenhagen. I said my final goodbye to Tobias, we hugged and said we hoped our paths would cross someday soon.

My suitcase was packed, so I had nothing to do before walking to the train station (literally) next door. So I sat down and opened my copy of The Beach to kill time. Now remember how I said in my first spring break post that--upon packing the book--I didn't know I'd soon say goodbye to my beloved copy? Well, this is that time. As I homed in on one of the last chapters, I looked at the clock and saw it was time to go. With Tobias sleeping upstairs, I left the book on the kitchen table with a note and quietly left.

I can't help but show a little gratitude to someone if they open up so much of their lives to me. And I was lost for ideas in Amsterdam. But I thought that maybe he could get something out of the book I had gotten every time I had read it. Besides which, since I planned to catch up with my best friend in Copenhagen, I wouldn't have time for reading. So I left my book, and within an hour, I left Amsterdam.

I nodded off at the airport terminal waiting for my plane to Copenhagen. I've learned a valuable lesson that punk bars are probably the worst way to pull an all-nighter. But there could be worse near-death experience than I had in Amsterdam, be they break the sound barrier on a bicycle, raise my beer constitution to new heights, or lose my bible. In exchange I think I gained a lot more, cliched as that sounds, even if I can't record the sight or smell but only hope to write it down and remember.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Meanwhile back at the ranch...

Back in Espain, when I'm not busy travelling or writing about travelling I've done ages before (cough), I'm busy learning the culture. Early on, it became obvious to me that doing an immersion program in small Burgos with a tiny group was a much better way of learning the language and culture than if I had gone to Madrid with a larger group. The Burgos immersion program includes taking all classes in Spanish with Spanish students, living in a dorm with Spaniards, using a small monthly allowance to explore Spanish cuisine, educational trips sponsored by Boston University; learning the art of the calimocho (1pt cheap red wine 1 pt coke), drinking said calimocho in inordinate amounts, coming home at ungodly hours, drinking in public, gorging oneself on paella, finding new and exciting ways to utilize the word joder (fuck), and of course, making some great friends who teach you curse words, open their hearts and homes to you, and of course find it perfectly normal you enjoy dressing up as Salvador Dali.

Here I am as Dalí, with my chum Pablo Picasso on my right. Our friends Bea, left, and Isabel above.

Over the past few weeks, I've gradually bonded with my project group in my Film Class. Consisting of myself, my program(and sometimes room) mate Sima, and three Spaniards (Juan Carlos, Juan and Isabel) have to write and shoot a short film for our semester project. When we're not hunkering down over wine and smokes during the creative process, we've had a few weekends of educational, muy interesante debauchery.

Juan Carlos and Isabel

The following photos are from Juan Carlos' recent birthday barbeque, at which Sima and I decided to dress up as famous Spanish artists. Because we're just that ingrained in the culture.

The thing is, one learns so much when partying with Spaniards. Whether it´s the company or the drinks that do the trick, the end result is that one´s vocabulary becomes rapidly amazing and fluent under the influence of those two factors. If not both.

And lesson #1 is: It's both.

Lesson #2: the Spaniards are masters of peer pressure. There is no such thing as saying "no" to your fourteenth drink, it's simply out of the question.
Lesson #3: There is no such thing as coming home before four o'clock in the morning. The siesta (known as hora de comer here) is a basic need of survival, just behind food & water.

Lesson #4: Spaniards don't just love company. They crave and need the contact of loved ones, which explains how meals can go on for hours, the excessive public displays of affection between supposedly straight men, and the abundance of pets. A walk down any street will convince you that at least 80 percent of Spaniards must have a terrier or poodle as a companion. Thus, you meet a diverse group of friends.

a payaso friend
a lumberjack friend
Which apparently includes hillbilly clowns and beardy people.

A very appropriate photo to cap off the essence
of Espain: friendship, laughter, and empty glasses

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Biking in Belgium

As wonderful as Brugge itself was, I would not have as fond memories as I do if I hadn't decided to get a bicycle and ride through the countryside on my last day.

One of the best decisions of my life, and exactly one month later I still have the scabs and scars to prove it. As I tucked my bike map which Erika had loaned me into my bag, I put one leg over the body of the bike. Which is when I realised the bike was much too tall for me. But I was stubborn about biking to the sea or through the countryside and I estimated that once I got on the seat, the peddles would still be reachable. So I decided to try and literally jump onto the seat of the bike.

I kicked with one foot and held my other on one of the peddles. Then I jumped. And how. As I swung my leg over the bike, I had a split-second of time to realise I had no idea what I was doing and I fell off the OTHER SIDE OF THE BIKE. When I visualised myself jumping onto one side of a bicycle and falling off the other, I started to laugh. Laugh enough that my skinned legs stopped burning as I lay on my side on the sidewalk cracking up.

After this incident, though, things went smoothly and I had one of the most beautiful days I can remember. I biked approx. 5 kilometers to a little village called Damme and tried to get lost in the countryside. It is one of the most beautiful and tranquil places I have ever seen and I think the pictures show it. awful picture of me, but here I am excited about some cows.

Ha ha.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Fuckin' Bruges, man

After 3 days and nights of non-stop sightseeing, cheese and crepe eating, jam sessions and a bitchfight with a ticket taker at Gare du Nord, I managed to find my way out of Paris and on a train bound for Bruges/Brugge, Belgium. My first moments in town were a little bit stressful because I still had no phone. My first two hours in town were spent looking for a free phone to use, getting a little bit lost, and--considering my short attention span--stopping to take pictures.

Really, one look at this idyllic town convinces a traveller why Colin Farell and Ralph Fiennes signed up to shoot a film about it. Granted, I had heard about Brugge ages before, described as the Venice of the North. On the other hand, I had also loved the film and seeing moving pictures of the town motivated me to make a trip during my semester in Spain.

The tower where THAT scene occurs in In Bruges
Belgium itself looks like a fairy tale. Green meadows, fat baby animals skipping, brown brick houses that look like giant bars of chocolate. And let's not forget the chocolate. And the Belgian fries. And the beer. And of course, my wonderful host family.

I stayed in Brugge with a wonderful woman called Erika, and her two sons Samuel and Elias. My days in Brugge with their family left me with a sense of home I had never felt. Every morning, I would leave the house to explore town and come back around 7 or 8 for dinner. I helped set the table, and then sat down with the family for some of Erika's wonderful vegetarian cooking. After we all helped to clean up, we'd sit around the table and talk while Erika fed us chocolate. And I would tell them about my day. My days in Belgium looked like this:

Wake up in the mornin' feelin' like having chocolate.

Went to the Belfry. Looked for Voldemort. No cigar.

Get tired. Have some more chocolate. What is this strange rock I am holding?

Just a pebble full of marzipan. No big deal.

Explore town before heading back to the Center for lunch.
The best combination of sauces for Belgian fries: the traditional Flemish
recipes of Hannibal and Samurai (sweet and spicy respectively).
Time for more chocolate!!
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