The Travel Bug

I was bitten by the travel bug even before I ever traveled on my first train ride. It started by receiving gifts from my Uncle living in Japan for my birthdays. And from my Grandmother who was a ballsy lady who traveled the world on her own in retirement. Neither seemed to be afraid of anything.

Then, when I studied German in high school I had a pen pal who sent me photos and described her life in the city where she lived. I wanted to go there so bad and vowed one day I would. It would have never occurred to me not to take my own children with me on adventures. I wanted them learn to love seeing other places, cultures and people as much as I did. I wanted them to have a passport filled with stamps and a heart filled with memories.

Fast forward, my niece Melody started expressing an interest in seeing the world. So when she traveled to Europe I knew we would meet up. And I just got home from spending a few days with her in Barcelona. We’re similar enough – of course she’s 18 and I’m an ancient 52 – but from the moment I collected her at Terminal 1 at BCN, we never stopped talking. It was like no time had gone by since I had last seen her. And did we have fun!

We walked Barcelona from one side to the other. Indian food, Moroccan food, wine, cheese, ice cream, we ate it all. She declared Spanish coffee and croissants the finest in all the world (Shhh, Emilie thinks so too but don’t tell the French).

We went to Sagrada Familia and saw Gaudi’s epic imagination still being realized over 90 years after his death.

We hiked up to the Teleferic de Monjuic (the funicular that takes you up above Barcelona to the Montjuic Castle).

We enjoyed street music and toured La Boqueria Mercat with the food stalls and colorful creations.

We went to Placa de Espana and admired the views from the Cascadia water falls.

We wandered the old part of the city and hit the Zoo. Yes, we did all this in about 48 hours. And through it all we talked and walked and talked some more. And barely slept. It was like a slumber party for 2.

And we shopped a little. She couldn’t take much more home after packing her suitcase with souvenirs and gifts for those back home. But we did pick up her graduation dress and shoes. And all the stuff she’ll need for Prom next week. Like Emilie, no one will be wearing the same thing at prom this year.

Then Melody expressed an interest in getting a tattoo. To mark her first trip the Europe, but also as an expression of her independence. She’s 18 now – for a whole 2 months. And she’ll be graduating high school in 2 more. She chose a parlour, based on the reviews online, and we went down there. She had already identified the art she wanted. A sprig of lavender – symbolizing peace. She said she remembered how much my Mom would plant it in the garden at her house, so she settled on that.

She was scared to do it but also excited. I was just there for moral support. It was her show. But it looks great and she’ll always remember she got her first tattoo with me on her first visit to Spain. That made me smile.

I dropped Melody off early this morning at the airport – she’s still en route and has definitely caught the family travel bug. My work is done! Then I hopped on a train to Valencia. Jeff met me near the station for lunch. So great to see him after a few weeks. It had taken him 37 hours to get home. His flight from Malaga to Valencia had been cancelled so they put him on a bus for 7 hours, and then promptly lost his luggage. He was smiling big when I saw him standing there, so no worse for wear.

We both had adventures and got to connect with family – Jeff was so happy to see his Mom and Ryan – the best kind of trip. But it’s nice to be home in Benimachlet where we belong. Travel is great, but Dorothy is right clicking her ruby slippers. There really is no place like home. And for me, that will always be where ever Jeff is.

It’s a Mixed Bag

We’ve been up since 2:30 am. When you move to another country – 9 time zones ahead of where your US cell phone number’s area code happens to be – any old reminders for a dentist, veterinarian or prescriptions is going to come to your phone at a time that is based on that old time zone. And not to your new one. UGH!

And in this case, it was for a prescription at Walgreens in Puyallup, WA. We’ve never lived there. I’ve never filled a prescription there. Why they would call me to pick up a prescription from there? I have no idea. But since the area code was from the US we are immediately awake!  Jeff’s Mom is in that same area code. So we picked up the phone. But it was just meds and not even our meds. We both had so much adrenaline running through us we stayed up and Jeff made coffee.

I had turned up the ringer because I had been doing banking yesterday and forgot to turn it down. That’s the only reason I still have cell svs in the US. Banking. Otherwise, I’d just use my Spanish mobile and WhatsApp, like every other civilized human and nation on the planet. US banks don’t support WhatsApp.

So we were up early. Too early. And I had needed a good nights sleep. It has been a busy week seeing friends before the holidays. They’re going away and we’re going away. Baking. And then our landlord came last night with some workers to do some maintenance. This is very unusual in Valencia. Landlords here are notoriously terrible. You pay – they take your money – and pretend you don’t exist. It’s part of why I rented the apartment I rented.

He’s lovely and showed up with his adorable little daughter and I gave them the cookies I had made for them. That’s when I found out we had created a stir in the building – and not a particularly good one. His daughter was thrilled with the cookies and ate them happily in the living room. But he had gotten calls about us giving out cookies to our neighbors. This was some sort of cultural divide that we had traversed and it wasn’t received well. Apparently, you don’t give out cookies to people on holidays.

He tried to explain it to us by using a funeral comparison. Even though Christmas is sort of a birth thing –  he said he had noticed on Netflix that Americans share cookies at the holidays. But in Spain, when people die they just go to the church and then home. He knew in the US that people gather and eat things together when someone dies. So ‘it’s different here’. I know he was being earnest and wanted me to understand. But while I still didn’t get the funeral reference, I understood that next year I will not be making cookies for my neighbors.

Except for the lady across the hall, who was so happy she wrote us a card in Valenciano. It’s in cursive writing and, in Europe, cursive writing is different than what they taught us in the US and we’ve struggled to decipher it. So Jeff is going to take it to his final Beginner’s Computer class before the holiday break and ask for some assistance. I know it was positive because she put a smiley face after signing it.

But the balls were a hit at El Horno. There were hugs and coffee. At El Chino? The guy shut off his Spanish completely and was speaking full on Chinese. Walked in a circle, speaking so quickly, waving at the bag of cookies and finally took it like it was on fire. Then he handed me some wine and waved us out. I’m not sure if I should ever go back. I’m thinking a ‘Secret Santa’ or ‘White Elephant gift’ holiday party would cause so much trauma and mayhem here that they’d need days to recover. It’s Just COOKIES, people! I didn’t hand out uranium!

Today, I was determined to get back into the Christmas spirit so we went down to the big square where they have the tree and the ice rink. I love ice rinks and make sure I skate at the out door ice rink in any city I’m in at the holidays. It’s a must do. 

But it’s 65 degrees here. I went to buy my ticket (Jeff knows his limits and watched from the sideline). It’s cheap. 8 euros for 45 minutes of ice time, including skates. Amazing. But they also charged me 2 euro for gloves as ‘mandatory’. It’s 65 out. I could have been in shorts. But I paid and went up to the melted ice to slog through the one inch lake that was sitting on top of a bumpy rink. It took me two minutes to figure out that this wasn’t going to work but I stayed out there for another 15. It’s Christmas, damn it!

We had lunch and walked home. A little disappointed – if I’m honest. I’m really hoping that when we get to Ireland we’ll feel a bit more like Christmas. Maybe it’s the cookie thing, combined with the waking up in the middle of the night, but I’ve slid out of the spirit of the season. Tomorrow our bags will be packed so we can head to cooler climes. And to a place where at least I know the traditions and how not to step on cultural toes. Jeff, Em and I all have Irish DNA running in our veins. We’re spending nearly 3 weeks in a land where they like to celebrate with food (and drink). Whether its a funeral or Christmas. I bet if I handed a random stranger some cookies there, they wouldn’t be a stranger for long.

Oh well. I’ll get over it. It is what it is. But it did make me a little sad to think that our gesture of goodwill required people to pick up the phone and call our landlord. Like we’re errant children. Maybe next year we’ll head out of town a little earlier in December. Norway or the like. Jeff’s family is mostly Scandinavian. And I know they like cookies so we’d fit right in. And I would skip bringing my US cell phone, too.

Warning! A Rant to Follow

‘People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.’

‘He who is without sin, cast the first stone.’

I’ve heard them all. And of course, they’re true. I’m not perfect. Far, very far from it. And since I’ve heard horror stories of ugly Americans, when traveling, we try to go out of our way to be culturally sensitive and respectful. Do I love everything about living here? No. I miss some stuff and some of it’s doesn’t make sense to me. We choose to live in Spain because we like it here better than we did back in the US. Jeff reminded me the other day it was his idea, after all.

We’ve lived here nearly 8 months now and I’m fed up. ‘With the Spanish?’ you might ask. But my answer would be an emphatic ‘NOOOO.’ I’m fed up with British and the arrogance I witness, over hear and generally experience from these people every freaking day. It’s very clear many British Expats – or even holiday maker –  is under the misapprehension that Imperialism is still an actual thing.

Now, as a caveat, we have some friends here who are Brits. But sometimes even they will say things that make me go ‘Hmmm’.

Today Jeff and I headed to the beach for our morning coffee. It’s been super stormy here and the beach was festooned with mostly locals running. And the waves were huge. The Med is usually pretty calm and flat. This morning it looked more like Manzanita – the small beach town in Oregon where we used to go in the summer when I was a kid. Big angry swells and crashing waves. We watched the Spanish Coast Guard perform a real rescue of a wind surfer.

I was wearing my Pendleton fisherman’s sweater. It wasn’t warm out. And then a flock of tourists came by. We knew they were tourists before we could hear them because they all had large red beach towels with the word ‘ENGLAND’ emblazoned across it hanging around their necks, like they were part of the same flock of red faced birds, to be observed from afar. Then one of them decided that he needed to take a wee and promptly relieved himself all over a stack of beach chairs where we rent loungers in the summer. To say we were actually pissed off is an understatement! How dare he? But we knew they dared – they’re English, and they told us so!

Recently, Brexit has been a large part of the convo around here. It’s become an obsession since so many British citizens live in Spain. They speculate about it, and rant and rave about their Prime Minister’s botched Brexit job. We aren’t one’s to talk with our own country in such a freaking mess right now, so we usually just listen.

‘Well I just don’t see why we have to follow all those laws the EU would come up with. I mean we’re not all supposed to smoke in cafe’s now. It’s the law in EU and in Britain we follow the law. But you’ll notice in Spain they don’t. They just ignore what they don’t like. That’s why I voted to leave.’

My eyes narrowed.

‘You voted to leave the EU because Britain is following EU laws around smoking in outdoor cafe’s and Spain isn’t?’

‘Well, yes.’

I was dumbfounded. ‘First off, you don’t smoke.’

‘I know.’ they said ‘but other people do.’

‘Yes .’ I said ‘But I don’t want to have to smoke other people’s cigarettes while I have a coffee. So it’s good Britain is enforcing it. And secondly, you live in Spain. And you want to stay here, with no guarantee that you’ll be able to after Brexit. So you voted against your own self interest so that Brits you don’t live near can smoke in Britain in outside in cafes?’

But the capper for us was over hearing a rowdy group of English (I’m hoping on holiday and not locals) in a cafe we frequent. Now my Spanish is not good. And after being away for a month it didn’t get better. But I do what I can and I muddle through. One thing I don’t do is shout louder in English when I encounter someone who doesn’t speak any of my native tongue. But this group of jolly, rather inebriated, assholes did. And when the waitress walked away they said something that is the cherry on the ethnocentric cake that seems all too common with those from the British Isles.

‘Spain would be so much better if there weren’t so many Spaniards.’ Loudly and then they all laughed and agreed wholeheartedly that yes, indeed, it’s the Spanish that ruin Spain because they’re all lazy and they don’t speak English. We got the check and paid. While walking ever so close to their table to leave I said – not so much under my breath.

‘I disagree – I just think it’s all the fucking assholes who come here and forget to pack the manners Mummy tried and failed to teach them.’ And we left quickly before I was tackled by a guy who clearly played a game or two of rugby at school.

This week I saw the article about how Spain will surpass Japan in life expectancy by 2040. Yes, if you live in Spain you’ll live longer than all others in the world. It has the weather, A LOT less stress, and the food is a Mediterranean diet. The best for heart health and cancer prevention. And if you do get sick, the health care here is top notch. Believe me, I know. Next time, I want to hold that up to the British who are ranting about the people of the country they are lucky enough to be allowed to enjoy by the grace of the Spanish government, and shout.

‘Your culinary contribution to the world was boiled meat! You didn’t discover the existence of garlic until 1975. Suck it!’

I used to be very quiet about telling anyone I was an American when traveling. Our reputation in the world being what it is. But now whenever someone asks me if I’m from Inglaterra I make sure to tell them NOOO! I AM NOT. There’s a part of me that is hoping that some of the English can’t come to Spain after Brexit. They can go back to the UK. You know how the old saying goes ‘England. Not like Spain at all, and without all those lazy Spaniards.’ Sounds like heaven to them. Wonder what their life expectancy in the UK will be in 2040. Oh wait! I won’t really care because I’ll be living in Spain.

OK – I’m done now.

Nou d’Octubre – The Day of Valencia

Every October 9th, since King James the I of Aragon sent the Moors packing south, Valencian’s have celebrated their freedom. OK, well as much freedom as people who still lived under a feudal system for 100’s of years following this conquest could. But the Spanish population, who were mostly Christians (Catholics) went from being the low men on the totem pole to those in power.

There is no debate here about the role of Charlemagne or Roland in freeing Spain from the Moors, like there is in Navarra. The Valencia’s are pretty sure it was this one guy and his lucky bat, who showed up right as his victory was clinched, that did the trick. You can see the Valencian bat festooned on manhole covers and futbol jersey’s. The Bat is the thing here.

Nearly 800 years later they’re still pretty happy about it. And like most celebrations we’ve encountered in Spain, if one day of partying is good, six days is just that much better. Nou d’Octubre is the biggest celebration of Valencian pride, and that is saying something since they have a month-long Fallas celebration in March, too.  But Fallas is an internationally renowned party celebrating the art of satirical street sculpture that attracts visitors (and pyromaniacs) from far and wide. This celebration is for the people of the region.

We had some friends in town this weekend – who brought more friends with them – so our group pf 10 dove in and we got a bit of the flavor of the festivities that actually started on Thursday the 4th. Like all fiestas, there will be people dressed in traditional dress. Women dressed like they were as Fallera, and men in both traditional peasant and in Moorish inspired costumes performing or just walking the streets.

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There was a Medieval Market on the Serranos bridge leading to the towers of the same name, selling traditional locally made foods, jewelry, soaps and oils and hand made candies. October 9th is also St. Denis’ Day in Spain. It’s the equivalent of St. Valentines Day. Here men give their lady loves a kerchief full of marzipan sweets to signify their affection. Knowing Jeff would forget his clear obligations to me on St. Denis’ Day, I bought myself a beautiful kimono in the old city. When I showed it to him I explained how I’d helped him dodge a bullet on this most important of holidays. He appeared unmoved at my generosity.

During these celebrations, old palaces that are mostly government buildings now, are opened to the public for just 2 days. Valencian’s like their bureaucracy so they need a lot of places to house them and the old palaces are the perfect spots. Large, open and with big rooms that once might have been used to house men-at-arms, but now hold large conference tables or councils. A gentleman working in one of them explained the hierarchy to us.

In Spain, there are 17 autonomous regions (like states in the US). Ours is the Valencia Communidad (Community) – a collection of essentially 3 counties (Valencia, Alicante and Castello) – who have their congress in one palace here in the old city. This is like a state legislature. Then there is the Valencia county (I’m not using the right words but that’s what it is) – that has it’s own council. Kind of like a county council back home. Then there is Valencia, the city (Ayuntamiento) – which has it’s own city council and mayor.

It’s a little confusing since the name ‘Valencia’ is a loaded one, but you get used to it. In terms of Palaces, each one of these government bodies is housed in palaces that are usually closed to the public, unless you have official business before that particular body. But one time per year, they open them up so that the average person can enjoy the architecture and the stunning art that is housed in them. Sculpture, centuries old paintings and architecture is on full display. It’s easy to see how the aristocracy showed off their wealth and power using their homes as canvasses.

There was music in the square and, of course, fireworks – both during the day and at night. I swear, if someone invaded this country the inhabitants would think any gun shots they heard were associated to a wedding, baptism or a fiesta they forgot about. You think I’m kidding but you almost don’t even hear them anymore when they go off.

My favorite place we visited, although it’s open nearly every day so it’s not part of this celebration, was the Church of St. Nicholas. I had seen it before but never ventured in. Yesterday, we were walking by it between Palace tours and decided to pop in. For 6 euros (kids are free), we got to see something that was truly amazing. It’s called ‘The Sistine Chapel of Valencia’. And ironically, the restorer of the Sistine Chapel restored it recently so it was visible in all it’s glory.  Pictures don’t do it justice and it’s worth the visit.

Parishioners, or anyone in Valencia who needs help with a problem, will leave their home on 3 consecutive Mondays, walking in silence to the church to pray to the effigy of St. Nicholas for assistance. St. Nicholas is the patron saint of charity. The legend has it that he used to anonymously give assistance to many in his community during his lifetime. The precursor to Santa Claus. Promoting the ‘charity is its own reward’ type of approach. This appeals to me on so  many levels and the church is clearly a masterwork in celebrating his life.

Finally, last evening we were just enjoying a quiet time at home when we heard a procession go by. We barely get up and go to the window anymore when we hear a marching band in the neighborhood but it went on for awhile. So random. And the fireworks went off shortly there after.

So we’re not actually to the real holiday yet and we’ve fully celebrated it. Now we’ll enjoy a few days of no grocery stores being open until we get a brief reprieve before Spain Day on Friday. It will be interesting to see what that is like here in Valencia. Will the inhabitants be fiesta’d out after a week of celebrating Nou d’Octubre? Something tells me there’s a fat chance of that! More music, fireworks and processions coming up!

 

¡Hola Madrid!

We took the high speed to Madrid from Valencia for our final days with Emilie before she went back to school. It cuts the travel time in half but still allows for beautiful views of wine, olives and this time of year, sunflower fields by the mile. All along the route it seemed the flowers were facing us with their sunny greetings. And the train station in Central Madrid is a botanical marvel itself.

 

I’ve not spent time in Madrid, other than to fly in and out. We are coastal people and interior cities that don’t boast a large body of water have never held sway with me for vacation destinations. But I must say, I LOVE MADRID!  And now, so does Jeff. And we walked about 30 miles of the streets, parks and museums while we were there. It’s a city so rich with history and culture it nearly soaks into your skin through osmosis.

We stayed near the Prado on the edge of Sol. The neighborhood is old and the streets shady and narrow. Gran Via and Sol are where Earnest Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises, drank (ALOT!) and generally soaked up the Spanish way of life he loved so much. Cervantes lived around the corner from our hotel and wrote Don Quixote while living there. Walking the streets, there are quotes from famous residents memorialized in brass in the cobbles. Poets, novelists, musicians.

We spent an afternoon in the The Parque del Retiro. It’s and incredible place, built for strolling on a very hot Madrid summer afternoon. Shade abounds and every turn brings new discoveries. The lake (Estanque grande del Retiro) where boats can be rented reminds me of a family vacation to Versaille. Nothing like tooling around on the water on a summer day.

The park sports a now defunct zoo from Franco’s time. But the cages are still there. And peacocks by the dozens roam free with their babies. I had never seen a baby peacock before but, as Emilie found out, the mother’s are very protective.

Madrid has so many monuments recounting it’s rich history and it rivals Paris for military and artistic exploits, and it’s pride in celebrating them. But Madrid outpaces Paris in the ‘Let’s put monuments and statues on top of buildings’ category. Here, they win every time.

The streets nearby the Botanical Gardens are shut down on Sundays so everyone is out walking their dogs, strollers flying and exercising like it seems is the number one Spanish past time. Again, we need to start running if we’re going to keep up. Literally.

We spent some happy air conditioned hours in the Prado. I had never been and had always wanted to go. Caravaggio, Sorolla – Valencia’s native son, Velazquez, Poussin. They’re all there. Portraits of Charles V and his many wives and all the Bourbons and Infantiles of Portugal. And the statuary is impressive. I have, however, reinforced my feelings about Goya. On my darkest day I don’t think I have ever been as down as the images captured in his 14 painting dubbed ‘The Black Paintings’. My first exposure to him was at The Frick in NY and his work in the Prado did little to change my impression.

Our dinner on Saturday night was to DIE FOR! An Argentine meat place near our hotel called ‘La Cabana Argentina’. We’ve now had the best meal we’ve eaten since we moved to Spain five months ago. The meat was perfectly cooked and the sides were scrumptious. It smelled so good that just walking in we were salivating after a long hot day of seeing the city. The service was first rate and we left feeling like we’d gotten a great deal on dinner after spending more than we have on one meal since we left the US.

Finally, it was time to take Em to the airport. We had a couple of choices. A train for 2.50 from the main train station at Atocha. The Metro for 5 euros. Or a taxi for 30 euros. So we took the taxi. With everything else, I wasn’t up for the stress of trying to figure it all out for the first time, while making sure Emilie got to her flight on time. So Jeff and I took the train back after we checked her in and dropped her off at security. I shed more than a few tears. Emilie was her confident self taking it all in stride. Next time it will be a piece of cake navigating Madrid airport transport.

So now Emilie is safely ensconced back at school (I got her text in the middle of a sleepless night) and we’ve had a great final weekend and cultural excursion in Madrid as a family. And now we know it’s a city we want to see much more of. I guess, like Ernest Hemingway, we are falling in love with Spain more and more every time we turn a new corner.