Northern Ireland

We are spending our last week in Ireland in Derry or Londonderry. Depending upon your political point of view. More on that in another post. So it was the moment to see the Giant’s Causeway.

This basalt rock phenomenon occurs on the Northern coast of Ireland. If you require a little courage before your visit you can stop in Bushmill for a wee dram before you get to the truly majestic scenery a couple miles down the road. I say ‘miles’ because here in Northern Ireland its miles not kilometers. There was no sign when we crossed from Ireland to the UK/Northern Ireland welcoming us to a new country, except the one telling us that now we were calculating speed signs in miles. But our car only had kilometers. So we were doing backwards calculations to figure out how not to speed or go too slow.

In Ireland there are speed signs every 10 meters – even the farmers driveway doubling as an Irish expressway. In Northern Ireland they tell you the speed once at the border with a hearty ‘Good Luck guessing it on the rest of these god-forsaken roads.’

We made our way to the Giant’s Causeway over hill and dale, but it was worth it. From Derry it’s an hour drive. I’d tell you the distance but it doesn’t matter. Distance here means nothing. Its time that matters. 28 kilometers can take you an hour as Google routes you through the parking lot of a welding workshop, only to find the one lane track you were on previously picks up on the other side. You think I’m kidding. Sadly, not. Jeff checked to see if there was a setting to stop this nonsense, but if we turned it off in the app we would never be able to leave the country.

The GC is part of The National Trust of the UK. The Trust was set up in the late 19th century to save historically significant buildings and locales. They do good work and The Giants Causeway is head and shoulders their biggest draw every year. Heading for 3/4 of a million visitors annually. After seeing this area there is no mystery as to why.

It’s set up well with minimal impact to the environment. The visitors center is tasteful and not an ‘Exit Thru the Giftshop’ type of experience. If you’re a member of The National Trust its free. For a family that’s about 100£ per year. A bargin when planning on seeing other culturally significant places throughout the UK.

We did the self guided tour with the head sets, but could have waited the 40 minutes for the guided tour that is also included in the ticket. It was awe inspiring.

The place was created by lava flows, chemical weathering, and time. The hexagonal rocks and pillars are otherworldly.

The walk down to see them is stunning.

The Irish legend goes something like this. There was a giant called Finn. He created Ireland and he was pissed at a Scottish giant who wanted to threaten his land. So he threw the hexagonal stones into the sea to scare his foe, who used them as a bridge or causeway to run across the sea from Scotland to fight Finn. Well, Finn saw him coming and was shocked by his size. He knew he was outmatched so he ran home to his wife, and cried like a baby.

She knew just what to do and wrapped Finn up, swaddling him like a baby and put him in bed. The other giant found his way to their cottage and asked the wife where her husband was so they could fight. She told him Finn was out. But he searched the cottage anyway and heard ‘the baby’ crying – it was Finn afraid to death. But the other giant thought ‘If this is the baby, then his father must be huge!’. So he ran back to Scotland, tearing up the causeway with his footsteps. There are similar basalt pillars on the Scottish side today to prove the story.

In fact, about 60k yrs ago, lava flowed and formed these pillars. It took 40k yrs for the pillars to interlock. Hexagons are some of the strongest and most frequently occurring shapes in nature. Think honeycombs and tortoise shells.

We walked up to the Giant’s Pipe Organ, said to be heard once a year at 6am on Christmas morn. Then headed up top, via nearly one million stairs straight up, to make our way back. Hoping not to drive to Derry in the dark. The views continued to amaze the whole way. You could easily spend an entire day there.


Well worth a visit to this UNESCO World Heritage site. And a strong recommendation on the Bushmills. The town is adorable – you might consider staying there for a night. More importantly, you might need a break from driving out there from Derry. But this is wild Ireland at its most raw and beautiful. Not to be missed.

It was a dark and stormy night



Well, it was actually a dark and stormy afternoon. And it was the day that I realized the theme of this week should be ‘The Appointment to Make the Appointment’. We hit the ground running this week.




Our first annual medical exams since we’ve been here – actually, we were way past due before we left so it was time to go get a check up and all the commiserate tests. We’re both over 50 now so the tune up and oil change takes a little more work. Blood tests and ultra sounds. It requires multiple doctors and the process here is a little more round-trip intensive.




First, we go to the clinic to make the appointment because we can’t do it over the phone – being Spanishly challenged. Then we go to the appointment and meet with the doctor. Whichever doctor it is orders tests. We go to where we are going to have the tests. Then they tell you when you can return to pick up the results – they don’t just send it to the Dr. who ordered the tests. Then you pick up the results and return to the doctor to make an appointment to review your results. Etc. Rinse and Repeat.




Jeff got lucky this time because I went to our English speaking family practitioner first. I happened to mention that Jeff would be making an appointment himself to see him. The Dr. felt he would save him some time and gave me all the blood work orders for Jeff too. So he got to skip two steps right out of the gate. When he complained about going to the Dr. after his tests came back I wanted to punch him.




Today, I had an appointment to take the examination for the driving theory test at the Jefatura de Trafico. I made it the week before we left for Brazil online and I have spent every day since doing nothing but studying the book and taking the online practice tests.  OK, that and watching a Breaking Bad marathon but you can do both at the same time. I know I’m ready because I’m passing nearly every practice test I take. But what I wasn’t prepared for was the test of getting to the test.




I had even attempted a dry run. This week I had to go get my psychological/medical fitness certificate. The clinics are across the street from the Jefatura so I knew where to go. It took 10 minutes, during which time they asked if I was depressed, tested my eyes and made me play a video game where I had to keep the two bars on the screen inside the winding road. Twenty six euros later and I had my certificate.




Since I was right across the street, I thought I’d go check out the Jefatura de Traffico and learn the system and ask for the remaining forms I required. Just so I’d be ready today. The security guard is brutal on the ‘taking-of-the-number’ business. I was not getting past him to ask a small question – without the requisite appointment. So no dry run.




Today – test day – Jeff came with me and we went early. I wanted to make sure I had plenty of time. I’d gotten my passport photos at the machine in the subway and I had all the copies that Spanish bureaucracy requires. Everything in triplicate. But getting into the equivalent of the Department of Motor Vehicle early is not allowed. Seriously, you can’t get there early – just at your appointed predetermined time. While I was in line waiting to learn this little tidbit from the militant security guard, I found my Irish friend, Donna, happened to be in line in front of me. She was swapping her driving license out – because EU citizens just exchange theirs with a form and and fee. Me? I have to act like I’m 15 again.




So after our unceremonious booting out of the Jefatura (the guy actually wagged his finger at me and said ‘No!’), we went across the street with our tails between our legs to have a coffee and to wait until the machine, that gives you a number the security guard checks so very closely, will spit out a ticket that gives you the privilege to sit down and wait. And wait. And wait.




Finally, we decided to leave the safety of the cafe to brave ‘El Securidad’ once more, and success! The ticket has 3 letters and 3 numbers. Then you sit and wait, looking up at screens every time the bell goes ‘Ping!’, checking your ticket against the information on the screen. It’s like playing Keno. When other combinations would come up and it had a common letter or number to mine – Jeff would comment on it. When my number came I almost shouted out ‘BINGO!’ but he was on to me and whispered ‘Don’t do it.’ So I held back.




Up I went to the window with my documents and copies in my plastic folder. Just like everyone else here, you go to no official building without your plastic folder full of everything you have ever documented since the beginning of time – this can include your baptismal certificate. The gentleman who helped me was very nice. He looked at what I had brought and then took my Residencia/NIE card back to have it examined by someone else and they had a long discussion about it. I was having flashbacks to the Spanish Embassy in Los Angeles. If I had to conjure bank statements I was going to scream.




Then, he came back and brought forms with him. He typed alot, glued my photos to a form, and more typing. Then he asked me when I wanted to take my test. 




‘How about now?’ I told him. I’m not sure why he thought I was there.




‘Oh no. Today you pay. You take the examination on December 3.’ He looked at me confused that I didn’t know this was ‘the appointment to make the appointment’. The test will be at a place several miles outside of town in a couple of weeks.




What could I do? Storm off? It’s just how it is. But I was a little disappointed. I was ready. I was psyched up. I memorized the manual on two continents and 24 hours in the air. I had asked Jeff over the last 48 hours one hundred times if he thought I was going to pass. I peaked too soon! But now I have a packet of all the forms and everything I’ll need in a couple of weeks. I am resigned. Jeff was less than happy.




We went home on the subway and when we got to the Benimachlet metro stop it was clear that the storm outside had become something of an issue. The water was pouring  down the stairs like a waterfall. I hid my packet of precious stamped theory test documents – including my new appointment time – under my rain coat and made a run for it. I took a video so you could see how much rain we’re talking about.








I had thought about wearing my Hunter boots today. It was raining after all. But I just wore my little green rubber ankle Boggs. My go-to rain boots for a Seattle rain. Today, they were woefully inadequate. I needed fishing waders – no kidding. By the time we got home with the rain coming down sideways, both of us were soaked to the bone. Like someone had sprayed us with a hose for 5 blocks straight.




‘We have to stop!’ I shouted at him half way home from the Metro station.




‘Why? We can’t get any wetter!’ Jeff wisely shouted back. And of course, he was right. But everyone on the street was laughing. Movie rain is like that. We’re all in the same boat, or swimming in the same ocean, I guess.




When I got home, I saw this lithograph I had bought at an artist gathering in Sao Paolo and it made me smile. Something about it struck me at the time and I stuffed it in my already bulging bag for the trip home – Jeff just shaking his head. So today, it seemed appropriate since my own umbrella was in the exact same position. A premonition of sorts.







I’ll have to remember the lessons of this week when we start our residency renewal in a few months. And allow enough time to make ‘the appointment, to make the appointment’. Hopefully, that day it will be a little less wet.

Teaching the Test

I’m all over this driving test thing. Every day I’m taking the actual Dirección General de Tráfico (DGT) tests online. In the beginning, I was getting discouraged. I was successful somewhere in the 70% range and it was a morale killer. But I have persevered and now I’m either passing the actual tests or coming very close with only 4 mistakes.

I have learned a lot and not just about Spanish traffic laws. I’ve learned that ‘should’ and ‘must’ aren’t the same as ‘mandatory;. And ‘can’t’ or ‘shouldn’t’ isn’t the same as ‘prohibited’. In English, these mean the same things. In Spanish (or the translation) there’s a bit of trickery that will fool you every time until you start to spot these words and realize you’re about to be duped for the 400th time. Damn you, DGT test! You’ll not get me again. Fool me 400 times, shame on you. Fool me for the 401st – shame on me.

And if there are two answers that look, and actually mean the same thing, the one that says ‘but can be modified at any time at the discretion or authority of the police or other authorized persons’, that’s the answer – no matter what other thing you think it might be. Because if the police or authorized persons tells you to stand on your head in the middle of the tracks, with the engine running and a train coming, and livestock on all sides of the road – even though there is no ‘Canada’ sign and other signs expressly prohibiting it – you will do it. It’s ‘compulsory’. No can’s, no should’s. You will follow the authorities.

I’ve also learned a lot about how the pictures in the test have nothing, whatsoever to do with the question. When they show wild horses running all over the road, on both sides, and then ask you if you can encounter livestock on:

a) the right side of the road.

b) the left side of the road.

c) the entire road.

The answer is a). And here’s why. The picture is meant to be a fun bit of misdirection. And you’ll notice the word ‘can‘ in the question. This seems to the layman that, based on the photo and experience, of course you CAN experience livestock on all sides of the road. But you’d be wrong. Legally, you can only experience it on the right side with the flow of traffic. But remember, when you encounter livestock arbitrarily in the road you must yield to them. I plan on shouting at them ‘You’re prohibited from being here legally! The law says so!’ But of course I’d be screaming it in English so they wouldn’t understand me. Anyway – in my experience you yield to things bigger than you.

I’ve learned a bunch of other stuff too. The Spanish driving test cares a lot about depression, fatigue and both prescription and non-prescription drug use. It cares about smoking in the car and GPS use. As I sit here taking tests, Jeff has been looking over my shoulder. Sometimes he’s been helpful, at other times he’s emphatically suggested something that I know is incorrect, because I’ve encountered it before. I just chuckle – how naive he is that he thinks he understands whether you ‘can’ use your fog lights in a light drizzle – silly man. So he’s learning too. But this one particular question threw us both for a loop. Take a look at this picture. Notice there is no D) NONE!!

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Now, I can learn all the facts and figures around when I need to have my car or motorcycle inspected by the MOT/ITV. I can learn right of ways for one lane roads and urban vs. interurban areas. But HOLY MOLY! Driving a school bus after a few drinks? When was that decided it might be a) an OK idea, and after that one bad decision, b) how much they should be able to drink?! This just seems wrong. We both shook our head and then remembered that none of our kids will ever ride a Spanish school bus so that’s one more reason to sleep at night. But then I thought about the driver of our Metro train and took a gulp.

Last week, I found the street in front front of the Jefatura Provincial de Trafico, and it was festooned with places to get my medical/psychological exam to obtain my certificate. I was waiting for Jeff in a cafe and asked the woman next to me about all the clinics that were lining the street. I asked her if it was cosmetic surgery or botox or something. She laughed and explained it was for the certificate to drive in Spain. So now I know where to go. They stand outside in lab coats like hucksters so I’m thinking I can negotiate the cost. And next week I’m getting my new town hall certificate and passport sized photos for my learners permit.

I’m starting to be more sure of myself, but not cocky. There’s no room in this process for over confidence. After a little more practice and gathering my documents, I’ll make the appointment to take the test for after we’re back from Brazil in mid-November. I’m hoping I pass on the first two tries so I don’t have to take an actual course and can spend the rest of my time learning in the car. I’d like to start the new year with my new license and a new car – ready to explore more of the country. Seems like a good way to start the year!

¡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.

No Really, Where’s my Stuff?!?

Oh yes. Back in the dark ages – well, the end of February, the movers came and took our stuff to Los Angeles. They had promised to put it all on a boat that would sail across the sea. How do I know this? Because I gave them a pile of money and signed a contract to that effect. What day is it today? Hmm, oh yeah, it’s June 7th. And where is my stuff? A question not even the Oracle at Delphi could answer lying in her sulfur fog in her stone mountain top temple.

The first indication that we might have an issue was about a month after arriving here in Valencia, the shipper in LA contacted me and asked me ‘for an inventory list’. WHAT?!? I asked them why they would be asking me for that since the movers made a list of what was in each box – because I had already numbered said boxes and made an inventory list for them. Well, they didn’t have it. So I sent them another copy and pictures of each of the number items I had taken with my cell phone before allowing them to be loaded.

Yes, I’m just that organized. Ok – paranoid. But it was our stuff. And we cared about it enough to ship it half way across the world, across oceans and through canals. You can see how my blood pressure might have gone up a bit. I conveyed my displeasure to the person who was doing the asking. ‘Was this what I paid all that money for?’ She never directly addressed the question but assured me that now she could ship our stuff.

What?!? They had picked it up a month before. Where the HELL had it been, if not in a container rapidly steaming it’s way towards me with dolphins riding the bow wave guiding to Valencia?? I was pissed. They said it had been stored until it was put on the boat with other containers. What could I do? Nothing – so I decided to drink a glass of wine and take 10 deep breaths. It worked for awhile.

Before we went to pick up Jeff’s bike in Germany at the beginning of May, I reached out to them again and asked when our stuff would be getting here. I didn’t want it to show up while we were in Germany. They assured me that it would be arriving on May 23rd to Valencia. The customs people would contact me and arrange the paperwork and delivery. Ugh – but fine. We booked our tickets to Germany and off we went.

The timing was good because Emilie was coming on the 19th. That would give her a couple of days to settle in before her stuff got here and we could spend days unpacking it all. The 23rd came and went – no call. So 7 days after the due date, I reached out again. No response. So, in my typical fashion I did a little digging and found the CEO’s email address and cc’d him on my next communication showing the string of untruths I had been told in the emails with these people going back to February. Voila! I got a response telling me our stuff was going to now arrive on June 12, saying they were sorry for the delay and all would be well. You can tell I felt much better. NOT!

Then an email came from a nice guy in Rotterdam in The Netherlands who told me he would be handling the customs paperwork for me when the shipment arrived in Rotterdam. AGAIN WHAT?!? I quietly asked my the HELL my stuff wold be arriving in Rotterdam since I live in SPAIN. And I paid to have my stuff shipped to VALENCIA. When was my stuff going to show up at my door in Valencia, since it was going to be all the way across Europe?

He assured me that they were going to truck it across the several countries between me and Holland and that process would start after it arrived in Rotterdam on June 12th. He as very cheerful. So cheerful that I couldn’t be angry at him because he had nothing to do with the entire thing. And because I need him  – a man with so many vowels in his name that when I email him I have no idea if I’m actually spelling it correctly.

So I filled out the forms he sent me and sent them back. Now I’m waiting – hoping – praying, that our stuff will actually get to Rotterdam. A city I never wanted it to go to. And that the richly voweled guy will take care of it and get it here, so I can discover whether my couch can be craned into the living room window on the 7th floor.

Here’s the lesson. If you move to another country – store you stuff in your old country. Put it in storage and happily pay for it. Because, when you get to your new country, you will have to buy stuff to get by while you’re waiting for your old stuff to arrive – thus creating duplicate possessions, like a tea pot and a frying pan. So when your stuff, after making it, apparently, through every port between Los Angles and Rotterdam, finally arrives you won’t actually need that crap cause you’ve already bought that crap – again.

After all this, I swear if that couch doesn’t fit through the window I’m going to put it out on the sidewalk and just sleep there. It will be summer – if they’re not lying and it gets here by July 1st. I could live off the orange trees lining the street. The weather will be lovely, and I might just meet more of my neighbors and make some new friends. I’ll put my feet up, watch YouTube videos on my phone and drink some Sangria on the sidewalk. The street cleaners can wake me in the morning when they come around. But I’ll have earned it. I will have waited 4 months for that couch – too large though it might very well be. But its mine, and perhaps, like me, a little worse for wear but still, all mine.