Sometimes, getting there is Half the Battle

OK – I couldn’t resist. We took separate flights to Sao Paolo – for reasons I won’t go in to, the consequences of which I’m still paying for. But we did get here. I knew it was going to be interesting when I saw a Franciscan monk get on the plane in full robes and a 3 foot cross embroidered on his chest. When he passed by my seat praying, I didn’t take it as a good sign. Then as they were closing the doors a woman ran on waving a lamp shade. Not a small one either – a VERY large lamp shade. And it’s not like she didn’t have two pieces of hand luggage and a roller bag with her. I just shook my head.

After take off, the English guy in the seat across from mine got into a serious argument, and almost fisticuffs, with the Spanish guy sitting in front of him over some perceived slight. I just thought ‘This is what that monk was praying about’ and just a little bit of ‘Where’s the lady with the serious lamp shade when you need her? Cause I’d like to hit this British guy over the head to shut him up so they don’t turn this flight around’. But she was in the back somewhere. Finally, his co-travelers settled him down. With the help of the flight attendant, they explained that just like your Dad told you and your siblings fighting in the back seat of the car ‘Sir, we will turn around and head for home if you two can’t get along.’ No one wanted that.

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We both landed in our respective planes in Sao Paolo – different terminals, of course. My flight went straight south from the Iberian Peninsula. Jeff’s flight went over Africa most of the way and crossed over the Atlantic at the narrowest possible point between Africa and South America. But we met up and got into an Uber. I mean, how long can it take to get from the airport to our hotel? Well, in a city of 12 million people (and 32 million in the greater Sao Paolo area) it can take 2 hours. No kidding – TWO HOURS.

But we were lucky and got Denis, the most amazing Uber driver ever, who drove us in his red Chevy Celta (Never heard of that model before? Me either). Denis regaled us of tales of Sao Paolo and Brazil in general, it’s history, it’s politics, the best places to go. He told us where we might ‘or most probably would’ get killed if we walked at night, and how to hold our wallet, purse and cell phones so as not to be victims of muggings or the like. He informed us how not to get ripped off by taxis, shops or restaurants. We loved Denis –  we actually formed a bond with him. But you can’t argue with the price $27 for a two hour Uber ride for two people. Unbelievable.

Then we pulled into our hotel, with a guard at the gate of the long driveway, into one of the most beautiful hotel drives I’ve ever been to. The grounds are amazing and I would pit the service and ‘that special something’ the staff has – it’s a spark of magic – against any 5+ start hotel in the world. Truly exceptional. Sure, you see pictures on a website when you book a place, but you don’t really know what it will be like. This place lives up to the photos. Check it out if you’re ever staying in Sao Paolo. Jeff’s hotel snobbery has been fully assuaged and tomorrow should be nice so we can have breakfast on our terrace. I’m almost forgiven for his air travel experience (or lack thereof) and the class he flew today as a very tall person.

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And then my ‘Only you’ moment came as I knew it would. But it’s good I got it out of the way early. Whew! Jeff sent me to get him a Coke – I still owed him for the flight. We were jet lagged and I had already drunk all the still water in the mini bar. So down I went to the lobby. But then I got stuck in the elevator after the doors made a terrible metal grinding noise, not quite closing. I started pressing buttons.

‘Surely, it’s been hours I’ve been stuck in here’ I thought, sweat pouring from my brow as I looked at my cell phone for validation on my rising stress level. It had been less than a minute but it seemed like more than an hour. I looked at the bell on the panel, but thought I’d give the frantic-random-button-pressing one more try before pushing the actual panic button. It worked after a few minutes. The elevator made a horrific sound and then dropped a foot. I wanted to scream but it was only me in there.

Then it started going down and finally, the doors screeched open on the bottom basement a few floors down – the hotel laundry. I got off the elevator and I wasn’t getting back on. Pushing the buttons for the other elevators didn’t work because this broken devil one was just sitting on that floor, like a goalie. I crept down the hall, looking for an exit or stairs, when I heard voices. ‘Hola?’ I called out tentatively – luckily it’s the same in Spanish – cause I looked it up on Google translate on the plane.

I could see myself from the outside. This is the point in a horror movie where the guy in the hockey mask with the ax comes out of a cloud of steam. The one where the audience is thinking ‘What’s she doing? Don’t go down there!’ Finally, I saw a door and heard voices. When I walked in they looked at me like I was an animal at the zoo. A gazelle who wandered into the lion’s cage – I didn’t belong there.

‘Ingles?’ I asked. They pointed to one guy. I explained that I had a problem with the elevator and asked if he could help me get back up stairs. He took me through the parking garage, the spa and finally to another elevator. My blood pressure had finally dropped. I got to the room and Jeff had taken his shower and was looking refreshed. Clearly, I seemed out of sorts and had no beverages in my hands. I told him my tale. He shook his head.

‘So I guess I’m not getting a COKE.’ was all he said,

‘Don’t you get it? I could have been killed.’ I was aghast at his lack of empathy – no matter what seat I put him in on that flight.

But he was unmoved. ‘You’ve been gone less than 15 minutes.’

So I decided a nap was in order. Being awake for 28 hours and learning that not only could I be killed outside these gates, but by the elevator in the hotel, was just too much for me. Where’s a fully robed Franciscan monk, muttering under his breath, when you need one?

 

 

 

 

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!

 

Interactive Tapas

Last evening was all about Tapas! I”m not an expert on Spanish food and since we’re surrounded by tapas everywhere, it was time to get educated. Our friends, Nick and Tatiana, organized the evening for us all.  The chef at Ahuevos, Jose’ Simon, and his lovely wife hosted a night of ‘Interactive Tapas’. It was basically like a Tapas Nursery School for those that are Spanishly challenged and yet love yummy food.

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My friend, Pete and Ryan joined the group. They just moved here from Seattle a month ago, and they are also in the infancy stages of learning about everything Valencia has to offer and widening their circle of friends. This was a great opportunity to do both and we had alot of fun.

We started out learning to make Sangria. It’s a pretty simple recipe and was actually the signature drink at our wedding all those years ago. We made it in buckets for all our guests (but we served it in lovely glass wine jars). And I screwed up and instead of putting sugar in them, I grabbed a salt container and our first batches were so bad they’re legendary amongst our friends. My friend Curt laughs every time he tells that story.

Well, if I had used the recipe I learned last evening, I wouldn’t have had that problem because you make a simple syrup in advance and pour that into the mixture. It dissolves faster and helps to masurate the fruit quicker. And we were very pleased with our results. Ryan did all the chopping, Pete did all the selecting of ingredients. And Me? Well, I supervised from afar – or not at all and took some notes.

We also learned how to make seasoned olives of our own creation, and the different types of olives for eating. Jose’ is from Leon and likes a different type of spice than his wife, who is from Valencia. At our table, we liked a lot of the pink pepper, juniper berries, garlic, red pepper, bay leaf and cloves. Jose’ thoroughly approved of our choices. They were so good and like any good cooking class, we got to take some home so in two weeks I’ll let you know how they turned out.

Then it was on to the Aioli. I’ve made it before with just garlic, salt and olive oil. But I learned some new things last night. Jose’ uses an egg yoke in his (I couldn’t eat it) and he doesn’t use olive oil, but sunflower oil. He says that the olive oil in Aioli causes it to break. I did the mixing and the pounding of the garlic and then the egg separation. Even though I can’t eat them, I still know how to separate egg yokes and work a mortar and pestle, for goodness stake.

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Finally, we finished off the night with some horchata ice cream. I’ve been clear on my thoughts about horchata in the past, but this was different. It was wonderful! and with a little dark chocolate sauce it was heavenly. Everyone else got a slice of bread under theirs. It was made from day old bread that they soaked in booze and did some other stuff to, but I didn’t pay that much attention because I can’t eat the bread and I was took enamored of my new found love of horchata ice cream.

It was a fun night and we ended it with drinking from a ‘botijo’. It’s a jug that usually contains wine or water. Last night, the one they offered contained water. Pete braved drinking from it and was rewarded, like me, with water down the front. Ryan drank from it like a Spanish fisherman who has never drank from another vessel other than a botijo, in his entire life. He spilled not a drop.

After our tapas night we are looking forward to learning more Spanish cooking. Jose’ is organizing something out on the farm in Alboraya where they grow the food for their restaurant. I’m really looking forward to cooking food in the field where it’s grown. And Tati is looking to organize a trip back out to Manisis – think Fiesta de la Ceramica – where we can learn how to make a Botijo of our own and perhaps I can sign up for a ceramics course.

A great evening with good friend, old and new, good food and the promise of more to come. It doesn’t get better than that!

 

 

 

El Jefe y Keli

I couldn’t love our neighborhood more. Seriously. It reminds me of living in San Francisco in the early 90’s and in Seattle’s Belltown in the mid 90’s. In San Francisco in the Haight or in the Aves, you could catch Robin Williams working out new material in one club or another. In Seattle, you could catch Nirvana or Pearl Jam at the Crocodile for nothing when they were working on new songs.

Benimachlet has that same vibe, sans the famous people but I love it nonetheless. I sent Jeff to make hair appointments for us at our local hair salon. I figured his Spanish is good enough to work through it.  He sent me a photo of this post it. He is now officially El Jefe (‘The Boss’ in Spanish) and I am just ‘Keli’ since ‘Kelli’ would mean my double ‘L’s’ would be pronounced totally incomprehensibly. So it’s The Boss and Keli.

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Tonight, Sunday night, El Jefe and I went out in our neighborhood to have a drink and some tapas. Even on a Sunday evening there is alot going on in the square around our local church. A wedding had just finished and the revelers were in front of the church with their families.

We stopped for some wine at our favorite watering hole. We were there the day they first opened so we try to give them our custom whenever possible. But we got hungry and they don’t have a menu that was commiserate with our level of hunger. we went through the square on our way to another of our favorite tapas bars. On the way, we found a group spontaneously dancing. Not an organized thing, since when we walked home behind the folks with the speaker and the music, it was clear it was just a ‘lets turn on some music and see what happens’ type of deal. The crowd was loving it and readily joined in. Seeing dancers on the street in Valencias isn’t that unusual.

I love our tapas place. The owner is an old hippie and the food is top notch. The price of the cerveca and vino blanco are to our liking, as well. The place is cool and he totally digs us, so it’s fun to go there. The service isn’t typically hands off and it’s easy to get another drink and we feel at home.

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On the way home, we went around our summer outdoor theatre in front of the church. ‘Cinema a la Fresca’ enjoyed by all in the neighborhood on a Sunday night. We love the home grown eclectic vibe and the spectrum of folks who gather to enjoy a good film on a warm summer night. Back home, we used to go to Chateau St. Michelle and the Red Hook Brewery in Woodinville, WA with our kids in the summer to enjoy family movies outdoors. These are more arthouse films, but it’s no less enjoyable.

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Afterwards, walking back we passed by a shop front with an open door. A group of neighborhood gentlemen were beginning a game of dominos. We see this everywhere in the evenings around our apartment. Groups of older guys playing dominoes for money in cafes or parks. It serious business here. But this group was a fun and friendly bunch who was happy to share a ‘Guapa!’ as I took their photo.

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Before we moved to Valencia, I would never have believed we would live in a neighborhood like this. But every day, every time I turn a corner, I’m glad we chose to land here.

When I went to my hair appointment on Friday morning, I had a conversation with my neighborhood hairdresser, Pili, in Spanish. It wasn’t pretty, but she was so surprised at the progress I made, her enthusiasm for my particular brand of Spanish was infectious and made me feel proud of how far I’ve come. And then she threw me a curveball. Benimaclet is a very traditional Valencian neighborhood. People here DO NOT speak English so it’s easy to practice Spanish. But they also speak ‘Valenciano’ – which is another language entirely. Much like Catalan. And Pili is determined that I learn that too, so she’s coaching me. But the biggest compliment she gave me is that my pronunciation is ‘like a Valencian’, which I have been told before, so I’m on the right track.  I think we’ve found out home in Benimaclet. And, as everyone knows,  there’s no place like home.

Stop Whining

OK. I had my pity party. I missed home on the 4th of July. Seems like that’s a good day to mope when you’re so far from neighborhood fireworks and bar-b-que with friends. But like one of those blow up clown dolls with the sand in the bottom, you gotta pop back up.

And some really good things happened yesterday. First off, Jeff found he had run out of his blood pressure meds and that he could put off no longer going to the Farmacia near our house for a refill. He took a deep breath and took the bottle down there and explained what he needed. His old prescription was $30 a month. The new one? 3 euros for a month supply and no prescription needed. They just handed them over. He was giddy and now no longer intimidated by going to speak to a pharmacist.

I went to my Spanish lesson yesterday and it went swimmingly. Well, maybe I felt like I was swimming because I was in the blistering heat with dripping wet humidity. But my teacher felt I’m making good progress. We’re meeting up again today to keep the momentum going.

Then I took Emilie to have her sports physical so she can be cleared to play when she returns to school in the US. I swear it’s a racket, these sports physicals, but Jeff and I had found a clinic where there was a rumor that they had a Dr. that spoke English, so we could explain why the hell he needed to fill out this form with a bunch of weird questions like ‘Do you feel safe in your home?’ and ‘Are you ever sad?’. Things he’s supposed to ask her so that he can determine if these might impact her playing basketball or hitting a tennis ball.

So we went – they require no appointment – and muddled through in my lame Spanish at reception. I was feeling more confident after my lesson so I tried out a couple of new words and phrases. More on that later. Then we went and sat in the waiting room. A Dr. came out and we heard English. Like American English. I turned to find him chatting with an American couple who had just arrived and needed some medication.

He finished with them and then called us to his office. He spoke to me in Spanish and I answered him back. We waited outside for him to finish with another patient and then he came out and ushered us in. We sat down and he asked why we were there in Spanish and I told him, in English, and he asked if I was Spanish. I told him ‘No’. He said he was so surprised because my accent was so good he thought I was Spanish. Well, can I just say I LOVE THIS DR. He could be the worst Dr. on the planet but his compliment went a long way yesterday. I sat up a little taller after that.

It turns out he was born in Valencia but grew up in Tallahassee, Florida. He went to FSU and then moved back to Valencia to be near his parents. His wife is Valencian and he has two daughters who don’t want to live in the US. So Tallahassee’s loss is our gain.

We finished up with the sports exam and then met some of our friends who moved here last week from Seattle. We had worked together at a previous employer and they had been planning to move here with their daughter before we ever made our plan. Neither of us aware of what the other was plotting. So it all dovetailed nicely. And ironically, we met at the Portland Ale House on Salamanca, which is a mecca to all things Portland Ore. in the US. I grew up in Portland, and so did Pete, so we recognized all the photos and the marque outside.

They have great burgers and beer and it was fun to be surrounded by University of Oregon flags, Timbers paraphernalia, and old street signs and license plates I recognized. The owner is from Portland and he’s done a great job in bringing a little of it to Valencia. My family should get ready because when we visit the US in September they’re all getting Portland Ale House t-shirts. Seems right.

The burgers made Jeff’s day – best burger and fries in Valencia so far. And it was fun to hear about Pete and Ryan’s adventures in getting settled. They’re off and running, and loving living here too.

So I bounced back from my whining 4th of July. And it just goes to show you that the universe is listening. It knew it needed to throw me a bone yesterday and it threw me a whole handful. It’s time to get back to work.