Brazil – Not Candy-Coated

We are home at last. We’re both glad to be back in Spain. Not because we didn’t enjoy Brazil but because it’s truly home. Our language has changed now – and its a subtle thing. When in Sao Paolo we referred to ‘home’ and it wasn’t the US. It was El Compartemiento. And I almost ran from the tram the few blocks to our apartment. Of course, I was tired and wanted to put down my suitcase and get cleaned up after 24 hours of travel, door to door. But it was more than that. It was the familiar. The routines and being surrounded by the things that make a life all our own.

I missed hearing Spanish and being able to understand people when they spoke. Being in a Portuguese speaking country, I found out I know a lot more Spanish than I thought. And I pulled it out liberally to try to communicate. Since the rest of South America speak Spanish, many people could understand us. And some of the words are similar. Even my shy husband was speaking Spanish – something he’s always reluctant to do here since his is not perfect. But we had to go along to get along, and needs must. The people in Brazil are friendly but they don’t speak much English. A lot of smiles and some hugs from strangers, so we muddled through using what I called Pidgeon Spangluguese.

I’m the human version of a Golden Retriever. I smile when walking down any street in the world. Even in the US, I had a boss once that pointed that out to me. ‘You’re always smiling’ she told me – like it was an anomaly. I don’t know know why, but that’s just me, and it seems to mean when I travel that strangers talk to me and I meet a lot of people.

I have spent time in other areas of the world but my focus has been mostly Western Asia and Europe for my foreign travels – although I’ve been other places. But South America was never a priority. This was a big miss on my part. And this trip rounded out my perspective on many fronts.

First Impressions

Just a heads up – This will be a longer than normal post. I’m going to try to squeeze all our impressions – sights and sounds – of Sao Paolo – into one post. And there is a lot of ground to cover in a place that assaulted the senses from the moment we left the airport.

As I said a few days ago, Sao Paolo is HUGE. It’s the 11th largest city in the world. The others that are larger are mostly in China. Looking out the window of the Uber to the resort hotel where we stayed the first few nights, there were high rise apartments as far as the eye could see. But scattered amongst them were homemade cinder block buildings; some stacked or almost piled precariously on top of each other without windows or running water, or HVAC of any kind. And shanty-type buildings that would barely stand up to a strong wind.

So the visual disparity of the ‘Haves’ and Have-nots’ is front and center. We had been warned right from the start to be very, very careful when out and about. Brazil’s – and Sao Paolo’s – murder rate is through the roof as one of the top cities in the world, if there was an award for such things. We found it unsettling, but we heard it from so many locals that it made us a little paranoid, and in some sense, it kept us from fully enjoying our time there.

Note: While we saw a lot of things – some of it, I didn’t include in the photos and for this reason. I don’t feel like taking pictures of people living in poverty is the right thing to do. They’re not a tourist spectacle for my viewing, but are living their lives the best they can. They deserve respect and the dignity to do so.

I also didn’t take photos of people pulling carts (I did take a photo of a cart without it’s owner). Their work is honest work and I felt like it needed to be treated as such. Again, they’re not a tourist amusement.

More on the Haves and Have-Nots

I had been asked to speak at a gathering at the hotel where we initially stayed. We wanted to leave the hotel compound to go for a walk but the security guard at the gate at the end of the drive was having none of it. This we found curious since the area was filled with manicured lawns and homes and buildings of the wealthy. But upon further inspection, each building was surrounded by high walls – some with actual razor wire – and each of them had an armed security guard at the front gate, at a minimum. Some had guards stationed at intervals along the walls surrounding various compounds. All of them standing under umbrellas to protect them from the intense sun, looking menacing to those who might be inclined to breach the defenses.

They all had ear pieces – ala Secret Service – tipping you off that they had counter parts inside, and probably more than one. And the cameras patrolling the properties were fanned out to cover every corner. The message being ‘It may look nice here, but this is a dangerous place’. But we didn’t really understand why, in an area that sold Lamborginis, Range Rovers and MaClaren’s, and we saw them driving around the area, it seemed so unsafe. No one – and I do mean NO ONE – was walking on the street outside. So strange.

We changed hotels halfway through the trip because we wanted to be right in the city. It turned out to be a good move. Much more to see and do. We’re not ‘Lay by the pool’ kind of people when we travel. So the resort got boring pretty quickly.

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The homeless population is exploding in the city. They’re everywhere sleeping rough. Oddly, we encountered almost no pan handling, but more people willing to do the jobs no American would ever do. Selling candy to cars at stop lights, one industrious guy actually put the candy neatly bagged and signed on the side mirror – even containing a price.

But also recycling. We saw a lot of people pulling carts of card board, and one guy with coolers on his cart, stopping at each guard station to sell drinks and snacks on a route he clearly traversed every day. They knew him.

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The average wage in Brazil is under $700 US a month. But that’s not the whole story. It costs a lot to live there. Historically, the taxes in Brazil are quite high and public corruption – we heard this from everyone – has been rampant for decades. So the people of Brazil have been ripped off, essentially. Their roads, infrastructure and public services are broken. You can see it clearly.

Let’s face it, every person in the world wants the same thing. Security for their family. Education to allow the next generation to do better than the last. They want to know that the future is secure – as well as the present. They want to know that if they get sick, their family’s won’t suffer, and they want comfort in difficult times. We are not so different from the average Brazilian.

When people found out we were Americans, they always asked if we ‘Liked Donald Trump’ because in Brazil they see him as a strong leader. They feel their new president is a version of him and the average person is very happy about it. This made us curious. Why would the average person feel this way? So we spent a lot of time speaking to people to understand and this is what we found.

After years of paying taxes and having public officials embezzle the money, and rob the country of its resources, people are desperate for something new. They are so desperate that they’re willing to give up almost anything to get it. And it struck us. We in the US have problems with our country. But the wealth disparity in the US is nothing compared to what it is in Brazil – South America’s largest economy.

In the US, we have time to debate social issues and economic issues. We aren’t starving. But in Brazil, they are. It’s critical, and hope has faded as something they can’t hardly remember. So electing someone they think has a snowball’s chance in sub-tropical heat to turn things around – even though he says things and advocates for things liberal democracies find horrific – well, the average Brazilian doesn’t care about that stuff. They want to eat.

But desperate people, in desperate circumstances, will sacrifice anything and do anything to save themselves and those they love. It’s a timely reminder for me since yesterday was Armistice Day. My family always laughs at me for my obsession with history, especially the 20th century wars. But the treaty of Versailles, after WWI, is what decimated post-war Germany and punished them so harshly for starting the war. And it’s what created such inflation, and desperate poverty in Germany in the 1920’s, that it set up the perfect circumstances for the rise of Hitler and the Nazi’s in the 1930’s. We’d do well to remember the lessons of history, because they’re repeating themselves in places like Brazil today. Hungry people will follow even the most despicable leaders if they’re handing out bread to feed their starving children. This is where aid and good foreign policy matters. Go to Brazil and you’ll understand.

Pollution

As a general rule, the air there is not too bad. Especially compared to say, London – whose air is regularly considered well above what is safe for humans to breathe on a regular basis. So there, they have the more western (non-developing) nations beat. But there is another side entirely.

On the way to the hotel from the airport, we drove across the two main rivers of Sao Paolo. The Tiete and Pinheiros rivers flow throughout the city. They were historically a source of fresh water and fish for the people of the region, but they’ve been so polluted with sewer and industrial waste that now they are dead rivers. Driving by them, the smell was sulfuric and it almost hurt to breathe in the fumes.

The banks of the rivers are lined with trash, as were some of the major thoroughfares we traversed. But I have seen worse in other countries. And for a population that size, I frankly would have expected more.

A View of Myself

In all this, it made me take a look at myself. And I wasn’t happy with what I saw. As I said before, I was asked to speak at a gathering at a luxury hotel. So I brought clothes that were appropriate for the occasion. The same as I would have if I had been asked to speak at something in NY or LA. But I wasn’t in NY or LA, I was in Sao Paolo. And after driving through the city and seeing what we saw. And then looking up some of the statistics on the country, I didn’t feel good in the clothes and accessories I had brought.

Among so much need, it felt obscene to be wearing shoes that could pay a family’s expenses for two months. Or carrying a handbag that would pay the salary of an average Paulista for 6 months. Looking in the mirror, before I headed out to give my talk didn’t make me proud. It made me want to cry.

It might sound a little dramatic. That’s OK to think that. I get it. I came from the luxury retail business. My job was to make rich people feel like opening their wallets and shelling out big bucks for name brands that they could proudly walk down the street with and show off to their friends. I bought into it too. But the absurdity of it and the hubris (my own) was right up in my face. When I was done with my obligation, I couldn’t wait to get out of that stuff, and I never wore it again or carried that handbag, on the trip. Thinking of it makes me sad sitting here.

Street Art

I was in London’s East End several years ago with my friend, Eric Olsen. Eric is a person who always makes me think differently. He has his MFA and his sensibilities have always challenged my own perspectives on things. Eric is a truly unique individual and it was in Brick Lane that he helped me see graffiti and street art in a new light.

Some truly world-class street artist display their work on the buildings of Brick Lane and the surrounding Tower Hamlets. It’s the first time I saw a Banksy in person. And Sao Paolo is festooned with amazing street art. Sorry Valencia, but these guys put you to shame. I’ll let the photos below speak for themselves. Some are sanctioned by the Prefeitura de Sao Paolo – others are more organic. Enjoy.

Ibirapuera Park

The ‘Central Park’ of South America is Ibirapuera Park and it’s in Sao Paolo. It’s a national treasure and it’s easy to see why. Complete with a large lake and a small creek, the park is lush and is safe during the day. You can rent bikes and there are runners galore. It’s a gathering place for festivals and is the host of the Afro Brazil Museum.

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The history of modern Brazil includes slavery – just like in the US. Captives from Africa were imported into the country to work on plantations and mines. They took care of colonial children and are one of the foundational populations that make Brazil what it is today. And in the faces of people on the street you can see their legacy, everywhere.

The photos below are from the museum celebrating the contribution of Africans to the life and culture of Brazil.

Unlike in the US, being brown in Brazil isn’t an historical stigma. It’s a point of pride. When people looked at me, they knew I was not from Brazil. It was the first time in my life I’ve ever been called a ‘Gringa’. Certainly, to my face. I was warned by others that once they understood I wasn’t Brazilian, it would endanger my safety. But in the park, where I heard this, I didn’t feel unsafe. I just smiled. What else could I do? I am what I am – just like everyone else.

Cuckoo for Coconuts

Everywhere, especially the park, stands selling coconut milk drunk straight out of the shell, or blended with other tropical juices, are every 100 yards. Men deliver and replenish the coconuts to the stands on bicycles with large baskets piled with green coconuts, who looked to be owned by the same company.

The guy working there taps the coconut and, either drains it into a larger container with a funnel, or puts a straw in it and hands it out to the customer. I took a few pictures so you can see what it’s like. Its not touristic but a staple food and drink.

The photos below are more of the park and a few of the statues and artistic features on display. It’s a lush space amongst the urban sprawl.

I’ve been to big cities in Asia. The skyline from our second hotel, looking out over the vast expanse of the city-scape left me in awe. It’s not the most beautiful of skylines. It’s not easily identifiable like those of NY or Paris. But it gives you the sense of how large it is. I took some photos below so you can see what we saw when we woke up at sunrise and when we pondered what it might mean to live every day in such a large place.

Brazil is a true melting pot of cultures from around the world. SP has the largest Japanese population, second to Japan itself, in the world. Vancouver, Canada is a distant third. No one we spoke to knows why they found it such a hospitable place to resettle, but you can get amazing sushi in the city.

There is also a huge Italian segment of the cultural soup. And speaking of soup, I ate some of the best Italian food I’ve ever had at a place close to our hotel. And the building was pretty spectacular too.

Driving and Traffic

I’ll be taking my driving test here soon. But would I ever consider driving in Brazil? NEVER. Here, it’s the traffic circles that intimidate. But in general, people are polite and understand and obey the lines on the road. In Brazil, they don’t seem to be able to see lines. ‘3 lanes? No, I see 7.’ And motorcycles and food delivery services whip and weave between cars. I had to close my eyes in every taxi or Uber we took. Looking meant an upset stomach. Jeff just stopped saying ‘Did you see that?!’. Cause he never would have said anything else.

People on the Street

In Valencia – and in Europe in general, a lot of people smoke. But you don’t see it or get a sense of it in Brazil. In that way, it’s more like the US, but even more striking. You don’t smell it walking or get a whiff of it sitting in a cafe, anywhere. Not sure why but we both commented on it.

I did witness something disturbing that I’ll only briefly comment on. There was a bunch of people looking up at a building near a cafe where we were sitting. I told Jeff I wanted to go see what was going on so I walked the block and then looked up to what they were starting at. A woman was on a girder on an abandoned building. She was threatening to jump and the rescue workers were in full repelling gear trying to talk her down.

An older lady in a housekeeping uniform stood near me. I looked over at her when I realized what was going on. We both had tears in our eyes. Mothers recognize each other. It transcends culture, religion, language. She came over and hugged me. She spoke to me in Portuguese but I said I didn’t speak Portuguese – in my Spanglugues. So we just stood there for a bit. The police came over and told me in English what was going on – I guess I am an easily identifiable Gringa. I couldn’t stay there and watch what might not be a good outcome, but I sent up a silent prayer that she’d take the help they were offering. I could only imagine the despair she was feeling to get to that point, but she was someone’s daughter or mother or friend, and it broke my heart. I was happy to have the hug from the lady who offered it.

The final evening, before coming home, we were hungry for snacks. In Valencia, and in the US, grocery stores are open late. So out Jeff went at dusk to get us some water and something to munch on. He came back with nothing but a perspective on street life at 7pm.

First, the people at the front of the hotel, bellmen and concierge, asked him where he was going when he left. Jeff told them he was going to take a walk – and they didn’t look happy about it. If he had said that he was going to the store they would have told him it would be closed – as he was about to find out. But he didn’t.

He walked around the block to the store we knew was there but the woman was closing it and told him ‘no’ waving her hands. So much for snacks. But what really struck him is how the street had changed from day to almost night.

‘The trolls crawled out of their holes.’ He told me. ‘It’s scary out there right now.’ He said when he got back to the room.

All the residents were gone behind gates and there was a voo doo guy on the sidewalk who had set up his stuff complete with a skull with a fire burning in it. He was chanting something or other and Jeff didn’t stick around to find out what it was or to give him a chance to direct it his way.

He was freaked out at the guys who were coming over the wall from the green space that bordered the street. He quickly made his way back to the confines of the hotel. 7pm was the edge between safety and the things we were warned about – and it was just a block from the hotel.

Going home

When we left to come home, we both said we knew we’d be back. We haven’t scratched the surface of either the city or the country. I still feel like it eluded us while we were there, but not entirely. So much to explore and understand. Ate a proxima, Brasil.

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?

 

 

 

 

The Lion’s Den

We are off to Sao Paolo, Brazil. Our friends and family are of two camps about this trip of ours, due to the election there this past Sunday. Brazil has a new president that they’re calling ‘The Donald Trump of Brazil’, even in Brazil. There has been a lot of energy around this election – much like in the US, and half of the people we know are A) very worried about us going. Or B) they had no idea there even was an election in Brazil and/or where to find the country on a map. Let’s face it, most American’s believe that our country is the center of the known world, and the world we don’t know doesn’t really matter. This is sad but true.

I’ve had calls, WhatsApp messages, and texts from friends questioning if this is a good idea. There are news reports of rioting and civil unrest. But I’m not too worried. I’ve been to Lebanon during a civil war. We were in Athens during the economic crisis with the protests there; with tear gas and clashes with police in riot gear, near the Parliment in the shadow of the Acropolis. Even in Seattle, when the WTO protest went on for days, my office was right in the thick of it. So I think we’ll be just fine if anything happens. We just need to be smart about it.

One thing I’ve learned about these things is that usually the stories on the news are an exaggerated view of what’s actually going on. Images recorded in such a way to make the crowds seem larger or they show the video of just those that are not peacefully protesting, Because peaceful protesters don’t help ratings. It’s not inaccurate reporting, just a thin slice of the reality on the ground. I’m hoping that’s all it is.

But we are looking forward to spending some time South American and learning something new. We speak Portuguese, not at all, but we’ve gotten used to misunderstanding, and being misunderstood, for the last 8 months so we’re in the perfect frame of mind for yet another foray into the unknown. The country looks to be stunning and the Brazilian’s we know here are wonderful people. Although I’ve been asked by them ‘Why do you want to go to Brazil?’. Seems they like living in Spain a bit better.

And I’m taking my trusty Trafico bible with me, so I’ll be on track to take my theory test when I get back. It’s my constant companion now and I’m sure Jeff appreciates me randomly peppering him with obscure facts on things like traffic circles, the phrase ‘As a General Rule’ and so much more. His eyes only glaze over every so often now, and lucky him, he can continue to enjoy learning in the Southern Hemisphere. And I met someone the other night at a tapas party. He offered to teach me to drive a stick shift in their family car. And his wife offered to teach me all the basics in Spanish of ‘Right, left, straight and Dear God! – Stop this car immediately!’. I figure that’s pretty much all I’ll need for my practical exam.

I haven’t decided completely, but I don’t think I’ll be blogging while we’re there. There will be a lot to see and do, and I’d like to be present for all of it. Jeff is looking forward to confirming that toilets flush water in the opposite direction. But I’ll be back with pictures and non-toilet related stories when we return. The world will keep turning while we’re gone, so we’ll see you on the other side. Cheers!

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!

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!

 

The Adult Table

There comes a point in life when the only miles stones are the birthdays that end in zero. Having past the big ones of learning to drive, turning 21 or graduating from high school, my miles stones turned to others. My children’s first words or first steps. First days of school and finally graduating from high school. Emilie is the last one to do that and it’s coming up fast.

As a child, and the youngest of 4 kids, sitting at the adult table for family holidays was a big one for me. I had to wait until one of my older sibling left the house to get that privilege, and prove I knew how to put my napkin on my lap and keep my elbows off the table. And then when my eldest brother brought his family back home, while I was still in high school, I ended up back there with my nephews. By that point I didn’t mind. I had learned that they were infinitely more interesting than the adults.

So coming to visit my childhood home held no new milestones, just old memories. A boy I grew up with, and went to kindergarten with, is living back in his Dad’s old house down the street. He’s gutting it and and it’s gorgeous. Yesterday, as I was taking a chainsaw to my Mom’s back garden, he popped down with his granddaughter and chatted for awhile.

And then it happened. My Mom and our next door neighbor, Mrs. Taylor, invited me to sit with them on the front porch in the evening and watch the neighborhood go by. I say ‘Mrs. Taylor’ because she will always be that to me. My siblings started calling her by her first name decades ago, but it seems wrong to me somehow.

My Mom made a phone call and then she came out in the living room and asked me if I would like to sit with them. She explained the rules as we went out to commence our sitting.

‘Regina gets the good chair. I always make sure.’ Letting me know that while I’m an invited special guest to this party of two, I’m not quite a member of this club yet.

Mrs. Taylor came over and we hugged. It was so good to see her and sitting there the years peeled away. I heard about grandchildren and great grandchildren. And then my Mom started telling stories about relatives I never heard of who were hobbyist wooden castanet makers in the 1950’s. Such random stuff she had us laughing until my belly hurt.

Sitting here at the Portland airport waiting to join Jeff in Seattle for our final week in the US this Fall, I’m smiling. I’ve always been a person who embraced change, even sought it out. There’s a never-ending list of new things to see, do and learn in the world. Always new mountains to climb. But these past couple of weeks has been nice. Heading out into the unknown is exciting, but sometimes, just sometimes, taking a moment to touch where you come from is important too. And I think I’m happy I’m still not quite a permanent member at the adult table.

 

In Thru the Out Door

We are less than a week from our 6 month anniversary of moving to Valencia. In that time, we’ve learned how to navigate public transport. Which super markets and restaurants we like. How holidays are celebrated and that fireworks will be our constant companion. We have started to understand how the bureaucracy works and when we need the help of others and when we don’t. We are expert. We know it all.

And then we spent the weekend getting schooled – again. Sure, we’ve been to the movies before. We can see movies in English at the local Yelmo cines. They have the look and feel of US movie theaters – thinking Lincoln Square in Bellevue, WA. And they even have Oscar Meyer hot dogs and movie popcorn. So it’s a complete experience, sort of, from home.

On Saturday, we walked up to the Yelmo that’s about a mile and half through the park from our apartment. We purchased the tickets to the ‘VOSE’ showing, which means the movie will be in the original language (English) with Spanish subtitles. And got our refreshments and climbed the lucite backlit stairs to the correct theater and sat down. The credits were running from the previous movie but we figured we would just wait with our two hot dogs, two drinks and a large popcorn for a whole 13 euros. But it was not to be.

The cleaner came in and started shouting at us. We were mid bite and had no idea what she was talking about. I find that when I’m shouted at, even in English, I struggle to comprehend what the hell is going on. But in Spanish? I’m completely lost. She could have been shouting my name over and over and I wouldn’t have understood a word. Jeff tried to reason with her. He gave her our tickets and she studied them like the Magna Carta. Then she hand them back, pointed out the door with more shouting and shook her broom at us.

‘I think we’re not supposed to be in here when she’s cleaning.’ I said to Jeff, after reading her angry face and threatening mimery with her broom. So we got up with our arms full of food and drink and left the theater. She followed us out. More shouting ensued and more broom waving. She practically pushed us down the stairs and kept pointing to the other side of the elevators in the lobby. We toddled over there like brainless idiots. We had no idea why.

On the other side of the lobby, unseen from the place where you purchase tickets and get your refreshments, is another set of stairs where there is a person who tells you that you can go up the stairs. There are monitors that say that a movie theater is open or if you must ‘Espera’. Or wait. So we went up to the guy with our tickets and he tore them and told us we could go up the stairs. We did, walking back to the theatre we were at one minute before. The cleaner lady looked at our torn tickets and said ‘bien.’  We went in to our assigned seats and sat down again. Our eyes were rolling in our heads.

The movie started. We were seeing ‘Alpha’. It’s a movie about a prehistoric clan who leaves a member behind after a buffalo hunt. It opened with Morgan Freeman’s deep voice – in English – telling us about life and the world, 20,000 years ago in Europe. Check! Time for a handful of popcorn. I expected Morgan Freeman and other English speaking actors because it was a North American film shot in Alberta, Canada. Sure, there might be some ‘Aboots’ and other Canadian ways of pronouncing ‘Aluminium’, but I would know what they were saying. Yeah, no.

The tribe in the film spoke only in a language that I’ve never heard. And the subtitles? They were in Spanish. Only Morgan Freeman’s melodious voice in the first and last 60 seconds of the film were in my native tongue. The rest was in a language that resembled languages of the people of the many tribes of North American, but was actually a made up language by a linguist from the University of British Columbia. This was not in the course description (I mean movie description) online. While interesting, I’m struggling with Spanish most days. We had come to the movies for mindless entertainment, and we got a job.

As we left the theatre, Jeff expressed surprise at language deal.

‘Well, I guess the good news is, I’m fluent in movie Spanish now, after reading it for 2 hours straight. But I did struggle a bit with the exact translation from made-up cave man.’

We walked home in the dark discussing the film . Mostly envious of the cold Canadian weather we saw and the fact that the main character was lucky he got to wear a coat.

On Sunday, we got up bright and early and walked down to the beach. The weather was perfect and the sun was out but the breeze was cool. The traffic on the main promenade was way down from peak season crowds. We chose a cafe and sat down.

I ordered a coffee and was promptly told that I was sitting at the wrong table. ‘ Coffee only there.’ The table he was pointing at was literally 2 feet away. So I lifted myself out of my chair and took one step and plopped myself into the chair next to me. The waiter walked the two feet, wiped down the table and asked me what he could get me.

‘Remember me? Una cafe con leche.’ I said.

‘Vale’ he said, as though we hadn’t just spoken 7 seconds before, and went away to get it. Ridiculous.

We finished the coffee. Jeff suggested we stick to what we know.

‘Let’s go out to Shopping City and knock a few things off our list before we fly to the US.’

I agreed and we got a taxi. We were half way to where IKEA is located in Alfafar, and I remembered it’s Sunday. I mentioned it to the driver and he said ‘No stores are open out there on Sunday.’ He had been wondering why ‘tourists wanted to go there’. Ugh.

So we had him drop us off at the Centro Commercial at El Saler. They have a Hyper Carrefour there and I thought perhaps we might have some luck in finding what we were looking for. We walked through their doors and there, like a beacon to school kids everywhere, were all the school supplies Emile and I had been searching for in the first part of August. The rows and rows of them looked just like the displays in every Fred Meyer or Target in the US.

We browsed a bit, but my heart wasn’t in it. I felt like something has been off for weeks now but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

‘I think we need to go home and pull the covers over our heads.’ I told him. ‘Something must be in retrograde because we seem to be missing something at every turn. It’s like I’m either too early or too late. Or just plaim clueless.’

So we did that. We sat and watched some Ray Donovan on Netflix and ate ice cream. Which everyone knows is the cure for almost everything. And since Mercury IS in retrograde, I’m not responsible for any of this.

 

 

Getting to Normal

‘August is the loneliest month that you’ll ever do’. Ok, I know there are too many syllables but it’s still true. Not because there are not people in the city. It’s because all our neighbors fled somewhere else. The streets have been clogged with tourists and students from other places. And most of our regulars were away, and our favorite haunts were closed with paper signs that said when they would be returning at the end of August or the first part of September.

This all took us a bit by surprise. Probably because, in the past, we were the tourists in August. We didn’t know that the people we were seeing weren’t from whatever place we were standing in, snapping photos and basking in the ‘real culture’ of the place. We didn’t need to purchase a bike tire or a printer cartridge while on vacation. We had no idea. Now we do and Jeff’s assessment?  ‘August is lonely’.

He’s been grouchy all month. This isn’t open, and that place isn’t open. Ugh! You’d think he can barely find food to eat in this city. Friday Market in Benimachlet is a shadow of its former self. The few vendors who are there have scant inventory. It’s not fun to even go browse. And my browsing buddy is in school in the US:/

Even in Emilie’s last week, when we were lunching and suppering at her favorite places, Google wasn’t up-to-date on the fact that while it said a place had regular hours, ‘ regular hours’ in August are NO hours at all. After walking all the way to her favorite Moroccan place (a couple of miles) we discovered this little tidbit. She wasn’t able to enjoy the little clay pot with the saffron chicken she loves so much.

But things are starting to change. Yesterday, I heard our opera-singing neighbor! Jeff came into the living room from the kitchen to let me know – as though I was deaf and unable to hear him belting out something from Madam Butterfly.

‘Do you hear him?!’  he told me smiling. ‘He’s back!’

I wanted to laugh, since he had complained about the man’s afternoon serenades just a few months ago. And the little boys whose bedroom shares a wall with my office are back too. We can hear them screaming and killing each other on the other side of the wall several times a day. Jeff smiles about that too.

I knew he was having a hard time the other day, when he stood looking out our 7th floor window down at the sidewalk.

‘I haven’t seen Perkins in weeks. I hope he’s OK.’ he said wistfully in a melancholy tone. He was referring to a dog that looks like the twin of the Golden Retriever we had in Seattle (Mr. Perkins) when the kids were growing up. He died of cancer in 2013 and we’ve missed him ever since. Jeff spotted his look alike the first week we were here, back in March, and has followed his exploits from his lofty perch ever since. Once, we saw one of his owners walking him when we were coming home from dinner. Jeff was shy to pet him but he was so happy to see him up close.

Last evening, I was sitting in the living room writing. Jeff stood at the window looking down on the street.

‘Traffic’s picking up.’ He said hopefully. ‘I think people are starting to come back. You can tell by the cars that are parking alot closer together. They need to make space.’

I smiled knowing he is willing things to return to ‘normal’ – whatever that is. And then it happened.

‘There he is! Come see. Perkins is back!’.

I got up and went to the window, and sure enough, there he was. Our fake dog happily trotting down the street with a ball in his mouth.

‘I think the owner’s been out of town like everyone else. I was a little worried there for awhile.’ he said, totally serious.

I had no idea this was even on his mind. But he’s right. Today I can see traffic has picked up. Our building is busier in the lobby now and more of the cafes and shops are starting to open up again. My salon reopens next week – and just in time. I’m feel a little shaggy these days.

We head back to the US in a couple of weeks. We were so looking forward to spending September in the Northwest. But now, I think it will be harder to be away. Now that our new normal is getting back to normal.

¡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.

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.

Fiesta de la Ceramica

Last night, I decided I would take a break from Espanol and do something fun with friends from Ireland and Spain. They had told me about Manises before, and Jeff and I had gone there on a Sunday for one of our ‘Metro Roulette’ outings (more on those later). But like everything in Spain, never go to a new town on a Sunday to learn more about it. Nothing will be open and it will be a ghost town except for a few restaurants around Sunday lunch.

So I was at a loss as to why they thought this place so special. Last night, I found out why. In July every year, Manises hosts the Fiesta de la Ceramica. Manises is one of the most well known hand painted ceramic producers in Spain. Sure, Valencia is known world-wide for ceramics in general. We have many museums and schools that teach it. I’m looking to take classes myself. But Manises is the pinnacle of artistry when it comes to all those beautiful tiles around doorways and the bowls and dishes that make eating already scrumptious food, just that much better.

They’ve been making ceramics in Manises since the Middle Ages when the Moors were still ruling most of Spain. In the museum in the town, you can see representations from every period. But even if you choose to skip the museum and walk the town, you’ll see it in doorways, parks, benches, EVERYWHERE. And it’s gorgeous.

And on the Wednesday night during the festival, every year, they have a parade. Wait! Oh yeah, this is Spain. And not just any parade, but the Cavalcade de Ceramica. Now, a cavalcade might seem overstated but it’s not. Because this parade is unlike any other. Sure, they have the bands and the effigies. They have the dancers. But at this parade they have truck after truck handing out, dropping, tossing ceramics to those in the crowd. And it’s lovely stuff and it creates a feeding frenzy like feeding sharks at the Oceanographic. And it turns out I’m not immune to it myself.

So I met my friends at the train station. I had totally overestimated the amount of time it would take me to get there. Like most things in Valencia, they’re 20 minutes away. So I took some photos and waited. Finally, we made our way to the parade route and found a cafe where a grouchy owner allowed us to take over two tables on street. I had no idea what was going on but it became apparent this would be our base of operations. We ordered wine to lubricate our ceramic-getting muscles and then we heard the music and saw the flashing lights. It was starting.

We watched from the sidelines and saw the usual suspects of any Spanish parade. And then the trucks came and it was all out WAR! People climbing over each other for the best stuff. Those handing out the ceramics were in complete charge of who got what. They were drunk with power – even the little kids – I’ve seen it before at elementary school field days and free t-shirts. But that stopped no one.

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I lost track of my friends, as you do when it’s every man for himself. Luckily, I had brought a backpack and I began stuff it with ceramics. Pretty, ugly, practical, completely impractical? None of that mattered. It was like a sample sale – You don’t EVER hesitate. You just take home what they have!

My back pack was full so I looked around like any good improvising MacGyver would, and I saw a box and some stuffing that someone in one of the trucks had thrown over. I grabbed that and began filling it with more items as they came to me. OK, perhaps ‘came to me’ is not really the accurate term. Perhaps it was more like ‘Ceramics I procured after crawling over other people and small children.’ I did say it was a feeding frenzy.

At one point, another woman and I grabbed the same three dishes at the same time. The person on the truck had all three in her hand and I’m taller than most Spanish people so I went for them. A hand from the back of beyond reached out and grasped them seconds after me. I was a little surprised but undaunted. I looked down at my competition with the incredibly long arms. ‘Who did this person think she was dealing with? I’ve fought the sample sale wars in NY. These three dishes are mine!’

But then I looked into her eyes. She was determined but clearly a novice at guarding her loot. But then a voice said to me ‘Do you want to go to heaven?’. So I gave her one of my three dishes. I’m not a monster. But sadly, I felt no shame for crawling over children while free ceramics were being pitched from a truck on the street – hence the ‘perhaps not going to heaven’ part.

Sweaty and with a diminished capacity to carry, stuff or otherwise convey even one more piece of ceramics (they were in the pockets of my overalls at this point), I made my way back to my friends. They were gathered and sorting their bounty on the tables. My friend, Donna was amazed at how much I had gotten.

‘This is not the first time you’ve done something like this, I think.’ She eyed me suspiciously.

‘What do you mean? I’ve never knocked people down on the streets for free ceramics before.’ I said innocently, while appearing distracted with a woven bowl.

‘Hmph.’ Her eyes narrowed.

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But she’s right. It wasn’t my first rodeo in the social science experiments of free stuff and  crowded spaces. I found some more boxes to organize it all, and we had some tapas and more wine. I think our grouchy restaurant owner was impressed with my ceramic hauling technique, because I turned around in my chair and he had brought his two sons over to me. They were carrying more ceramics and they held them out for me to take. He stood behind them, proudly telling me they were his boys. I took the baskets from them and kissed them both on the cheeks. They turned red and he looked proud – I wondered how the heck I would get them home, But, of course, I found a way.

I was a little tired as the adrenalin left my body so I made my way home carrying my boxes and loaded back pack on the Metro. Jeff and Emilie were waiting for me when I got home with my loot. Neither surprised that we now owned two full sets of egg cups, when neither of them eats soft boiled eggs. But no matter.

I’m already developing my plan for next year. I’ll be better prepared, from the container perspective. And I told both Jeff and Emilie that their attendance will be mandatory since Jeff is tall with very long arms, and Emilie possesses the perfect temperament and attitude as the guard for our loot. Too bad it’s 364 days until the next Cavalcade de Ceramica, when we can do it all again!

Fiesta de la Sweat!

It’s been hot here. Really HOT! So hot that even going to the beach is a fools errand. You hardly see people out on the street. Spaniards aren’t stupid. Screw the siesta. The entire month of July and August deserve siesta. Just laying down and going into some sort of suspended animation – like a bear hibernating – except instead of a cave in winter its on the surface of del Sol.

Now I know heat. We spent two years in Arizona in the Valley of Death. Not Death Valley – a proper name – the Valley where Phoenix and Scottsdale sit where you’ll actually die if you go out at mid-day for more than about 10 minutes without shade. We used to do our daily walks in the summer there at midnight or before the sun rose in the morning. That was fraughts with animals that would like to kill you and eat you, on top of the heat cooking you from the pavement beneath you.

Here it’s just as bad right now – perhaps worse with the humidity. Yesterday I decided to take the Valensibi bike to my Spanish lesson. It’s on the North side of the city near the IMED (Four Seasons of Hospitals) so I have walked up that way many times. I know how far it is. But I was running a little late and thought I would use my GPS to pinpoint it and then ride so I wouldn’t get there after the other students. I’m having an intense group class with other Expats I know – just this week – so I didn’t want to be the last to arrive and recite my homework. That was a grave mistake.

I swear the route doubled itself since the last time I went out there. I rode and rode and rode some more. It was awful. I found the back side of the building and then went in search of where I could drop my bike off at a Valenbisi bike station. The closest one was like a mile away. OK – I rode over there and had to stop 2 times on the way to hydrate while cooking in the sun at lights.

Then I had to make my way back to the school and what did I see? Oh yes, the tram that runs blocks from my house in Benimaclet runs right in front of the school. WHAT!?! Other students were getting off looking refreshed from their air conditioned ride, hopping into the school to greet the receptionist. I was like a melting popsicle who just flowed through the door and left a wet spot on the chair. They all looked at me like I was crazy – they actually told me I was crazy – for riding a bike in this weather.

I was telling a friend last night about it after coming home from the Mercadona having had to purchase a cooler from the El Chino next door to it before attempting to purchase ice cream. They don’t have A/C in their apartment and they’re dying. I told her I believe we are missing a festival here.

‘Fiesta de la Sweat’! Come on, it will be fun! I riffed some ideas last night but I’ve had time to mull it over and I think I’ve got the details worked out.

  • The Patron Saint of Fiesta de la Sweat would be San Sudor – He would be carried around in effigy having been carved from an iceberg brought in from our sister city in Northern Greenland. We don’t have a sister city in Northern Greenland, you say? Well we need to get one with all sense of urgency! It’s a festival, damn you!
  • Much like during Fallas when small innocent looking children would throw lit firecrackers under our feet as we walked down the street – under the complete supervision of their adult parents, I might add – in Fiesta de la Sweat, we would all throw water balloons and crushed ice on unsuspecting passersby off our balconies. Come on, it will be fun. And anyway, what are those people doing out on such a bloody hot day anyway. They deserve it. I mean, they deserve the refreshment. He He. And they’ll be dry by the next block anyway.
  • Chocolate would be banned during festival time. Children on the tram wouldn’t have melted chocolate covered hands and faces ready to wipe on you as they passed by to the only open seat when there are 20 elderly people standing with walkers and canes.
  • The official Fiesta de la Sweat drink would be Gin + Tonic, because as every sweaty Brit on holiday will tell you, it’s a restorative and it just works in every weather.
  • There would be no fireworks because no one wants to go outside to light them – Thank GOD and San Sudor for make that happen!
  • There would be the ‘Running of the Cubes’ where people would race each other in the street with large ice blocks over their heads while it melted down on them. They would sign up gladly as the winner is the one who can keep it aloft until it melts completely. Entrants would pay a fee of 100 euros just so they would have access to the ice. Nevermind having to run around with it down the street in the sun.
  • And finally, there is no Fiesta de la Sweat worth it salt (ha!) without a parade. This parade would only include people who I have actually seen, who don’t appear to sweat at all. Honestly, it’s like they don’t have sweat glands or something. Their faces aren’t red like mine, they aren’t fanning themselves, no sweaty bandana pulled out to dab their brow – NOTHING. In human, really. For the Fiesta de la Sweat parade, these people will march in colorful bathing costumes of their own creation (there will be judging). We will clap and wave at them from under our sweaty umbrellas or from our balconies. Then we’ll throw buckets of water on them or hook a hose up to the kitchen sink and spray them with water. They’ll love it!

Of course, I’m in the early stages of planning for next year’s Fiesta de la Sweat – I’ll keep you posted on the exact dates. Oh wait! Or you could just watch the temperature gauge. When it hits 35 – that’s opening ceremonies day. Mark you calendars in advance.

 

What if we ever needed…3/4 of an Inch

Hell froze over today. Well, since it’s so bloody hot and humid I sort of wish it actually did, but our stuff ARRIVED at 1pm today. It actually came with a phone call and three guys who could not have been nicer. I paid for their lunch afterwards. I’m not a person who has ever held a grudge. Don’t have time for it so all that nonsense was in my rear view mirror 30 seconds after the first dolly load crossed our door step.

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They found parking and unloaded in record time. As planned, we had them bring all the boxes and bikes up to our apartment and we put the sofa in our parking space in the garage. We needed to measure it before I schedule the crane service. I was on cloud nine watching them go back and forth. Emilie stayed down by the truck to make sure no one made off with any boxes while the guys were filling the lobby.

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Seeing our things again was like reconnecting with old friends. And unpacking was so much fun!  All my kitchen stuff that was of such interest to US Customs and Border control made it with only one glass pot lid that was shattered.  All my Le Creuset – check. More of my Crate and Barrel dishes – yup. All our flatware and my box of odds and ends kitchen stuff. My beloved Vitamix made it. Jeff checked the amperage (I don’t even pretend to understand it) and it works on the electricity here. We just have to take it to a local place to get the plug/cord swapped out.

My pans are here too! And our golf clubs and bikes. Jeff’s computer stuff and his keyboard that he’s been waiting for. All the tools for his first love – the motorcycle. We spent the day unpacking boxes and washing things. Our bedding from home – sheets and towels that we could have bought locally but we loved them too much to leave behind. Then there were the more sentimental things. The things that, when you surround yourself with them, make you feel like you’re truly home.

Our refrigerator magnet collection from trips we took as a family. Jeff always hated how junky it made it look in an open plan kitchen. I loved the reminder of all the things we did together. Tonight, I put them all on the fridge and he came home and smiled. Emilie and I had fun reminiscing about each one and telling funny stories about where they were purchased and some crazy thing that happened.

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The pictures came. Our wedding photo and some of the art that we had on the walls. Emilie unpacked the boxes in her room and it’s just about like it was in the US – only 5 times smaller. Her books, photos and all the small things that mean so much to her.

I unpacked the vacuum packed bags of our clothes and it seems we brought more than I remembered. I appears my ‘What if we ever…?’ philosophy might have gone a little too far. OK, if we ever go to Iceland again I have my Canada Goose parka and Jeff’s Mountain Hardwear parka. But living here I don’t think there will be a day that we’ll need either of those.

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My most egregious and embarrassing miscalculation was my discovery that I had 5 full boxes of shoes that were just for me. Luckily, Jeff had run an errand when I pulled them out of the pile in the dining room. Yeah, I knew I had a problem anyway but today it was in my face and before Jeff got home I needed to find somewhere for 5 boxes of shoes in El Compartimiento. But where to put them? The only place I had to spare was in the kitchen Gabinete and I knew the minute he got hungry I’d be ratted out. Emilie just shook her head but she wasn’t one to talk. She had 2 boxes of shoes for herself – OK, I’m a baaad influence.

So I started pulling out drawers and cabinets. I was sweating and panicked. What the hell was I going to do? I looked around and then I remembered we have drawers under the bed we bought. And those drawers are mostly covered by the duvet. I knew Jeff was barely using his closet so he wouldn’t even think about the drawers under the bed. Sure enough, they were empty. But as I placed my shoes, boots and sandals lovingly into their new, hidden home, I started counting and, well, I’m just ridiculous. Who needs 5 pairs of high suede boots here? I brought 3 pairs of rubber boots!  What was I thinking?

But that isn’t the capper. Tonight we went down to the garage after I was done unpacking the rest of the stuff and putting it away. I was feeling pretty proud of myself and my ability to cram things in every nook and hidden crannies. Organizing things for easy access later. Winter closet, stored. Yup, I was at the top of my organizational game. I hadn’t over packed afterall. I was a ‘just enough’ goddess.

I got into the elevator with a confident smug swagger that only a truly organized person pull off. Then we measured.

My beloved couch is 43 3/4 inches deep. I don’t care about the height because it passed that test. Our living room window is broken up into sections that are 43 inches. Not 44 inches – 43. And they can’t get any bigger, even if you take the windows out, because of the custom shutters that come down in tracks. So my couch won’t fit. So we went down and took all the wrapping from the move off and I actually talked to the couch.

‘Please couch – I know you’ve been through alot in the last 5 months but I need 3/4 of an inch – that’s all. Please give me 3/4 of an inch.’ I begged and pleaded.

Jeff measured again. I don’t think the couch was very forgiving after spending months in a container ship. It didn’t give up a millimeter. There will be no couch (at least not one from the US) inside El Compartimiento. With every victory, there is also defeat. I had gotten a little cocky with the shoes.

Tonight, Jeff is sporting his Keens, he’s smiling in a fresh pair of shorts and a shirt he hasn’t worn since February. That’s good enough for me.

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.