Barcelona in my heart

It was with a heavy heart that I learned this week of the terrorist attack in Barcelona. I have spent some of my happiest moments in Barcelona and feel a special affinity with the city. It’s a beautiful place and it’s frightening to think a horrible act of hate could take place even there.

In 1993 my husband and I spent five months living as students in Barcelona. A year earlier the city had hosted the summer Olympics and was standing tall, with a shiny new stadium and refurbished buildings and boulevards. We spent a lot of time on La Rambla, the street where the driver mowed down innocent people last week. La Rambla runs almost a mile from the waterfront through the city’s old Gothic quarter to the elegant 19th century Eixample neighborhood. It is the perfect place to poke in and out of old alleyways, shops and cafes.

Some people say the Catalans are snobbish and reserved. They are overly proud of their culture, history and language, distinct from the rest of Spain. We found a bit of that to be true, but mostly we found very gracious, welcoming people. A week into our stay we met a Catalan university student, Esther, who needed help studying for an upcoming English exam. We made a deal with her to exchange English conversation practice for guided tours of Barcelona. For several weeks, Esther showed us the sights, either walking, or sometimes riding in her tiny black car. We walked around the new stadium on Montjuïc and took a tram up to Tibidabo, where you can take in a breathtaking view of the city and the Mediterranean Sea. The city’s location next to the water and its many hills reminded me of San Francisco. I was far from home, but felt like I was in familiar surroundings.

Thankfully, Esther passed her English test. Even so, we continued meeting with her, though then we tried our best to speak in Spanish. Eventually, she invited us to her home, which she shared with her parents and three siblings. Soon, we became regular visitors. One memorable night Esther’s father, a gregarious man who worked as the principal of a nearby school, made us a delicious paella meal, preparing the dish on an outside grill in his back patio. After the meal, he asked, “Os gustaría una copa?” (Would you like a copa?) We had no idea what a copa was. “Claro que sí,” of course, we responded. As it turned out a copa is a drink and he proceeded to ply us with one after another after-dinner sipping liqueur, served in small shot glasses. It’s a good thing Esther drove us back home.

Back in our own apartment, we were treated just as well. We lived with a single woman, MaríVi, and her 19-year-old son, Alvaro, who sported long neon red hair. Although they were out much of the time, no doubt enjoying the full social life of many Spaniards, at home they enjoyed introducing us to Spanish soccer matches on TV, making me an unforgettable birthday dinner (squids in their own ink), and an occasional game of monopoly. Whenever Peter was winning, MaríVi laughed and told him he was “engañando.” It took me a while to figure out that meant cheating.

We’ve been back to Barcelona several times since our sojourn there so many years ago. In fact, we had hoped to live there for a year in 2010 but instead chose Madrid because Barcelona’s schools teach in Catalan, not Spanish, and we didn’t think our kids would want to learn Catalan. Indeed, the Catalan issue is controversial in Spain. Should such a small (geographic) area insist on speaking its own language instead of Spanish? During our short stay in Barcelona, we were forgiven for not speaking Catalan. But “if you are here more than a year, you must learn Catalan,” one man told us bluntly. Esther pretty much told us the same thing. I hesitate to argue. For a place that helped form Picasso as a young artist, produced the artists Gaudí and Miró, and continues to foster innovative fashion, food, ideas and art, maybe they have the right to speak however they want.

Through the years, we’ve kept in touch with our friends in Barcelona. Esther has taken her father’s place as principal of the school, has twins who attend the school, and lives in a beach town just outside of Barcelona. After a busy day at work, she likes to swim in the sea. She still drives a tiny car. Our landlord MaríVi still lives in the same apartment, a 10-minute walk from La Rambla. Alvaro is now a 30-something man with short brown hair and has a wife and a young son. The day after the terrorist attack, both Esther and her husband posted on Facebook that they “were safe.” I hope MaríVi and Alvaro are safe too.

Barcelona has changed a lot since we lived there. The streets are jammed with tourists in the summer time. There are more immigrants. No doubt there are growing pains. The Catalan independence movement has gotten stronger. And now, terrorism has left its ugly mark. It seems very few places in the world, even the places that hold special meaning to us—be it Paris, Nice or Barcelona—are untouched by the complexities of the modern world. I just pray that my friends there won’t lose their sense of joy and their impulse to extend kindness to strangers. I have a lot of confidence in the spirit and hope of Barcelonans to overcome. It seems that a city that once endured the repression of a fascist regime has incredible strength.

When we were preparing to leave Barcelona after our semester in 1993, Esther told us we must drink from the famous Canaletes fountain at the top of La Rambla. That would ensure we would return. She drove us in her little black car right to the fountain. It seemed to have worked, as we did return several times. And I do hope to return again, someday soon.

A family reunion in Guatemala: Part 2

As I explained in my last post, spending a week in the little town of Panyebar, Guatemala recently was a little like a family reunion. Our “family” of Mayan Partners supporters, ages 7 to 50+, joined a group of Guatemalans of all ages, and the results were lovely and heart-warming. Like any family though, there are complex dynamics at work and some situations feel so fluid and unresolved you can only let go and let God (hopefully) direct.

First, I’ll start with the heart-warming interactions. The kids in our group took no time at all to relate to the Guatemalan kids, despite language and cultural barriers. They played basketball and soccer and endless games of duck, duck, goose. They helped out when we painted the basketball court and made crafts with the preschoolers. I’ll never forget seeing my big 16-year-old TJ and his friend Sammy, also 16, sitting on the tiny preschool chairs helping the little kids draw animals. Between them, they came up with the Spanish words for rabbit, cow, and butterfly as they talked about the pictures. The little Guatemalan kids thought it was hilarious that Sammy had the same name as one of them. They kept repeating Sammy’s full name: “Samuel Heller, Samuel Heller…” and they laughed and laughed.

Another comical moment came when the middle school girls in the village decided to braid my boys’ hair. Starting the first day, the girls crafted intricate braids in the hair of the girls in our group. Then, the second day, they turned to the boys. Their hair was just long enough to pull into tiny braids. The very next day, TJ decided that if his hair was long enough for braids, he needed a haircut. He asked one of the villagers where to get a haircut and someone led him down the road to the one barber in town. He got the cheapest haircut of his life: $1.

One surprise was how easily my older son Miguel related to the preschool teachers we worked with, who were mostly my age. We had written to them before coming that Miguel wanted to interview them to make a documentary. But we weren’t sure if these women would open up to him. Would they want to talk on camera? How would they feel interacting with a young man? As it turned out, they were completely enthusiastic about the interviews. Miguel completed three long interviews on three consecutive afternoons and the women were open and honest, talking about their lives, hopes for the future and dreams for their children. Juana broke down in tears. Dominga told me how talking to Miguel felt like talking to her own son. I realized that for these women, who work long hours taking care of so many children, being able to express themselves as individuals was quite powerful. For Miguel, what impacted him most was their deep faith that God was good and taking care of them. (Miguel hopes to put together the film this fall.)

Beyond the laughter and joy, which dominated most of our interactions, there were other situations which reflect the complexities of rural Guatemala and our desire to be friends and not merely rich American cousins. The first day we arrived, after enjoying a festive parade and welcome ceremony, some of us climbed up to the newly completed third story of the middle school and enjoyed a breathtaking view of the village below, surrounded by lush mountains and fields. One of the teachers introduced herself. She was wearing a traditional colorful Guatemalan outfit with a feature some better-off women now sport—a smartphone tucked into her wide faja (belt). She quickly told us her dream was to live in America and work as a Spanish teacher. She is single and wants a better life for her daughter. She had tried twice to apply for a visa but had been turned down. She wondered if any of us had a WhatsApp account so she could write to us. I hesitated a bit, but gave her my address, wondering what I could really do for her. I wouldn’t want to cultivate false hopes. I have no idea how to apply for a visa, and even if she got one, I imagined making it in America would be pretty tough. Was it really worth it to leave this beautiful place? Then again, the job opportunities are so limited here, people are very poor and the village is isolated. The school is one of the only employers in town. I haven’t heard from her yet but maybe someday I will.

Another situation that left me somewhat confused happened with a former employee of the school, a woman named Flory. Flory had been a secretary at the school until a few years ago when our group and local leaders decided to implement a policy to eliminate nepotism, which had caused some problems. (Flory is the daughter-in-law of the head of the local committee that runs the school. Her husband Feric and some other teachers also had to leave the school because of the nepotism rule.) Our group reached out to Flory after she lost her job and asked her to make handicrafts for sale in the U.S. as a way to earn income. For two years, she and a group of other women made Christmas ornaments that we sold. We sent many e-mails back and forth to coordinate. Then, this year, I stopped hearing from Flory. My many e-mails went unanswered. What had happened?

Our second day in Panyebar, two of us went to Flory’s house but only found Feric, working hard behind a huge loom. It turned out that since losing his job at the school he turned to the only other industry in the village besides farming, which is weaving cloth. He said Flory was out but would be glad to speak to us and we arranged to meet with her the next day.

The next day came and Flory received us in a friendly way, but seemed a bit reserved (I later realized this was her personality). She was dressed in a purple hupil (blouse) with matching earrings and a traditional corte (skirt). I asked Flory whether she had gotten my e-mails and she simply said she hadn’t received them (she thought maybe they had been bloqueado–blocked). In any case, she now had a new address. I asked whether she still wanted to make ornaments and she told me a long story about how she now had a part-time job in another town teaching young people to make handicrafts. Finally, though, she said she would very much like to make the ornaments. I was glad to hear this but also felt unsatisfied about our communication. I had hoped for a better explanation. Why had she not written me with her new e-mail address? It’s never easy though to read people’s thoughts or motives, especially when another language and culture is involved.

The good news is, Flory and I are now in e-mail communication again. Even better, we had a subsequent good meeting in which took she me around the village to meet the women who make the ornaments. Most are young mothers, caring for small children. One spoke very little Spanish and Flory had to translate my Spanish to Quiche. As Flory and I walked between the houses, on little dirt paths, she told me of several other projects she’s involved in, such as teaching literacy classes in her home and setting up a handicraft center in Panyebar. It’s clear this is a woman with vision.

As I reflect more on my interactions with Flory and the other villagers, I realize that most of the people we met in Panyebar did, in fact, have vision. They have dreams and hopes for their lives. In that way, they are no different from us. Just how we Norteamericanos can help them in reaching those visions is an ongoing question. Thankfully, we don’t need to depend on ourselves for all the answers. Like the villagers, we have faith that God will provide and lead. More than anything, our work in Panyebar is a trust-building exercise–with each other and with God.

A family reunion in Guatemala

Seven days, 21 people, a small farming village in the highlands of Guatemala. It sounds like a mission trip, a service project or maybe some kind of trendy eco-tourism. As I reflect more on my recent travels to Guatemala however, the description that best fits the trip is family reunion. Although we did come with a few projects in mind, our stay in tiny Panyebar was remarkable mostly for the relationships we formed and renewed. There, among the lush fields of coffee beans and corn, we saw what can happen when you cultivate friendships over a long period of time.

Our first taste of friendship came when our two microbuses pulled up to the edge of town Monday morning. Suddenly a group of several dozen students filled the streets. Some were playing instruments and others were holding banners that read “Welcome brothers from California” in English, Spanish and Quiche, their native language. We got out of our buses and greeted the students, then marched behind them up the hill all the way to the school. There, on the school basketball court, they had planned a welcome ceremony for us complete with a traditional Guatemalan dance, a flag ceremony, songs and homemade gifts. A new charismatic young teacher, Abel, served as the master of ceremonies, narrating all the events on a portable PA system. His booming voice could be heard throughout the village.

We haven’t always received such an extravagant welcome in Panyebar. The first time my family went there, in 2008, we arrived with no fanfare at all. At that point, our group’s work in the village was rather new. We had just begun supporting the village’s new middle school a few years before. When our buses pulled up that year, I remember getting out and seeing just a few little kids hanging around. We climbed up the stairs to the school office and I met a teacher. I tried to talk with her a bit in my basic Spanish and sensed she was reluctant to engage. Was this a personality issue or was she unsure of our intentions and hesitant to open up to me?

That year we accomplished a significant project (building a bathroom for the school) and the villagers did warm up to us, but I did not establish a strong personal connection with anyone.

Fast-forward to this year again, and the landscape looks much different. In the intervening nine years various members of our group (officially a 501(c)(3) called Mayan Partners) have traveled to Panyebar many times. One year a couple from our group lived in the village for five months. As an organization we’ve gotten to know the personalities, quirks and lives of the people. Most of our resources have gone to the middle school, funding the teachers’ salaries. For the most part, the school has been a success. Whereas in the past very few kids went onto high school (for which students need to move to another city), now many kids go to high school and some even to college. This is significant in a place where most adults have only a second- or third-grade education.

Still, despite the improvements in education, the village lacks employment opportunities and most people make only a couple of dollars a day. A few years ago I got involved with a project to sell handmade Christmas ornaments in the U.S. as a way to help women supplement their income. For two years I worked with a woman named Flory, the daughter-in-law of a pastor in town. Then this year I added a second group made up of women who work at a preschool. One of my goals in traveling to Panyebar this year was to meet these women face to face and get to know them. I wasn’t sure how this would go. Would it be like the teacher I met nine years ago who was hesitant to share? Would our conversation feel natural or forced? And what had happened to Flory? For some reason she had not returned my e-mails for the past six months.

After our lovely welcome ceremony full of singing and dancing on Monday morning, I made my way down a little dirt path, through a cornfield, to the town preschool. I was eager to meet the teachers and see the 125 ornaments they had been working on for the past several months. I had the names of the women but really didn’t know much about them.

Like most of the buildings in Panyebar, the preschool is made of cinderblocks, wood slats and a sheet metal roof. It’s not modern in any way, though through donations from individuals and groups like World Vision, it has a surprising number of resources, like books and chairs and tables for the 55 kids who attend. Along one wall are small toothbrushes hanging from nails. The teachers try to cultivate good hygiene, which is a challenge in a place where most people never see a dentist and lose many of their permanent teeth by the time they are adults.

When I finally stepped into the preschool, several people from our group had already arrived ahead of me. They told me that the women had been eagerly asking about me. “Where is Allison?” they said. I entered the building and was surrounded by six women, all shorter than me, wearing traditional Guatemalan blouses and skirts. I met Rosario, who I had been e-mailing, as well as Juana, Dolores, Maria, Aracely and Dominga. They greeted me with big smiles and hugs. They had been working very hard on the ornaments and were so grateful for my help in giving them work and taking an interest in their crafts. It’s possible I had met some of these women nine years before, but this time, with our shared connection over their work, it was like meeting family. They seemed open, friendly and loving.

After our meeting, I announced to them that I’d brought crafts for their students. I had prepared the crafts as a measure of goodwill between us, not knowing they’d receive me so generously. Looking back, I didn’t really need to prepare the crafts to create good feelings, but it did provide a way for me and others in our group to get to know the preschoolers. They are a sweet bunch of kids who, like kids everywhere, love to draw, play and learn.

That day, after the craft session, and after most of the preschoolers had left, the teachers and I sat in the tiny little kid chairs and talked. They offered me a fresh mango, cut into long strips. I told them about my family and my life in California. So much time went by that they got worried I would miss the bus back down the mountain. But that’s OK, they joked, we would love for you to stay here tonight!

Then, one of the women’s daughters, a teenager named Lucia, offered to carry the duffel bag of ornaments back to the school where I would be catching the bus. She treated them like a precious possession. They represented hours of dedicated work. Along the way, Lucia told me the story of how she had been ill much of the past year but now, thanks to her family’s prayers, she had recovered. She promised to invite me to her house later that week.

It was a promising start to our week with the people of Panyebar. I’ll write more in my next post about tracking down Flory, who had made Christmas ornaments for two years but then stopped answering my e-mails. I’ll also try to distill a few other experiences from our “family reunion” in Panyebar.


What I want for Christmas


When I was a child, the month of December seemed to pass so slowly. I would count the days until Christmas and it seemed to take forever. I couldn’t wait until Christmas morning when my brother and I would get up early, rush to the Christmas tree and tear open the presents. What special gifts would be waiting there? In the picture above I am wearing overalls I got for Christmas when I was 10. I really wanted those overalls. I was serious about the overalls. I wore them every day for two weeks straight, right into January. It’s like that with kids and their favorite gifts.

These days the Christmas season rushes by. Thanksgiving is over and suddenly it’s Christmas season. Time to buy a tree. Time to decorate the house. Time to buy gifts. As an adult, there doesn’t seem to be time to fit in all the errands, shopping and preparations. In the background linger all the voices that tell you what you should be doing. Maybe this is the year you should write your Christmas letter early (if at all) or this is the year you should put up those Christmas lights languishing in the basement. So many shoulds can take the joy right out of the holiday. It’s a challenge to quiet the shoulds and live in the present moment.

That Christmas when I was 10 I had my first “boyfriend.” He was a cute strawberry blonde with freckles. A few weeks before Christmas break he gave my best friend a little folded up piece of paper for me. It said, “Will you go steady? Mike” Only a few of the cool kids were going steady so I was flattered. I wrote “yes” below the question and sent it back to him. I hardly knew him and we didn’t talk after our note exchange. Then Christmas break came and I forgot about him until one day he arrived at my door with a gift. I was so embarrassed when my mother told me there was a boy to see me that I refused to come to the door. He left the gift with my mother. I later opened the gift and it was a set of Snoopy stationery. I loved it and kept it for many years, unused in a drawer. After Christmas break I returned to school and saw Mike again. I don’t remember whether I thanked him for the gift, but I must have, considering I was always taught to thank people. One day a few weeks later it was rainy and we had to stay inside for lunch. The kids were restless. Pretty soon some of the kids decided to play truth or dare. To my horror, they dared Mike to kiss me. Not only did I not want to kiss Mike, I hated being the center of attention. Instinctively I ran under a table and hid. Everyone laughed. That was the end of our going steady.

With the small boyfriend drama behind me I could turn to my interests at the time, which included dressing up my miniature Schnauzer in old baby clothes and playing superballs with my friend Kim. I still have the album of photos I made of my dog in various outfits. I don’t have the shoebox of brightly colored superballs, but I trust some other kid somewhere is having fun with those. Kids generally have such simple interests and I take that as a lesson today. Yes, I do have adult responsibilities, but I can still savor simple things. In fact, in light of my responsibilities and the shoulds, I need to savor simple things. Simple things today can mean adding a little egg nog to my morning coffee or writing a little extra in my journal. At the top of my Christmas list is a “frother,” so I can froth milk to make foam for my coffee. Next is a new leather moleskin journal and some nice pencils. Simple pleasures to enjoy the moment.

Of course, what I really want for Christmas these days will not come as a present under the tree. It’s what most of us want—a happy family, good health, fulfilling projects—and perhaps a dash of adventure. One of my most memorable recent Christmases contained almost all of that in a comical way. All four of us, my husband and two sons, had driven out to Salt Lake City, Utah a few days after Christmas to celebrate the holidays with my brother and his family. We had a great time sitting around talking, watching movies and sledding on a nearby hill. The snow-covered Utah mountains were beautiful and a nice change of scenery from the Bay Area. For reasons I don’t remember, we left on New Year’s Eve to make the l2-hour drive back to Berkeley. We passed through the frozen Salt Flats and then crossed the desolate Utah/Nevada border where you can drive 50 to 100 miles without seeing a town. Just after speeding by Winnemucca, Nevada, the halfway point of our trip, our car began to making sputtering noises and losing power. Panicked, we pulled off to the side of the road and called AAA. Fortunately we were just miles outside of Winnemucca and a driver came fairly quickly. We were towed back to town and found out that our car’s timing belt had broken. The bad news was that, since this was a holiday, they wouldn’t be able to get the part for our car until January 2. We were effectively stuck in Winnemucca for three days! A little dejected, we checked into the Winnemucca Hotel, which boasted its own small casino and restaurant. We drove our loaner car around the town (which took about 2 minutes) and cheered a little when we saw there was actually a movie theater (playing the Muppet Movie) and a Basque restaurant. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all. As it turned out, we spent a very happy couple of days in Winnemucca. Besides our outing to the movie theater and Basque restaurant, we sat in our little hotel room watching bad TV shows, writing thank you notes on Winnemucca postcards and reading and rereading “Of Mice and Men,” which my son had in his backpack. It seemed that time had stopped.

I don’t know exactly what Christmas will bring this year but as long as I have loved ones near I expect it will be good. I just hope time will slow down enough to enjoy all the right moments.

PostScript: Last summer we stayed at the Winnemucca Hotel for a night on our way to a family reunion in Colorado. We reminisced about being stuck there a few years back. There was no time for a movie or a Basque meal but I have a feeling we’ll be back again.

Returning to Spain–Day 21–Que calor!

7-7–There’s no doubt about it–weather can greatly influence your travel experiences. Unforunately the ola de calor (heatwave) is not letting up anytime soon. As soon as I woke up at 10 this morning I was hot–and not looking forward to doing anything in the heat. Even going to the beach sounded almost unbearable. In the end we all opted to take the train into Barcelona where Miguel hoped to meet a few California friends who were also traveling. We struck out with the first friend–we never found her–and had five hours to kill before meeting the second friend, his high school Spanish teacher. What do you do with five hours to kill in Spain? First off, we had a long lunch in an air-conditioned restaurant. It was overpriced, since it was right off Las Ramblas, the main thoroughfare in the old quarter of Barcelona. Also, the drinks weren’t included in the menu of the day and Peter had a few words with the waiter about that. The paella was mediocre; not our best Spanish dining experiennce. After lunch we walked up and down Las Ramblas, observing other tourists and the schlocky keychains, name plates and caricatures for sale. I felt like I was at Fisherman’s Wharf. Pretty soon it was time for a drink and I ordered a glass of cava, which gave me a little boost of energy. Then we were off to another neighborhood to meet Miguel’s Spanish teacher. We walked through the Exiample section of town, and it was just as beautiful as ever, with elegant 19th century apartment buildings and wide boulevards. Poor Peter was just about dying from heat stroke at this point though, so we rested a bit in a park. Seeing Beatriz, the Spanish teacher, was a lot of fun for Miguel. She grew up in Venezuela but is spending the summer in Barcelona learning Catalan. I could tell she really liked Miguel and was happy to see him. He told me earlier this year that she would always call on him to read things in class because she liked his Spanish accent–acquired during the year in Madrid. Que guay!

The end of our day made up for the overheated beginning. We arrived back at Esther’s house in Premia around 7:30 and she had already prepared a big spread of dinner for later on–plates of jamon, sliced salami, sausage, cheese, bread, etc. Always a bundle of energy, Esther suggested we take a swim before dinner. We headed out to the beach, only two blocks away and took a quick dip in the Mediterranean. It was still hot and sunny at 8 pm! Refreshed, we came home and showered, then enjoyed a late-night dinner with Esther, her husband Frank and three of their children on their charming back patio. 

The Catalans are quite proud of their heritage and have strong opinions on many topics. Yesterday, while talking with Esther about Miguel’s college plans, I mentioned that Miguel might like to go to a Spanish-speaking country for a semester during university, maybe Spain or somewhere in South America. Esther responded with surprise. “Europe would be much better, don’t you think? The culture is much more similar for you. When we think of South America we just think of drugs and violence.” I told Esther that we’ve known many people who’ve had good experiences in South America, but she didn’t seem convinced. Probably it depends in large part on where you go. Today Beatriz, the Spanish teacher, said she no longer travels home to Venezuela because she is afraid of kidnappings. Her daughter is blond and fair-skinned, she said, and kidnappers might spot her and think she comes from a family with money. But Venezuela is one of the more problematic places, I think. Other countries, like Argentina and Peru, and more peaceful. It’s too bad that a few (well, maybe many) drug dealers have changed the image of a whole continent.  

On the subject of Catalan nationalism, Esther and Frank had a lot to say. Like many of their neighbors, they have a Catalan flag flying on their house. They support Catalan independence and plan to vote in support of it in a regional election this September. They are quite adamant that the Catalans, the most economically well-off people of Spain, unfairly “support” the rest of Spain. They explained that their tax dollars go to help poorer regions, like Extremadura, while the central government in Spain rarely invests in the infrastructure of Catalunya. Case in point is the fact that the first fast train in Spain was built to connect Madrid with Sevilla in the south, instead of the much more traveled route from Madrid to Barcelona. Peter tried to play devil’s advocate a bit and argued that some states of the U.S., like Texas and California, sometimes play with the idea of becoming an independent nation, but this is really a joke. Sure, Texas and California are big economies, but would they really support their own armies, currency, etc.? The beauty of the United States is that it is a union of very different cultures and places. Spain is the same, said Peter. Esther and Frank didn’t buy this argument. They said Catalunya was once an independent nation and it has a long history of its own apart from the rest of Spain, not to mention a different language. And the central government does not treat it fairly. In the end, Frank conceeded, the vote this September won’t be successful. Now there are many people from other parts of Spain living in Catalunya and they won’t support independence. 

Just as we wrapped up our talk about Catalunya, we heard fireworks overhead. It was midnight and the start of a five-day town celebration in honor of a long-ago battle with pirates. It seems every town in Spain has some kind of local celebration and we just happened to be here to see the beginning of this one. We wandered out on the streets to the local plaza, where we saw people dressed as giants (much like we had seen before in Tolosa) and a band of drummers. Tomorrow there will be a giant water battle in the streets, with children shooting water guns and others pouring buckets out of second-story windows. 
Viva Premia!

Returning to Spain–Days 19 and 20–Spain again!

7-5 – 7-6
We made it in one day from Switzerland all the way across southern France and then across the border to Spain! It feels so good to be back in Spain, where things feel familiar, we understand the menus and culture, and we can speak the language. We got very lucky on our hotel choice for tonight. We simply did a search of hotels in Figueres, where we wanted to stop, and picked one at random that had good ratings. When we arrived at 10:30 they still had rooms and the place was clean and with good A/C. At 11 we went out in search of a place still open for dinner and after striking out at two places we found one that was still open. Apparently 11 is even a bit late by Spanish standards. We had a typical Spanish dinner of jamon, patatas bravas, and croquetas.

This morning’s adventure was a visit to the Dali Museum, which was conveniently located a block from our hotel. Dali might be one of the only artists in the world with an ego big enough to design his own museum. It’s quirky and irreverant, just like his art. The central courtyard features a shiny black 1950s American car, on which a very large nude woman is standing. All the windows facing this courtyard have gold life-size sculptures of women, somewhat resembling the oscar awards. Many of Dali’s famous pieces are here, from paintings of melting clocks to the Mona Lisa with a mustache drawn on to take-offs of Velazquez’s Las Meninas. There were plenty of somewhat vulgar images of bodies doing things I don’t want to describe. You’ll have to visit yourself to find out.

As I write this we are now staying in the house of our good friend Esther, in a little town called Premia del Mar, 20 minutes north of Barcelona on the coast. We met Esther over 20 years ago when we spent a semester in Barcelona. Esther needed to practice English and we needed to practice Spanish, so we paired up and helped each other. We got to know Esther’s family and were graciously invited to their house several times for delicious meals, usually of paella cooked on their outside barbeque. Her dad, the principal of a school, was the paella chef, and he really enjoyed his food. After dinner he plied us with many “copas,” after-dinner drinks. Esther’s mother taught me to make a few Spanish dishes, including crema catalana, a dessert that is a lot like flan. Over the years we’ve kept in touch with Esther and we’ve seen here a few times in San Francisco and four years ago in Barcelona. Travel is doubly good when you can make personal connections. 

Getting to Esther’s was quite complicated. It’s only an hour or so from the Dali Museum in Figueres but her town is very compact, made up of narrow, one-way streets. Our GPS showed us where her house was, but it told us to go down a street that is for pedestrians only. We ended up circling through the city’s maze of streets many times, even backing up one time when we got stuck on a street that suddenly ended. We eventually found her house, which is a tall, narrow house of three stories built maybe 100 years ago when this was a fishing village. It has nice touches, like beautiful tile floors and a wooden staircase. There’s a pretty patio in back with an orange tree and several hydrangeas. 

Esther is now principal of the school where he father was principal. It is a beautiful school in one of Barcelona’s nicest neighborhoods. Four years ago when we lived in Spain we considered living in Barcelona and sending our kids to her school. The only problem was that all of the instruction is in Catalan. Esther told us this was not a big deal and our kids would learn both Catalan and Spanish. But we weren’t so sure a couple of monolingual Americans would be that adept. So we went to Madrid instead. It turned out to be a good decision, though it would have been fun to live in Barcelona. 

It’s just our luck that Europe is experiencing a big heat wave. Temperatures in Barcelona today were in the high 90s and it was impossible to do anything during the middle of the day. After a nice, leisurely lunch at a local restuarant, we relaxed at home with Esther’s kids and waited for her to come home from work. When she got home we went for a walk on the beach, a few blocks from her house, and saw Barcelona’s skyline in the distance. We noticed many Catalan independence flags flying in her neighborhood and wondered about the different designs. She told us it’s hard to explain…her husband Frank will tell us about it. Around 9:30 we ate dinner, a cold vichychoise soup and a stew of chicken and rabbit. The only other time I’ve eaten rabbit was in a paella in Valencia four years ago. Since we once had a pet rabbit, it is not easy for me to eat! At 11:00 we went out again for an icecream. Many other people were also still out, finally able to enjoy some lower, though not cool, temperatures.

Kids everywhere are the same. Esther’s kids are just as fond of their electronics as ours are. When we weren’t eating or strolling, all the kids had either an Ipad or phone in hand. By dinner they had all followed each other on Instagram. The world is so small! Our other common touchpoint was sports and Peter talked with them a bit about Barca and some of their players. Now it’s time to sleep. Thankfully Esther has given us one of the two rooms that have air conditioning.

Returning to Spain–Day 13–A French feast!

6-29–It’s hard to believe we’ve been traveling for 13 days now. Writing the blog has been enjoyable but also challenging in the last few days as we haven’t had very good wifi. I’ve had to post every two days instead of every day. But keeping the blog has been a great way to record our activities and thoughts. I recommend it to every traveler!

Today we pulled up stakes (literally), dismantled our campsite and headed for France. Our destination was Poitiers, a mid-size city about two hours south of Paris. Our goal was to visit Peter’s cousin Andy, who has lived in Poitiers for 25 years, since he was an exchange student here in college. He is married to a French woman and has two children, one in college in Paris and one who is Thomas’s age. He is an artist and also does translation work. 

The drive from Spain to Poitiers took us about five hours. Fortunately our exchange family’s car has a GPS, but it is 10 years old. We can’t always trust it. When we got into Poitiers it had us going down some one-way streets the wrong way. Eventually, we figured out how to get to our hotel and were pleasantly surprised at the size of the room and the fact that we had free wifi and A/C. This is the first hotel we’ve stayed in thus far and after sleeping on the ground for three days, the bed, with its puffy white down comforters, looked inviting.

Our hotel is only about a five-minute walk to Andy’s apartment. We strolled through the little cobblestone streets to join him for dinner. He treated us to a real French feast: first, some sardines and some bread with an olive tapenade spread and a pimiento spread. Then an assortment of brie, goat and hard cheeses. Next, two types of pate with pork. Normally I don’t like pate but both were very tasty. Finally we had a dessert of raspberry sorbet. All was enjoyed with liberal amounts of white and red wine. 

Andy’s apartment is tiny by American standards, but quite comfortable and cozy, filled with lots of art, books, CDs and cassette tapes. The best part is the little terrace overlooking the city park. The terrace is just big enough for a table for four and the kids sat out there while the adults sat around the dining room table. The whole family speaks English, which is a good thing as our French consists of about five words maximum! Peter and Andy enjoyed reminiscing on their past times growing up in California and we heard a little about French life, including the big exam Andy’s daughter just completed at the end of 9th grade. 

Returning to Spain–4 years later

It’s not often in life you get to go backwards and relive a certain moment in time. Usually when you are done with one phase, like living in a certain apartment or house, you are done and move on and never return. This week marks a special week for our family because we do get to relive (at least partially) an experience we had four years ago. Today we returned to the house in Madrid where we did a house exchange with another family. They have moved out of their house for a week so we can stay in it. We’ll do the same for them when they come to California later this summer. Needless to say, being back in the same place four years later is a bit surreal.

We knew we were really heading back to Spain before we even arrived. The Iberian ticket counter at LAX had about 10 people staffing it but only one actually checking in passengers. Typical Spanish efficiency. After a lengthy wait, we were off to our 9-hour flight. The flight was uneventful except that when we arrived we discovered one of our bags hadn’t made it. More efficiency at work! We happened to run into another Berkeley family we know on the flight and they also lost luggage. We’ll be lucky to get it tomorrow between siesta time and closing time.

On the plus side, the Spanish are extremely hospitable and just like before, our exchange family graciously picked us up from the airport in their large SUV. Driving from Barajas Airport to the house, on the other side of the city, we saw things looked very much the same. We circled the M-40 highway and saw the dry brown fields, like California, on one side, and the industrial buildings lining the edge of the city on the other. We passed Playa de Madrid, a large public swimming pool where we spent some time four years ago to get relief from the intense summer heat. We also noted that the city had finally finished a public park in front of our old building and had somehow managed to evict the squatters who had erected temporary houses there. The neighborhood is a nice middle-class area on the city Metro line with lots of parks, restaurants and stores so the squatters definitely did not fit in. What is still around is the graffiti, lots of it. But this seems to be standard in large European cities. 

Back in our old building our exchange family gave us a quick tour and explanation of the myriad keys, applicances and car. When we arrived four years ago we were completely overwhelmed by the systems of the house. At the time the family had just completed a remodel of their apartment and every appliance was a sleek European high-tech model with many buttons (such as a touchscreen-controlled stove), plus there was a security system (which we don’t have), a system for entering and exiting the garage (we just park in our driveway), and a radiant heating/cooling system controlled via a touchpad (we don’t even have an air conditioner in California). We spent about 45 minutes learning the ins and outs of the house. This time the lessons were quicker and hopefully everything will come back. I successfully turned on the stovetop the first time today whereas last time I had to practice for about a week! Last time we also learned that Spanish construction isn’t that great. Just in the first few months of our stay the heater went out, the upstairs shower leaked and some tiles cracked. By the end of our year we just laughed when something went wrong. It seemed apropos today when an overhead pipe in the garage suddenly started spurting water right over their car. Who knows what kind of water was in that pipe. In any case, our exchange family said “no pasa nada,” they know the building superintendent personally so it will get fixed. 

The most important item we were looking for on our arrival was the jamon serrano. Many Spanish families buy a whole leg of jamon and slowly carve off thin pieces nightly for small tapas. We went through two whole legs while we were here for the year and it’s a delicacy that is only available in the U.S. for a very steep price ($1,000 or more), so we were eager for our fix. Fortunately our exchange family anticipated our desires and had a jamon leg waiting for us!

After getting settled in at the apartment, the exchange family left to go to their family’s apartment and although it was only 6:30 our boys promptly fell asleep. It had been a long day with little sleep. Peter and I decided to venture out and take a stroll around the neighbhorhood. Much to our surprise given the economic crisis here, we spotted three new stores, a gorgeous meat market (lined with jamon legs), a fresh fish market, and a stationary store. Sadly, one favorite restaurant had closed. Lots of Spanish families were strolling around and many were enjoying cañas (beers) and tapas at sidewalk cafes. This is one of my favorite parts of Madrid–the street life. My hypothesis is that people socialize more in bars and cafes because they live in small apartments and want to get out. Or perhaps it’s because the weather is warm, even at night (so unlike Berkeley). Whatever the case, there’s always a lively street scene in the evenings, with all ages, from toddlers to teens to grandparents enjoying life together. Peter and I enjoyed some of our favorites tapas, patatas bravas (fried potatoes with a tomato sauce) and croquetas (little fried footballs filled with cheese) as we watched a toddler learning to walk and a variety of dogs come and go. 

As the day ends, I listen to the quiet hum of the apartment building–the sound of the elevator going up and down, a TV in a distant apartment, and the neighbor’s cuckoo clock. Although it’s after 12 there is much life still going on here. We are really back in España!