6/25–Today was a day of travel and readjusting to a new place. After a week in Madrid, we packed up and drove to the northern coast, with a short detour to see the university town of Salamanca. The week in Madrid, filled with social gatherings, flew by, especially when I compare it to our stay before, which lasted a whole year. I wish I had more time. But we love the north, with its beautiful beaches, green mountains and wonderful cuisine, so here we are.
We are fortunate to once again stay in a house instead of a hotel. Our Madrid house exchange family owns a second apartment here in Santander so we have a nice place to stay. It is only about a 15-minute walk to the beach and shops. Our exchange family has relatives here too so we received a nice invitation to their house for dinner tomorrow night. These relatives actually stayed in our house for a few weeks in California the year we were in Madrid. In addition, we saw this family four years ago when we were here before and together in their apartment we watched Spain win the World Cup. That was a memorable night, with dancing and fireworks in the streets until 2 am. At that time, it seemed that everyone in Santander was flying a Spanish flag in their window. The people here said they’d never seen such patriotism.
Traveling with teenagers, ages 17 and 14, definitely has its challenges and we felt those quite intensely today. Teenagers have opinions, and lots of them. Today, for example, they both complained loudly about having to stop in Salamanca. The stop would add about two hours total to our travel time. Peter and I were interested in seeing Salamanca, which has the oldest university in Spain (established in the 13th century) and the biggest plaza. The boys, though, have little interest in historical sites, and preferred to just get to their destination. They protested and said they would just stay in the car during our stop, which of course was silly. Then, when we sat down to eat our lunch, they insisted they would just sit there while we explored the city. Of course they came with us in the end. As it turned out, we had a lovely lunch and we were able to see the main square, cathedral and university in a short time. We even found the famous astronaut everyone says you must see. It is a tiny astronaut carved into the cathedral facade by an enterprising stoneworker who helped renovate the building 20 years ago.
Our teenagers’ desire for wifi connections also drives a big part of our agenda. No sooner had we rolled our suitcases into our new house than the boys started searching for wifi. The house had no server so they tried to get on other servers in the area. When that didn’t work they begged us to buy the $10 a day service they found. We broke down (we wanted it too) and they spent the rest of the evening chatting with friends and watching videos. Exploring Santander would have to wait, but it was late anyway. Fortunately I had packed some Top Ramen in our suitcases so we had an instant dinner and didn’t have to go out.
We heard a little about Miguel’s party last night. He attended the school’s end-of-the-year party and saw many old friends. The funny part was that he didn’t recognize many of the kids. They have changed a lot in four years; most, though, remember him. He was the famous Californiano, the only one they’ve ever met. A lot of them last night asked him to say some things in English just so they could hear a real American accent. Evidently he was swarmed by girls, just like he was four years ago. His friend Gonzalo referred to the girls as “the mafia.” I’m sure Miguel didn’t mind the mafia too much–on the other hand it might have brought back bad memories. Four years ago a girl one grade older than Miguel became obsessed with him. She had an American stepmom and spoke some English so she could communicate with him easily. She pursued him every day on the playground, asking him to be her boyfriend. He kept saying no but got worn down. He didn’t really want a girlfriend but he did like having a friend who spoke English and she was cute. Finally he agreed to be her boyfriend. She monopolized all his time and we were worried he wasn’t making any other friends. Pretty soon we got reports from Miguel’s little brother Thomas that Miguel and his girlfriend were kissing under the stairs during lunch hour. I got more and more worried by the day about this blossoming romance of my almost 13-year-old. I’ll save the rest of the story for another day though. Now it’s late and my goal is to make it to bed before 2 am. One of these days we’ll get on the right time.
6/26–We woke up to sunny skies in Santander this morning. Evidently we were lucky. We thought it was always nice here but the locals tell us their are many gray, windy days. We are on the “green coast” of Spain after all, where it rains all year round. The terrain looks more like a mini Switzerland than what you would imagine as Spain. We took advantage of the warm weather to go to the beach, which was packed with people by the time we arrived around 1 p.m. The beach here has an elegant feel to it, as it’s lined with a long promenade dotted with restaurant terraces. At the far end of the beach are a few upscale hotels catering to both Spainards and other Europeans. Some cruise ships stop here, including a regular one from England, a 22-hour journey, according to the waiter who served us at lunch. “There are too many English here,” he grumbled. With the warm sun and the sound of the crashing waves, I entered a sort of beta state at the beach. I don’t remember the last time I’ve been so relaxed. After a few hours of sun, we moved to a restaurant terrace for a long comida. I had fried zuchinni for my primer plato and croquettas stuffed with fish and cheese for my segundo. All the lunch specials come with your choice of wine, beer or bottled water. I chose the wine. They also include a dessert, which is usually an ice cream, flan or piece of fresh fruit. I had an orange, which arrived on a little plate with a fork and a knife. I just peeled it with my hands.
Antonio and Remy, our exchange family’s relatives here, invited us for dinner at their place, which is a snug little townhouse close to the beach. If you live in a townhouse or single-family house here it is called a chalet. If you live in an apartment you refer to the building as an urbanizacion. Almost everyone here lives in an urbanizacion, even in small towns or suburbs. Space here is at a premium compared to the United States.
Remy had set a beautiful table for us, with pretty china and a lace tablecloth. Three plates of jamon, two plates of cheese and some bread lined the table. Plus there was a bottle of our favorite cava, Juve y Camps. Aproveche! The second course was bonita, tuna, in a mild tomato sace, followed by the famous Regma ice cream. Over dinner we talked about many things. Many Spainards are curious about the American presidential elections and want to know what we think of Hilary Clinton and Jeb Bush. They tell us a little about their political landscape, including the recent elections of many extreme leftist candidates, and the continuing saga of the Catalans who want independence from Spain. We also talk about the prevalance of guns in America and the recent shooting in South Carolina. They ask us if we know anyone who owns a gun. We don’t, but Peter points out that the average American owns several. That means that some people own none and some own a dozen or more. They gasp. As we start dessert Antonio and Remy’s 20-year-old son arrives. He is a beefy rugby player and has just arrived from practice. We are amazed as he quickly downs five pieces of tuna plus some jamon. We all laugh. Between our faltering Spanish and their rudimentary English we can communicate pretty well. We finally get up from the table around midnight.
Last time we were in this area we visited Los Picos de Europa, a set of jagged, picturesque peaks. We took a tram high up the mountainside, to the peak of Fuente De. Our trusty guidebook go-to, Rick Steves, said there was a marvelous hike down the mountain, so off we went. Unfortunately the hike took several hours longer than advertised. We barely made it back to our car by sunset, which is saying a lot as the sun sets here very late. To motivate the kids we pretended we were on the set of “Man Meets Wild.” Seeing a slimy slug on the ground Peter lifted it to his mouth: “And now, Peter will eat this live slug to increase his protein level.” We got a few annoyed laughs; we were all pretty fried the last hour or so. However, this hike became one of our favorite memories of our whole year in Spain and we were all a little sad we didn’t have the time to do it again this time.
6-27–Perhaps the only downside to doing a house exchange is having to close up the house at the end of a stay. After only two days in Santander it was time to leave, but we couldn’t just check out. We had to strip our sheets, clean up the kitchen, empty the garbage and turn off the gas. It’s a little extra work, but definitely worth the effort. By mid-morning we were off to the Basque region about two hours north of Santander.
We received some good news today. Last time we were in Spain we discovered that Peter’s family, whose roots are in the Basque country, has connections to the owners of a gourmet chocolate company. We didn’t have time to visit the company last time but it was high on our agenda as we planned this trip. A year ago some cousins of Peter visited the company and got a great tour of their chocolate museum and even met one of the owners, a very distant relation. Today we called the company and found out that we could get a tour of their museum (explaining the chocolate-making process) on Saturday and even better, the town where they are located would be celebrated their annual saint’s day. There would be a special market and local entertainment. We were very lucky to arrive on this day, the chocolate company representative told us.
Our other big accomplishment today was setting up our tent. At the end of our year here four years ago we left all our camping supplies in a friend’s garage. We weren’t really sure all of our stuff survived intact, but it did. We are camping in a beautiful campground, on some hills overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. You might pay hundreds of dollars for a hotel here at a spot like this but our nightly fee is about $30.
We got hooked on camping in Europe 20 years ago, before we had kids. Peter and I traveled through Europe for two months and camped to save money. We found it was a great way to travel. The campsites were well-kept and clean, many equipped with stores, restaurants, bathrooms and sometimes swimming pools. Most of the travelers were families from Europe and we felt safe leaving our stuff in our tent while we would spend the day sightseeing in nearby towns.
We’ll see how well we sleep on the ground tonight. I’m most worried about the fact that next door to us is a British family with two young and rather loud kids who went to bed at 7:30. Just our luck they’ll be up at 6 running around our tent. Ah well, at least we’ll be up into for tomorrow’s market.