Sounds and silence

Sound.  What does your house sound like? I can tell you what mine sounds like: a dog barking as he monitors the front window. A teenager chatting with friends over Skype as he shoots down an enemy in a videogame. Another teenager watching election news on CNN.  The occasional chirp of a cockatiel. A laundry machine swishing around. A dryer buzzing.

It’s amazing how we become so accustomed to the sounds around us. What might seem like a cacaphony of chaos to someone else is normal to me, even soothing. I’ve learned to work and play, read and write, with a variety of sounds. When any of them are taken away, it becomes unsettling.

Many years ago my beloved dog Susie died. I missed her companionship a lot but what I most noticed was how quiet the house was. There was no clicking of nails across the hardwood floor as she ran around. There was no barking when the mailman approached or someone rang the doorbell. The whole atmosphere of the house changed without her sounds. Several years later we got a new dog and it was interesting how quickly the house became full of dog sounds again. I welcomed it.

When I moved to Madrid for a year in 2011 I experienced big changes in my “soundscape” as well. Transitioning from suburban Northern California to urban Madrid meant I heard more horns honking but less birds chirping. Our apartment came with its own collection of beeps and buzzes. We quickly learned to tell the sound of the dishwasher cycle ending apart from the washing machine ending. The apartment walls weren’t thick. We could hear animated arguments in Spanish from our neighbors next door who had teenage children. (We once even heard plates smashing.) On the other side, we would hear an elderly couple’s cuckoo clock regularly sound. In the quiet of the night I would hear the elevator going up and down and wonder who in the building was out so late. On Sundays we could hear the shouts of the Ecuadorians and Columbians playing soccer on the sand lot down the street. I would say it took me a good month to get used to all those new sounds.

Some sounds are so engrained that they even show up in our dreams, years after we have encountered them. When I was growing up, I could often hear the fog horns on the San Francisco Bay at night. I don’t know why I noticed the fog horns more at night. Maybe there was more fog then? Maybe the horns stood out in the quiet of the night? In any case, one night in college, when I was living thousands of miles away from any fog horns, I stayed up late studying and fell into a half sleep. Suddenly I woke up, convenced I had heard a fog horn. Was it a dream or was there maybe a truck outside that reminded me of the sound? I’ll never know for sure but I was convinced I heard a fog horn.

I have to admit, pure silence is difficult for me. This week my kids both started after school sports teams and for the first time in many years neither of them is home or needs a ride anywhere after school. This means the house is quiet for several more hours than normal. It’s uncomfortable. I like the sounds of other people, even if we aren’t interacting. I find I turn the radio on more frequently. I know the NPR schedule like the back of my hand. Who knows, maybe I’ll even start listening to podcasts. On the other hand, silence could be good for me. It’s Lent after all, and maybe my discipline this Lent can be to embrace the silence.

Last night I attended our church’s Ash Wednesday service. The atmosphere was solemn and prayerful, with candles and soft music. Several times our pastor asked us to prostrate ourselves (kneel) on the floor. At the end of the service we received ashes on our forehead as we were told, “For dust you came and to dust you shall return, for God gives life.” It was and is a reminder that we owe our existence to God. He gives us life and allows us a short time on this earth to enjoy the wonders of living. I appreciated the quiet service to stop and ponder that thought and I look forward to more quiet this coming season.

Techno dreams and cell phone addictions

I had a dream last night that I was being attacked. I was in an airport restroom and four or  five tough-looking teenage girls surrounded me and started insulting me. I realized they wanted to hurt me. For what reason I don’t know. Just then, one of the girls took pity on me and lifted me up and carried me out of the bathroom. Somehow though, one of the girls managed to steal my purse on the way out and there was no way I was going to go back and get it. I strode down the airport corridor quickly to find my family. Feeling safe again I started to get angry. Someone needs to arrest those girls. What right did they have to threaten an innocent person? Soon though, I panicked. They had stolen my phone as well. That was the worst part of the whole thing. My phone was missing! Was the data saved? Would I ever get it back? Suddenly I woke up from the dream, wondering what would happen if I ever did lose my phone. That was worse than being threatened.

What does it say about me that my worst nightmare is losing my phone? Have I become too dependent on it? Only a few years ago I was a cell phone hold-out (hence the sign prohibiting cell phones which I placed in my house). Now, I can’t imagine life without my phone. Most people I know feel the same way. Is there any remedy for us who are addicted to devices? I think there is, but I’ll get to that later. First, a story about my friend Bruce.  

Recently my friend Bruce Wydick, a professor at the University of San Francisco, conducted an experiment with his college students in which he asked them to give up their phones for two weeks to show solidarity with the poor. For every student who gave up his or her phone a donor would give $50 to a non-profit organization working with the poor. Out of a room of 30 people, Bruce got about half to give up their phones. As you can imagine, the results were interesting. One student caved in after the first day and said he was going crazy without his phone. The rest of the group, including Bruce, lasted the two weeks and reported a mix of experiences. Some felt liberated without their phone and more engaged with real-life situations. Others felt more dependent on people and less “cluttered” in their thinking. Everyone seemed to miss the conveniences of their phone. One student, for example, had to make a collect call from a pay phone and found out that collect calls cost $25. Another student overslept without his cell phone’s alarm clock. Bruce got stuck in a bad traffic jam without the ability to use GPS.

While it’s certainly an admirable experiment to give up your phone for a period of time, most of us won’t do that willingly. Instead, I think we need to make an extra effort to spend time each day on low-tech hobbies, things that slow us down and make us appreciate life, like music or art. Maybe it’s been a while since you simply listened to music without also looking at your phone. When was the last time you leafed through an art book? We can also just observe our surroundings, wherever we are. For me on this January day, that means looking out my kitchen window and being dazzled by the white flowers on my ornamental pear tree. I take a moment to be thankful that I live in California and get to see a blossoming tree in the middle of winter! Out of another window I see my neighbor on top of his roof clearing leaves out of the gutter in anticipation of another storm. I’m thankful again for the abundant rain we’ve had so far this season. Slowing down our thinking means noticing our surroundings, appreciating the changing seasons and pausing between activities.

For a longer pause in the day you might try meditation, though in this age of constant communication that is a challenge. Sitting quietly without using a phone or other device is difficult. Another alternative is to engage your body while slowing down thoughts. I tried yoga for the first time last fall with a sense that I simply wanted to do something physical. Now I understand the popularity of yoga. You are in a room for an hour, concentrating simply on your breathing and following the instructions of the teacher to stretch your body this way or that. For that hour I am not thinking of worries or concerns or things to do. I can leave the outside world behind and enter a space that feels outside of time. I feel my muscles clench and tighten. I look forward to a particular pose. I wish we could skip another pose that is difficult. Am I getting better, more limber? Occasionally I get distracted by another person next to me, but then I come back to my own body and the teacher’s calm, soothing voice. Of course, my cell phone is turned off the whole time I am in yoga.

My kids are the first generation to grow up with smart phones as a staple of life. I wonder how life is different for them. I wonder if they notice everyday things in nature and the environment less. I wonder whether they would have given up their phones for two weeks if they had been in my friend Bruce’s lecture. Would they have simply replaced the phone with more time on their computers? Maybe the better experiment would be to go with no technology at all. Just about the only time that happens now is if we are on vacation in a remote place, which is very rare. Even last summer when we were camping, the campgrounds all had wi-fi.

I had another disturbing dream last night after the dream about losing my cell phone. (I guess it’s true you work out your anxieties in your dreams.) In this second dream my son, who is now 15, was a baby, and we were in a large modern art museum. I was holding him in my arms as we stood looking at a large room filled with undulating worm-like cylinders. The cylinders were lit from inside with flashing neon lights. My son got overstimulated by the lights and began to gag so I hurried away. Perhaps this was some kind of dreamlike warning to me to avoid technology? In any case, I’ll put my phone and my Ipad away a little earlier tonight and hope for better dreams.


The allure of TV in 2016


Watch more TV.  It sounds funny, but that’s my top resolution for the new year. I know most people want to watch less TV, but for me it would be quite an achievement to watch even one regular series. You see, I’ve resisted TV for so long that to even watch one series would be a big deal—and quite positive I think.

For one thing, I see that TV viewing brings a lot of pleasure to certain friends and family. They seem positively exuburant as they ask whether I’ve seen “House of Cards” or “Homeland.” (I always have to say no.) And then I watch them connect with someone who has seen their show and they relish the conversation, comparing notes on the various plots twists and character developments. I feel left out of a major part of routine social interactions.

I trace my TV aversion partly to the guilt I feel about having spent so many good hours of my childhood hooked on TV. Of course, I was like most kids of my era. Growing up in the 70s and 80s kids like me found their main source of entertainment in TV. After school I watched “Brady Bunch” reruns and other fluff. Within 30 seconds I could tell if I had already watched a particular Brady Bunch episode–but even if I’d seen it before, I’d watch it again. At night we watched “family” shows like “Eight is Enough” and “Little House on the Prairie” and comedies like “Golden Girls” and “Happy Days.” What innocent times those were! And maybe it wasn’t such a waste of time after all. Like TV viewing now, those times were social. I always watched TV with my brother or parents and we laughed a lot.

Later on, in the 90s, I became a big fan of  “Seinfeld” and watched every episode. I still remember the fun I had recounting episodes with my co-workers the following day. Sometime after that, however, I stopped watching TV altogether. I became busy with other activities, I went back to school, I traveled, I read more, and I had kids. Plus, there wasn’t a lot of good TV being produced. “Friends” just didn’t appeal to me.

They say that today TV is experiencing a golden age, with so many great series on Netflix, HBO and Showtime. The writing is great and acting is superb. I wouldn’t know. Instead I either spend my time reading a book or flying through the netherworld of the Internet. Somehow those activities feel more free. I can stop reading or surfing the web whenever I want whereas if I watch a show I’m commiting myself to something for an hour—or maybe many hours, as those who binge watch can attest to.

Maybe I can start this TV thing small. If an hour seems too long I can watch half a show each night. It’s easy enough to start and stop viewing on my Ipad. That should still leave plenty of time for other activities. Plus, I have the perfect show. That was a problem before. I didn’t want to watch a show about drug dealers (“Breaking Bad”) or scandal-ridden politicians (“Scandal”). But recently my son introduced me to “Newsroom,” a kind of updated and more sophisticated “Mary Tyler Moore.” It seems like the right amount of serious content, i.e. news, circa 2010, mixed with social manuevering among the staff. I’ve already watched three episodes, so I’m on my way.

I know that to really be successful about watching a TV series I have to make it a habit. In his book “The Power of Habit,” Charles Duhigg talks a lot about how to change or create certain habits. (Anyone thinking about new year’s resolutions should read Duhigg’s book.) He says that habits are best cultivated by establishing a set routine. For example, doing the same thing at the same time every day. In my case, I could watch my series at the same time every night after dinner. Duhigg also emphasizes the importance of linking a reward to a habit. My “reward” for watching my show might be to enjoy a cup of my favorite tea. This is already sounding appealing. Duhigg goes on to say that certain “keystone” habits have a domino effect in influencing other behavoirs. For example, someone who stops smoking is also likely to start eating better and exercising more. I can’t see that TV watching would provide more benefits than simply existential happiness, but who knows? Maybe the characters will influence me to try something new. Maybe I’ll change my mind about some issue. At the least I can sound intelligent when social conversations turn to TV. I know that books can change me, so I don’t doubt that TV will too. I’ll report back in 2017.


















The Power of Story–from Edgar Allen Poe to Nancy Drew

I sat cross-legged on the hard floor of the library, a chill running down my spine. It was nearly Halloween and the usually cheerful librarian had decided to give my eighth grade class a scare by reading us “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe. In case you don’t remember, in this gruesome story, a man is haunted by an older man’s pale blue eye and sets out to kill him. Every night the man peers in at the older man sleeping until one night he literally scares him to death and proceeds to dismember him and bury him under the floorboards of the room. Unfortunately, the old man’s heart keeps beating even under the floor. The police arrive at the scene, called by concerned neighbors who heard a scream, and the murderer at first remains calm because there is no evidence of the deed. (He has done the dismemberment in the bath tub.) But the sound of the beating heart overwhelms him with guilt and he admits that he has killed the old man.

I can still remember studying the floor of the library as I listened to this story. Was it really possible to bury someone under a floor and not leave a trace of evidence? Would a heart really keep beating? Could there be someone under this floor right now? I wanted to get out of the library fast and onto the sunny safety of the playground. I never again entered the library with a completely neutral mind.

If you are like me, you can probably remember times as a child when a particular story made an impact. Did you cry when Charlotte in “Charlotte’s Web” died? Were you sad and incredulous at the brutality of humanity after reading Anne Frank’s diary? Were you jealous but captivated, like I was, by the adventures of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys? As humans, we seem to be drawn to stories from childhood on. In her most recent book, researcher and storyteller Brene Brown says we are “wired for story.” She cites the work of neuroeconomist Paul Zack who says that “hearing a narrative with a beginning, middle, end causes our brains to release cortisol an oxitocina. These chemicals trigger the uniquely human abilities to connect, empathize and make meaning.”

It seems that now, more than ever, our lives are filled with stories. I find it interesting that my son will often ask a friend, “Have you seen my story?” He’s talking about his latest post on SnapChat, the app that teenagers favor over Facebook. Similarly, sites like Humans of New York let us read brief accounts about the lives of everyday people and their remarkable stories.

In the last few years I’ve become a fan of audio books. Thanks to technology that allows me to download books onto my phone, I can easily listen to books while I’m driving, walking my dog or waiting for an appointment. There is something powerful about listening to stories that makes the experience different from reading or watching them. A particular actor can only use his or her voice to convey the drama of the story. In some cases, an actor nails it. Sissy Spacek does a great job reading “To Kill a Mockingbird,” for example. Her soothing Southern accent works well in capturing the voices of Scout, Jem and Atticus. Likewise, the actress who read my version of “Wuthering Heights” (Patricia Routledge) perfectly captured the Yorkshire accents of Heathcliff, Cathy and the others in Emily Bronte’s classic. She was so good, in fact, that I could not understand her rendition of the thick brogue of one of the servants in the novel. I didn’t mind that though; I felt it was a realístic potrayal. On the other hand, Toni Morrison does an almost too good job of reading her novel “Beloved.” The story itself is already heavy, focusing on an escaped slave and her new life trying to escape the ghosts and violence of her past. But Morrison reads with such a breathy, slow and downcast tone that the story became utterly depressing. I had read the whole thing in college and liked it, even found it transformative, but I only made it about halfway through the audio version before deciding to find something more uplifting.

Of course, great literature, and all stories, aren’t just great entertainment or the source of emotional connection. Sometimes they have the power to change. About a year ago I listened to a book by a Catholic priest named Greg Boyle called “Tattoos on the Heart.” In this book Boyle recounts his decades spent working in innercity Los Angeles with hardened gang members. Boyle is a great storyteller and he tells story after story of the lives of inviduals he helped navigate away from the world of drugs and crime into a productive life working for his organization, Homeboy Industries. He treats each person with respect, love and care and they begin to believe in themselves with his friendship. Boyle doesn’t shy away from reality, however, He recounts how several gangmembers couldn’t escape the life they had once led and even though they had left their gang, they were shot and killed for their one-time association. There is no completely happy ending or simple solution to this book. Still, the book made a deep impression. I was amazed with Greg Boyle’s connection with his work. He perfectly fit his calling, much like Atticus Finch fit his as a lawyer and father. His compassion, perservance and creative solutions with people were extraordinary. It made me think about my own calling in life and what gives me joy. I realized, for one thing, the value of doing creative work, such as writing, and sharing ideas with others. Sometimes creative work seems superfluous (like creating art or writing a blog), but this book taught me it may be necessary.

I’m pondering what I’ll listen to next. A classic or a new book? Non-fiction or fiction? With Halloween around the corner, maybe it’s time to return to Poe. 

Meri’s final gift

I didn’t want to go to my friend Meri’s memorial. Meri was only 60 years old when she passed away and it didn’t seem fair. Until a short time ago, she had been full of life, enjoying her garden, spending time with her grandchildren and making yearly excursions to Hawaii with her husband. Then she got cancer—an inoperable type that affected her blood—and it spread quickly. The last time I had seen her she had lost a lot of weight and when I asked her what her prognosis was, she said she didn’t want to know. In fact, she only lived a  year after her initial diagnosis.

For me memorial services are always sad but at least when the person who passes is older, they make sense. Last year I attended two memorials for people in their 80s and although it was still a shock to lose them, we could celebrate their lives, knowing they had lived a long time. In Meri’s case I felt she had been dealt an unfair hand—going so soon and so quickly. I imagined her memorial would be a depressing affair.

I first met Meri 25 years ago when I visited the church I would later join. At the time the church still had a choir, outfitted in swishy blue robes, and Meri was the enthusiastic arm-waving and always smiling director. Later, when the church adopted guitars and drums, Meri continued leading worship. She had a beautiful soprano voice and loved teaching us new songs. Meri also worked in the church’s front office, cheerfully greeting everyone who walked in and genuinely concerned with each person’s life, whether it be the pastor, little kids or those down and out of luck. On top of this, Meri also was a preschool teacher at the church’s preschool for many years and she cared for both of my kids at various times.

Twenty-five years is a long time to know someone and my husband and I watched Meri go through the ups and downs of life. She and her husband Rusty had three adopted children of different racial backgrounds and when we met they were almost teenagers, struggling with teenage things. Not long after that Meri and Rusty went through a difficult divorce. They had to sell their house and move. Rusty left the church. Meri met her second husband, Michael, at the church and they decided to start their new life at a different church. We missed them greatly.

Given all this history I knew I should attend Meri’s service, at least out of a sense of loyalty and support. The invitation said we should dress in “aloha” attire, given Meri’s love of Hawaii. So a few days beforehand I scoured Macy’s end-of-summer sale rack and bought a bright pink shirt with flowers. My husband checked his closet to make sure his faded Hawaiian shirt was still there.

Apropos to the Hawaiian theme, the day of the memorial was one of those rare hot days in the Bay Area. The church was packed with colorfully dressed people fanning themselves with the program. I looked around the room and saw many familiar faces, some of whom I had not seen in 20 years. Instead of feeling sad, I felt happy to see old friends and looked forward to talking to them afterwards. Then the music began. A simple band with a singer, guitar placer, piano and drums played some familiar and unfamiliar songs. They sounded great, more like a professional recording group than an amateur church band. After a few songs the pastor got up. He told us that Meri had planned all the details of the service, including who would sing which songs, what her biography would say and who would read it (her daughter), and who would share memories of her life. Meri had even thought to include a hula dancer midway through the service, a nice touch. I began to realize that this service was Meri’s final gift to us. She had done what she always did best, which was to bring people together and celebrate music and life.

After the service was over, we were invited to a reception. You might be able to tell how much someone is loved by the quantity and quality of food. There was tons of food, including lots of fresh sushi. As I made my way through the food line an old friend, who I hadn’t seen for years, invited me to sit down next to her. “I really want to hear what’s going on with you,” she said, in exactly the style Meri had always used. We had a great conversation about kids, writing and spiritual life. We agreed to get together again to chat more. I talked with several more old friends and was so engaged that I lost track of time. I had the strange sensation that Meri should be here to participate in all this, but then again, she was here in a way, creating this atmosphere.

In the end, I felt enriched by Meri’s service. I felt like I wanted to live a more joyful life and follow Meri’s example of care for others. I will miss Meri but I realize her impact has not ended. 

Return to Spain–Day 22-24–Farewell to Spain

Barcelona and Madrid are Spain’s two largest cities, but they are quite different. Barcelona is a coastal city on the Mediterranean, while Madrid is in the middle of the country. Barcelona has a more international, multi-cultural vibe, being closer to the rest of Europe, while Madrid has a more traditional Spanish feel. In some ways the difference between Barcelona and Madrid is a little like the difference between L.A. and San Francisco. Yes, they both belong to the same country but they have very distinct cultures and lifestyles. Even their sports teams have a strong rivalry. Miguel and Peter are big Barca soccer fans and our Madrid friends can’t quite understand why. For them the Madrid teams–Real Madrid and Atletico–are far superior. 

We like both cities for different reasons and were glad we could spend some time in each place on this trip. Unfortunately, Barcelona has gotten more and more popular with tourists, which we discovered on our trip four years ago. A visit to the Sagrada Familia cathedral meant standing in a line that wrapped around the block and lasted several hours. This time, we didn’t have the time to visit famous cathedral or Guadi buildings but we saw friends and explored their little town of Premia, which was probably even better. We ended our short stay in Premia with a quick trip to the beach, and then got in the car for the long drive (about six hours) back to Madrid. 

We arrived in Madrid around 10 p.m. and fortunately the A/C was working since it was still in the 90s! Last time we did our house exchange we went on a trip and came back to a sweltering house. The A/C in the house is delivered through the floor. There are pipes running under the floors with either cool or hot water, depending on whether you want A/C or heat. The system works well, but it takes a day or two to kick in. This time we were smart enough to ask our house exchange family to turn on the A/C a couple of days ahead of our arrival. Phew!

Temperatures are not going down. After coming home Wednesday, we spent much of Thursday hunkered down in the cool house. Even Madrilenos say they’ve never seen such a long and intense heat wave. Peter managed to do a few errands, like wash the car, and fill out paperwork for his lost suitcase. Finally, at about 6 p.m. we went to our friend’s urbanizacion (apartment complex) for a dip in the pool. Many big apartment complexes have their own pools here and it functions as a community gathering place. During the summer people get off work and head for the pool to cool off and catch up with their neighbors. After a couple of hours at the pool with friends Javier and Angeles and their chidren, we all walked down the street for dinner at the Eiffel, a popular restaurant. We met up wth our other friends Manu and Paloma and their three children as well as Paloma’s parents. Paloma and her mother gave us two sweet gifts–a new edition of Don Quioxte that translates the classic story into modern-day Spanish, and a vacuum-sealed package of meats and beans to make cocido, a popular Madrid dish. Technically, you are not allowed to  bring meats into the United States, but it’s definitely worth the risk. Four years ago we packed vacuum-sealed packages of jamon in our suitcases and they got through customs. It’s almost impossible to buy jamon in the U.S. and when you can buy it it’s very expensive. A tiny package that might cost $5 in Spain would cost $25 in the U.S. and a whole leg that costs $100 in Spain costs $1,000 through a mail-order company in the U.S.! Talking with our friends we realized we missed a great opportunity to mail some jamon home–we should have included a dozen packages or even a whole leg in the box with the chairs we sent home a few weeks ago! There was plenty of extra room in that box. Now, we’ll have to be satisfied with cramming a few packages in our suitcase and hope customs doesn’t spot it. 

Both Peter and I felt melancholy on Friday. The end of a satisfying vacation is always hard. We decided to go to the city center in Madrid one more time and enjoy a few sights. We’ve seen most of the big museums, like the Prado, so we decided to visit a small one, focusing on Romanticism, a period of art in the 1800s. The museum was actually the furnished rooms of an old mansion in the now-trendy Cheuca neighborhood of Madrid. It’s always fascinating to see how rich people lived. Even though Spain’s golden age had ended by the 19th century, the family that lived in this house was extremely wealthy. Oil paintings, gold mirrors, velvet sofas and even fancy children’s toys (like a miniature horse carriage and dollhouses) fill the home. It reminded me a little of Madrid’s Royal Palace, which is the most well-preserved palace, in terrms of furniture and decor, in Europe. After the museum, we walked over to El Corte Ingles, Madrid’s fancy department store, and we felt like royalty ourselves as we enjoyed a drink on their 7th floor terrace, overlooking the city. The day could have ended then quite satisfactorily, but we had another dinner date with friends later on. We had convinced our friends to do an American-style potluck, where they brought the food and we supplied the house and drinks!

In a fitting end to our time in Madrid, our dinner guests didn’t arrive until 10. They brought lots of ham, an huge empanada, dried tuna and almonds, salad, pizza, cheese and crackers and dip. What kind of things do you talk about with friends from a different culture? For one thing, they were fascinated with Peter’s work as a financial planning workshop presenter for Ernst and Young. They wanted to know all about the topic of pensions and health care in the U.S. Evidently there is little variation in pension and health care plans here in Spain, unlike in the U.S. That was the serious side of the conversation. Then Peter mentioned that one of his clients is 3M, the company that makes Post-Its. We talked about Post-its and someone mentioned something about duct tape. It turns out that Spainards call duct tape “cinta americana” because in lots of American movies bad guys tape up their victims with duct tape! We laughed. We then explained what a duct was and debated about whether it had been called “duck” tape originally, given its water repellent qualities. 

Around 1 a.m. we had a few copas (after-dinner drinks, a necessity in Spain) and our little party broke up around 2 a.m. We all exchanged many besos and promised to keep in touch via Skype and what’s app. It’s hard to keep in touch with friends in Europe due to the time change–they are nine hours ahead of us. However, even if we don’t keep in touch often, we feel like we’ve strengthened these friendships for many years to come. We hope to see them in California one day, but it is a long way. Many Spainards make it as far as New York, but not California. In any case, we’ll be back again someday soon. Spain’s people, food and sights continue to fascinate us! It’s been a great trip. 

Returning to Spain–Day 16-18–Swiss castles, coincidences and camping

It’s funny how language works. Even when you know someone doesn’t speak your language, you keep talking to them in hopes that something will get through. And they do the same to you. Maybe just standing there without saying a thing is too awkward. This is the way our day started in a French boulangerie just outside of Geneva. In the end we successfully ordered juice, croissants, donuts and coffee but we got raspberries instead of strawberries. Oh well.

Now we are in Alps territory and it is stunning. Jagged green peaks and lush green trees. Grazing horses and cows. A-frame chalets. After an hour or so we reached Lake Geneva, which reminded us a little of Tahoe, but with water a striking aquamarine color. This must be due to the glacier melt-off. We traveled to the far side of the lake to visit the most famous castle in Switzerland, Chateau Chillon. Chillon was first built around the year 1,000 and was added onto many times over the years. It’s positioned strategically on a llitte island on the edge of the lake and its many towers seem to rise out of the water. The reason I wanted to see the castle was because of the literary connection. In the summer of 1816 the English poets Percy Shelley and Lord Byron visited here and were inspired to write several well-known pieces, one based on the gloomy castle dungeon. They stayed in a nearby village and created quite a stir with their bohemian lifestyle and support of “free love” and aethism. Shelley’s lover and soon-to-be wife, Mary, wrote “Frankenstein” during their stay. Supposedly Byron challenged the group to write ghost stories one stormy night and Mary, only 19, came up with her tale about a scientist who creates a being from various body parts. It’s still a classic today. And it’s certainly not a stretch of the imagination to see how one could be inspired by this landscape. For me it’s like all the breathtaking places I’ve seen all rolled into one.

It was only a couple of hours to travel from Geneva to our destination: Interlaken. Last time we were here we camped at a picturesque spot called Camping Hobby with a view of the majestic Jungfrau. This time we decided to stay at the campground next door with the same view but also with a pool: the temperatures were in the 90s and weren’t promising to come down anytime soon. The receptionist at our campground, Lazy Rancho, speaks fluent, almost accentless English as well as German and probably French and Spanish too. She was a model of Swiss efficiency, explaining the layout of the campground and all the possible excursions in the area so swiftly and concisely that we were left in a daze. Our main interest was in taking the train to the top of the Jungfrau, a spectacular two-hour journey that takes you right to the top of a glacier. We caught enough of her commentary to learn that if we caught the earliest train, at 6:50 a.m., tickets to the top were only 140 francs compared with 250 for the later trips. Plus we could avoid the crowds, though she did say they limit the number of tickets each day to 5,000 so we should purchase them one day ahead of time. We decided we’d take one day to relax and take the Jungfrau train our second day. 

Setting up a tent in 90+ degree heat is not much fun. Luckily we can do it pretty quickly and we were able to get a site partially in the shade. As usual our fellow campers were from all over Europe as well as the U.S., a fact easily learned by looking at the car license plates and listening to people talk. There were still many vacant sites since it’s not yet August here, when all the Europeans take their vacations.

The kids’ first question when we check in somewhere is, “What is the wifi password?”, not “Where is the pool?” or “Where is the ice cream?” During the trip Miguel has been in touch with lots of friends, some of whom are also traveling in Europe. Just by chance one of his friends from school, Max, happens to be traveling with the Berkeley High Jazz School and tonight they had a performance scheduled in a town 15 minutes away from our campground! We decided we must go. We thoroughly enjoyed the evening and this lucky coincidence. The concert was on the terrace of a hotel’s restaurant and we arrived early to get a good seat. The restaurant specialized in Indian food–at Swiss prices. We easily paid three times as much money for our dinner here as we would have back at home. It was worth it, though, to get such great entertainment after dinner. The Jazz School is well-known, with a long history, and is made up of young musicians not just from Berkeley High but from around the Bay Area. Max plays the bass. There were five trumpets, five saxophones, five trombones, a drum player, a pianist and a flute player. Thomas thought the music sounded messy and lacked a strong melody, which I thought was a pretty accurate description of jazz. In any case, we were mesmerized by their sound. We didn’t get back to the campground until 10:30 and by that time, unlike the Spanish campground, everyone was snug in their tents. It had finally cooled down a bit and we slept well, with the dramatic backdrop of the Jungfrau rising from the valley behind us. 

7-3 – 7-4–I thought the Swiss portion of our trip would include a lot of time for relaxing, but it has turned out to be the busiest part of the trip. There is just so much to do in Interlaken. That, combined with a lack of electrical outlets at the campground, made me miss a few days of blogging. Since I’m writing this as much for myself as for others to read, I’m motivated to record a few details of the last two days. Time seems to be flying by; it’s hard to believe two and a half weeks has passed so quickly. 

Perhaps the one thing I’ve noticed most about Switzerland this time is the number of tourists. There were a lot twenty years ago, but now there are even more. Many today are from China, which is a big change. I’ve never liked crowds much and being in a crowd certainly affects your experience of a place. It’s a little hard to feel the impact of natural beauty when there are dozens of other people around you. The beauty of Switzerland is certainly no secret.

Like most other tourists in Interlaken, we decided to take the train to the top of the Jungfrau. The Interlaken valley is dominated by three mountain peaks, capped by snow and glaciers all year-round. The highest of the peaks is the Jungfrau, at over 11,000 feet tall. You can ride a series of trains from the valley floor to the top, which takes about two hours and will set you back a minimum of $150. Twenty years ago Peter and I took the train to the top and it became one of our favorite memories; we’ve always wanted the kids to see this sight. In order to save money, we took the early train, which left at 7 a.m. The trip did not disappoint. Despite our worries that the Jungfrau glacier might have melted, it was still there. Just like before, the sensation of stepping out into freezing temperatures in the middle of summer was a bit surreal. And the ice tunnels filled with sculptures were still quite impressive. Now they’ve added a cute sculpture of the little squirrel from “Ice Age.” The scenery along the way looked almost too perfect, with lush green mountainsides and pictureque villages. One the way down we got off the train at the village of Gimmelwald to have lunch and we noticed a sign advertising paragliding. We had been watching paragliders descending from the mountain next to our campsite and thought it would be fun. As it turned out they only had two more open spots left for the afternoon. I didn’t have the nerve to try it and Miguel decided to generously give his spot to Dad. So it was Peter and Thomas, off to the ride of their lives! They and two guides caught a ride on a tram high above the village, then strapped themselves into a harness connected to a colorful parachute. They ran off the edge of a hill and caught a thermal that took them up, up and away! Miguel and I waited at the landing spot and saw them descend about an hour later. They both had big smiles on their faces.

Another must-see in Interlaken is the Trummelbach Falls. It is the spot where all three glaciers drain into the valley below. 20,000 liters of water per minute flow through this area. The amazing part is that you can walk right next to the falls–there is a walkway carved through the hillside that takes you. The cold spray was refreshing. We climbed so many stairs that my legs ached for a couple of days after this. 

I hadn’t remembered the food being anything special in Switzerland, but we had some very good meals. Of course we ordered fondue one day and it was quite tasty. Another day we had maybe the best meal of our trip. We each ordered something different. i had raclette, which is a local cheese melted on a skillet with tomatoes, boiled potatoes, and pickles. Thomas had a fried onion-potato dish with bacon and cheese. Miguel had a delicious roasted chicken and Peter had potatoes and sausage. Two nights we ate pasta at our campground to save a little money and dined al fresco at our little camping table and chairs.

In between our excursions we did laundry at the campground, swam in the pool, took a stroll down the little lane behind us that led to a horse pasture, tasted chocolate bars, wrote postcards and read. Thomas is reading a mysterious book on his phone and won’t tell us the title. He says it’s “Harry Potter” but we suspect otherwise. Miguel is making a silly video of us to post on his Instagram site. 

We’re glad we made it back to Switzerland before there are even more tourists or melting glaciers. Peter had an interesting conversation with one of the paragliding guides. He said the glaciers have been receeding and the increase in runoff every spring has been a problem. They have had to create several dams around the villages in the valley so the water doesn’t destroy them. Tomorrow will be another travel day as we head across France back to Spain. We’ll see if we can make it in one day. 

Returning to Spain–Day 14 & 15–From Roman ruins to French rest stops

6-30–There’s nothing quite like French pastries. Andy met us at our hotel this morning and led us a few blocks away to the central square in Poitiers where we enjoyed croissants and other goodies with our cafe au lait. Afterwards we walked to the city market where Andy bought some fruit, nuts and cheese for our picnic later in the day. Andy told us the best part of living where he does means he rarely needs to use a car. His studio, the kids’ school and shopping are all a short walk away. After living here so long, Andy recognizes many people in town and stops to say bonjour. The day here was already very hot by noon so we agreed to rest a while and meet again at 4 to see more of the town. 

Poitiers is a picturesque town, filled with many important medieval churches and buildings. Many visitors from Denmark and Great Britian make excursions here and Andy used to lead tour groups for Elderhostel. The town actually dates back to Roman times when there was a large city wall (still partially intact) and a coliseum that held 30,000 people, second in size only to the one in Rome. One of the most important sights here is a low, round stone building that was used as a baptistry. It is the oldest Christian building in France. When the Romans converted to Christianity in the fourth century the bishop in Poitiers used this building to perform mass baptisms. Next door is the town cathedral, which boasts of some of the oldest stained glass in France and the oldest choir stalls. Andy flipped up one of the choir stall seats to see if there was anything unusual carved underneath. Apparently some rogue carvers sometimes added humorous touches in hidden spots. There was nothing though. A short distance away we visited the town museum, which housed many Roman artifacts that have been dug up during building projects. There were beautiful stone statues, delicate glass bowls, etchings and mosiac tile floors. It reminded me of seeing Pompeii many years ago, where the whole city froze in time when a volcano buried it. 

If I come back to France again for any longer period of time I’ll be sure to learn some French. It’s amazing how insecure you feel when you can’t communicate even basic things with people. Fortunately we had Andy to help us most of the time, but the few times he wasn’t around we ran into trouble. It seems like the average person here knows just about as much English as we do French. C’est la vie…

At 7:00 the temperature was still stifling. It seems we have entered a heat wave here. Ugh. After downing two bottles of Perrier at a little cafe while we listened to a a group of American high school students perform some jazz, we headed over to the city park for a picnic. Andy prepared a delicious salad with lettuce, tomato, cucumber, duck, radish and peanuts, tossed with a ginger-soy dressing. We also had fresh cantelope, bread, cheese, wine, bing cherries and ice cream bars for dessert. The kids played frisbee and badminton and we watched other kids frolicking in the fountain and a young couple kissing on the grass. 

Back in our hotel room, we luxuriated in the air conditioning and took cold showers. We listened to the world news for the first time in a week or so and heard about the big heat wave in Europe. Unfortunately the temperatures won’t go down any time soon. The other big story was the Greek debt crisis. Greece is a tiny country. The news reporter said China creates another Greece economically every 26 days! However, Greece is a powerful symbol of European culture. For Greece to leave the European Union would signal a real loss. Pretty soon Peter turned the channel to sports. He’s been away from sports for several weeks so he was pretty excited to watch the women’s World Cup, even though it started at 1 a.m. He stayed up until the game was over at 3. I fell asleep as I do most nights, with a book in my hand. 

7-1–Today was a travel day. We bade farewell to Andy and Poitiers (after more croissants for breakfast) and hit the road for a six-hour drive to Geneva. The first five hours of our trip consisted of the unremarkable, flat farm land of central France. The only sight that caught my attention were the rolls of hay in the fields, which reminded me of the haystack paintings by Van Gough. Finally during the last hour of the trip we crossed into mountainous terrains, with many tunnels and high passes. We were approaching the Alps. 

We made one stop at a gas station / restaurant and filled up on snacks, including our favorite Kinder chocolates. The European rest stops are quite nice, much cleaner and spifier than their American counterparts–with sleek architecture and full-service restaurants. I knew I was in France when I saw a full section in the store of mustards. I bought my dad a gift pack with three types. 

Twenty years ago Peter and I traveled through Europe in a small Renault car and enjoyed sights all the way from Amsterdam to Spain. One of our favorite places was Interlaken, a small town in the middle of two lakes in a Swiss valley. Interlaken is a perfect base camp from which to make many day trips. There are incredible hikes, cute Swiss villages, waterfalls and the famous Jungfrau glacier. In planning this trip, we decided the kids would love this place and taking them would be a good excuse to visit again. 

We couldn’t make it all the way to Interlaken from Poitiers, so we stopped for the night in a town near Geneva. Our hotel here looks like something from a Swiss postcard, with lots of natural wood, a sloping roof, but sigh, no chocolate on our pillows. We broke down and, gasp, went to a McDonald’s for dinner tonight…the kids had noticed one and were begging to go. Just like the rest stop, the McDonald’s was ultra-modern, clean and of course, tasted exactly like the ones at home. The only difference was that my burger was called a “California.” Tomorrow we will drive a short distance to see Chillon castle, where Mary Shelley wrote “Frankenstein” and then we’ll look for a campsite in Interlaken. 

Returning to Spain–Day 11 and 12–family roots and camping observations

6-27–My fears have been alleviated. Last night we all slept well in our first night in the tent and the kids next door didn’t wake us up too early. Thanks God for air mattresses! The weather here is perfect, with a slight breeze off the ocean, warm sun and no rain in sight.

We set off by about 10:30 for the small town of Tolosa, about a half hour inland, where we heard there were festivities and a family connection (I’ll explain that later). The town was packed with people. In addition to being a market day, as it was Saturday, today was the day of the jovenes (young people). All up and down the narrow streets were groups of kids dressed in matching T-shirts. Apparently these are clubs. There was a band playing in the old town square. We walked a little further and saw a surprising sight–people dressed like giants with scary faces were chasing young children and hitting them with a balloon-like bag. The bag made a huge popping sound on contact but it didn’t look like it hurt very much. Every time one of the giants would approach a group of kids, the kids would squeal with laughter and run away. We learned later that this is a tradition meant to “scare away” bad children from the village but now it continues as a form of entertainment. There were also large giants dressed as royalty and later on they danced through the streets spinning around. We couldn’t figure out how the people inside these enormous costumes could spin so well. More bands with drums and accordians flowed through the streets and people of all ages were enjoying free-flowing beer and vino. We wondered if the tables of beer in the main plaza were just for locals or for everyone. We weren’t brave enough to ask.

Around 1 p.m. we decided to take a little break from Tolosa and drive over the mountains to visit Peter’s ancestral village, Labeaga. We visited once 20 years ago and found that it was a tiny pueblo of about five houses and a few barking dogs. Probably it hadn’t changed much. The drive itself was a treat. The road was narrow, filled with switchbacks, and around every turn was a beautiful view of lush green forests and fields. We passed several fields of grazing horses and cows, everything looking like a postcard. At one point we came to a large plateau, probably created by some receeding glaciars thousands of years ago. Finally after about an hour and a half we descended into the town of Estella, which Peter and I stayed in 20 years ago, and we stopped to have lunch. We asked some old men in the bar if they knew where Labeaga was and they laughed: “It’s close to here,” they said, “as long as everyone hasn’t died yet.” Indeed, the town was only about five minutes away and still had the same five houses and barking dogs. We got out briefly to take a few requisite photos in front of the large sign with our last name. One man peered out of his house to examine us, but he didn’t approach us. His dog barked. Other than that the town was quiet and tranquil, surrounded by fields of softly blowing wheat. The closest large city is Pamplona, home of the famous running of the bulls but probably no one who visits Pamplona ever makes it this far. Twenty years ago we saw the running of the bulls and we even met some Labeagas. We weren’t sure exactly how they were related but they were definitely cousins of some sort.

Leaving Labeaga we headed back to Tolosa for a 6 p.m. tour of the Gorrotxategi chocolate museum. Sometime in the late 1700s Peter’s great-great-great-grandfather Jose Antiono Labeaga married into the family of the Gorrotxategis. Since the 1930s the Gorrotxategis have run a famous chocolate company with a store and museum in Tolosa. They sell their line of gourmet chocolates at upscale stores all over Spain. We enjoyed a nice tour of their museum, which had an assortment of old chocolate-making machines, and then sampled some delicious hot chocolate at their shop 

We discovered the Gorrotxategi connection four years ago when researching Peter’s roots. At that time we had only traced the family tree back to his great-great grandfather, Jose Vicente, and we knew he had been an important person in the little town of Urretxu, which is not too far from Tolosa. In fact, his portrait hangs in Urretxu’s town hall because after emigrating to the U.S. sometime in the 1800s, he sent money back to the town yearly to support a school for girls. Four years ago we saw all of Jose Vicente’s letters that accompanied his money, which are carefully archived in the town records. In the letters he recounts his life in the New World in beautiful flowing script. It was amazing to step back in time and see these intimate thoughts from a family member! The town archivist was thrilled to meet us and filled us in on all his knew about the Labeagas, including the connection with the Gorrotxategis. We promised the archivist we’d keep in touch and he would update us on any further discovories.

Our night ended with some tapas with Ana, a friend of our nephew Jake. Ana was Jake’s nanny for three months two years ago, and thanks to Facebook, we easily got in touch with her. We met Ana and her parents and had some delicious croquetas and a couple of cervezas–the end to a very full day.          .  
6-28–As I mentioned in an earlier post, campsites in Europe are outfitted with most modern conveniences, like stores, hot showers and restaurants. Most also have laundry facilities. Today we took advantage of the washing machines and did a few loads of laundry. They even had a drier, which most Europeans don’t own at home, and this sped up the process considerably. 

Campsites here are a real melting pot of European culture. There are many Danes, a lot of Spanairds of course, a few Brits and French, and a very few Americans. It’s interesting to walk through the campground and see the variety of tents and campers people use. Some have basic tents like us; others have elaborate RV setups with screened in rooms and sometimes a whole separate little structure for cooking. VW campervans are also very popular. There are a mixture of retirees, families and young backpackers. The day we arrived here was a Friday and the campground was especially full since it was a weekend. When I went to use the bathrrom Friday night it was packed with teenage girls fixing their hair and makeup to go out to town. As I write this now, on Sunday, the mood is much more subdued. Many have packed up to go home. 

We had a choice today between going to San Sebastian, where in the past we’ve had the best tapas in all of Spain, or to a new town we’ve never seen that was recommended by Peter’s cousin Linda. We decided to explore the new town, called Hondarribia. Hondarribia is on the coast right on the border of France and Spain. It is about 20 minutes north of our campground. Besides a beautiful harbor, it has a wall from Roman times and a well-preserved old section. We splurged on a big lunch at a restaurant overlooking the harbor, had some ice cream at an heladeria, and then strolled around the old section. I took a lot of pictures of the quaint, older houses, which looked like something out of a fairytale, and got a lot of grief from the boys. “Put away the camera Mom,” they said.

Back at the campsite, Peter and I took a walk from the campground, which is on a bluff overlooking the ocean, into the town of Zarautz. We got into town around 8:00, the time when many Spainards are out taking their evening stroll. It stays light here until 10:30 so evenings are long and relaxed. We passed by young people and old people, most speaking Basque. The Basque language has experienced somewhat of a resurgence in recent years, and it is the primary language taught in schools here. It is totally unrelated to Spanish or any other language in the world, though it does borrow some words from Spanish. Fortunately all Basque speakers also speak Spanish, so there’s no trouble communicating. We did learn two Basque words while we were here: hello is “caixo” and thank you is eskerrik asko. We had a late night dinner around 10, a huge racion of jamon and a tortilla de bacalao–a fitting last meal as we leave Spain tomorrow for a week in France and Switzerland.                   .

Returning to Spain–Day 8, 9 and 10–Santander beaches and onto Pais Vasco

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.