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!