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!

From Miró to Hawking: Finding inspiration all around

What inspires you? We all have things that inspire us to create, dream, acheive and hope. Have you thought much about what brings you inspiration? Do you take the time to cultivate doing these things? This is a subject I think about from time to time as I seek inspiration as a writer and human being. In fact, as I write this I realize that just thinking about inspiring times brings me inspiration. It is a powerful emotion.

For many of us, great works of art inspire. There is something about seeing a beautiful painting or reading a well-constructed novel or listening to music that gives us the desire to craft our own art or at least feel a sense of well-being and hope. It is certainly very individual. I remember 20 years ago, on a trip to Barcelona, standing in the Miró museum and feeling an incredible sense of both peace and excitement. Here in this beautiful city was a museum filled with striking modernist paintings of bright blues, yellow and reds. The subjects were simple. “Woman and bird.” The canvases were large and filled with color and the museum itself was bright and cheerful. To someone else, Miró’s works might seem too abstract and simple or even silly, but for me the paintings were both elegant and whimsical. I felt buoyant as I passed through the halls and wondered if I could ever achieve such beauty. Sometimes I remember those paintings when I need a boost of creativity.

Often times we are inspired by someone’s personal story, especially if it is a story of overcoming the odds. Last year I read the autobiography of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and it’s no surprise it was on bestseller list. In the book, Sotomayor, the first Latina to join the court, recounts her journey from living in the projects in New York city with an alcoholic father and absent mother to attending Ivy League schools and eventually reaching the nation’s highest court. What helped Sotomayor succeed? Partly her success can be attributed to her natural intelligence and being in the right place at the right time, but what is really inspiring is her determination to follow her dream from a young age. She talks about first being inspired to be a lawyer while watching Perry Mason shows on TV and reading Nancy Drew. She worked hard in high school, joined the debate team and asked for help to learn to study better. She made it to Princeton and when that turned out to be tougher than she thought, she buckled down and spent summers with a professor improving her writing, learning new words and reading classics that she hadn’t read as a child. In short, she kept focused on her goals and never gave up. This is a story I remember as I work on my goal of speaking Spanish fluently. I’ve worked at it steadily for many years now and although I still have a lot to learn, I don’t get discouraged.

Like Sotomayor, it’s also no surprise that Stephen Hawking’s life made for such an engaging story in the recent film “The Theory of Everything.” In it we see him succeed despite his progressing disease. The most inspiring part of the film for me was towards the end, when Hawking is confined to a wheelchair and must use a computer to communicate. Despite his limitations, he doesn’t give up and continues to pursue his dream of finding one theory that can explain everything in the universe. In one key speech toward the end of the movie, he tells the audience that everyone has a special talent they can give the world. I thought about that scene a lot and what my special talent might be.

Stories that inspire don’t have to be from famous people, of course. I remember once being in a writing class that included a 40-year-old African-American man whose story was striking. Every week he came to class dressed impeccably in a suit and tie and carrying a briefcase, coming from his marketing job. He spoke with authority and conviction about many topics. As the class progressed, we learned that he had grown up poor, oftentimes homeless, moving with his mother and sister from relative’s homes to apartments to homeless shelters in innercity Los Angeles. One week he told us the story of how he had dreamed of going to Pepperdine University in Malibu. Pepperdine was about the farthest thing from his experience, being located on the hills facing the ocean in swanky Malibu. He applied to Pepperdine but didn’t get in. Undaunted, he made an appointment with the admissions department and he and his mother traveled to the school. Within an hour in the appointment he had convinced the admissions officer that he should get a place in the school and the school admitted him. It was a great story and made me realize that i would never have thought to argue my case with an admissions department. It was a bold move. I often remember it when I am faced with barriers in my own life.

Perhaps one of the best ways to be inspired is traveling. We get a chance to see, feel and taste how others live and even subtle differences in lifestyles can make an impression. J recently spent a week on the East Coast visiting colleges with my son. In Boston we stayed with friends who have a teenage daughter. They live in a old Colonial-style house with two tortoises and an iguana (they are allergic to cats and dogs). I’ve known this family for 25 years but have never stayed in their house before. For the first time, I got to see their habits (what time they got up in the morning, when they went to sleep), what they liked to do in their free time and the food they ate. I was impressed that both days we stayed with them, the couple made a point to go to the gym. It seems to be an activity they enjoy together. They came back from the gym looking refreshed instead of tired and it made me think maybe I should give going to the gym another try–or at least exercise more. One morning when they went to the gym their daughter Anna made beignets, donut-like fried pastries. She said she had learned about beignets on a trip to New Orleans and has made them ever since. I watched her carefully as she mixed the dough, rolled it out on a board and dropped each piece in sizzling oil. Meanwhile one of the tortoises walked by and found a warm spot to rest in the kitchen. Outside, the day was sunny but cold, with snow still covering the yard. Soon we had a big plate of steaming beignets sprinkled with powdered sugar and we had a wonderful conversation about her school, activities and family. At that moment I hoped I could demonstrate that kind of hospitality to my future guests.

The great thing about inspiring moments is that you can savor the memories and retell them. In sharing them their power expands to more people and to yourself. These stories can become like legends, shaping your worldview. The more we share, the more we can combat the negative stories in the world and the modern sense of malaise we sometimes feel as cogs in a big wheel. Personally, I need lots of inspiration to live well and I’m glad I live in a time when I have access to so many books, movies, news, museums and people. The next source of inspiration is just around the corner.

Bienvenidos a mi blog! (for English version see next post)

Hola a todos. Estoy entrando en el mundo salvaje de los blogs! Voy a publicarlos de vez en cuando y espero que disfrutéis mis pensamientos y descubrimientos. Para inaugurar este espacio, me gustaría publicar este haiku hermoso de comenzar de nuevo:

ganjitsu ya
harete suzume no

Día de Año Nuevo-
las nubes se han ido y los gorriones
están diciendo a cada uno de otros cuentos.

-Ransetsu (1653-1708)

A veces en la vida experimentamos coincidencias hermosas y uno de ellos es que mi buen amigo Leslie Wingender también puso en marcha un blog hace unos días! Leslie, muchas bendiciones mientras llenas su “casa rosa”: Me di cuenta que no tengo un nombre para mi blog aún: Si alguien tiene una sugerencia, estoy abierta!

También, muchas gracias a dos blogs fascinantes que he disfrutado recientemente y me han inspirado para dar el salto. Son y Ambos son lugares increíbles llenos de comentarios hermosos de todo, desde la espiritualidad del arte a la política.

Si alguien está leyendo esto hoy, domingo, 17 de julio 2011, tenga un maravilloso día de reposo! Estamos en lo que la iglesia dice que es “Tiempo Ordinario”, o tempus por año (el tiempo durante todo el año), el tiempo que queda fuera de los días santos de alta como Cuaresma, Pascua, Adviento y Navidad. Sin embargo, Tiempo Ordinario no es menos importante. Una persona escribe que el día del Tiempo Ordinario, especialmente los domingos, “están dedicados al misterio de Cristo en todos sus aspectos.” El color oficial del Tiempo Ordinario es el verde.

virtual fountain

Welcome to my blog

Hi everyone. I am entering the wild and wooly world of blogging! I will post occasional entries and hope you enjoy my random thoughts and discoveries. To inaugurate this space, I’d like to post this beautiful haiku about starting anew:

ganjitsu ya
harete suzume no

New Year’s Day–
the clouds are gone and the sparrows
are telling each other tales.

–Ransetsu (1653-1708)

Sometimes in life we experience beautiful coincidences and one of those is that my good friend Leslie Wingender also started a blog a few days ago! Leslie, many blessings as you fill your “pink house”: I realized I don’t have a name for my blog yet: If anyone has a suggestion, I’m open!

Also, many thanks to two fascinating blogs that I’ve enjoyed recently and have inspired me to make the leap. They are and Both are incredible sites full of beautiful and insightful comments about everything from spirituality to art to politics.

If anyone is reading this today, Sunday, July 17, 2011, have a wonderful Sabbath! We are in what the church says is “Ordinary Time,” or Tempus Per Annum (time throughout the year), that time that falls outside of the high holy days such as Lent, Easter, Advent and Christmas. But Ordinary Time is not any less important. One person writes that the days of Ordinary Time, especially the Sundays, “are devoted to the mystery of Christ in all its aspects.” The official color for Ordinary Time is green.