Author Archives: sevenperfumes

The language of flowers

I have always had a general reluctance towards flowers. Not so much an aversion as a mistrust. Very possibly it comes from the fact that they purport to send one message, but oftentimes end up sending another. I mean, there are books on flowers and their meanings. A black locust, for example, means platonic love. A buttercup; wealth, a daisy; innocence; a rose; love, desire, passion.   But do you think people nowadays have any inkling what they are sending? Highly doubtful. In all likelihood it’s not so much that I dislike flowers as that I have always poorly  understood human nature to the point of knowing that someone may say one thing but mean another. Seriously. Most women know by a certain point in their life that a flower isn’t just a flower, but rather, a symbol with some message attached. And unfortunately, that message isn’t always the cute, flowery one that FTD would have you believe. Couple that with some pretty traumatizing associations to flowers and you have a recipe for dismay.

For starters, my grandmother died when I was 14. She was obsessed with flowers and so, prior to her death, she arranged to have a gazillion flowers at her funeral. There were daisies and tiger lilies and begonias and whatever else, and the whole funeral parlor was popping with yellow. I loved my grandmother dearly, but the smell of all those flowers paired with the smell of embalming fluid? Not good. For years every time I walked into a florist’s shop I thought of death.

Then there was high school. Every February there was a carnation sale. And depending on how much money your parents gave you, whom you were dating at the time and how many friends you had, you could buy carnations till all three ran out–friends, sweethearts and parent’s money. Then, on Valentine’s day, the teachers during homeroom would call out your name and you’d go up to the front desk, where everyone would see you, and you’d collect your carnation. Most of us received one, maybe two carnations with a little note attached that generally said something like “BFF,” and that would be the end of it. But then, there were the popular people. The cheerleaders. The football players. The jocks. The preps. They’d get some ridiculous amount of carnations, somewhere upward of twenty or so. And you’d have to watch them all day, carrying these carnations around, struggling down the hallway, fidgeting with them in class. Of course, they never put the damn things in their lockers. No. It wasn’t that easy. These people rubbed your nose in it. Literally. You didn’t just brush elbows with classmates in a crammed hallway on V-day. You had carnations smashed into your face. Oops. Sorry my forty-seven carnations just whacked you in the head. All this, to the point where you found yourself sneaking around the gym locker room or looking in trashcans for discarded carnations to claim as your own. Who can get over that level of trauma? I didn’t. To this day, any time I see someone giving out carnations on the side of the road or something, I want to ram my vehicle into their plastic bucket and drive off.

Thankfully, I was able to recover from my botanical complex, if only for a short while. But, it was only a matter of time before I too, hater of anything with a stem or a bud, fell victim to that ancient and perennial commercialism of love, which states that if you do not receive a flower from a man, you have no worth.  My life changed at this point. I suddenly adored flowers. Not so much for their beauty as their ability to define me. And most likely because I’d never received any. And by the time I hit my twenties I felt I was something of a freak. If society validated a woman by the flowers she received, I must have been an alien.

Until S.

I was 22 and dating this Air Force police officer named S when I lived in Greenland. We had fallen in love, and despite my leaving to return home, we remained in touch. For my birthday he sent a dozen yellow roses. They were stunning. Everything I had imaged they’d be. It was the first time I’d ever received flowers. And I probably have every petal saved in a box somewhere up in my attic, that’s how amazed I was at the idea of flowers.

He drifted into the past, of course, but his flowers were possibly the last I’d see in a really  long time.

Throughout my first marriage I only received one bouquet of roses from my ex-husband. He never bought me flowers for anything. Not Christmas. Not Mother’s day. Not any holiday whatsoever. Not even on the days I gave birth to either son, or the day I graduated with high honors from Rutgers University, after 16 years of trying. I don’t believe he even gave me flowers when my father died. Like I said, I only received one bouquet from him. Back in 1999, when I was about four months pregnant with my second child, I found out quite to my dismay, that he had sent some girl down in Georgia a dozen white roses. It would be the first of many more, ahem, awkward moments in our marriage. Truth be told, I was most annoyed that he sent a strange woman flowers and had never given me so much as a dandelion. Anyway, shortly after this, I came home one day to my own bouquet. Out of guilt or embarrassment, who knows, he had sent me the clichéd dozen red roses that I still affectionately refer to as the “I fucked up” bouquet. I can still remember throwing those things out long before they died on their own.

After the dissolution of my marriage, flowers sent to me took a continued downward spiral. In fact, they became downright insulting. There were the occasional carnations wrapped in plastic from Wawa that my dad or boyfriend G would pick up out of obligation on days like Valentine’s day or my birthday. No card attached. There was the “I’ve been neglecting you to go party with friends” flower from S. It was a lily (isn’t that the flower of DEATH?). I planted it in my front yard and the squirrels ate it. And finally, there was the “we just started fucking and I want to move out of my parents house and in with you” roses from M, which, admittedly, were quite beautiful. Yet, they came with such onus that every time I looked at them I couldn’t help but wonder if they were an omen of impending doom.

The truth is, my history with flowers (and men) had been grim. Until D.

I won’t go into detail but I fell in love with D in winter. When I was the most alone I had ever been and yet, strangely, the happiest. A time in my life when, for the first time ever,  I wasn’t looking for hidden messages in flowers nor having (unrealistic) expectations about the men giving them. In fact, I very specifically told D a month into our relationship, “Don’t bother with flowers. I don’t like them.” And so, when our first Valentine’s day rolled around, a holiday I typically try to ignore, I played it off and made other plans.   OK, well, it was easy. It was a week day and he was working. At any rate, I went into the city by myself and walked and walked and walked down Pine and Spruce and then over to Walnut to revisit a few of my favorite antique shops. I bought a little vintage tin sign for the bathroom.  I had tabouli at Sahara’s. And I strolled around looking at windows and doors, which I love to do. I thought of virtually nothing all day except maybe the temperature and how cold it got after a few days of unseasonably warm weather. And, when I got home, sitting on my front porch step, there were flowers.

There were twelve red roses (no, not long stem. These babies were cut), encircling a spray of extraordinarily green tiny buds, which rested upon the lip of a cylindrical glass vase with smooth, black pond stones at the bottom.  I brought them inside and sat them on my countertop and I stared at them for a good 10 minutes. I breathed them in.  I walked around them. I determined that I liked them. A lot.

And then, I actually found them to be quite beautiful.

I opened the notecard. Of course they were from D. And he had scribbled—in his own handwriting—this little “xo” on the card. Just that. Nothing more. No “I’m sorry,” or “Last night was great,” or “I’m giving these to you because if I don’t, you’ll think I’m lazy and cheap.”  Just “xo.” It was possibly the purest, plainest, most direct language of affection I had ever received from a flower, or a man, in a lifetime. A bouquet that actually came with the message it intended.

How rare.

I can’t say me and flowers will ever have the kind of relationship that say, Georgia O’Keeffe has with flowers, but I can say, I’m no longer opposed to them. D and I have been together 9 years this January, and while he doesn’t buy me flowers as much anymore, his steadfast love and the memories of those early bouquets mean far more than the actual flowers of which they were made. Real love, I’ve learned, isn’t complicated. It doesn’t die on the vine or send unintended messages. It just is.  Umberto Eco wrote, “the rose is a symbolic figure so rich in meanings that by now it hardly has any meaning left.” And I suppose that’s true. But like I said, it’s what’s behind the flower; both in the giver and the receiver. It is this that speaks more loudly than anything. It is the underlying current of love, or lack thereof that can wilt a daisy, or make it bloom eternally.

Before you became a parent…

Before I became a parent, no one told me anything about parenting. They told me I was “blessed” and that I was “lucky” and, of course, that my whole life was about to change, followed by a karmic “Ha ha ha.” But (pregnancy horror stories and terrible two warnings aside) no one ever really gave me the lowdown on the emotional impact parenting might have on me. When “real” parenting began and when it ended (hint, it rhymes with “never”). Heck, now that I think of it, I’m sure my mother told me. I probably just never listened. At any rate, here’s a sliver of what I wish I had known…

…that yes, it’s true, you might poop in front of your team of nurses and doctors when giving birth to your new baby boy. And that that would be the first indication of the often humiliating and gut-wrenching job you’ve just signed up for.

…that you will think you’ve given birth to the next Einstein but chances are more probable that you’ve given birth to the next John Smith. And he’ll be super cool and just as wonderful anyway.

…that that seemingly independent, super intelligent eight-year-old, eleven-year-old, sixteen-year-old still needs your guidance and still needs to be reigned in, and still needs to be told what to do. And when you question if your job is done once they can finally tie their shoes and finally get up for school on their own and finally do their own laundry; when you think, “Well, at this point, I just need to be present,” that’s when your job actually gets harder.

…that you will think your love for that baby will last a lifetime, uninterrupted, but in reality, it will wax and wane like the moon. Trust me, when he crashes your car, spills black paint on your new carpet or gets his girlfriend pregnant at 19, your love and adoration will be tested. OK, so, maybe you will always love him, but you might not always “like” him.

…that you will lose, as if like a death, that sweet little boy you have come to know so well and fiercely call your own. Right at about age 14 he will physically disappear. And by 16, even if he still lets you kiss and hug him, he will be gone and this new person will have taken his place, with only the shadow of the little person he once was. You will see those long lost qualities in him as if you are looking at his offspring. Watered down, and only 25% of you.

…that those gazillion baby pics you took of him when he was picking his nose or falling into his toy box or holding up a frog–those pictures that everyone told you were too many, that everyone laughed at your over-enthusiasm for taking, Like, really? You need another picture of your kid in that ridiculous Halloween costume?— those pics will fade within 15-years time, and they will look like an old Polaroid from the 70’s. And half of them will somehow disappear. And every single stinking one of them that’s left will be worth holding on to.

…that your job description as a parent is not a simple check list of tasks you must accomplish or hats you have to wear or titles or positions you have to carry. There’s no real satisfaction of completion, seeing a project from start to finish. You’re job is more like a researcher who conducts long term studies on human behavior and has to wait 40 years to see if the experiment even worked.

My sons in 2017, Julien (17) and Daniel (19)

…that his love for you is in direct proportion to your attention to him. That he will need you to be less his teacher and more his biggest fan. That discipline, guidance and parenting aside, he will need you to love what he loves. Even if it’s Minecraft or his off-key singing, or soccer, or his horrible choice in music. 

…that he will most likely fail and struggle the same way you did when you were his age. But he’s not you. You don’t get a second chance.

…that he is your best investment. Not your job. Not your new fiancé. Not the book you’re publishing. Not your retirement fund. Not the millions of poor people you donate to each year. Your child is. He is the end result of who you chose to be in your lifetime and all your actions leading up to this point. All that will come back to you for better or worse. So, invest wisely.

…that you’re allowed to make a certain but undetermined amount of mistakes with him. He will forgive you for most if not all of them. But, he will eventually tell you at some point that you ruined his life. At some other point, typically when he has a child of his own, he will retract those words and tell you that parenting is tough and he recognizes you did the best you knew how at the time.

Released

I hate myself in winter.

I am as cold and silent as a leafless forest, with an underbrush of timid dry sticks and invisible

moss.

I went to Sedona on a vision quest many months ago. I sat in a prayer room filled with the smoke of  tobacco, juniper and sweet grass. A man moved the smoke around us with an eagle feather and I saw spring.

A savage green spring so far in the future it felt like a date I will never live to see.

He handed us a pouch filled with the unused tobacco and told each of to release it back to the earth. It represents your worries.

Drop it in a river, he said, or toss it off a cliff on a windy day. It doesn’t belong to you. It was on loan. And now you must give it back.

It sat for months on my dresser. Willingly giving. I didn’t want to let it go. I was the bad friend who borrows a book and never gives it back.

But, winter’s filled with worry, so, what’s a little more. I gave it back.

I tied a piece of jute string to it, grabbed a ladder from the basement and hung it from a limb of an evergreen that I can see from my great window.

And there I watched my worries, from a distance, through glass.

I watched as birds flew near to catch a glimpse of the new, yellow object dangling from a limb. Like a jewel it sparkled against a backdrop of gray sky. The cold, hazy sunlight nudged through the grayness and said, There you are. And the wind and sun took back its possession and set me toward spring.

Out of place

We are in the middle of a warm spell. A  few days out of place. Winter breaking the rules. The lakes have melted. The snow is gone. I took baby for a walk yesterday and he saw birds, maybe for the first time in his little life. Geese flew in a crooked V above us, honking, and he looked up with his mouth wide open and followed them as they crossed a blue sky. I often imagine what it might be like seeing the way life moves for the very first time.  Seeing things that fly. Things that swim. Things that walk and run. A leaf that falls off a tree. A car that zooms by. A sunset. The idea of learning that the world has purpose astounds me.

The lady at the Chinese restaurant, after baby went home, said to me in broken English, “The world is happy today.”

I smiled. I need this warmth more than anything. But it’s a cruel trick. Like an insect born out of season. It doesn’t stand a chance. Like taking a weekend in Florida in the winter only to have to come back to the cold. It’s a sharp reminder of what you don’t have.

I read somewhere recently that there are scientists who believe the universe is conscious, which means it’s free to break the rules if it wants to. It has a brain. It pulsates with intention. And that intention propel us forward through the arrow of time. 

Stars make willful decisions. 

With new eyes and new thoughts I can’t help but wonder, How can that not be true?

Winter

I took a stroll down a snow melted path by the Rancocas Creek with my love. We wore invisible red silk threads wrapped around our wrists in honor of our fated devotion as we meandered through a brown, sleeping field. Tiny sparrows crunched under brush on broken sticks.  And the whoo of a gentle wind tapped stillness on the shoulder who did not budge.

I saw how tree trunks in winter have their big debut and show off their gnarled, twisted limbs and leafless outstretched arms. Finally free from the heavy, wet burden of carrying  the green spring and summer.

How tall brittle grass reminded me of a childhood spent among cattails and milkweeds, ripping open caterpillar nests with a stick, in careless destruction of life.

How silence is the winter’s way of turning inward, quietly shutting me out, not realizing how much it hurts.

How the sunless glaze of a cold dark day warns of an eternal winter.

And how joy, unseen, is buried under hard, unrelenting earth that softens from our heated steps.

Stories of Madrid, Tarifa and Barcelona

Thursday, Jul 21, 2016, 11:36 PM

Calle Mayor, 38, Madrid, Madrid, Spain
84°F Mostly Clear

Exhausted but content

11:37pm. Madrid time. I’m so grateful to be here, but so tired and already experiencing dizziness, headache, and exhaustion. It’s strange being here with just Julien and I. I like it, and I am possibly more relaxed. But enough with the show tunes already, and my god, he takes so long to get ready to go out. I never knew!

It’s hot here. The sun is oppressive and so we have to stick to the shade. After abuelos, after a non-nap, and lunch of tortilla and Gazpacho, we arrived at the apartment on Calle Mayor, 40. It’s lovely, but not my fav. I prefer last year’s location and the plaza Santa Ana apartment. But this place is central to everything and I hope I have the energy to explore.

We visited Tandem today, the place where we will both take Spanish classes. Easy to get to. And then ended up at the futbol store in Sol.

I ate a whole plate of pulpo and spoke to a young American girl from LA at the mercado San Miguel. She was telling me that she preferred Madrid to Barcelona. I couldn’t image. How so? I asked. She said it’s far more Spanish. And she really liked the Madrid vibe. Hmm. I have to think about this more. Does she see a beauty in the city that I don’t? I mean, c’mom, Barcelona is the place to be. It’s the hottest city in Europe right now. It’s gorgeous. I grappled with my own difficulty in loving this city. I never really have. I come here because my children are half Spanish. This is their culture and I want them to know it. But what is Madrid to me? I have so many bad memories. When I married R in 1997 and flew to Madrid on Christmas eve I was filled with a naive sense of optimism. My life here would be like the one I wanted for myself since Paris–an American expatriate living abroad. And so, in Madrid, I truly believed my dreams had all come true.  I was married to a Spaniard and free to live my life in Europe, right? Yes, but…

We lived in Vallecas, a graffitti-ed, poor suburb now overrun with Latin crime gangs. Back in the day it was gypsy thieves. We lived on the fourth floor of an apartment that had no heat or hot water. We had no furniture. And my husband was out of work. More than anything, he was an isolationist, and struck with a bout of severe depression that left him never wanting to leave the apartment. And because I had no money, I could barely afford a metro ticket into the center. I cried every day. Anyway. I lived in Madrid for a year like that and once we finally moved back the States I swore I would never go back. And yet…I did. Some strange force always pulled me back. And here I am again. Only now, I have my own place on the calle Mayor, in the heart of old Madrid and I am beating back jet lag with a wave of excitement to be back in Europe. I’m resigned to the fact that Madrid is where my kids grandparents live and so be it.

Anyway, I came back. Took another nap from 7-9. Ish. And now I’m ready for bed again. Reading Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast losing myself in my old Paris days. Oh, Paris. I loved you so. You’re something I can no longer have. Will I ever have a place here like I did in you?

And speaking of love…I almost forgot to mention that Doug got his Traceless tattoo. He is now a tattooed man. “It’s my love letter to you,” he said, and sent a picture. It looked raw and pink from soreness. God. I’ve never met a man who has loved me like that. Loved me with such permanency and trust. I feel like it took a lifetime to find him.

Friday, Jul 22, 2016, 11:53 AM

Laundry and old announcements in Vallecas

I have to say, today was far better than yesterday. I was up at a decent hour and felt relatively good all day. I probably should have avoided both the churros con chocolate and later the soy milk with coffee ice cream batido. But, oh well. It is what it is. Speaking of paying a price. I always pay for dairy.

After lunch at Asun’s, Julien took a nap and I walked down the Avenida San Diego and took photos of old pisos along the way and down back streets. There’s a romance to Vallecas. But I just can’t get too close. I could never live here again. I can only safely, from a distance, observe and remember. Like I said, it brings back too many bad memories of being trapped on calle Monte Igueldo.

Julien has such horrible jet lag that he can barely function. I feel determined to get him on a proper schedule. The problem is, back home he was going to bed at two in the morning, then not getting up until two in the afternoon. That’s like going to bed at seven in the morning here, and getting up at seven at night. It’s like he’s in China.

I briefly had a moment of panic that I would be bored and that I would waste my time here. I had finished eating part of a bocadillo de tortilla that Asun made for me and I went on Facebook where everything was exactly as I left it. People posting about the Republican National Convention. More posts about Black Lives Matter versus “all” lives matter. More posts about how everyone loves their police officers. More crap about Isis and mass shootings and music videos from the 80’s and cats and puppies. I was paralyzed with fear that I would be the same person I was 24-hours ago, stuck in my American-ness. I cannot let that happen. My goal, therefore, as soon as I get over this jet lag, is to create a meaningful, purposeful experience here. I only have 21 days left to accomplish that goal. Wheph.

Saturday, Jul 23, 2016, 6:51 PM

Calle Mayor, 38, Madrid, Madrid, Spain
90°F Mostly Sunny

Relaxing in the Retiro

It’s not nearly as hot today as it was yesterday. Or, perhaps, I’ve acclimated. A full coffee in the morning, shopping, then to Asun’s for cocido. Yes! Cocido in July. It’s a Madrid stew, very heavy, made of garbanzos and chicken and veggies. But she makes it for me every Sunday I am here because I love it so. Delicioso. Julien and I went straight to the Retiro after lunch and stayed there for a good two hours, setting up camp in a little spot of grass surrounded by boxwood hedges. He was very upset that I didn’t agree that he was a good soccer player. He said he needs that to build his confidence. I said it’s not my job to build a false sense of confidence in you. Do you think you’re a good soccer player? He said no. And would me telling you you were good somehow make you better? No. Now, how about this…are you a good actor? An emphatic yes. What if I told you you were no good? Would you still know you were a good actor? Yes! he said. Then, voila. You don’t need my approval. I’m not here to tell you you’re good at everything. I’m here to love you no matter what. There’s a difference.

Then I kicked his ass playing some soccer game and he was like, “I take back all my whining about being a great soccer player, mom.”

The park was wonderful. I hadn’t been there in a couple years, maybe longer. And I really had the craving to go back. We picked a spot close to the lake. I brought my new yoga mat and I did a few poses, including crane, which I got really good at. Juli kicked the ball around and didn’t really want to leave. But, I had to pee and didn’t feel like waiting in line again and tipping one euro to pee in toilet with no seat. Besides, my phone was dying.

I texted Doug a bit. I miss him. Everywhere I go, I think, Doug would love this spot, or, I can’t wait to take Doug here. And while I am not lonely and really trying to live in the moment, it still will be so nice having him here. And I can’t wait to see his tattoo. So hot.

Marisa texted me too. She’s bored and struggling with kids that don’t want to do anything. God, do I remember that feeling. I told her that having a sense of ennui in Europe is a luxury of the wealthy. A turn of the century problem. You’re lucky to have it. It’s quite romantic, actually.

When I slip into boredom, I tell myself I am merely having a moment of Victorian luxury. And now it’s easier than ever to be a woman alone in Madrid.  In Paris, men and women sat alone at cafes. It was one of my favorite things to do. But, when I came here 19 years ago, I remember being stared down by judgy Spaniards if I sat at a cafe alone, especially during the lunch hour. I even tried to get a spot at a two-seater table at the window once in one of the oldest restaurants in town. They said no, I wasn’t allowed to sit there and shuffled me to the back. That, after telling me, “sit any where you want.” God forbid I sit at a window seat. The truth is, Spain is still a very family-oriented country. You almost never see people dining alone. And yet, Madrid is changing. There’s a modernness that is taking over and opening the way for a personal freedom that has been unknown for so long. It’s refreshing.

Tonight, I think I want to eat very lightly. Maybe just a tapa or two. I’d really like to go to the Malasaña tonight. Or maybe La Latina. Like most big cities, Madrid has very distinct barrios, or neighborhoods with completely different vibes. La Latina is the oldest part of the city and the most beautiful. And it has the absolute best tapas bars and restaurants. The Malasaña is just past the calle Fuencarral, a great spot for shopping, and it’s pretty much Madrid’s hipster neighborhood. All the vintage shops and hip cafes are there with lots of guys with beards. Oooh. We’ll see. And we’ll see what Julien wants to do. He’s so different than Dani who never wanted to do anything. Aside from early morning stuff, Julien is up for just about everything.

Sunday, Jul 24, 2016, 9:18 PM

Calle Mayor, 38, Madrid, Madrid, Spain
90°F Mostly Sunny

The Rastro

The church bells rang all throughout the day, from the the time I went to the Rastro in the morning till late at night. People were pouring back into the city from the pueblos and every time we caught a train we waited with a pack and then crammed into a car. I was exhausted from all the walking through the Rastro, and so, Julien and I caught a taxi to Peña de la Miel with a cab driver who looked just like our Italian neighbor back home and was listening to the Grease soundtrack, but in Spanish. Asun made roasted chicken, gazpacho and French fries for lunch. Also, angulas. Angulas are completely new for me. They are baby eels that look more like Asian cellophane noodles apparently can cost around 100 € per kilo, especially during the Christmas holiday because they are rare and fished from Cantabria and the north.  Asun bought these at Corivan or Eroski and I think they are the cheaper, imitation kind. Kinda like imitation crab. But, really. They were delicious.  I have been eating a ton, and yet, I hope all this walking is burning it off. I’m not so sure.

In the afternoon, we took a 35-minute high-speed train to Toledo, mine and Julien’s favorite “day-trip,”  and walked around a couple hours. At one point, we sat in separate corners of the grand plaza in front of the cathedral and zoned out. I watched tourists take photos of their significant other standing in front of the cathedral, one after the other. And I was quite happy knowing that most of them think their spouse will look attractive in the photo. There were also two Kardashian-looking women in dresses and stilettos with extensions in their hair. They both carried big purses, and a fit, bald man wearing tight jeans and construction boots took their photo. Afterwards, they all sat on the steps below me and looked at the photos on the man’s phone. I couldn’t imagine it being easy to walk along the cobbled stones in heels, up and down the hills. I thought they looked ridiculous.

Before we caught the train back to the city, I had salmorejo and Julien had a Fanta.

Tomorrow, I am getting a massage at 10 in the morning at the Al Andaluz hammam, after Julien leaves for his trip to Escorial. I need to relax. My legs are killing me. And then at five, I’m meeting Rocio for a drink.

Monday, Jul 25, 2016, 11:41 AM

Calle Mayor, 38, Madrid, Madrid, Spain
84°F Mostly Sunny

An old luggage and antique store in La Latina

There are 50 steps to climb to get to our apartment. The first 40 are a piece of cake. The last ten are so painful I could collapse. Add the Madrid heat to the equation and it’s a ferocious climb. It beats the shit out of you. Especially if, like me, you go up and down them 20 times a day. So, today, I’m taking it easy. Julien is in Escorial and then going swimming at this kid’s pool afterward. I’m thrilled! I’ve been hoping that he meet new people his own age here. My fingers are crossed that they are nice and he enjoys them.

I went to the Hammam this morning. I really needed a massage. And you cannot beat the price. €43,00 for sauna, steam, hot tub and massage. I basically ended up having a couples massage with some strange man. I took off my bathing suit top and lied face down and drifted into pensamientos of Doug and I kissing in one of the shallow pools. Four more days. 🙂

Later…

I never took it easy. I put on heels and walked to Calle Fuencarral and beyond, into the Malasaña to have lunch at a cafe called Naïf. Fabulous faire. Très hipster. Genial atmosphere. Couldn’t have been happier except that my feet were on fire. Burning from over use. I actually feel like I broke my toe. I would have liked to have a cafe solo at Lolina’s, but it was too early and I was too full after lunch, and so I shopped my way back home and eventually ended up at the Cafe Madrid across the street from our apartment. I spent a good 30 minutes at a dark bar sipping my espresso and chatting with Marisa on wassapp. She was on the train from Ceccano to Rome getting ready to survive the last leg of her journey. She’s having a very hard time. Reminds me of being stuck at Asun’s in Vallecas with bars on the windows and the smell of urine in the street. I felt so trapped there. Loving my In-laws on the one hand, and feeling pent up on the other. There’s something to be said about having your own space.

I’ll write about Rocio tomorrow. I really need to go to bed.

Tuesday, Jul 26, 2016, 10:26 PM

Calle Mayor, 38, Madrid, Madrid, Spain
86°F Mostly Clear

Seafood salad tapa at Mercado de San Miguel

Is it day 6 already? Say it isn’t so. I can’t begin to tell you how much i am enjoying this city casi sola. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love spending time with Julien. But I also love spending time by myself.

We went to Tandem in the morning and they almost put us in the same class. No thanks! So, I told them that Juli needs to be in a different level than me. They put him in a very basic level, which he probably needs because he’ll be stronger. Besides, there’s apparently a German girl in the class who he has the hots for. He’s perfectly happy. I too like my class. There’s a couple in there my age and everyone is very friendly. Shockingly, I am probably the strongest communicator. Others understand better than I, but I speak better than anyone. That makes me happy.

We caught a taxi to Vallecas after class, had lunch, and took little naps. Julien spoke in full sentences to abuela and we were all quite shocked. He just needed confidence. He found it, somewhere.

We were home by 5:30 and then he was back out by 6 to head to Tandem where everyone was meeting up to go to the amusement park. He won’t be home until about midnight, if not later. Ugh. My littlest bunny!

I went to the Mercado San Miguel and had a seafood salad.  But didn’t stay long because I was hit with a pretty bad dizzy spell. Yes, it’s back. And I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s coming from the increased intake in coffee, less lexipro and a bit of agoraphobia. Once safely back home, I did my homework, and yoga for about an hour. So glad I have my yoga mat. Not much else to relate. I’ll tell the story of the mother and daughter on the train in tomorrow’s journal.

Oh, so Rocio. I met her on Verbling. She was my teacher for a couple months before coming here and she suggested we meet up in Madrid when I come. I was game. So, we arranged to meet on the Plaza Santa Ana and have a drink and tapas at one of the outdoor cafes. We spoke mostly in Spanish with few English translations here and there. I was quite proud of myself. She and her husband are starting a company based on a machine that converts trash to fuel. They are starting this project in, I want to say Ecuador, where there is no government regulation of trash like there is in Spain. I found her fascinating and I hope to meet her again.

Texted a bit with Nuria, Marisa, Doug, Dani and mom today. Eso es todo.

Wednesday, Jul 27, 2016, 6:47 PM

Calle Mayor, 40, Madrid, Madrid, Spain
99°F Mostly Sunny

My 100 peseta yoga mat in my Madrid apartment.

I spent an hour or so with a 24-year-old girl who only speaks Italian and Spanish. She is a friend of Marisa’s sister. An Italian, living in Madrid studying literature and philosophy. She rolled her cigarettes, talked about her girlfriend who is studying law and asked me a slew of questions about my own personal writing. I gave her the link to my blog. I think she was fascinated.

A very thin, red-faced street person with scraggly blond hair came by our table to beg for money. I said, “Lo siento. I don’t speak Spanish.”

She said, in Spanish, “Like hell you don’t. I can hear you speaking Spanish to your fucking friend.” And then she proceeded to swipe my water bottle from the table, carry it off and throw it in a trash can. Well, ok, then.

I tried to scout out a yoga studio, and I found one pretty close. But it’s Ashtanga yoga and I have no idea what that is. Besides, I’m too stressed to go back out and learn something new. My cup runeth over.

It hit 100 degrees today. Luckily, we did not take the 50-minute journey to Vallecas. I think if I had to walk down the calle Peña de la Miel today, I would have walked to my death. The street itself–treeless and conspicuously lacking in shade from any building or awning, and, worse, lined with cars reflecting the light back into the street–is a boiling hot reminder that the universe can suck the life out of you in an instant, or, in this case, fry you up to sizzling perfection and serve you like a well-cooked chunk of solomillo.

Thursday, Jul 28, 2016, 10:30 PM

Calle Mayor, 38, Madrid, Madrid, Spain
100°F Mostly Sunny

Calle de Santiago, Madrid

Am I strange because I love the bathrooms here? The cleaning products they use. The way they have actual doors, not stalls. Am I weird because I love the smell of strong, healthy body odor and cigarette smoke as I walk down the street? And the combination of all three together–which happens more frequently than you’d expect– can send my serotonin levels up like crazy and drive me wild.

Tonight, I found the perfect spot to take Doug and the kids on their first night here in Madrid, if they can stay awake. It’s on the Calle de Santiago, right around the corner from us. In fact, it looked like only spaniards knew about it. A quiet little rincon de Madrid, right off the Calle Mayor. I found it after dining on the plaza Oriente, at the Cafe Oriente. I dropped Julien off at the Plaza Opera to meet his friends– good Lord, that Plaza is filled with young kids. Anyway, they were going to Principo Pio to watch an outdoor movie, so, I was alone, yet again. I think Juli felt at one point like he was abandoning me. I said to him, “I love going out with you, but I also love being alone.” There is something quite romantic about being alone in Europe.

 

Friday, Jul 29, 2016, 8:03 PM

Plaza Oriente

So, Doug & Co come tomorrow and I am both nervous and excited. There is a rhythm here and a mood that will be disturbed in exciting ways and not so exciting ways. Not to mention that we are all packing up and moving south for a couple weeks.

My last class was not exactly fun. The couple from Indiana got on my nerves and I was mentally burnt out by their incessant complaining. I was kind of happy to be done. After class we took a taxi to Asun’s and had paella. Luckily we got the chance to see Tio Pedro before leaving. I had one more meet up planned with Rocio but cancelled because of heat  and exhaustion. Besides, I need to pack and get read for my husband!

Saturday, Jul 30, 2016, 7:18 AM

Calle Mayor, 38, Madrid, Madrid, Spain
93°F Mostly Sunny

Doug & Co arrive, lunch at Naif

I spent a ton of  time posting Facebook posts about the crazy good food I ate yesterday during my business luncheon with Fernando Moreno. Maybe that will change the depressing American mood that exists at the moment.

Lunch was at La Cocina de Maria Luisa and Fernando introduced me to Maria, the owner and chef, a sturdy looking woman with a strong handshake and a positive spirit. I had no clue what to order and so, I went with their recommendation: truffles and wild boar. She paired it with a very light Chivite rosé and then left Fernando and I to talk for a good two and a half hours on the world of omega-3s He owns a manufacturing plant in Spain and creates one of the purest, cleanest oils on the planet. I want us to use him, and so, I plan to send him some of our products. In actuality, when I gave him a clue as to who our manufacturer is, he said he couldn’t compete. That our stuff is one of the best in the world. I quietly thanked my father for making a good choice so many years ago.

Julien ended up going to the Prado, then taking some lessons in skateboarding, then basically staying out until 2:45am, when I told him to be home by 1am. Tonight he’s grounded. I’m happy that he’s in love and experiencing Madrid in a totally cool way, but, I don’t like him staying out until 3am. Sheesh. I’m up early, waiting for Doug to arrive. They should be coming down the calle Mayor within the hour. Joy!

Sunday, Jul 31, 2016, 5:52 AM

Dried landscape of La Mancha, by train

Doug and kids came yesterday and despite mild excitement to finally be in Europe, they were mostly exhausted. Grace hit a wall while at Naïf and so, we caught a taxi back to the apartment and everyone took naps. As promised, I took them to dinner on the calle de Santiago and it wasn’t the exciting, curious, exploratory dinner I had hoped for. It was a lot of whining and complaining and a lot of “I won’t eat that.” I have to say, Chance was more up for experimenting. But, not by much. And Julien didn’t join us because it was his last night out with his Madrid friends.

At the moment, I am on the train to Sevilla and quite happy to be leaving Madrid. Of course I could change my mind once we get there. And yet, I think the trees, the crickets, the birds and the beach will bring me great joy. I had a fantastic time in Madrid, but the crowds and dust and noise and lack of trees were beginning to get to me. Madrid itself was beginning to get to me. What else is new?

This moment. I fly through the olive groves and crumbled castles that sink into the dry, brittle grass of La Mancha. A windmill in the distance. A field. A high speed Ave that will bring us to the land of Al Andalus.

Monday, Aug 1, 2016, 8:03 AM

Poolside in Betis

La cocina

A side street in Tarifa

We have arrived in Betis! And I am having slight trouble focusing on my writing because there’s a salamander on the wall here in the kitchen and there are goats in the field out my back window with bells around their necks. I am way too distracted by the beauty and the rustic slumber of this quiet spot. I made myself an espresso this morning in the Italian machinetta (thanks to Marisa for teaching me how to do it!) and sat down to write at the little kitchen table when suddenly I heard bells in the rocky, upward sloping field behind the house. There were goats. And there were about twenty of them, grazing on the shrubs right outside our window.

The trip here was long but pleasant. In Sevilla (which took about 2 and half hours from Atocha), we picked up our car from Sixt and the hardest part of that whole process was trying to fit all our luggage into the economy-sized car and then figure out the GPS. From Sevilla it took another 2 hours  and 15 minutes to wind our way up the mountain. Our only direction once we turned off the main road was a crooked, hand-painted sign that said “BETIS” with an arrow pointing up a hilly road that was blocked by a flock of sheep. Juan met us at the Kiosko Bartolo, this tiny little shack-like structure that served as a bar, a restaurant and a meeting point for a handful of homeowners or vacationers on the mountain. I had the classic foreigner intimidation stare-down by a few locals who were idling out on the patio, until I was distracted by Juan who moved us along to the house, with the key. Once he gave us a quick tour and turned over the key, we moved our luggage in, established our rooms and then headed out almost immediately to buy groceries before everything closed for the night.

We ended up meandering through the streets of Tarifa–my second peek at the southern most tip of Europe.

After dinner at a local hot spot in the tiny Moorish pueblo, we headed back to our cortijo and sat by the pool. It was a perfect summer night. Doug and I sat on our respective lounge chairs, staring up at sky filled with stars. I could hear crickets, dogs barking, and perhaps even a coyote.

Tuesday, Aug 2, 2016, 8:31 AM

Terrace of Silos 19, Tarifa

I’m having so much trouble writing. I am distracted every time I sit down and attempt to write in this space, and yet, I love this space. I’m drinking a delicious bitter coffee, the house is extremely quiet except for the hum of the fridge. We had a great day yesterday, but a lot of sun and a lot of walking. We decided to make our way over to Bolonia in the afternoon–a seaside town known for its massive dunes, beautiful beaches and Roman ruins. Lunch at the chiringuito was divine, typical fried fish. But I will never order the Chipirones again. Calamaries, yes. Baby squid, no.

Chance got his first glimpse of topless sunbathers. He wasn’t impressed. After a little time lying in the hot sand, we walked the long walk to the dunes, but it was too hot to climb to the top.  So, we came home, showered, swam, relaxed, and by 8pm headed back into Tarifa to eat, but not before sitting a long ass car line to get into the city. Sheesh. The crowds are crazy down here.

We settled on the rooftop terrace at Silos 19, a little boutique hotel and restaurant right inside the old town of Tarifa. It was a clear, warm night and we were able to sip mojitos and watch the sun set in the west, while the dark outline of Africa disappeared to the south.

 Wednesday, Aug 3, 2016, 8:47 AM

Making a tortilla

Spanish tortilla

Drinks at the rooftop bar in Vejer de la Frontera, Hotel Califa

Yesterday was one part lazing around. The water went off, so, we sat around and did our own thing until the water came back on at 12:30.  I did the laundry, dishes, and made first tortilla in 19 years. It was like riding a bike. You never forget. The eggs were golden, the potatoes white, the pan the perfect shape for a tortilla. It all came back to me. Meanwhile, I make tortillas at home all the time. And yet, they’re just not the same. We had lunch out on the patio, facing the mountains. I also put out olives, wine, salad and baguette. It reminded me so much of Hemingway’s Garden of Eden where there’s this one scene where they’re outside dining at a rented house by the sea in the south of France. When your vacation life is like a movie, you’re lucky.

I listened to a lot of French and Spanish music yesterday, mostly Paloma Negra by Lola Beltrán and La Llorona by Chavela Vargas. The voices of a magical yet uncertain past. These songs and the smells and sounds of Betis brought me to a place of deep joy. And, it continued into our trip to Vejer de la Frontera. We, of course, went up to La Tetería del Califa, the rooftop bar at Hotel La Casa del Califa in Vejer that Doug and I love so much. I had my Moroccan mint tea, Doug had a mojito, and the kids got daiquiris. We dined at the restaurant there, which, by the way, is one of my favorites in the whole world, and I had my pastilla and gazpacho. We also did hummus, babaganoush, olives, bread, wine…and tagine for the kids. Did I mention that food is life here?\

Thursday, Aug 4, 2016, 7:43 AM

Julien’s haircut and blow dry

Lounge in La Sacristía, Tarifa

Butterfly net in our room in Betis

I’m officially cranky and it’s Doug’s fault. He’s been picking fights with me all day and night and just seemed completely annoyed with me every two seconds. Granted, I am annoying. And he’s equally annoying. It’s mutual.

We had a respite where we got along for a while so we all went back into Tarifa. I looked for a nail salon and no one could do my nails. No one knew how to remove gel. We had lunch at a place called Babel and then a delicious coffee in one of the lounges in La Sacristía, another beautiful old hotel in the casco antiguo. Julien got his haircut at some little barber shop in the newer, suburb of Tarifa. But, we ended up laughing hysterically because the barber blew his hair dry and puffed it up like old school Vanilla Ice. Too funny. Later, we went to dinner at Arte Vida (Restaurante Miramar), which has a great reputation but I wasn’t feeling it and definitely not impressed. While it sits right on the shore, we didn’t have a great view through the humid plastic. The food was meh and the service, was super fast but impersonal. High season = tons of tourists. I had a salad with tuna and clams, a Rioja,  and gazpacho. I’m convinced it’s the daily gazpacho that keeps me so healthy.

 

Friday, Aug 5, 2016, 4:03 PM

11380, Tarifa, Andalusia, Spain
90°F Mostly Sunny

Fog over the valley west of Tarifa

Tajo, Ronda

For the past two mornings the fog has been thick, blocking out the mountain in complete grayness. It lifts around noon and the sun comes out. But, the Levante is coming and we are all waiting to see its strength. I meditated watching the fog and mist swirl across the sky this morning.

There are two main winds in Tarifa: the Poniente, which is a calmer, westerly wind off the Atlantic, and the Levante which is a strong easterly wind off the Mediterranean. This latter wind gives Tarifa its reputation for being the kite surfing/wind surfing capital of Europe. There are hoards of flies. I wonder if they are coming in on the westerly wind like they do on Long Beach Island. Or, more likely, they are always here because of all the animals.

I haven’t been in the best of moods. It’s a mix of getting my period, feeling ill, drinking too much, dealing with kids, dealing with Doug, and feeling a bit trapped. This house isn’t helping. On day two, the water went out. Day three, electricity went out. Today, only two of the burners on the stovetop work. Grace is incessantly whining about bugs, which causes Doug to close all the windows and doors. Then, it becomes stifling hot. Kids are bored. There’s lots of bickering between Chance and Grace and a fair amount of whining from Juli as well.

The bullring in Ronda

We went to Ronda yesterday. It was a much longer drive than we all expected. It was about two and half hours and we just kept winding up this mountain forever. Single lane, stuck behind a slow moving truck. Not only that but we took the N340 almost to Marbella before driving inland toward Ronda. Was it worth it? Sort of. It was a lovely city, but definitely not a place I’d want to own a house. It felt remote and out of touch with the times, as if everyone living there was living in the 1980’s. In fact, many of the menus were printed from the 80’s and I swear I saw annuncios that had never been taken down from 1986. The view from the Tajo is stunning, of course. and the architecture is very old world Spanish, Christian, not Moorish. And while we all got a long for the most part, I think everyone is done with this trip. I think what’s toughest to deal with is everyone’s American sensibility. “Where’s the chicken nuggets?” kinda thing. Expecting to take three showers a day in a rural, remote community that functions off a private water tank on the property. Throwing clean clothes in the dirty laundry to be washed. Wondering why the roads are so bumpy and there are no services out here. Frustrated that the stores close mid-day. Do you know how hard it is to travel with people who only want to eat hamburgers?

I think Doug and I both caught a stomach bug. What was that about gazpacho keeping me healthy?!

I miss Dani horribly.

Saturday, Aug 6, 2016, 7:27 AM

Peering North toward the valley out our bedroom window, Betis

I was sick in bed all day yesterday with this stomach bug, with the exception of a few outings in the morning. I took a light walk down the side of the mountain to where the cows were grazing. Doug also drove me into to Tarifa to get my nails done and what an experience that was. When I first arrived the girl told me have a seat. It was a tiny little salon with a manicure table and three spots for a hair cut. I sat and waited and not very surprisingly she went out of the shop front and left me there to wait. She returned 15 minutes later with toast and a coffee. Oh, Spain.  The girl who did my nails (who had been sitting at the desk the entire time) had never done nails before. They had run out of acetone, were annoyed that they had to remove my gel polish and were not even going to give me a manicure until I was like, “Por favor, estoy aqui espesificamente por un mani.” Better yet, they only had three color to choose from, which was fine by me because I actually can’t stand too many choices. But the choices were hot pink, fire-engine red and some maroon color that looked like it was near empty. Anyway, she put cuticle remover on my nails, removed one cuticle and then asked what color I wanted. She ended up painted over rough nails and as she did so she laughed and said, “gel is just so hard to remove.” No overcoat. No undercoat. No double coat. She says, “let that dry for 10 minutes and then we’ll paint your toes.” Oh no you won’t. I find it hard to believe all nail salons in Spain operate in this way. I am now on a quest. And yet, there was something endearing in these two. I asked if they had ever traveled. My nail girl said, “Once. To Italy.” And then they complained incessantly about Spain not having any money. I assure you they’d have more if they ramped up their service.

We dragged ourselves to Hotel Hurricane thinking we could dine in their beautiful dining area for lunch. But it was closed, so we ended up going to their hotel chiringuito unable to even go down by the beach because we weren’t hotel guests. Nice setting; bad food. I was so done and I had no intentions of going back out.

I texted Dani, mom and Kristy a bit. Took naps. Read. Wrote. My light is out. I feel unhappy. Trapped. Miserable. Uncomfortable. Sad. Paradise turned on me. Or perhaps the high of a rural Spanish vacation has worn thin.

Today we plan to go inland because the Levante has arrived. All night we slept with banging doors and clanging gates.

Sunday, Aug 7, 2016, 6:49 AM

Iglesia Parroquial Matriz De Santa Maria La Mayor La Coronada, Medina Sidonia

Medina Sedonia, side street

A crumbled ruin of a castle, Medina Sedonia

I think I may be coming out of my illness. But, I stayed in bed again yesterday—plans to travel inland were canceled. I am now convinced that our stomach bug is from the drinking water in this house. At one point it came out brown, another, it came out like blue toilet bowl water. And while I never actually drank from the faucet, I am sure I washed lettuce in it or took some in when I was showering.

The wind! The levante! It’s fierce. The one time we went out we went into Tarifa. The wind was blowing so severely that all of us were being pushed a long by the invisible force. I think the most unpleasant part of the Levante is that, because we need to keep our windows and doors open to let in the cool air, it causes shutters and doors to bang and rattle incessantly–in particular the metal gate below our window. That constant banging and rattling, not to mention the eerie howling, can really test a person nerves. In fact, there’s a myth that the Levante has been known to drive perfectly normal people crazy. A more scientific account is that it has been known to cause headaches and depression. Well, now I feel better.

In truth, what’s making me feel so much better is that we have all decided to pack up and leave on Tuesday to spend a few days in Barcelona. Of course, once I booked every thing, I got an email from Saïd in Tangier saying, “Can we reschedule your visit until Thursday? It will be far too windy on Monday.” Apparently the wind in Tangier is double the strength that it is here. So, we’re going to Medina Sedonia today to try and outsmart the wind and catch a calm break. We have to be out of the house by 11am, which is a good thing because there’s no water, yet again.

Monday, Aug 8, 2016, 7:21 PM

11380, Tarifa, Andalusia, Spain
77°F Mostly Sunny

Wind in Medina Sedonia

Our day in Tangier was cancelled because of 40 MPH winds. There are no ferries crossing because of it. There is light in the sky, but the Straight of Gibraltar looks choppy and dark. I take it as a sign that it was not meant to be. Tangier, for now, belongs to me and my boys. We made the best of it and got up and dressed as best we could with no water and went to Medina Sidonia. It’s only 56 minutes from here and is a very small but clean, pretty town atop a hill. It has a great convent and a crumbled castle and one really nice restaurant that overlooks the village. We made donations at the Santa Maria Iglesia and walked up the tower to see all around. More wind! And we did get seriously blown around. I felt like a plastic bag in a wind tunnel. We walked up this hill toward the castle and the wind was so fierce that we couldn’t resist playing in it. We pushed against it. We fell into it. We let it move us where it wanted us to go. Eventually, we came down the hill and drove home, back to the cortijo, back to water, albeit brown water.

Doug and I had date night while Julien babysat. We went to El Tesoro, which is situated on this mountain in Betis, but the southern side of the mountain overlooking the straight. We’d rate it “very good” but I suppose we are slightly spoiled with restaurants in Vejer, where the food is superb. And yet, it was nice getting away from the surf-style grills and beachy places that cater to the gazillion campers who are perfectly content eating boquerones every night.

I spent about an hour texting back and forth with my friend Isira in Lisbon. He and his wife were going to try to visit, but we cautioned against it. It would have been a disaster with no running water, or worse! Anyway, he wanted me to re-introduce him to Ru Freeman and I had to think for a moment who she was. Oh yes, the author of A Disobedient Girl and a former colleague from Rutgers. He wanted to take her book and turn it into a movie. They are both Sri Lankan and I suppose he felt a pull to her story.

So, we’re off to Barcelona tomorrow. Thank God. This place has become a prison and the walls are made of wind.

Tuesday, Aug 9, 2016, 10:28 AM

Ensalada de atún

Meats, turkey pate and tortilla

Our last meal in Betis

On the train from Sevilla to Barcelona. Finally! I know that sounds desperate, but I was desperate to move. Pack, move. Pack, move. I slept ok last night. Not the best. At some point the wind died down and it got very quiet. The wind roared like the Atlantic ocean and so, when it stopped, it woke me up. I had cognitive dissonance. It was like the ocean dried up and the waves stopped. Doug got up and put the fan on, and we fell back to sleep.

I had loads of energy to pack and was happy to be moving. To get rid of all the food in the fridge I made a Spanish tapas dinner.

We got to Sevilla relatively quickly. And then packed our bags into lockers. We took separate taxis to the Alcazar and when we got there there was a line a mile long. I thought, “We’re not getting in.” But there was a separate line for those who had already reserved tickets, and so, we got in immediately. We literally blew threw the whole palace in 45 minutes and grabbed (yes, sigh, again) pizza for lunch because it was so quick. We didn’t do much else. We walked around a bit in the barrio Santa Cruz and then headed back to the station.

The train to Barcelona is five hours and 15 minutes. Not exactly a fast ride. But the seating arrangements so far are great–a four-seater and then two across the aisle where Julien and I are sitting. It’s toasty warm on the train and we’ve already exhausted ourselves playing a few games of poker and black jack. I think I may try to close my eyes for a bit and then continue reading South from Granada. Love this book.

Wednesday, Aug 1o, 2016, 7:30 AM

 

Tablao de Carmen, Barcelona

Picasso, Barcelona

Bar Miranda, BCN

I am sipping a Nespresso in a little hotel room in Barcelona. Just Juli and I. Doug and Co. are next door. I had a killer headache this morning that I’m blaming on the mint lime cava cocktail I had last night at a place called Mirinda. It was super bueno, but an electric storm rolled in and I sipped it down like a thirsty party girl. I’ve never heard thunder so loud! It echoed through the buildings and shook the streets. But I am not complaining. No sir. I am so happy to be away from remoteness and back to luxury. And while nothing compares to the sound of chirping crickets and frogs on a hot summer night, I will take my Egyptian cotton sheets, clear potable water and turn down service.

We walked down the Ramblas last night with hoards of tourists so thick we could have crowd-dived from a second story window. We did the Gothic district, ate pan con tomate every chance we got and ditched the kids for our second and last date night. Dinner at Arabella (never take a tip from a 25-year old front desk clerk) and then a fabulous flamenco show at Tablao de Carmen, which is located way out of the way and inside a bizarre little prefabricated Spanish village. Trip Advisor swears you can’t get good flamenco in Barcelona. I beg to differ. This troop was incredible.

Thursday, Aug 11, 2016, 2:30 PM

Doug and I on the rooftop of our hotel

Barcelona is a fabulously chic city. The restaurants and cafes and shops are divine. Architecture is an amazing mix of gothic and modern. Rooftop bars are the place to be. But there are too many damn Americans here (us included) and I can’t believe I am about to say this, but I think I finally see the true beauty that is Madrid. And I miss it.

There is a pure Spanish-ness to Madrid that is completely absent from Barcelona. In BCN, all but one of my taxi drivers was Spanish. Most of the waiters, (waitresses!) and retailers have been foreign. Everyone, and i mean everyone approaches us in English, which I find deeply annoying. And if signs are not in Catalan, they’re in English. Blah. I know this post sounds completely racist. Like, I’m critical of the foreign-global element that is BCN. And I’m a hypocrite as well. I’m here. But, I’m here for Spanish culture and language. I’m here to celebrate Spain. Not to order mojitos in English in a hotel bar filled with Americans and Brits. Anyway, Doug is happy. He’s thrilled to be here. The American tourist vibe jives with him. It makes me feel like I’m wasting valuable time.

Friday, Aug 12, 2016, 6:47 PM

Up early and off to Madrid to finish up our month long journey. It’s definitely had its highs and lows, ups and downs. It’s definitely been worth it. I probably could have stayed longer if Dani were here. I miss him so. And I can’t wait to see him.

Yesterday was another 12,000+ steps walking day, despite the two taxis we ended up taking. We went to the absurdly beautiful Sagrada Familia (word to the wise, book tickets well in advance or you will never get in; we definitely didn’t and had to settle on a self-guided, slow-moving lap around the building with a gazillion other tourists), we back to the gothic and Jewish districts, had lunch at the super hip Ocaña on the Plaça Reial and finally sat reverently in the Plaça Sant Felip Neri, where in 1938 during the Spanish Civil War, two bombs exploded killing 42 people, mostly children. The beauty of the plaza against such a dark past is chilling. You can still see on the side of the church where the bombs gnarled through the stone.

After a brief respite, we walked all the way to the W on the Barcelona beach. The actual beaches were so crowded you couldn’t see the sand. Bikini clad, dark, oily bodies were piled one on top of another with no room to move. We all looked on in utter shock and amazement  that anyone could find that enjoyable.

Sigh. Our time in Catalonia is over, but I am ready to head back to my Madrid. “My” Madrid feels right when I say it now. I don’t believe I have ever craved that crazy city more.

Sunday, Aug 14, 2016, 10:43 AM

My mother-in-law’s patio, Madrid

On the plane home. Leaving Spain is always bitter sweet. I haven’t felt that desperate need to leave in a long while. Especially not since I’ve been going by myself with only my boys and staying in my own place.

Did I accomplish my goal? I guess so. I did my best. More than anything, I finally fell in love with Madrid–a nineteen-year long struggle. After spending a few days in Barcelona dealing with the enormous crowds and all the international people living and working there, and the near-complete disconnect with Spain, I was finally able to know what makes Madrid so special. Madrid is España. It may not be a very modern city. It may not be filled with beautiful art and architecture. The people may, as one taxi driver from Alicante noted, think they are superior. But Madrid is gritty. It’s Spanish. Its essence is pure. There’s more opportunity to know Spain in Madrid, than in a place like Barcelona.

In 2010 I wrote about Madrid:

There is a paradox here: there is the constant smell of bad sewage and body odor and cigarette smoke mixed with the smell of baking bread and olive trees, lemons and expensive perfumes from the Corte Ingles on rich ladies who shop on calle Serrano. There is a deep, burning beauty in the eyes of a young girl who wears a red flower in her hair and swooshes an abanico in her dark hand. A family that meets at two for comida and a siesta in a city quieted by an afternoon of heat and closed up shop fronts. People are hot from the sun in Madrid. They’re thirsty. Some are hungry, suffering. But the suffering is like a season that lifts when the air is cool; when two young lovers meet by a window open to the sky.

I saw a lot of the ugly that was Madrid many years ago and it was very hard for me to see the beauty. In The Manzanares, I could only focus on the ugly side. I think I constantly tried to recapture Paris, while living in the slums of Vallecas and I ended up feeling defeated. Vallecas beat the shit out of me. And only later when I was able to get out and get into a prettier Madrid was I free to learn about Madrid’s other side. And yet, even the pretty parts were not Paris pretty and I struggled to find a sense of connection, which for the life of me, I could not find. The modern writer Michael Paterniti sums it up nicely:

“After the cafes of Paris with their exquisite wines and creamy fromages, crepes and steak tartare– screaming Adore me!– Madrid was these store-bought hunks of unyielding cheese and brick-hard baguettes, consumed in leafless Buen Retiro Park. Madrid, dressed as it was, tasting as it did, prideful as hell, didn’t care what you thought about it on your junior-year backpacking trip. That was your problem.”
― Michael PaternitiThe Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese

In the end, I realized I was looking in the wrong spots. I was looking, that was my problem. And Madrid doesn’t exactly flaunt its good looks. It’s not about love of architecture or street plans or gorgeous gardens that line palaces. While in its old center Madrid is very beautiful, that beauty doesn’t seep out of the center. You step one foot out of that center and you’re done. You’re surrounded by ugly Franco-era fascist buildings built to house hoards of workers. No, Madrid is all about time. The slow time it takes to heal its wounds and rebuild itself after a civil war. The slow time it takes to get up in the morning when the nights are short and the days are long. The time it takes to grow fond of a way of life and an energy that often resists being known. It has only taken me nearly 20 years to figure all that out. To grow into Madrid. And I was only able to do that by leaving and coming back. I just needed time. In the end, I created a longterm relationship with a city I never thought was possible to love.

The perfect meal

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A french farm-to-table setting

Many, many years ago, I worked as a bartender on a US and Danish air force base in Greenland–miles away from civilization and one very long treacherous dog sled ride to the nearest Inuit village. Food was functional and almost always thawed. In fact, most foods were brought in on US cargo jets either canned or frozen. There were three restaurants and a chow hall on the base, and the one constant you found on all four menus, for breakfast, lunch and dinner was pork. Pork chops, pork and beans, pork patties, pork bellies, pork sausage, pork meatballs, pork roast…you get the point. The reason for pork wasn’t so much that the Danish love it, or the Americans for that matter, but rather, it freezes better and longer than any other meat, and when you’re shipping rations to the arctic you need something that will last…and last and last and last. And so,  along with 300 other US servicemen and a few civilian employees like myself, I ate so much pork that when I returned home, I swore it off for the rest of my life (OK, save the occasional slice of sausage pizza).

This got me thinking of how impossible it would have been to have a good meal, let alone a perfect meal in that setting. Greenland was remote. And frozen. And lonely. And aside from the extremely rare arctic hare or caribou that was served fresh from the kill, it was slim pickings. Your choice was reheated pork and canned somethingorother. The sad truth is, the same can be said for a huge swath of America, despite our access to better quality, fresh ingredients. It’s so hard to create a meal (and I mean, a real meal) from shoddy, conventional, factory farmed and frozen food stuff, let alone fake food. Do you realize that over half the “cooking” that people think they do includes some form of processed or pre-packaged food (let me open this box of instant potatoes and add water)? And according to a Forbes article, while our obesity rates soar, we spend less time eating and less time cooking than other nations.(1)

You see, I’d been reading Michael Pollan‘s  NYT best-selling “In Defense of Food.” And I was preoccupied by the way we eat. On the one hand, I was horrified that some consider a microwaveable Lean Cuisine to be a healthy meal. On the other, I was intrigued by the simplicity of Pollan’s underlying message: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. But more than this simple message were his “rules” for eating–rules that could bring us back from the wasteland of processed and fake foods we’ve created for ourselves out of convenience, but that have actually removed us from a more real experience of eating. So, what were his rules? They were practical and straightforward things like: “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food,” “Eat at a table,” “Eat slowly,” and of course, “Try not to eat alone” (and a few more).

I figured, if I could achieve as many of these things in one meal, I could essentially create the perfect meal.

And so,  one afternoon,  it began like this: I called my new neighbor and said, “Let’s get together and eat.” I wanted to eat with friends. Doug and I typically don’t do that. We eat with family, which is great. But I wanted to branch out. I also wanted to eat with people who deeply appreciate food like my Italian-American family. That’s hard to find. Most of my American friends get more excited over a craft beer than a fig with feta. I knew that the Lombardos–our new neighbors– would definitely appreciate good food. After all, they own and operate a high-end, award-winning Italian restaurant  in Collingwood. So, as Marisa and I talked about it, we figured let’s just go out. This way, no one would have to cook or clean up. Right?

Wrong.

Nonsense, said her husband. I’ll cook. 

A chef, cooking in my kitchen!? Two thoughts: Lord, what did I do to deserve such luck! And, Lord, help me if I have to prepare food to impress a chef and his family.  As with most gatherings among friends, it’s the collective responsibility of the group to bring a dish. What the hell could I bring? I didn’t feel as though I was up to the task. Sure I know my way around a kitchen. But I’ll never win any awards. What’s more, Shepherd’s pie doesn’t exactly shout “gourmet” or “perfect.” Suddenly, I felt performance anxiety.  I felt as though my “perfect meal” could potentially turn into a perfect disaster.

But that didn’t happen.

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Marisa Lombardo, owner of The Artemisian

Try Not to Eat Alone As with all perfect meals, preparation actually begins well in advance. In this case, it began a year prior, when our new neighbors moved across the lake from us. Doug and I would sit out on our back porch, or on the dock, overlooking the lake, lazily watching contractors come and go over the many months it took to renovate the house that faced our backyard. Until one day, in late spring, the new owners finally moved in.  And before I could wrap a bow around a bottle of Spanish Rioja and deliver it to their doorstep, I received a called from Marisa, a total stranger to me at the time, asking if I wanted to join her and a few others for a yoga session on her dock.  Although the yoga never happened–at least not then– that very night she and I and Doug were sipping top shelf whiskey in my kitchen telling our life stories. This was not going to be any average neighbor. And as I secretly rejoiced in that fact, I simultaneously recognized that I was experiencing one of those rare coup de foudre moments that can only be explained by the alignment of stars, or more realistically, shared commonalities between a group of people who hit it off.

The yoga and whiskey were just the beginning. There were impromptu lunches and bike outings with kids; stop ins to bitch about gluten intolerances or work frustrations; recipe sharing, art outings, and one rather successful attempt on her part to teach me how to make real Italian espresso in a macchinetta. And when her husband and Doug were thrown into the mix, talk expanded to travel, motorcycles, grills and how to build an outdoor shower. And thus, the first ingredient in the perfect meal hadn’t exactly been found or bought, rather created from scratch: friendship.

Adding a few others to join in the “perfect meal” was essential too. Jan, Doug’s sister, who is a class or two away from becoming a sommelier is a definite foodie and a regular at all our gatherings. She offered to bring wines that perfectly paired with our meal. Who else would know what goes so well with oysters, pork and pasta but Jan? And Marisa’s and Franco’s long time friends, Juan and Lisa were a must too. I met Juan, who is Spanish, and Lisa, whose family runs a Spanish Imports business, at one of the Lombardo’s parties and we hit it off instantly. The Spanish connection could not be denied (on her annual trip to Spain with her parents when she was 14, Lisa ending up meeting Juan. It was love at first sight and they were married at 19. For those of you who don’t know, my first husband was also a Spaniard. We both have two boys around the same age, and we both love all things Spanish). It’s no wonder they compare friends to food when they say friendship is the spice of life.

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Franco Lombardo, owner of Sapori Restaurant, and his daughter

Eat at a Table After some discussion of the menu, we decided to leave the main course to Franco. Wheph. And so, I was off the hook and didn’t have to offer up my crock-pot American Chop Suey.  My marching orders were simple: set the table, make dessert. Easy. I could handle that. In fact, desserts are my speciality. When I was young I spent hours with my grandmother, who was a Pennsylvania Dutch baker, helping her make apple pies, apple dumplings, shoofly pies and funnel cakes in her tiny kitchen in Ambler, PA. We’d load up her stationwagon early in the morning and haul all that goodness down to Union St. in Medford where she and my dad’s second wife Jenifer ran a little bakery called The Upper Crust. Whipping up a fruit tart with a buttery flaky crust was in my genes. And because it was summer, peaches and blueberries were still relatively easy to find at a NJ Farmer’s Market.

Setting a table was also something I divinely enjoyed. There is an art to it, as well as a tradition. The colors, the fabric, the centerpiece, the dishes…I wanted them all to reflect a French provincial farm-to-table feel that was at once elegant and understated. I’d choose a basic blue and white linen tablecloth, blue and white plastic (yes, plastic!) plates on top grainy, dark wood chargers from Sur la Table and a bouquet of wild flowers. On subsequent dinner parties I stole Marisa’s idea of cutting a few sprigs of basil or thyme from my garden and placing them in mason jars.

Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food The night of our soirée was a Tuesday in July. The table was set, the guest arrived, and Edith Piaf was belting out La Vie en Rose in the background. Franco started us off with fresh oysters and tuna carpaccio with wasabi salsa. We all lingered by him at the island in the kitchen, standing, drinks in hand, scooping up an oyster, biting off a chunk of baguette. Laughing. Chatting. I don’t care how big or exotic your house may be, if you’re a foodie, there’s no other spot for you but the kitchen, near the person cooking. You will stay there the entire time until you’re told to leave, which happens often, right before food is about to be served. I remember my mother  yelling at every Christmas dinner, “Everybody out of the kitchen!” including the adults, and we knew it was only moments before dinner would be served.

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The grilled pork belly

The tuna and oysters would have been enough. I would have been completely satisfied. But, it was only the beginning. Following the antipasti, Franco prepared sautéed shrimp & cuttlefish squid ink pasta. He plated and served the pasta for seven adults and seven kids and we finally took our seats at the table. More wine. More talking. And the slurping of the squid ink pasta, which turned our tongues black. At this point, we ate nothing else. Just pasta. In Italy, true tradition is to never serve a “side” of pasta or a meat over a mound of pasta. Rather spaghetti, pasta, risotto and so on are the primi piatti, or first plate. Then the main course, which, in our case (coincidentally), was Pennsylvania Amish pork, is served with a small accompaniment.

Eat slowly. While the photo of the grilled pork belly I’m sharing here exists, it does it no justice. And to say that this one piece of meat changed my perception of pork forever is an understatement. I assure you this dish was so divine it threw me into a state of temporary nirvana so profound and so celestial that I became speechless for moments after I had first tasted it (my eyes may have also rolled back into my head; honestly I don’t remember). I kid you not. Because the second bite was just as mind-blowing as the first. Tender. Mouthwatering. Succulent. Cosmic. Franco grilled the pork out back on our little grill–an outdoor appliance that never cooked up anything fancier than a burger or a dog. He topped it with a light salmorigano sauce of lemon, olive oil, garlic, oregano and fresh parsley. He believes food should be simple. It should speak for itself. Marisa made baby kale and watercress salad with dates, goat milk ricotta, figs and balsamic pearls as a side.

But here’s the question. Would this meal taste as good on its own? Does any food have the ability to taste divine in a complete vacuum?

The answer is complex. While “delicious” food can be and is often prepared, cooked and served by a pro (or not), the experience of the meal can be deeply enhanced when shared with friends who participate in the story of that food. We ate together. We ate slowly. We ate deliberately. We talked about the food. We talked about cooking. We talked about ingredients and farms and animals. By the end of the night, we all knew which ocean the oysters were pulled from, what the pig had eaten, and that the pasta was made with cuttlefish ink and semolina flour imported from a tiny village in Sicily. I want to make it perfectly clear that every part of this meal came with a story.

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A summer berry & fruit tart

And just as a storyteller weaves a tale and transports an audience, the perfect meal does the same to those who sit down together and eat it. There’s a symbiotic relationship between people and food, and to make a mental and emotional direct connection to it– where it comes from, how it’s made, what it means to you –is to achieve as close and intimate an experience as you can possibly ever achieve from something you ingest. And, that’s when I realized that, Greenland aside, I had had many perfect meals in my lifetime. I grew up with a family that bred me with a keen sense of food not only as sustenance, but as a story. Our Italian heritage, our identity was connected to nearly every recipe my mother made. My great grandmother’s raviolis. The red gravy a top every Sunday dinner. The Italian cookies that were made on my great-grandmother’s pizzelle iron. If food is love then the perfect meal is the story in which that love is told.

The dishes were not cleared from the table right away. If you are Italian, Spanish or Greek (maybe even French), clearing the table too quickly is sacrilege. Plates remain on the table a long time. This is a distinctly Mediterranean tradition. We pick. We eat more. We eat off someone else’s plate. We take our time. We talk. We drink. We digest. Whether you are right off the boat or third generation Italian-American, these are the kinds of traditions that are not so easy to shake. They last for centuries. Sitting at the table a long time over a good meal is in your blood.

At some point, someone asked for an espresso. I cheated. I whipped up a few in my more modern Nespresso maker, not yet a pro at using the macchinetta. I didn’t know this, but, Italians apparently never order a cappuccino after 10 in the morning. After dinner, you have an espresso. And then you have a Passito Di Pantelleria, which is a sweet dessert wine. Or chocolate.

A slice of  homemade fruit tart isn’t so bad either. The next thing you know, it’s close to midnight and your friends are helping you with the dishes and you’re completely spent. You’ve experienced the perfect meal.

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Friends: Tracy Shields, Jan, Juan, Doug, Marisa, Franco and Lisa

I often wonder if the pork they served us in Greenland would have tasted better with friends. I imagine it would.  And yet, there was no story to that pork. No one knew where it came from. In fact, we were so remote, I often imagined that we received our food by way of some humanitarian-like airdrop, where cargo planes would fly overhead and boxes of frozen pork would be dropped by parachute onto the frozen tundra. Actually, we’re not so far off from that imaginary scenario when we go to the grocery store. Where does all that stuff come from? Who knows. Michael Pollan writes that your best hope for real food from a supermarket is around the perimeter. That’s where the produce, the dairy, the meats are. All the aisles in between are processed food airdropped from corporate America.  The best story that comes from a bag of chips is that you located it on sale in aisle seven. I’m not sure that makes for a very great story. Or a great meal.