Category Archives: Travel

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.

Making peace with Madrid; exploring the barrios

Like a defiant, self-absorbed bad boy who refuses to follow the rules, Madrid has always seemed to be wrapped up in a sort of Bacchian narcissism that’s not entirely interested in you unless you go where he wants to go and do what he wants to do. And that typically means partying all night, until seven in the morning, drinking pacharáns and grazing tapas. Unfortunately, I go to bed at eight (and don’t drink much), which makes it rather difficult for me and Madrid to find common ground, let alone get to know each other more intimately.

But try I do. And, as with any strained familial relationship, I visit each year, with slight reservation, always trying to see the good, for the sake of getting along.

Why I try so hard is simple: it’s the home of my kids’ grandparents. And if it weren’t for them, whom I love dearly, Madrid and I would have parted ways back in 1997, when I packed my bags and said, good riddance.

I used to live in Vallecas on calle Monte Igueldo when I was first married. We lived in a two-bedroom piso on the forth floor of an apartment building with no heat or hot water due to an empty butane tank that took a good two months for the butane company to fill. It was December and it was cold as hell. It even snowed.  I used to percolate hot water in my coffee machine (we did have electricity) and mix it with a bit of cold water so that I could wash myself. We were so broke that McDonald’s was a luxury we couldn’t afford.

Poverty gave me a very limited and rather working-class understanding of the city.  I knew key tourist spots that you could visit for free–the Plaza Mayor, where Americans and Brits would sit at cafes that lined the inner courtyard, the Retiro, Madrid’s version of “Central Park,” the Rastro, a huge Sunday flea market in Lavapies, and Casa de Campo–another big green space that includes a pool, tennis courts, and a park. But other than that, I worked every day as an English teacher and commuted with the throngs of Madrileños, heading to Recoletos, up the Castellano or other parts of the city. And because I had no set location, no office or classroom–I took an English teaching job wherever one was offered–I probably spent more time underground than above it. Pair that with a hubby who didn’t exactly have friends that I could relate to or socialize with (he and his childhood friends would meet once a week to play Dungeons and Dragons, or drink at Irish pubs). And so, I never experienced the deeper Spanish roots of the city–or found any of those unwritten-about places that are not discovered, per se, but shared like a secret, among friends.

I think I may have actually said, me cago en la leche, when I finally left Madrid but who knows.

Yet, I keep coming back. As often as I can. And if I am to be brutally honest, I have to admit that it may be partly for selfish reasons. There are, after all, the warm and embracing Spanish people. And the amazing food. And the dry, desert climate I love so much.  The European experience is well-preserved in Spain. And Madrid, itself, while lacking in aesthetics, has the potential for deeper exploration. And so, each time I come here, I have the best intentions: to see a side of Madrid I never knew, overlook our rocky past, and once and for all learn to love this untamed rebel.

Lodging

Sibrarist

The Sibarist, a two bedroom apartment rental in La Latina

Last year, was a giant leap in that direction. I finally decided to rent an apartment on the Plaza Santa Ana as opposed to my usual– staying in Vallecas with my in-laws. What a difference!

We were able to explore more of the center instead of just taking the train in for a few hours. We were free to dine out at night–though it kills me to miss anything my mother-in-law cooks. And we were able to connect a little more directly with the vibe of Madrid, as we were right there in the heart of the city, living la vida, as opposed to being insulated in a touristy hotel, or isolated in an outer barrio.

Foregoing a hotel to stay in one of the new-style super modern luxury apartments has other benefits too. There’s far more space for less money, it’s far more modern than any hotel in Madrid (with the exception of Only You a sleek, modern hotel at $350 a night, or  Oscar, in the gayborhood, which is beautiful, including the naked men on the walls, but not the best spot for two teen boys and their mum; basically a sex hotel in Chueca, easily identified by the banner over it’s front door “Do You Want to Sleep With Me?”)

Leon II, Madrid

An apartment in Las Huertas, rented through Spain-Select

Check out Spain Select. They offer fully-furnished two, three and four bedroom luxury apartments in the heart of Madrid. Ours this year is a two bedroom, two bath apartment with a fully equipped kitchen (including washer and dryer),  living room and views galore for the price of € 135 (that’s roughly $150 a night based on the exchange rate on 7/21/15). It’s located on Calle Leon on a quieter street than the Plaza Santa Ana, which can be a party plaza.

Keep in mind, normal hotel rooms in Madrid are small. So, if you’re traveling with two rather large teenagers, or children in general, you’d most likely need two rooms or a suite. Apartments solve that problem. Of course, you will have to cover your own bed. But, I think I can handle that.

Barrios

Years ago, I would do my usual loop around the center: Sol, then the Plaza Mayor, a little of the Gran Via, Atocha, Retiro, maybe the royal palace, and that was pretty much it. This trip is all about branching out. And if you’re no stranger to Madrid, my guess is you already know about this gems.

Malasaña: I have since discovered the hipster Malasaña district, with pleasant delight, never knowing it existed. Duh. With cool cafes like La Bicicleta, that offers amazing coffee and French croissants, and a pretty well thought-out “workspace” (tables have drawers with keys so that you can leave your laptop locked up without losing your space when you go to the W/C), and Lolina Vintage Cafe, a thoroughly mesmerizing cafe popping with color and design (and a kind of quirky menu), it’s hard to resist this bohemian, vibrant district. The Plaza del Dos de Mayo is its center and it has great vintage and trendy clothing shops, fabulous bars and hip cafes.  Use metro Tribunal.

Huertas: This year, we will be staying in the Huertas neighborhood, which is the literary quarter:

Also known as Barrio de las Letras, Huertas was once home to prominent literary figures, Miguel de Cervantes and Lope de Vega among them. Calle Huertas itself is inlaid with quotes from celebrated authors, street names pay homage to them, and second-hand bookshops pervade. neighborhood, everything becomes a little more cramped and slightly less refined, and takes on more of an underground feel. Live music is at the heart of Huertas: by night, its subdued bars are ideal for meeting friends, sipping cocktails, and chatting quietly while enjoying jazz or singer-songwriter performances. –TripAdvisor

Be sure to stroll down the narrow calle de las Huertas, which has the Plaza de Angel and Plaza Santa Ana on one end, and the Paseo del Prado on the other.  This area is also known for its jazz clubs, live music venues like Cafe Central, neighborhood bookstores, The Teatro Español, and yes, more cafes and restaurants. Best people-watching spot: an outdoor cafe on the Plaza Santa Ana.

La Latina: 

While I’ve known about La Latina for quite a while (it is, after all where the Palacio Royal and a part of Plaza Mayor are located), I have never explored it as thoroughly as I’d like, nor have I done so knowing its history. La Latina is the oldest quarter in Madrid, and one of the most beautiful. It is here you will find the best concentration of tapas bars, including Café Bar DelicCasa Lucas, and Casa Lucio, the latter two located on calle Cava Baja, one of the oldest streets in Madrid and a popular cafe street in La Latina. Interestingly, the Cava Baja (and its twin street, the Cava Alta) were named after caves or “moats” that allowed subterranean access to Christians and Moors who could enter and exit the city even when the doors of the walled city were closed. In later years, merchants who would come to the city to trade would stay on these streets, which were lined with inns and taverns. 

Also in La Latina is Madrid’s oldest street, the calle de Grafal, which, according to historians, dates back to 1190. But stick to the calles Cava Alta and Cava Baja where all the action is. And only long after dark.

La Latina’s main squares are the Plaza La Cebada and Plaza La Paja. And you can also find the Rastro, a huge flea market open on Sundays in La Latina. 

To read more about Madrid’s neighborhoods, TripAdvisor has a great page devoted to them.

 

 

 

Rail trip across France, Spain

“I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.” ― Ernest Hemingway

Trying to get back to Europe is no easy feat (lorsque le temps viendrait!). Airline tickets can cost, at the cheapest, anywhere from $1,000 to $1,800 per person. Decent hotels in big cities like London, Paris and Madrid are usually over $200 a night. Forget about hotels by the beach in July and August. And while rail travel is still relatively inexpensive, it’s not what it used to be. Of course, you can definitely do Europe on a budget. Staying in hostals and sharing a shower with a bunch of backpacking twentysomethings is probably your top best budget saver. But, really? Not for a family of four.  So…bide your time, save your money and try to devote a few hours per week to perusing TripAdvisor for deals and tips and soon enough, you’ll have a realistic idea of how much you’ll need for the trip of your dreams.

Style, budget and space, check!

A rail trip across France and into Spain not only requires money but time. Reasearch time, in particular. Hours of Google searching went into each of these hotels, painstakingly trying to find ones that fit into my budget, without compromising that one commodity I just don’t ever want to give up: atmosphere.  Being the hotel snob that I am, any place I stay must have that certain je ne sais quoi, that ambience that delivers a true “I’m in Europe” feel. And believe it or not, that “feel” is not easy to find. Many hotels across Europe are plain, simple, and at best, functional. They may have a stunning reception area, but rooms oftentimes can be barren (a bed, end table, TV and bathroom), and lacking in what I call an American idealized version of what we think a hotel in Europe should be. Worse yet, is that in certain cities the hotel fashion at the moment happens to be all-American, New England, circa 1982 (ahem, Madrid, I’m talking about you. You go from the sublime to the ridiculous). The worst though are the hotels along the coast in France and Spain. Little seaside resorts that are inundated in summer with European travelers. Booking three months in advance isn’t soon enough. You need to grab some of the better hotels six months to a year in advance, or get stuck with the typical highrise hotel room that makes you feel more like you’re in Wildwood, NJ than on the Costa Brava.  Lastly, and most importantly, is that when you travel as a family through Europe, it’s almost impossible to find big rooms with a separate living area. Many times what they offer are quadruple rooms, or “quads” which is basically two double beds smushed together in one small room. And while that may save you money, you just may end up killing each other by the end of your trip. I hate to be a whiny, privileged American girl, but — when you’re traveling together for 18 days straight, you need your space. So, all of the rooms I booked either had connecting rooms, a separate bedroom area or, we simply rented two rooms.

OK, so…the particulars… This particular itinerary is an 18-day rail trip, consisting of  seven stops, beginning in London and ending in Madrid. Because my kids’ grandparents live in Madrid, we saved it for last, where we will stay for five days in an apartment, not a hotel (I’ll get to why, below). Every other stop along the way will be a two-day stop. Had we not extended our stay in Madrid, we probably would have gone from Barcelona over to Pamplona (one day) then to Bilbao (two days) and then Madrid. Each hotel is in walking distance of public transportation, either directly walking from the main train stations, or by connecting Metro stops. The only time where this is not the case is in Annecy, France, where we plan to rent a car from Paris and drive to Annecy (in the French Alps). We are doing this for two reasons: once in Annecy, we would like to take what we believe is a 45-minute car ride to Geneva, Switzerland (a train ride from Annecy to Geneva apparently takes three hours, due to a gazillion stops and layovers along the way), and so that when my husband has to go back to Paris the next day, to head home, he can simply take the car back, and drop it off at Charles du Gaul airport. If you would like actual cost of the trip, or hotel recommendations, please feel free to comment. And of course, when I get back, I will give my firsthand account of how it all panned out!

LONDON, ENGLAND • HOTEL: The Academy Hotel,
 21 Gower Street, Bloomsbury 
London
WC1E (Tube Goodge Street- Northern Line 6HG)(Two night, family room) I chose this hotel (instead of the Think Apartment Hotel, which I had originally booked) because it was a little cheaper and it was a little more central to where I wanted to be. This hotel is in the literary Bloomsbury district in walking distance to Covent Garden. Their family room consists of two separate bedrooms and a living area. It doesn’t look too fancy, but London hotels are extremely expensive. We’re lucky to have found what we hope will be a nice place. • TRAIN: Aprox. 2 hours, EuroRail Train London-Saint Pancras to Paris Nord (four persons $459)

PARIS, FRANCE • HOTEL: Villa Pantheon, 41 Rue Des Ecoles 5th arr. – Quartier Latin Paris, 75005 (Metro Maubert Mutualite) (Adjoining rooms) Also pricey are hotels in Paris. This is a British-style hotel supposedly in the Latin Quarter, but it’s if it is, it’s on the very edge. It’s much closer to the Saint-Germain-des-Près area, farther south-east. But the area itself is another favorite area of mine–right by the Pantheon, and of course, in the heart of Paris, on the left bank. Here, we reserved connecting rooms. • Rental Car Company: Auto Europe. Picking up a midsize car at the Gare du Lyon around the corner and heading to Annecy (aprox 5h 30m )

ANNECY, FRANCE • HOTEL: Hotel Les Tresoms 3 Boulevard De La Corniche Annecy, France TELEPHONE: +33-450514384 I wanted to splurge a bit at this location. When will we ever be back in the French Alps? Why not have a hotel room on Lake Annecy? A bit over budget, but hopefully worth it. • TRAIN to Aix-en Provence (aprox 3h39m)

AIX-EN-PROVENCE, FRANCE • HOTEL: Hotel Aquabella 2 Rue Des Etuves, Aix-en-Provence, Bouches-du-Rhone, 13100 This hotel is right in the center of town 11 minutes walking distance from the main train station. I can’t forget to have some ratatouille while here, and of course, a little bit of red wine de Provence. We reserved two separate rooms at this hotel because of their size. And unfortunately, there is only one late night train to Aix from Annecy, so we will pretty much lose a day here. Quel dommage! • TRAIN: (About 2h30m to Sete)

Update: this hotel was a huge disappointment–very unclean and definitely not as up-to-date as the photos would have you think. However, it is very close to a charming plaza right off the rue Merindol, before you hit the the Place Forum de Cardeurs where we had a great Moroccan dinner in an outdoor cafe, called Le Pe’tit Tagine. My suggestion: if you want to experience Aix, rent a house in the countryside

SETE, FRANCE • HOTEL: Le Grand Hotel, 17 Quai Maréchal de Lattre de Tassigny, Sète, France. This is one of those places that has probably become far grander in my imagine that it is in reality. I say this because the hotel looks amazing, yet the town looks completely lacking. In fact, it looks as if it’s just a canal town. And yet, it’s Provence. I’ll make the best of it. • TRAIN: (aprox 3h3m)

BARCELONA, SPAIN • HOTEL: Hotel Duquesa de Cardona 4* Sup.Passeig Colom 12 – 08002 (Metro: Jaume 1 or Drassanes) Barcelona (España). This is another stuning hotel with a roof top bar and pool overlooking the sea. Here, we will be staying in their largest room, the Junior Suite La Duquesa, with double balconies and a separate bedroom. Once I arrive in Spain I believe I can finally relax! I speak Spanish far better than French, and I am far more at ease here as I know the customs much better. Además, este es el país del padre de mis hijos. • TRAIN: (about 3 h 5 m)

MADRID, SPAIN • HOTEL: Apartment Plaza de Santa Ana 1, 2º Dcha B, 28004, Madrid (Metro: Anton Martin. Apartment arrivals can be made between 4.00 pm. and 9.00 pm. Last but not least! Madrid, my old home! Because we normally stay with my in-laws, I have never had need for a hotel in Madrid. However, now that my sons are so big, and we all take up so much room, it’s time we got a place of our own. When I looked into hotels in Madrid, I was greatly disappointed. And then I remembered apartment rentals for a similar price. Bingo! For under the cost of a hotel room with two double beds and a bath, we will be renting a two bedroom apartment on the Plaza Santa Ana (one of the most popular plazas in the center of town), a huge living room, kitchen two bathrooms and a dining room. Outrageous. It’s also right near the Tirso de Molina metro stop, which means it’s a direct line to my kids’ grandparents’ house in Vallecas.

Feel free to share this itinerary. And if you have any questions, comment below!

24 hours in Paris

If you see one city in Europe in your lifetime, let it be Paris. It’s one  of those places that you can continue to discover and rediscover for years. Ten days, two weeks, a month is often not enough. But,  if you only have 24 hours for the City of Lights the below itinerary might be just enough to give you a decent feel for what Paris has to offer.

In 1989 I lived there, in a little flat in Les Halles and got to know the city quite well. It took me 23 years to get back and sadly, I only had one day. Here was my list of mandatory stops…

Arriving at night

  • 7PM Arrival by train at the Gare du Nord (nearly all trains from the north, including ones from Charles du Gaulle airport lead to Gare du Nord. It’s also the most central of the stations).
  • 7:25 Follow signs for the Metro (M) and take the dark purple/brown line (#4) to Les Halles. From Les Halles, connect underground and and get off at the Tuilleries.
  • 8PM Drop your bags off at the Hotel Lotti on the rue Castiglione where you’ll be staying (go ahead, splurge. It’s only one night). Le Lotti is a fabulous, old world, (expensive) hotel where you can truly get a sense of what it must have felt like to live in Paris circa 1792. We opted for the bigger room with sliding doors in between a bedroom and a sitting room with a writing desk. How can you spend a night in Paris without waking up to a writing desk, especially when it overlooks the street?!
  • 8:30 Freshen up and then head out, down the rue St. Honore. Aside from all the luxury window shopping you’ll want to do (Hello haute couture!), you’ll need to eat. So, grab a typical cafe-style dinner at Le Coupe D’Or. Le thé glacé est magnifique!
  • 9:30 The Louvre. Head back toward the rue du Rivoli and cross the bridge. You may need a map; my own recollection of how to get there is a bit sketchy. Street signs for major attractions are everywhere. Then again, wandering around Paris is half the fun.
  • 9:45 They don’t call Paris the city of lights for nothing. If you see any part of Paris by night, let it be the Tuilleries, the Louvre, the Place du la Concorde  and the Palais Royal. On a clear night, you can also see (gasp!) the Eiffel Tower from this location.
  • 10:30 Walk north along the Seine (heading toward Notre Dame), past the Pont Neuf (possibly the most famous bridge in Paris) and back into Les Halles for a taste of the more flirty, and dirty side of Paris. By this point, you should have walked off the steak frites you had for dinner. It’s time to try a chocolate crepe. No need to sit unless you need a rest. You can buy crepes from the street vendors in Les Halles (ancient markets). While here, check out the hundreds of cafes, the Georges Pompidou center of modern art and the Saint Eustache, one of the oldest churches in Paris (Mozart’s mother’s funeral took place there). If you’re lucky, you’ll catch the sound of street musicians around this area.
  • 11:30 You’re sleepy! Start heading back to your hotel. If you can, try to take the rue de 4 fils and then cut through Place du Vendome for one last spectacular site.
  • Midnight. If you’re anything like me, this is way past your bedtime. Go to sleep! You’re getting up early tomorrow.

Your One Day in Paris

  • 7AM Wake up, throw something on and go downstairs to the restaurant and order a coffee. Don’t bother with room service. Bring the coffee back to your room and do something truly, deeply Parisian. WRITE at that little desk and sip your cafe au lait.
  • 8AM After you wake and pack up your bags and head out, stop along the rue de Rivoli and have breakfast. Definitely order a croissant, and of course, another coffee (don’t worry, you’ll detox later), and try a plat du jamon (ham).
  • 9:30 Take the Metro (there are choices all up and down the rue de Rivoli) and head to St. Michel. Last night was the rive droit, today, it’s the rive gauche (left bank). Saint Michel is the indisputable heart of the left bank.
  • 11AM Head down the quai toward Notre Dame. Depending on time of year and hour of arrival, you could be waiting in a long line to get in, or you could wander through the doors as though you were the only tourist in town. Before you hit the famous church, you will most likely pass the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore. This is a must stop. Go in. Buy something. The history is astounding, especially if you love to read. You’d be amazed at who waltzed through those doors and hung out upstairs amid the bookshelves.
  • 12:45 Give yourself time to wander back through the Latin Quarter, back to rue Saint Michel and all the way down the Boulevard Saint Germain. Before you leave the area of Saint Germain des Pres, you absolutely must have lunch (or at least a coffee–yes, another) at the Cafe Deux Magots. Hemingway, Fitgerald, Dororthy Parker, Picasso and Gertrude Stein were all regulars. And no matter what the season, I suggest eating outside and people watching. Another Parisian custom you can check off your list.
  • 2PM Keep walking down the Boulevard Saint Germain and head toward Montparnasse. You should be able to see the tower in front of you. If your feet hurt at this point, take a little detour to the left. The beautiful Jardin du Luxembourg is hidden a few streets back. The Palais Luxumbourg is worth the detour. At certain spots within the garden you can see the Pantheon.
  • 3pm In Montparnasse you can catch a glimpse of two more mythic cafes: La Rotonde and Le Dome, the latter of which is now a seafood restaurant. In the 1920’s, however, they were the stomping ground of some of the most famous American Expatriate writers and artists.
  • 3:30 The clock is ticking! Hop on the Metro and head to the Eiffel Tower. Any stop near “Le Tour Eifel” will do, but I believe Bir-Hakeim is your best choice from Montparnasse. Get out of the metro, turn a corner or two, and Voila! One of the most legendary edifices on the planet.
  • 4:30 From the Eiffel Tower I suggest taking a taxi to Sacre Coeur by way of the Arc du Triomphe.  No taxi driver in his right mind will want to go around the Arc because it’s a traffic nightmare. But plead with him (S’il vous plait!)  You can’t say you’ve really experienced Paris unless you’ve survived the insane traffic jams around the Arc. And besides, you get to go down the Champs Elysees. Then again, you’re short on time. You might need to save the insanity for a future visit.
  • 5PM Your tour of Paris isn’t complete until you’ve wandered around the Basilica of Sacre Coeur to the little neighborhood of Montmartre. Unfortunately, you can’t take your time. But you do have enough to spare for a quick dinner on the square. Again, sit outside and watch all the artists selling their art and painting. If you’re lucky, you’ll get harassed in French for taking a picture without consent.
  • 5:45 Take the long walk down the infamous steps of Montmartre until you’re in Pigalle (the red light district). And while you most likely can’t catch a show, you can at least pass by the Moulin Rouge right on the Boulevard de Clichy.  Again, watch that you don’t snap any photos around this area. You could get your camera snatched.
  • 6PM Catch a taxi back to Gare du Nord. You’re not far, but you want to make sure you have time to find your track and wander one last time within the confines of this grand train station.
  • 7PM Au Revoir Paris! A bientot!

Raising the dead

I cried this morning. No. I sobbed.

Pernille sent me an email regarding D and I being picked up at the airport upon our arrival in Amsterdam. We’ve known for quite some time we’d be going; we already have our tickets. So Pernille’s email was simply relating a few particulars on how we’d get from the airport to the hotel. Amsterdam is still very much happening! Within the email, however,  it listed the ways in which the others in our group would be coming into the city on or around the 21st. We would be coming in from Philadelphia. C would be flying in from London. And E would be taking the train in from Germany, I believe, and didn’t need any help getting to the hotel. It was this last bit that reminded me of trains. And this last bit that reminded me I needed to look at a map of Europe before heading to The Netherlands. It’s been a while since I’ve needed to know where anything was in Europe except Spain. Ergo, I’ve forgotten much of my geography. And if there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s the isolationist mentality of the American who knows very little of the world save how to get to Disneyland.

Google maps. Zoom in: Amsterdam on the Markermeer sea, across the North Sea from Great Britain. To the east of Germany. To the north of Denmark, Norway, Sweden. To the south of Brussels.

To the south of Brussels. Zoom out. Draw an imaginary line with finger below Brussels. Bingo.

There it was. Staring me in the face. The proximity of Amsterdam to France, and more importantly, Paris. I sobbed with happiness and release. Twenty-two years of trying to get back to a place I could never emotionally give up. Like a torchbearer for a lost love. Four and half hours by car; three hours and nineteen minutes by high-speed train. A six a.m. ride from Station Amsterdam Centraal will get us to Paris-Nord by 9:35. Petit dejeuner at Les Deux Magots. A stroll through Les Halles.  Notre Dame.  Saint Michel. Jardin du Luxembourg. My old flat on rue Rimbuteau. Le Violon Dingue. Lunch at La Closerie des Lilas. Hemingway. Fitzgerald. Henry Miller. Ezra Pound. James Joyce. Dorothy Parker. Camille Claudel. Kiki. Picasso. Ford Madox Ford. DH Lawrence. Rodin. Anais Nin. Gertrude Stein. John Dos Passos. The Louvre. Sacre Coeurs. Dinner in Montparnasse.

The Eiffel Tower.

In the years that followed my father’s death I kept having dreams that he would come back to life. I would know he was dead in the dream and then suddenly, I would walk into a secret room that I never knew existed in his house, and he’d be there in front of me, smoking a cigarette and saying something casually obvious like, “See! I’m not really dead. Just hiding out.” I would cry hysterically and hug him, and think, the nightmare is over; I have my father back. It’s that feeling of raising the dead, that it’s as simple as booking one simple train ride, on the right website, from the comfort of your home. You only have to know how to figure out the puzzle. Like Dorothy’s ruby slippers. I’ve always had the power to “go back.” And yet, if somebody told me it was that easy, I wouldn’t have believed it. I had to figure it out for myself.

But alas! Perhaps this is all too good to be true. I am waiting on Pernille to get back to me, regarding whether or not we are free to travel that day or have events that I might need to be present for. I am hoping for the former. I’ve come so far. I would hate to think I was given supernatural powers to resurrect the dead only to have them taken away and be turned back into a human. I may have to remind myself that the dead are long buried and there is no bringing them back. That Paris is still very muchly out of reach. At least in this lifetime. Quelle injustice!

The woman who attached herself to food with a string

Part I

It made no sense to spend the night driving from Ouarzazate to Agadir, considering that we would have to go through the Tichka pass with which neither of us were familiar. Besides, Paul wanted to take pictures and I wanted one last glimpse of the desert before reaching the coast. But another night at the Ksar Ighnda was not an option, and so we packed our bags and found an older room at a riad about two miles from the center of town.

We had no set schedule. We were itinerants addicted to the unfamiliar. And as such, we had to impose customs on ourselves within the confines of our peripatetic lifestyle. Where once our children and the daily grind of work and home dictated the entire structure of our New Jersey existence, now we were living gratis. We had returned to innocence, like free-floating kids without a lick of responsibility. On this particular night, like every other, Paul took his thé à la menthe at the café or lobby alone, while I stayed back in the room to read or nap or simply linger on my own mindlessly, doing nothing, save stare at the architecture and decor of the four walls surrounding me. At 10ish, I would join him for dinner at whatever restaurant the hotel offered. But the longer I lingered in our tiny room, the more apparent it became that the Hotel Nord offered little more than a bed, a broken air conditioner, and two open windows that looked out over the N-9 in Tabounte, a noisy suburb. I was restless. And so, despite needing the order of my alone time, I decided to join Paul early.

When I arrived, he was talking with an American, a man about our age, with grayish sandy hair and a peculiar, vapid smile–the kind you might see on a glassy-eyed, cultish Jim Jones, or Claude Vorilhon. He was dressed inappropriately for tea, and too wealthy looking for a budget hotel. He was in the midst of going on and on about the company he owned, Southern Bio Technologies, LLC., which improved bean and other crop production technologies in Central and Southern Africa. I didn’t have the patience to find out what he was doing in Morocco, let alone Tabounte, so I assumed he was here on business and like us, couldn’t find a better hotel on such short notice. I remained on the periphery of the conversation. Paul was such a good listener and so, it wasn’t uncharacteristic of him to get stuck chatting with someone he had literally nothing in common with. He was a small town, county attorney—think Atticus in To Kill A Mockingbird—kindhearted and fair like Atticus too, who despite making a good living for himself and his family, had never voiced an interest in bean farming, that I know of. And yet, to his credit, he genuinely found something interesting in everyone.

But, I was burnt out on listening, or for that matter, talking. It seemed to me that most tourists were not used to the isolation of travel and so when they’d meet up with someone who spoke their language, they would incessantly ramble on about nothing— superficial, braggy stuff—where they’d been, what they owned, how they managed, “knock on wood,” to stay afloat during the economic downturn, how many kids they had in what Universities, where they were going next. If we’d mention our trip to the south of Spain, they too had been there, plus the Canaries, plus Portugal. If we mentioned we had four kids between us, two of whom were at State Universities, they had five: two in Harvard, one in Princeton, another at MIT. It got to the point where I simply didn’t care to meet or talk to anyone anymore as a method of self-preserverance. Where once a stranger was a lifeline, now he was a source of encumbrance.

Instead of socializing, I kept my head buried in a book. While in Morocco I felt as though I had no choice but to read everything by Paul Bowles, and the Spanish author Juan Goytisolo. Presently I was reading Makbara, by the latter. A chapter entitled, The Cemetery—but still catching tidbits of the American’s pontifications.

“SBT disseminates technologies to and educates thousands of bean farmers all across Africa for the purpose of transforming their subsistence farms into local, national and potentially international-selling cash crops…”

I was bored with him, until, “One of my favorite charities that SBT is involved in at the moment is assisting the little guy in his endeavor to forge a relationship with the big guy.”

“For what purpose?” I asked, placing my book on the bar. “What would the little guy want or even need from the big guy?” I already didn’t like his arrogant tone.

“So that they can buy more seeds, more readily, so as to handle the increasing demands of their crop.” He smiled.

“So basically you help make it impossible for local farmers to feed their families because suddenly they can’t afford the cost of their own crop?”

“No, my dear,” his odd smile remaining, “We are improving lives.”

Paul interjected, “my wife loves a good conspiracy.” The American laughed and invited us to his place for drinks, just across the N-9,

“I’d like you to meet my wife,” he said, looking at me in particular. “I think you’d both get along quite well.”

I assumed he meant he had a house. It’d been a while since I’d been in one and so I looked at Paul, he looked at me, and we agreed. I grabbed my book and a sweater and the three of us  headed away from the safety of hotel life into the dark, unfamiliar street.