Adventures in Croatia

I have to begin this post by sharing that a week ago, I paid less than 6 euros (<$6.72) for 6 months worth of prescription medication and that was an entirely out-of-pocket expense (no health insurance).  I know, right?  I was in shock the whole walk home from the pharmacy, wanting to tell everyone I passed on the street.  After the shock and elation wore off, the sadness kicked in (and continues to linger) that this is my reality; my reality as an American.  It is tempting to go on and on about our disastrous healthcare system in the United States (as I did when I first started this post) but I have decided to relieve my readers from having to sit through that and get back to our current experiences.

The most recent and significant experience the Brew Crew had, which kicked off our summer, was 10 days in Croatia and we were lucky enough to have two families from Seattle make the trip to meet us.  I have to admit, I was a little weary about this trip beforehand because of the apparent tourist crowds and we are not even fans of Games of Thrones but since one of our friends has Croatian family history and visiting a slavic country is unique in itself, we were game.  We did get a taste of the crowds during our one day in Dubrovnik where literally there was a rope in the middle of the entrance to the old town, dividing the lines of tourists from coming and going, just like in a theater or a museum.  But the old town did prove to be charming as the architecture and flavor of the place takes you right back to ancient as well as recent war times.  An unmarked passageway lead us to a bar and swim hole set up on the rocks just outside the city walls, the walk along the top of the city walls was truly dynamic and a must do and the turquoise Adriatic waters were so inviting.

Then it was time to escape the crowds!  We did so with the help of Huck Finn Adventures, whose local tour guides, Darija and Valentino, took us on our own customized and personalized trip to the islands and national parks for 6 nights.  We visited Sipan and Lopud islands where we sea kayaked in the beautiful waters, hiked in the heat and biked to and from the beach, which took me back to childhood days at the New Jersey shore, riding in swimsuit with my beach towel around my neck only this ride was on a very old concrete path (probably from the 12th century) along the Adriatic Sea.  We ate our dinners each night in Sunset Cove (with a beautiful backdrop) and our three families shared a three floor guest house (one floor for each family) which met all our needs.

We were driven about 6 hours inland for the second half of our trip to Korana Village with a short stop over in Split.   Split provided great burgers at Mama Burger and an entertaining walking tour amongst the Roman ruins and palace.  Once in Korana Village, we stayed in guest houses owned by local families and ate home cooked Croatian meals each morning and night (Huck Finn Adventures makes a real effort to support the economy of the locals by hiring them to serve their guests).  We spent one day at Plitvice Lakes National Park, strolling along the boardwalks and admiring the 16 terraced lakes joined by captivating waterfalls.  We also spent a day river kayaking down the Mreznica river which was an unexpected blast.  Little did we know until we were floating in our kayaks that there were actual rapids just feet away from us with no clear sign of how far we were plunging.  But our inflatable, sit-top kayaks kept us safe as we bounced from one rapid to another.  We even had the challenge of getting out of our boats and jumping 5 or 8 meters off a rock since those rapids were a little advanced for us in our kayaks.  A great challenge for all!  And when we returned each night to our village the neighborhood river provided a great swim hole for the kids.

We ended our trip with a couple nights in Zadar (more Roman ruins and a very cool “sea organ”) and then said our much avoided goodbyes and flew out of Split.  How much fun we had reconnecting with friends from home, laughing and confiding as if we were never apart.  And traveling with Huck Finn was the best choice of all, we agreed, so someone else could make all the decisions while we were allowed to focus our energies on catching up and spending time together.  Only 3 of the 13 of us got hit with some fast moving violent travel bug and our learnings included that cash is king in Croatia and that almost everyone speaks English, once again accommodating the foreign language-impaired Americans.  Thank you friends for making the trip and thank you Huck Finn for taking such good care of us!

 

 

 

 

Transition Time

It is feeling very much like transition time again as the school year winds down and the hype of summer is in the air.  While some of you back home are graduating (or promoting) your own kids, Hadley and Davis just graduated for the second time, getting ready to begin middle school (instituto, as they call it here) for the first time this fall.  And we thought they were ready last year!  We will also celebrate Quinton’s completion of 8th grade on our own as there is no graduation from middle school in Spain.

In between our travels this summer, Davis will attend futból camp here in town and Quinton will head off on a two week adventure of his own at an overnight camp just north of Granada.  Hadley is still trying to decide how she will spend her time.  One American family, who has been here for three years, just returned to the states while our British friends just purchased a puppy and are settling in with no exact plans for returning to the UK.  So where does that leave us?

For months now, we have been plagued with the dilemma of whether to return to the States in August as planned or to stay for a second year and earlier this spring we made the decision to stay.  This decision was in no way an easy one (it plagued us for months) and to be completely honest, has not necessarily been received with open arms by all 5 of us but George and I decided we wanted to do more than just scratch the surface here in Spain.  Our Spanish skills are just starting to take off (more for some than others, of course) and our new community is establishing such that we are not quite ready to disconnect from it.  And now that some language and friends are in place, we really want the kids to reap the rewards of all their hard work adjusting and learning this past year.  George and I also feel that the aspects of this experience that have been challenging or uncomfortable deserve more time to work through.  Ideally, our family would return with a sense of satisfaction and hopefully, some confidence and pride in how we have grown and in what we have learned.  However ideal, to work closer to this, we need more time.  Also, another hope, as a result of this decision, is that there is more time for our American friends and family to come visit us (hint, hint!).  Of course, this means postponing access to the comforts of home and those we love, which is hard.

While imagining our second year ahead, I am reminded of the multiple ways to live like an expat.  Some have used this town as a base while they travel around Europe every chance they get, dipping into many different cultures and communities.  Others never leave town. Rather, they insert themselves deeply into the local community and perfect their Spanish.  Both approaches have lots to offer and the nature of our personalities has forced us to try to straddle the two.  The part of us that values global perspectives is grateful for our opportunities to travel while the part that values community and a sense of belonging just wants to grow our connections, contribute to our local surroundings and work on our language.  Finding a balance is tricky.  But I do believe a second year here will not only allow us to continue to explore but will help us insert ourselves locally with more confidence and further appreciate the benefits of embracing change.

 

 

Shoe Shifting Grows Empathic Intelligence

George and I attended a school meeting a few weeks ago and had a valuable opportunity to be in others’ cultural shoes, i.e. “shoe shifting.”  The meeting included a group of 6th grade parents, our two classroom teachers and the director of the school and was about graduation and final events of the school year.  Considering the importance of the information in the meeting, I requested, a few days in advance, that the English teacher be present to help translate for us.  Over the course of the school year, George and I have had some individual meetings with our teachers without a translator but as you can imagine, a group meeting is a whole ‘nother beast as the parents talk way too quickly for us to follow the conversation.  I had been warned by Hadley before the meeting that the English teacher was out of town and therefore, not available to help.  So, we attended the meeting anyway and hoped and prayed we would get by on our own.

Before I continue, I want to give some cultural context to these school meetings.   The teachers and director start but their voices are quickly overtaken by the mothers’, batting back and forth suggestions, ideas, and decisions about the graduation ceremony and the end of year fiesta.  The parents talk over one another and the school staff can barely get in a word.  On top of that, imagine another mother answering her cell phone and proceeding to have a conversation at full volume.  Chaos at its best.

In addition to the chaotic energy of this particular meeting,  we felt the heaviness of the language barrier.  Because Andalusians “eat their words” (compared to Spaniards in other parts of the country) and speak very quickly, even those with steller Spanish skills can get lost.  We were officially lost with very little hope.  I started to feel uncomfortable and was searching for eye contact with the teachers and director.  Can’t they see that we don’t understand?  Surely, they will stop and ask a parent with any English skills at all to help us out.  Or, perhaps when the meeting is over, they will distribute written information so we can at least take it home and use Google Translate.  Nope.  Nada.  We were on our own.  Throughout the meeting, my discomfort evolved into anger.  I even felt on the verge of tears at one point as the social worker in me wanted justice!  Meanwhile, George, also felt a strong sense of not belonging but was more inclined to blame himself  for not progressing enough with his Spanish or inserting himself more into the Spanish community.  When the meeting was over, we managed to slowly exit the room without a single parent or teacher checking in with us or asking us if we needed help understanding what was going on.  We were pretty much invisible and this was 9 months into the school year, so we were known, well enough, as the family with limited Spanish skills.  Plus our teacher even knew that we needed a translator.

Then suddenly, the light bulb went off in my head.  Ah… this, I thought, is exactly how people in America, who don’t speak English or who appear different in one way or another from the majority, feel all the time.  Not belonging can trigger both anger towards the majority and self-criticism for not fitting in.  My emotions evolved once again but this time into empathy.  I thought of all the immigrant and refugee families in our American schools, trying desperately to fit in, be accepted and included while feeling stuck by the language barrier (not to mention, without enough financial resources to learn English).  In addition, as we often feel here in Spain, I thought of their exhaustion from struggling with a language and cultural barrier every day.

As we left the meeting, I reminded myself that this is partly why we have chosen to live here.  The key word here is “chosen,” recognizing that not everyone gets to choose.  Part of me wants to offer the school feedback, to help them increase their awareness of what expat families might need during their time of adjusting and integrating into their school.  The other part of me wants to respect their community for exactly how it is and take full responsibility, myself, for making even more efforts to insert myself and speak their language, because I can.  Regardless, I feel grateful for this learning.  To experience what it is like to be a member of the minority culture (even temporarily), to feel excluded by not having access to information or having my basic needs acknowledged is a sobering one and an experience that I hope will stay with me for a long time as I return to American life.

 

 

Cave Dwelling

It is now June and I can hardly believe we have been living abroad already for almost 10 months.  The time has flown.  George has been in London all week for a workshop on the Enneagram and I have had my first whole week of single parenting in a foreign country and we have actually fared pretty well.  Hadley spent time with a couple girlfriends early in the week and both boys invited a friend to hang out this weekend, so we are making progress socially!  Summer plans are in the works and I am starting to think about what next year entails (way to stay present, Meliss).

One recent discovery we made is the existence of cave homes (los cuevas), particularly those in southern Spain.  These are basically man-made homes carved out of hard clay and earth, into the hills or cliff sides, in a region with unique geological history.  Although the first caves to be found are thought to be as old as 400,000 years, the Moors (Arabs) were the first humans to build these cave homes in the 7th or 8th centuries and they are especially common in the Andalusian region (southern Spain) because of the relief they provide from the extreme outdoor temperatures.  In modern times, these homes are often occupied by poor communities, however, many have also been turned into rentals.  In fact, we found one on Airbnb in the town of Freila, just north of Granada, and recently stayed in it for the weekend with our British friends.

As we drove north to Freila, leaving the coast behind us, the landscape became mountainous and canyon-like.  The road started to remind me of Snoqualmie Pass in the winter with its’ enormous snow drifts on either side of the road, only a summer, red rock version.  Because we visited the cave home in the off-season, there were limited activities but the landscape surrounding us and the colors of the earth and nearby reservoir were captivating the whole time.  In addition, our friends taught us some new skills.  The kids learned how to flip crepes and we learned a new game called Mofia, similar to Murder in the Dark but without the physicality.  I imagined painting all our surrounding vistas (while having mistakenly left my painting supplies at home) and the kids ventured into the nearby turquoise reservoir for a swim.  I am determined to return for a mountain biking adventure.

George experienced some culture shock as he stepped into life in London for 7 days.  His first text conveyed that he felt “overwhelmed” by the pace, amount of people, and intensity of the sophisticated urban environment and by the fact that he could not only hear but understand surrounding conversations everywhere.  However, his workshop was well worth the trip and his professional goals were re-inspired.   In addition, his British, college friend, Mark, showed him a good time cheering on Chelsea and Liverpool for the futból finals and visiting the local sites.  In the end he seemed to have felt at home in London, reconnecting with his English roots.

 

Exploring with our Estonians

A couple weeks ago, we had visitors from Estonia.  Our au pair from back in the day, Merle, came with her sister, Kirsika, and sister’s boyfriend, Jaak; quite the travel trio with whom we have so much fun.  World travelers and curious souls themselves, they made sure we all had new experiences while we were together.

Merle found us hard-to-get-tickets for Caminito del Rey (the king’s little path), a breathtaking hike north of Malaga through a gorge and along steep rock cliffs, where hydroelectric power workers used to navigate through and hikers and climbers have risked (and sometimes lost) everything for the thrill.  The trail was originally constructed in 1901 but was rebuilt and reopened in 2015 so that visitors could safely pass and enjoy the scenery.  Wearing hard hats the whole time, we felt like we were walking through another world, looking down upon the raging river and passing ruined homes where the  workers used to live with their families.  And when we exited the gorge, we felt like we had escaped one of the many dangerous adventures in Lord of the Rings or Indiana Jones.

We also visited the caves of Nerja (Nerja is another coastal town west of us).  Filled with stalagmites and stalactites these caves have some of the oldest neanderthal drawings in all of Europe dating as far as back as 42,000 years ago.   We, grownups, were a bit more impressed than the kids but it was still something new for all.  I continue to be intrigued with how George and I tend to feel more awe-inspired than the kids when we visit attractions.  Perhaps the kids’ limited life experiences prevent them from realizing what was possible before they existed or perhaps their attention span is just so short they have moved onto something else by the time their brain would have processed how unbelievable something is (and thus boredom kicks in faster).  Or perhaps it is just my kids.  I’m not exactly sure and other than articles written about helping your children learn to tolerate boredom, the internet is not much help with this.

After we were done with the caves, the 8 of us climbed into a tiny fiat, acknowledging that it was probably not the safest form of transportation into the center of town but with only a couple miles to go, we figured we could fly under the radar.  After constantly joking about the police catching us, sure enough an officer AND his partner pulled up right behind us and followed us for a decent few minutes.  Panic filled the car and we quickly ordered those who sat on laps and in illegal places to duck and hide, only to have the police car turn off at the next roundabout.  Just like in the movies and much to our relief, the two officers were clearly distracted by their own conversation or argument to notice the criminals right under their noses.  After our adrenalin dissipated, we parked in the center of town, emptied our clown car and enjoyed some spontaneous shopping, tasty tapas and a refreshing swim at the beach.

We of course couldn’t let the Estonians leave without seeing Frigiliana (where we have taken almost all our visitors) so we took our friends there for lunch on their last day and took even more photos of the beautiful town.  In exchange for the Estonians making the trip, we will head north in August to see their country.

Birthday Surprise

I have so much to write about at the moment, I don’t know where to begin, but considering yesterday was a near-perfect day, I think I need to jump ahead and share.  Yesterday, our 11 year old twins turned 12 (well, actually, they didn’t turn 12 until 3am today since they were born around 6pm Seattle time).  We started the day serving Hadley and Davis American pancakes, although they are slightly different in Spain since there is no such thing as true maple syrup here.  Here, we eat them with strawberry jam, lemon curd, and Nutella.  And if we eat them the British way, they are more like crepes.  While we took in our first nourishment for the day together, the kids made it very clear that we were not to plan anything or publicize their birthday with their Spanish school community at all.  “We want to celebrate our birthday in English!”

After breakfast, George and I insisted that we walk the kids to school, much to their dismay.  They have gotten too comfortable, as of late, with their independent commute, so much that they feel utterly embarrassed when we decide to join them on a whim.  They demanded that we say goodbye halfway only to have discovered that we had taken a detour and met them at the entrance of their school.  You may imagine that we were smothering them slightly but it was critical that we got to school as we needed to find another parent to confirm plans for a secret celebration after school.  I took a huge risk and against their wishes, I went ahead and planned a surprise party with four of their closest Spanish classmates.  Now remember, Hadley and Davis have yet to initiate any social time with Spanish peers.  Their social comforts are growing at school and on their sport teams but they maintain a certain amount of timidness and fear of acting in any way that would make them stand out and be noticed.  So, needless to say, any encouragement and strong urging we have imposed upon them, to initiate with Spanish friends, has been rejected.  I was facing the possibility of “being murdered” as Davis just inserted into this post.

George and I anxiously left the kids at school, delivered the clues for a scavenger hunt (starting with strict instructions for Hadley and Davis to go to the school secretary after dismissal) and then sat at the location of the second clue, hoping and praying that they wouldn’t curse our names and march home to get on their screens in defiance.  Relief fell over me as they finally approached the statue of the pulpo (octopus) where they were to find clue number 2.  They seemed like fairly good sports so we gave them the next clue and sent them on their way.  After visiting our Spanish teacher and collecting the third clue, they found four Spanish classmates waiting for them at a nearby pizza place where they were sung to by and received gifts from their friends and then fed by the waiter whom we enrolled earlier to help with the plan.  The bonus was they were on their own without the embarrassment of their American parents hanging around with scary Spanish skills.  The embarrassment, however, was waiting for them at the final location, a dessert café where Hadley and Davis have become regulars.  As the 6 of them arrived and joined us at a table and their birthday cakes were served, an awkward silence filled the café (no one else was there since it was siesta time) and I must have been shot down by Hadley’s lazer eyes every time I opened my mouth to try to speak Spanish.  “S-T-O-P,” she mouthed to me.  George and I knew we needed to keep our visit short.  As soon as the last bite was taken, we excused them to run off and play fútbol in the plaza until they returned to their respective homes.  So off they went not to be seen again for another hour.

After a moment (literally) to catch their breath at home, Davis went off to fútbol practice while Hadley accepted an invitation to swim in her friend’s pool (the best birthday present EVER for her!) .  Afterwards, we met our British friends for dinner at the new Indian restaurant in town (Chicken Tikka Masala is one of our family’s new favorite meals).  We returned home with just enough time to open presents and phone grandmothers before we all crashed.  Once in bed and just before their eyes sealed shut, Davis told me he was glad I invited his Spanish friends to his party and Hadley reported having exchanged social media contact information with her friends.  The adrenalin in my system drained and I continue to feel relieved that I have lived to write this post.

 

 

Exploring Eastern Spain

The East coast of Spain seems to be less popular than other parts of the country.  Rick Steves, for example, does not include much about the East coast in his travel books.  However, my friend, Melinda, and I got to explore a bit of this area last week as we rented a car and spent 4 days driving to Valencia and back.

Our first stop was Cabo de Gato, a national park on the southeast corner of Spain of which we got a mere taste (definitely need to go back) but saw some white flamencos in the distance.  We spent our first night in Cartegena, a small coastal city in the Region of Murcia.  The gem of this stop was the view from our Airbnb apartment which was a Roman theater right next door that had only been discovered and dug up in early 2000.  We couldn’t believe our luck (especially having reserved our apartment at the last minute)!  In fact, this city is an interesting mix of an upscale marina and office buildings with an old town of numerous construction sites and archeological digs.  We considered spending some late night hours at “La Escuela de Calor” (direct translation: “The School of Heat” with hard rock blasting from inside) but chickened out as our 40 something selves felt more called to our beds.  We did experience a hardcore coffee shop, though, and watched a military parade the next morning.

Our next stop was a half hour north to San Pedro del Pinatar for Las Charcas mud baths, the largest saltwater lake in Europe, with warm waters, high salinity and healing mud.  Even though it was a little chilly and windy while we were there, we managed to partially cover ourselves with mud before rinsing off and quickly lying in the sun to warm up.  After some tapas and a free Kahlua and cream shot (Spanish restaurants often gift their customers with a free after-meal drink), we hit the road for Valencia.

We merely scratched the surface of Valencia, touring the Silk Exchange, visiting the art museum and central market, walking the city’s fabulous city park and picnicking under a bridge during a downpour.  We also took a Paella cooking class since paella originated in Valencia, as food for the poor.  As most areas in Spain, Valencians make their paella with their own local delicacies which forced us to expand our food horizons.  I tasted my first rabbit and Melinda had her first snail.  In addition, I learned how to prepare and cook miniature artichokes!  Our class was lots of fun as we were the only Americans among Brits, Spaniards and Austrians.  Melinda engaged the Brits in a “what’s up with Brexit?/what’s up with Trump?” conversation while I had the pleasure of sitting next to one of the Austrians; a 20-something die hard skier who was a twin of Ed Sheeran.

After breakfast at our favorite Valencian coffee shop, We drove south again until we arrived in Granada.  Melinda was eager to see Granada so I toured her around Plaza Nueva and the outside of the Alhambra before we returned to Almuñécar that night.  The next day, I took Melinda to Malaga for her flight back to the States.  What a gift it was for me to be able to share our Spanish home with an American friend and explore new areas together.