Family Quarantine

This week, my biggest nightmares have come true.  To start, I have lost one of my dearest friends to stomach cancer after a mere 5-month battle.  So unfair to her to have her life cut short when she was still raising her two amazing, young children, while building a new career and working hard to navigate life with her amazing husband.  So unfair to us, her family and friends, for losing such a loving, attuned and insightful human being, who also made us laugh and stand by in amazement as she tried to integrate and accomplish so much all at once.  And, finally, so unfair to the world, for losing a woman who cared so much about the injustices as well as the beauty all around us.  It’s difficult to imagine my future days back in Seattle without her living a block away, going for a spontaneous walk together, helping each other out with our kids, feeling understood and cracking up at ourselves.  I will so miss you Lis.

Ok, relative to that, maybe being locked up in my house and forced to homeschool my children aren’t quite nightmares but are challenging at best.  We are on day 3 of family quarantine here in Spain and day 1 of the country’s official lockdown.  Everything in our town is closed except food stores, pharmacies, gas stations and hospitals and no one is allowed on the roads for anything other than urgent matters and to walk your dog.  Our two neighborhood parks are locked up with iron gates and chains and the beaches are even roped off.  We are left with nothing but our empty garage-converted-workout gym and our new puppy to entertain ourselves… oh, and each other.  When I mentioned how crazy it is to have all this quality time with our kids but without the ability to do anything we would normally do together, George so eloquently pointed out that we get to “be” together… the hardest thing for humans to do.

What I find most disturbing is the lack of warmth between strangers out on the streets.  When I have gotten out to walk the dog and pass by others, there is almost an effort not to smile, wave or say ‘hola’ anymore, seemingly as not to invite any interaction that could put us at risk.  I can’t help but associate this experience with our fine leaders of today who are modeling such an independent, “go-it-alone,” approach.  We can only hope this virus does not succeed in making social distancing and disconnecting from each other the new normal.

With age, I have evolved from a being more introverted, less social person to someone who gets energy from being with others and thrives on connection.  When our family has spent a quiet weekend at home, its not uncommon for my anxiety to rise from the increase in isolation.  Needless to say, this quarantine is brutal for me.  I am grateful, however, for living in the digital age and having an alternative way to stay connected with others and to hold each other close even if through a screen.  A mixed blessing of screen time, I guess, and perhaps a chance for us, anxious screen-time parents (ASTP), to let go a little.

Our New Family Member and “Tagine”

It is the beginning of a new decade and I am severely behind in my blog writing and documenting our continual adventure abroad.  Although it is already February, I must backtrack a bit in order to cover some of the most relevant experiences we have had.

Unlike last year, we celebrated Christmas right here in Almuñécar and staying in Spain allowed us to slow down a little, as a family, and reintegrate some family traditions that we all missed last year.  We bought and decorated a tree, Hadley and Davis built a gingerbread house, and we hung our stocking by the chimney with care.  I even convinced Hadley and Quinton to attend midnight mass with me.  But Santa came a couple days early this year.  We were invited on a walk at a nearby village with some friends and as we strode through the orange groves and along a river, we discovered an abandoned and malnourished puppy, about 10 weeks old, sitting alone up against a tree and crying for attention and love.  Unfortunately, it is not uncommon in Spain for people to abandon puppies and even throw them into a river or dumpster.  We know several friends who own multiple dogs due to direct rescuing efforts but we never expected to encounter one ourselves.  After all our family conversations and decisions about not getting a dog in Spain (despite some strong pleas), one might wonder if the plan was out of our hands.

We scooped up the puppy, took him straight to our local veterinarian and found a temporary home for him since we had plans to travel right after Christmas.  Turns out, he is an Andalusian Bodega Terrier (similar to a Jack Russell Terrier), bred to chase rats around wine barrels in cellars.  With the help of the vet’s colleague, who cared for him while we traveled, the little guy cleaned up well, was brought back to life with some love, care and food, and we welcomed him into our family when we returned from our travels.  Melegis (named after the town in which we found him, Mele for short), while having a lot of hunting instincts and puppy energy, he is also very apt to snuggle under the covers or on our laps and in fine Spanish form, he loves to sleep late and start his day much later than the average puppy.  I’m afraid now that owning a small dog is now part of the list of life experiences that I swore would never happen to me along with having twins and driving a minivan.

Before our bonding with Mele began, we headed off on a family adventure to Morocco on the day after Christmas.  We traveled for 10 days as a family, starting with a layover in Porto, Portugal, followed by our first night in Marrakech.  Culture shock hit immediately as our family was escorted to our Riad (Moroccan hotel) down a dark, dusty, poverty stricken dirt path, surrounded by aromas unlike we had smelled anywhere else.  However, as soon as we entered our Riad, we were warmly welcomed by the host and served mint tea and cookie bits.  To help ease ourselves into Moroccan culture, we bused to the west coast the very next day and spent two nights in Essaouira.  Here, we had our first Moroccan couscous and chicken tagine (the first of many tagine meals actually), took a family surfing lesson, watched amazing sunsets and laughed together until it hurt.  It was a great start to our trip, for sure.

On our third day in Morocco, a guide, Khalid, picked us up and drove us East for a four day/three night excursion through the Atlas mountains and the Sahara Desert.  We drove through the Tichka Pass, stopped to see the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Aït Benhaddou, where movies like Lawrence of Arabia and The Gladiator were filmed, and made our way through several villages until we reached the Erg Chebbi dunes for a camel trek, about two hours from the Algerian border.  After carefully learning how to mount and dismount our camels, which I couldn’t do without screaming due to the unpleasant sensation of nearing a front flip when my camel bent down, we enjoyed a relaxing stroll through the dunes and tried out sandboarding while admiring the sunset.  When we reached our traditional Nomad tent site, we were served mint tea and a tagine dinner (yes, tagine again) followed by entertainment of the evening; a drumming session under the stars.  Unfortunately, we did not last very long that night due to frigid temperatures and some of us being on the verge of sickness. But it was all very memorable, nonetheless.

We returned by camel early the next morning during a beautiful sunrise over the dunes. After leaving the dunes, our excursion by car continued through more villages, past palm groves and shepherds walking their goats. Khalid took us to a family’s home where they weave and sell carpets and George and I gave the kids a memorable life lesson on unsuccessful bargaining.  After leaving their shop with too many carpets, We stopped at the Todra Gorges where we enjoyed a short trek and then spent the night in the Dadès Valley. Our final day took us through the Rose Valley  and Skoura where we toured the amazing Kasbah of Amirhidil (one of the largest original homes in Morocco) before returning to Marrakech.  Unfortunately, by the time we returned to Marrakech, we were all taken by illness and spent most of our days there in bed.  But we managed to get in a guided tour of the Medina, including a visit to the Bahia Palace and a walk by the snake charmers in the main plaza, and Hadley and Davis and I had henna tattoos drawn on our hands.  Transition day sent George and the kids back to Spain in time for school to start and brought my friend, Tara, from the States, to join me for a watercolor painting retreat and the rest of my Moroccan adventure.

After a day in Marrakech together, Tara and linked up with a German couple, Hans and Birgitta, who was also attending the painting retreat, and we all drove south together to Taroudant.  After navigating an 8 hour drive through the winding and slow but scenic, mountainous road (which only took 3 hours on the return trip), we arrived at our retreat center, a newly built eco lodge owned by a British woman and staffed by a group of gracious Moroccan men and women.  This was our base for a week from where we explored the town and painted medina walls, Moroccan men in their traditional cloaks and desert landscapes with reds, greens and blues unique to the culture and the area.  We learned additional tools unique to watercolors and to look for shadows in everything! In between our painting sessions, we had a personalized tour of a Berber village where we witnessed a woman making straw mats and Moroccan bread and a Moroccan man throwing pottery after which we were served homemade couscous with veggies in a private home. We were encouraged to eat the couscous with our hands, a messy proposition for sure but Moroccans seemed to have mastered it.

We also had a tour of the private home of Claudio Bravo, a famous and very wealthy Chilean painter who died in 2011 and left his estate to be converted into a hotel and viewed by visitors.  The stark contrast between his lavish estate (including his huge mausoleum, in which he was buried) and the surrounding poverty-stricken Moroccan neighborhood was undeniable.  But we did enjoy sitting by his meditation pool and painting.

After the painting retreat, Tara and I continued our journey together north with a night in FesFes is another busling Moroccan city with the largest Medina on the African continent and the oldest university in the world.  We had a hilarious tour by our guide, Hindi, who cracked jokes constantly, commented numerous times on Tara’s eyes, and helped us spend our money on pottery, beautiful leather bags from the tanneries and fresh cinnamon.

We had front row seating on our bus ride to go further north from Fes to Chefchaouen which lead us from a dry, brown landscape to the lush, green mountains that resembled a cross between Tuscany and Ireland.  I couldn’t help notice the increasing Spanish influence as we passed groves of olive trees along the hillsides and noticed that the souvenirs for sale were the same as those in Almuñécar shops.  Our final leg of the bus trip took us up and up before we came upon “the blue city” nestled in the mountainside with a bright royal blue color shading the entire town-what a site!  Sure enough, after disembarking the bus, we walked through pedestrian streets covered in different shades of blue and eventually, came to our guesthouse and were greeted and checked in by the children (no older than 10).  We spent the next couple days hiking up to the Spanish mosque, strolling and painting (many of the shops even sold a vast selection of pigment powders with which to paint), and enjoying some of the best couscous and veggies so far (the carmelized onions and chickpeas did the trick) and of course, more tagine, maximizing our remaining days of leisurely travel.

Finally, it was time to get back to Spanish ground.  We made our way there via taxi to the Tangier Med Port, ferry to Algeciras, and bus to Malaga where we pretty much collapsed at the Holiday Inn Express.  What a memorable journey with Tara it turned out to be!  We appreciated each other as great travel companions as well as fellow artists and students of Moroccan culture.  We learned so much, returning with shifted perspectives and vanished stereotypes of the Muslim community (more on that note in the following blog post).

 

 

 

The Immaculate Conception and Other Lessons in Christianity (amidst a family adventure)

The Spanish are quite keen on holidays and fiestas and this past weekend was a double holiday of Constitution Day (December 6th) and the Immaculate Conception (December 8th), hence the long weekend which the Spaniards refer to as “el puente” (the bridge).  Constitution Day is in honor of Spain’s current constitution which was written up after the ruling of Franco in 1978-recognizing the solidarity and unity of Spain and all its regions and marking the end of a dictatorship.  The Immaculate Conception is the day when The Virgin Mary, herself, was conceived (not Jesus as many may think).  When she was conceived (the old biological way), she was immediately absolved of any original sin (that we are all born with apparently) by the merits of her future son as predicted by God.  Pretty impressive forethought.  This leads me to wonder, how, on earth, Mary was chosen.  Well, apparently, her dignity and humility while believing in her own goodness got God’s attention.  Ok, so rather than going on and on about my religious learnings in this very moment (thanks to Google), as someone who has grown up mostly agnostic, I kind of want to honor Mary, for just a moment, for her ability to be all that: have dignity, be humble, and believe in herself!  Wouldn’t it be nice?

To honor this double holiday weekend, the Brew Crew ventured out to visit the Spanish region of Galicia, mainly Santiago de Compostela, the capital of Galicia.  This is the land of cheese shaped like breasts, where the seafood is the best in Spain and where car rental business owners express hugs (“abrazos”) when saying farewell.  The Northwest region of Spain reminded us of our hometown, Seattle, with all the fog, mist, rain, evergreens and lots and lots of moss.  Quinton felt right at home as he commented, “ah, I love the mist!”  Our trip started off a little bumpy as George mistakenly rented a car in Santiago, Chili, but we recovered, jumped a taxi and located our fabulous Airbnb, blocks from the old town.

Santiago de Compostela and its cathedral, mark the traditional end of the pilgrimage of St. James, one of Jesus’ apostles who brought Christianity to the Iberian Peninsula.  The story goes that his remains are buried in the cathedral.  Today, people from all over make the same pilgrimage (Camino de Santiago) on foot or bicycle, for spiritual and personal growth.  Like most of the old towns we have visited in Europe, Santiago’s is ancient, charming and impressively preserved and I continue to be amazed at how safe I feel getting lost alone in all the dark and narrow streets.  After a day exploring the old town of Santiago, we rented a car for the day (in Spain, this time), drove out to the Atlantic coast and explored a series of fishing towns scattered with beautiful chapels and played on the beach.  As we pulled up to a short boardwalk that lead to big, crashing waves and a lighthouse in the distance, the kids let out a big sigh of relief and excitement and I was quickly reminded of how much the Brew Crew feels at home near the sea.  After some wading in the frigid waters, a few cartwheels on the beach and collecting some seashells, our excursion continued until we arrived in Finisterre, another “end of the earth,” as once believed by the Spaniards, where we watched the sunset on the dramatic rock cliffs of the famous lighthouse.  It is also where many hikers and bikers end their pilgrimage beyond Santiago and burn their clothes to signify purification and starting anew.

There is something about traveling together again as a family that feels strangely empowering.  Despite the emotional challenges of living with 3 teen/tweenagers, when we come together to face unfamiliar surroundings and to be presented with new situations to navigate together, we are forced to work as a team and to rely on each other in ways that we normally take for granted.  Believe me, it’s not all kittens and lollipops, but these experiences remind each of us, I think, that we have each other when everything else feels unpredictable and uncertain.

 

 

Food for Thought: Thanksgiving in Spain

During our first Thanksgiving in Spain last year, the Brew Crew decided to indulge in the Spanish tradition of eating Paella in a restaurant rather than spending all day in our kitchen cooking up traditional American meals that we have had for years.  This year, we had an itch (ok, I had an itch) to cook up some favorite dishes at home and share our holiday tradition with some non-American friends.  However, Thanksgiving is giving me more pause than ever as I try to understand where this holiday truly comes from and what it truly represents.  I recall my mother sending me a NYT article in 2017 titled, “Everything You Learned About Thanksgiving is Wrong.”  I was impacted by the article then but feel even more impacted now looking in from afar as we live outside of the United States.

I decided to embark on some actual research of my own on the American Thanksgiving holiday (time that I would only have living here in Spain, of course).  I was quickly reminded of the historical controversies, the actual “Day of Mourning,” the genocide and oppression that happened during the beginning of the New World, and the fact that a turkey was not even a menu item as we often see depicted in historic paintings.  To add more fuel to the fire, I have been saddened by The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act and Trump’s attempt to get the legislation thrown out.  Even the new movie, Frozen II, has attempted to remind us, in a timely manner, of the violent history between white folks and indigenous tribes.  As I notice my somatic reactions while researching, I feel like the wife of the nazi general in the film “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” when she finally discovers the truth of what her husband does for work and that the smokestack on the property behind her house is not for burning wood or trash.

Some of our friends whom we invited to our holiday meal happen to be vegans.  Knowing this, I planned a menu of mostly vegetarian and vegan dishes and one that takes the focus off of “the bird” as center stage.  But I can’t help but ponder what my friend mentioned… it being difficult for her to “celebrate” such a meal when animals are forced to suffer similarly to how the Native American Indians have suffered.

Finally, our American holiday traditions fall in significant contrast to the Spanish culture with which we have become so familiar and possibly speaks to differences in values as well.  While once a year, we spend lots of energy and time cleaning and decorating our homes and creating the perfect centerpiece only to feel exhausted once our guests arrive and overwhelmed by the pile of dishes in the sink once they leave, the Spanish devote their energy to connecting and conversing with each other in a public, neutral location that takes care of all the cooking and cleaning (this is partly due to the expense of eating out in America compared to here in southern Spain).  Plus there is no time limit to their gatherings and no one is trying to make money off of turning the tables as many times as possible in one afternoon or evening.  And did I mention that they do this every Sunday?

All of this to say that I find myself reevaluating what is really important about our Thanksgiving holiday and wondering how we can best celebrate it in a way that is consistent with what we believe to be good and true.  Then, of course, we have to figure out how to teach the complete history of Thanksgiving to our kids.  To start, the kids are not big fans of turkey meat anyway so that is easy, but hosting and sharing our home with friends with the goals of providing for them both nourishment as well as relaxation is a big part of our American and family culture (whether it’s the turkey that puts them to sleep or the televised football game that releases their built-up tensions of seasonal competition).  I love the idea of saving my energy for the relational aspects of the holidays and I also realize I do love to cook and to provide a meal and setting for others as a way of contributing to those relationships.  And, I wonder if we can we do this without celebrating either the countless deaths of earlier generations or current day animals.

In the end, we did arrange furniture, made a centerpiece of sunflowers and I cooked until late the night before.  However, George and I still got a long walk in on the day of, we bought pre-cooked roast chickens, thoroughly enjoyed the company of a small group of friends (thanks to a small apartment, we were forced to keep the guestlist short) along with a plethora of vegan desserts!  One of our guests, a 15 year old Spanish/German/British boy, made it all worthwhile as he referred to his last minute invitation to join us as “a dream come true!”  My gratitude extends not only to those who fill my life with love and friendship but to some awareness of what is good and true, and of times in our American history that must never be repeated.

 

 

Highs and Lows of Adventures-including some deeper reflections (beware) 

I’m going to start this by saying electric assisted mountain bikes are the best!  We rented 5 of them over the weekend and went for a family bike ride up into the hills.  Considering most bike routes around here start with going up and up, it’s pretty cool to have an electric boost. At the same time, we had to keep pedaling so we still got a good workout-the best of both worlds.  To keep the kids entertained along the way, I taught them how to crack open almond shells (thanks to my painting teacher who taught me), so we sat on the road and ate fresh almonds right off the tree.  This made up for my crushed fantasy of grabbing a fresh avocado or mango right off the many trees around here (one that no one would notice was gone, of course) because they are too hard to eat and enjoy that soon anyway.

In addition to our fun biking adventure this past weekend, we also enjoyed meeting another Seattle family (from Ballard, in fact) who is traveling around the world for the year.  The kids met each other on Instagram, initially. They already had plans to visit Spain so we invited them to come see us on the southern coast so we could all meet. While the kids took off, elated to have hangout time with fellow Seattleites, the grownups talked for hours, comparing notes and stories and discovering the benefits and challenges of both traveling to so many places as well as living in one location. We wish them grand adventures and safe travels as they continue to explore the world.

Halloween was a sad day for us this year. As we no longer have elementary school kids living with us, and Halloween is much less celebrated here in Spain, for the first time, no one had any interest in dressing up or trick or treating. Davis ran off with his friends for the evening, George and I had a dinner date with Hadley and watched the new Ghostbusters movie, and Quinton attended a sleepover although not just any sleepover; one that involved a large group of teenagers, a hotel room, and alcohol, or so we were told. EEEEEEEEKKKKKKKKKKKK!!!!!!!!!!!! I was aware the drinking age in Europe is 18 (up from only 16 in Spain 2 years ago) but it was official, we were now faced with this stressful time in life when we were having to be fearful for our child’s safety, set some firm limits, possibly deprive Quinton of having a good time with his friends and most likely, be deprived of sleep for the first time since we had babies. I couldn’t help but think that if this was happening at home in America, we would (along with other parents) most likely close the situation down before it even started and we would try to creatively distract the kids with a trip to the movies. I could hardly believe my eyes when I read a text from a German parent that read “ I don’t think they will get drunk.” How naïve could she be?

Additional conversations with European parents, and several hours and deep breathes later, George and I realized we could act out our American parenting style, fear-based of course, or we could consider the additional cultural values in which we currently live, sit our son down and turn the situation into a learning experience. After laying out the imagined scenario, we helped Q think through his wants and needs, we strategized together about different action plans, offered our support and availability at any hour of the night and we sent him on his way. He texted me at 3:40am to say he was going to sleep and asked to be picked up at 11:00am. I slept before and after the text. The whole evening and sleepover turned out to be much more benign than anticipated and I am glad we did not parent out of fear.

On a more personal note, it never occurred to me, before we left Seattle to live in Spain, that several of our friends might experience hardships while we were gone.  I have a belief (however invalid) that if I think that something difficult might happen, then it won’t happen because I simply can’t predict the future (I have been freed of many potential plane crashes living by this belief). But this past year, I never thought to say to myself ‘I sure hope no one experiences a family or health crisis while we are gone.’ If only I had, then no one would, of course. Time would stand still in Seattle, until we returned.  If I had been mindful of these possibilities before we left, then maybe I could have prevented them from happening to anyone. Yup, that’s my delusional thinking that my thoughts control the universe.

In addition, as a #2, AKA The Helper, on the Enneagram, a popular self-awareness tool often used to support personal development, I struggle with feeling helpless and sometimes even worthy if I am not physically present or actively supportive when someone else is struggling. Therefore, it is crazy hard for me to be so far away when close friends are suffering.

So here I sit, in Spain, far, far away from the people I love who are suffering. The challenge is that I have to learn to be with my discomfort of not being physically there to help. I need to trust that my efforts to stay in close contact remotely and be of support from afar are enough for now until I can once again, be with them. Although this has made being present in Spain more challenging, it has made me more appreciative of our Seattle community and the love we share with our friends in both joyful and hard times.

 

 

The Start of Year 2

So far, our decision to stay in Spain for a second year has paid off.  Longing for some comforts and connections back home certainly continue but it seems as if we are each hitting our strides and already appreciating the additional time on this adventure.  Hadley and Davis are having a positive experience so far with their new school and classmates and Quinton is very busy both with school and friends and is increasingly focused on his learning and study habits.  The biggest indicator is that Hadley has actually expressed that she is now glad we are staying for a second year because she likes her school and classmates, is more comfortable speaking Spanish and “now I don’t have to go home and tell everyone how miserable it was and how I never talked in school!” George is great at reminding the kids that this is exactly what it is all about… living through a challenging and sometimes very difficult experience and sticking with it long enough to eventually feel rewarded by the hard work.

Speaking of hard work, Quinton is getting a true taste of the British curriculum at the International School this year.  He is currently taking 12 courses including multiple science and English classes and an online world history class (a credit that he needs in order to return to American high school).  The course load is intended to cover a 2 year period in preparation for the GCSE exams which his classmates will take as part of the British educational requirements for university.  Meanwhile, Hadley and Davis are attending a bilingual Spanish school so even though most of their school day is in Spanish, they now have teachers who can speak English and some classes are half and half, English and Spanish.  This doesn’t seem to be lessening their Spanish exposure as much as helping them feel more included.  Finally, all three kids are playing basketball again and Davis is also keeping up his futból, although we are still waiting for him to get approved by FIFA to play in official games.  FIFA monitors expat players very carefully and requires almost as much documentation as our visa application process, trying to ensure that players aren’t coming to Spain just to take advantage of futból training.  Our process with FIFA began last February and we are hoping and praying to see Davis competing in an official league game, versus just practices and friendlies, in the coming weeks.

George and I are continuing with our Spanish class twice per week while I am trying to maintain a regular schedule of yoga and painting.  In addition, we are getting back to work!  While George has acquired new clients back in the States and will be doing some business traveling this year, I have stepped into the world of telemental health and am working with a handful of my old clients remotely via video calls.  This has proven not only to instill more structure in our daily lives but has also helped integrate our two worlds in the US and Spain.  For so long, one or the other has felt dreamlike but now we are starting to be able to hold both realities and trust that exist simultaneously.  And like the kids, George and I are enjoying being on the other side of last year’s challenges.  Our days now feel like there is less of an urgency to integrate and more like we have a natural rhythm of living in this Spanish community.

September and October, so far, have been much drier and warmer than last year.  It has definitely felt like an extended Spanish summer but without all the humidity and the tourist crowds.  Along with the good weather came several visitors.  My college friend, Fish, came through town for a few nights followed by our Seattle friends, Kurt and Gary for back to back weekends and finally, my mother and sister came for a week in honor of my mother’s 80th birthday.  The three of us spent 5 nights at a nearby hotel in Motril and took painting classes from two local professional painters, Annabel Keatley (Annabelkeatley.com), my teacher in Almuñécar, and Klaus Hinkel (Watercolours.es) from Frigiliana.  We also explored the Salobreña castle and had fun driving the tiniest Fiat up the narrowest road to the top. I am so grateful for having a shared interest in painting with my mother and sister at this stage in our lives.  What a great way to help my mother celebrate her 80th!

Another celebration that took place this month was our 20th wedding anniversary which felt like a milestone.  George and I spent the day beaching it, hiking, and catching the new Downton Abbey movie.  We even contributed our own love lock to the iron banister up on the Holy Rock.  Then last weekend, I surprised George with a candle light dinner on the rooftop terrace of our old house while watching the sunset.  The kids jumped to the occasion, served the dinner and prepared dessert for which they joined us, of course.  It was a great way to commemorate 20 years of partnership and adventure!

Other events this fall have included Beach Clean Up Day with the kids and watching Davis play in a futból friendly in a neighboring town new to us, Vélez de Benaudalla.  We also had the opportunity to participate in the Fiesta de San Miguel (remember last year’s fiesta that was set up right outside our front door?) but with the luxury of being able to leave when we were tired of the loud music and not being kept up all night long like last year.  In fact, reliving some annual events like this one has added to our sense of belonging and settledness here.  It really takes a whole year to find ones’ way and place in a new home and this second year is giving us an opportunity to try things on differently than the first time around.  It took me 13 months to finally find the best packaged coffee in town and we are still discovering new restaurants!

Our new home this year is an apartment located at the very bottom of the hill that we used to climb everyday to reach last year’s Spanish home in old town.  It is a good blend of greater comforts (more modern kitchen and bathrooms, individual bedrooms for the kids, an actual bedroom for me and George versus a walk-through room) and more traditional living; we still have a view of the castle, a Spanish terrace with morning light and sweet smelling jasmine and sounds of motorbikes whizzing by at all hours of the night.  We are directly next door to the botanical garden and even closer to the beach.  While the apartment provides us with a bit more space to ourselves, we have been pleasantly surprised to learn how easily we can live in a much smaller home than we are used to in the US and also live with so much less.   The real trick will be to be able to maintain this way of living when we return to American culture.

 

From Siesta to Fika

For some, September is more of a time of renewal than New Years or the arrival of spring.  Transitions are very present as our kids return to school and start a new level of learning, faced with new goals and new challenges.  Many of us parents are shaking off two months of less predictable schedules and summer habits of overindulging in sweets or less monitoring of screen time. It’s also a time when my own kids show some hints of renewed motivation.  In preparation for Quinton’s first week of school, he declared that he is going to try to stay more motivated, work harder in school and get fit.  George is even encouraging each of us to embark on 100 days of doing “something.”  And of course, in choosing my own “something,” I came up with a long list of items.  Hmmm, perhaps I will try to implement them all and hope for at least one to stick.

The varying schedules that we are shaking off are from traveling for the month of August in northeastern Europe.  With no place to live in Spain for the month and with the Mediterranean humidity as it is, we decided to head north for a more comfortable climate and new experiences.  Not only did we cool down but we also discovered some amazing places, learned about some fascinating histories, and of course, ate lots of great food.

Our journey started in Poland where we spent time in 4 different cities, Krakow, Warsaw, Toruń, and Gdańsk.  We were sobered up right away spending our second day on a tour of Auschwitz, the concentration camp.  Exploring the Jewish Quarter, driving past Schindler’s Factory, and walking through the Jewish Cemetery, all in Krakow, were eye-opening, as well, and then we topped it all off with watching the movie, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. So we all sat with the reality of the Holocaust for a bit which was important and impacting.  Krakow struck me as a creatively charming city as well with several green spaces, a food truck culture, and bookstores and cafes lining the side streets with menorah-shaped iron fencing.  Pork fat is a common delicacy (we were even given lard to spread on our bread instead of butter) and though the sauerkraut was amazing, we were disappointed by how much bad gas it caused.

Poor Warsaw had to measure up to our first impression of Poland and was a little less interesting than Krakow with the exception of its charming old town.  We visited the Copernicus Science Museum, learned about the Warsaw Uprising, and went on a food adventure to try traditional poor people’s food in Poland (which again, was based in pork fat) only to find the eatery filled with Poles dressed as soldiers from World War II to honor the anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising.

Following Warsaw, we trained to Toruń, a much smaller city, slightly northwest, and where George described the old town as “one big gingerbread house.”  The origin of gingerbread after the spices were claimed from Asia, Toruń has a couple gingerbread museums and one in which we had fun making our own.  But the best part of Toruń was  the gingerbread ice cream, which Davis decided was the best ice cream ever!  In addition, Toruń happens to be the sister city of Philadelphia, my hometown!

Finally we spent a few days in Gdańsk, where World War II all started, as it was the first place to be bombed by the Germans.  George and I got swept away at the World War II Museum, we visited the Malbork Castle (the largest castle in the world in terms of hectors), as well as Sopot, a nearby beach town with a long pier on the Baltic Sea.  REALLY GOOD fresh grapefruit juice and sorbet seemed to be a specialty and we loved discovering how Gdańsk has a tradition of eating something sweet before every meal.

Our next stop was Riga, Latvia.  It reminded us a little of Lucca, Italy, as we stayed in an apartment in old town looking down on all the nightlife and shops.  Roosters topped off most of the steeples, supposedly to ward off evil, and we had a great dinner one night where they used to serve beer to the Vikings and currently, they encourage you to eat with your fingers, just like in the Middle Ages and it was delicious!  George and I also discovered “The Most Romantic Café in Riga,” a delightful hole in the wall, where we exchanged greetings with a young Latvian couple who were taking a break from parenting as they were served 4 different pieces of cake to enjoy with their wine-just our types!  Finally, to appease the Americans in us, (mostly the kids) we indulged in a pancake/smoothie breakfast at an American restaurant followed by some go-karting fun.  George and I had eggs benedict served on a pancake-ummm, a one and done kind of thing for me.

After several shorter stops of 2-3 days each, we flew to Estonia for a two-week visit with our au pair, Merle, her sister, Kirsika, and her sister’s boyfriend, Jaak, who are all now considered “family.” Merle finally got to show us her country and from the moment our plane landed to when we left, she toured us around, educated us and shared numerous fun excursions beyond our expectations.

Estonia is a very young country, having only gained full independence about 30 years ago.  Impressive is how they obtained independence, through peaceful demonstrations of unity with the other Baltic countries and through singing, yes singing!  The Singing Revolution (https://singingrevolution.com/) refers to a series of events between 1989 and 1991 that contributed to the independence of Estonia when hundreds of thousands of Estonians gathered and sang together to represent their determination to become free from Russian occupation.  The Baltic Way or The Baltic Chain in 1989 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baltic_Way) was a historical day when Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians all held hands across the three countries at the very same moment to represent their unity and independence from Russia.  For the ultimate demonstration in 1991, when the Russians drove their tanks into Tallinn, Estonia to take over the TV tower in order to maintain some control, the Estonians held hands again, surrounding the TV tower and resisting pressure from the Russians which lead to the Russians surrendering.

We spent our first night in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, having a personal tour of the old town and for my birthday, we ate at a restaurant that reenacts the Middle Ages. The entire restaurant was lit by candlelight and we were served traditional Estonian food; goose liver pate, onion jam, lentils, salmon in nut sauce, turnips, barley, sausages made of wild boar, elk and bear and sauerkraut followed by rose pudding for dessert. Just another Monday night meal. The following days in Tallinn were spent visiting an open air museum, a powerful memorial honoring Estonians who were taken off to Siberian prison camps, the famous TV tower where the Estonians won independence and the Creative Hub where old warehouses from Soviet times have been converted into cool new restaurants and shops. We also went to the new Fotografisca museum (https://www.fotografiska.com/) and enjoyed an incredible photography exhibit by Jimmy Nelson (https://www.jimmynelson.com/), a British photographer known for his photos of indigenous people from all over the globe.

Following our city tour of Tallinn, we ventured to the southern countryside for a few days. Merle gave us a tour of her hometown, Rõuge, we hiked through a cranberry bog (in snow shoes so we didn’t fall through), visited a sandstone mine, and camped for a night in Tentsile Tree Tents, tents that are suspended off the ground and hung between 3 trees, like a hammock (https://tentsile.co.uk/). How fun!  Following our camping adventure, we had a rush of adrenalin driving a couple kilometers across the Russian border.  A very rural border surrounded by woods, we didn’t have to go through any formal border crossing but we were not allowed to stop the car, get out to walk around or even take photos.  Apparently, there are cameras everywhere set in the trees and border patrol hiding in the woods who will take you in for questioning if they catch you holding your camera up to the car window!  Yikes.

Probably the newest experience for our family was adapting to the sauna culture, widespread in most of the Baltic and Scandinavian countries. Typically, these families would all sauna together in the nude; brothers, sisters, parents, in-laws, etc., but our Estonians were nice enough to accommodate our American comforts by wearing bathing suits. We experienced sauna at a community spa and at the neighborhood lake but the most fun was riding down a river on a boat with a sauna on board so we could sit in the hot sauna and jump into the cold river and repeat and repeat. Davis won the prize for Sauna Master as he repeated this activity more than any of us. Somehow his body of skin and bones could tolerate more than any of us going back and forth between the extreme water temperatures.

Hadley probably ate all the blueberries at Merle’s family farm and became known as our Kiiking Master. Kiik means ‘swing’ in Estonian and the sport of kiiking was invented in Estonia in the 1990’s, which involves a person increasing the momentum on these type of swings with the goal of passing over the spindle. Hadley didn’t quite make it over the spindle but she jumped on these swings any chance she got and increased her momentum each time. Hadley is also our little shopper. As much as she seemed to be enjoying the outdoors in Estonia, I woke her the next morning at our campsite to hear her say “You woke me up and I was dreaming of Target!” I guess you can take the girl out of America but you can’t take the American out of the girl.

While our Estonian adventures continued… Merle was kind enough to keep the kids overnight while George and I traveled back to Tallinn to attend the Andrea Bocelli concert and then we reunited with the kids in Tartu, the second largest city and a university town. The drive back to Tallinn included a visit to the Upside Down House (see photos as they are the only way to describe the disorienting experience) and once we returned to the city, the kids spent a morning skim boarding on the beach, Kirsika made us some yummy smoothie bowls and we got a little bit of chill time. Finally, we had a one-day excursion to Helsinki, Finland. This Nordic city has the most modern architecture that we had seen yet and Quinton’s friends, from camp earlier this summer, lead us around a famous island fortress followed by sharing a delicious dinner and some scootering around a lake.

After a fun two weeks, we said our goodbyes to our Estonians and hopped a cruise ship (our first and hopefully last) overnight to Stockholm, Sweden. This was a particularly meaningful part of our trip for me, as I spent my junior year abroad studying at The University of Stockholm 27 years ago and I have not been back since. I tried to take in the surreal-ness of our visit as we walked around Gamla Stan (old town), visited the Vasa Museum (a giant Viking ship that sank in the main harbor and was then recovered 300 years later) and walked the university campus. We sang our way through the ABBA Museum (a new addition to Stockholm’s cultural offerings) and had a fun two-day kayak and camping excursion in the Swedish Archipelago with two other great tourists and our lovely guide, Erika. We were pleased to learn how Sweden is committed to environmental protection and advocacy probably more than any other country and we took full advantage of Fika, a Swedish tradition of taking a break from work and responsibilities to sit, have a cup of coffee, a Swedish pastry, and most importantly, be in relationship with others. Watch this video for a fun description of Fika: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oRIeytEXGhQ

We are grateful to our Swedish friends, whom we actually met in Spanish class in Spain, for putting us up in their beautiful guest home outside of Stockholm. Their island home provided us with a very comfortable place to relax and a dock from which to swim off of into the Baltic Sea as we recovered from our city excursions.

On the second of September, we flew back to Spain, moved into a new apartment, and helped prepare Quinton for a quick turnaround to start school. As we begin our second and final year in Spain, we have new living quarters and one new school with which to familiarize ourselves but we have established friendships, favorite coffee and food spots and familiar routines which is bound to offer us another enriching but slightly different experience.