For those folks who are sticking it out to the bitter end, we have safely returned to Minneapolis. Our friends and family here have made re-entry incredibly easy so far. We came home to a clean house, a fully stocked fridge, a clean car with a full tank of gas, flowers, home-cooked food, and many smiles and hugs.

Maybe we should go away more often.

The peace that prevailed at home was a welcome change to our trip home. We had a bit too much excitement in the Paris airport where a bomb scared closed the entry to the concourse we needed to be in for 45 minutes. We were stuck outside of the security cordon and watched the big arrival/departure displays as our plane arrived and boarded, but did not appear to be taking off as departure time came and went. When the concourse re-opened, we had to go through customs and security again and then sprinted down the concourse. Near the end I heard a man saying, “Minneapolis? Minneapolis?” and I shouted, “Here, Minneapolis!” “How many of you are there?” he asked as I continued running toward him. “Four!” “Great,” he said, “You’re the last four. The doors are closing, but you’re going to make the plane.” We were all incredibly relieved. The Paris airport is nice enough, but we wanted to get home. Because of the bomb scare, they had held the plane until everyone was accounted for. And we learned in Minneapolis that our bags had even made it on board. Again, we were very happy.

As we walked down the aisle of the plane and the doors were closing behind us, I heard a familiar voice say, “Gill! Gill!” and there was my colleague KD from the library at MCTC. That was our first welcome home before we even made it home, but a flight to Minneapolis is king of an extension of Minneapolis given that the Twin Cities are a small town in many ways.

It was blazing hot when we arrived, the way Spain is supposed to be, but now it is raining and storming, but that is okay too. Everything is sickeningly fresh and comforting.

It’s good to be home.

My Amsterdam

Amsterdam was Amsterdam. We visited the beautiful parks, Vondelpark and Rembrandtpark, and strolled through the streets of tall, skinny, leaning houses. We took a tour on a canal boat and visited the flower market as well.

We had yummy open-faced sandwiches with spicy flavors from the previous Dutch colonies like Suriname and Indonesia.

But the whole time we were in Amsterdam, I was thinking of one thing: a local Minneapolis hit from the mid 90s.

One bonus is that now the singer, Jim Ruiz, is our local head librarian at the Southeast branch of the Hennepin County libraries.

And now, we are in Madrid, enjoying our last day of Spanish sun and wondering exactly what to do with ourselves. It’s a strange day indeed.

Waterfowl, public works, and wheels

At this point, any impressions I offer here are just the jumbled firings of very tired synapses. Read the following with this in mind.

At this moment we are in the village of Driebruggen (Three bridges) about 40 km south of Amsterdam. We are staying in a house with “la holandesa” from Siles, our friend S and her children. F&H were so excited to visit their friends from Siles one more time that they barely needed the engines on the plane in order to rise off the ground in Madrid. Their excitement alone could have powered our flight.

S tells us this is the groene hart (green heart) of the Netherlands, which is not hard to believe. Green grass stretches out in all directions from the village, interrupted only by canals and hedge rows. These fields contain a multitude of cows, responsible I assume for some of the great Dutch cheeses (gouda and edam), but even more birds. The place is covered up with waterfowl: ducks, geese, swans, herons, storks, and others that I don’t know the names of.

Of course, it is covered up with waterfowl because it is covered up with water, and because it is covered up with water, it is covered with public works. The amount of infrastructure here is incredible. In the Netherlands, not only do boats travel on canals, but cars also drive under them. I’m still not sure I’m comfortable with that. Everything is designed to keep the water and the earth in balance; so far, so good.

Another stereotype of the Netherlands is of hordes of happy, smiley people riding bikes, and that also is true. The bike culture here makes me incredibly jealous.  On the roads, bikes have primacy. There are special separate street signs just for the bikes giving distances and directions for them that are different from those for cars. I also appreciate that the great majority of bikes are very upright “granny bikes,” which are good for those with previous shoulder injuries like myself. And when children have learned to ride a bike, they get two bikes. They get a “play” bike for riding around the neighborhood and beating up, and they get a serious bike for riding longer distances between towns with the family. Wow, just wow.

So, of course, Chris and I rented bikes. F borrowed a “play” bike from one of S’s relatives, and we all (our family and S and her family) rode 10 km to the town of Gouda, of cheese fame. We did eat cheese there, but only what was on our pannekoeken (pancakes) — mmmm, savory pancakes with cheese and bacon. We also had poffertjes, tiny puffy pancakes with powdered sugar. There is a thick syrup for them too that tastes a bit like molasses, but that just seems like overkill.

The day before, S had given Chris and me a gift by watching the kids while we rode to the town of Oudewater, where we were weighed in the Heksenwaag (Witch’s Scales) to prove that we were in fact not witches or sorcerers. The children were disappointed to learn this given that we are on the final book in the Harry Potter series. In Oudewater, I also sampled a fantastic appleflap (apple turnover) which tempted me to title this post “An appleflap too far,” but I thought it might be even more arcane than the Shakespeare reference. Let me know.

Tired eyes and brain going to bed now.

Alas, poor Castilla y Leon

Salamanca, Ávila, Segovia (where we are now) are passing by in a blur of pink sandstone buildings; low, dry, treeless hills; and wide, bright blue skies. Here on the plains of Castilla y Leon we are spending our last few days in the provinces of Spain.

These cities are what we imagined Spain would be like: hot, dry, ancient, castles, cathedrals, religious artifacts (the boney finger of Santa Teresa de Jesus on display in Ávila), Roman ruins (or not ruins as the case is for the incredible aqueduct in Segovia), red wine, grilled meats.

And yet, I wonder if we will even remember them, piled up as we are with thoughts of visiting our friends in the Netherlands and then of home– in fact, very much of home.

It boils down, I think, to this: going home already feels very much like starting fresh, or at least with a fresh perspective. That’s hackneyed and expected and not even completely true, but the feelings still exist. It is probably healthy to let them exist . . . until they don’t anymore.

Which will be soon enough.

(Prize to the first person to get the Shakespeare reference– MK and JS don’t get to play)

Baby eels and beaches

La Concha Bay in San Sebastian from Monte Urgull

If anyone ever needed proof that Chris and I are hopeful, optimistic people, exhibit A is that we planned a five-week trip through Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands with two seven-year-olds who had been away from home for ten months.

What were we thinking?

Well, as of today, we have two more weeks left to touchdown in Minnesota, and it appears that we will all live through it, but it is touch-n-go from time to time. As a family, we have had some serious together-time, perhaps too much even. It will be good to return home and have some distance from each other, even if it is just the distance between the second floor and the basement.

F gets her Marcel DuChamp on in Plaza de la Constitucion

San Sebastian, where we have parked ourselves for five nights, both helps and hurts the situation depending on the moment. The food here is fantastic, but fantastic in an adult way that makes kids say “ewww” to just about everything that is offered to them, though H, our new champion of adventurous eating, has tried the baby eels and given them the thumbs up. Foie gras did not receive the same treatment, but Chris and I didn’t really want to share anyway.

Pintxos feast in San Sebastian

Pintxos (pronounced peenchos) are San Sebastian’s main gift to gastronomy, and they are like tapas on steroids, not because they are big but because they are exploding with flavors and come in a never-ending variety.  I could eat them from sun-up to sundown and probably never eat the same little flavor bomb twice. From cow cheeks to goose liver to blood sausage paté to pig’s feet to crab salad to cod intestines, there is sweet and savory and creamy and salty for every palate– except maybe the seven-year-old one.

In practice, this means we feed the kids in our apartment first, and then go out to eat and take plenty of activities for them to do while we are eating. It is delicate dance, but we have been perfecting it more and more every day.

Yes, that’s as big as his head

San Sebastian also has two beautiful beaches, one of which we visited yesterday (Playa de la Concha) despite the clouds that have smothered the city for the last three days. We built sandcastles, kicked the futbol (soccer ball), and played beach paddle ball before finally working up the courage to go into the water, which turned out to be warmer than in Llanes and with bigger waves to play in. In fact, one of the beaches in San Sebastian is a surf beach, which we viewed and which prompted many questions about the finer points of surfing that Chris and I could not answer.

As soon as we plan to leave San Sebastian on Friday, the sun is going to appear and temperatures are going to skyrocket, and we are heading inland to Salamanca where we have no pool and no beach and the temps may hit 100 F.  However, we continue to believe that this whole idea of “sunny Spain” is just so much publicity to get the unknowing on a plane. In the words of those fine artists Public Enemy, “Don’t believe the hype.”

Sitting in a cafe

After a quick trip to the mountains, we are back on the Asturian coast in a small beach town called Llanes. We are still in an apartment without wi-fi, but we’ve found a lovely cafe across the street from a park with play structures (score!) and a view of the Picos de Europa, the second or third highest mountains in Spain– I can never remember where the Pyrenees rank with the Sierra Nevada and the Picos. It is sufficient to say the mountains we are looking at are tall and scenic.

Yesterday was a banner outdoor day. In the morning we began with a 7 km hike up to about 2000 meters altitude to see the views and some of the traditional stone houses that shepherds used in the summers when they were in high mountain pastures with their cows. Unlike the Sierra de Segura around Siles where sheep and goats are the main livestock, in the mountains around Pola de Somiedo, where we were staying, cows are king. But these cows seem to think they are mountain goats.

By the evening, we were in Llanes frolicking in the cold, but not so cold as to be unfrolickable, Atlantic under sunny skies. The proximity of the mountains and ocean in this part of Spain is the reason it was high on our list of places to visit. If only it had the warmth of Andalucia (Andalucia is experiencing a warm spell now that we have left), it would indeed be perfect.

The moment of peace with children playing happily in the park and parents sitting happily in the cafe has been glorious, but is rapidly unraveling. We’ll have more updates when we reach San Sebastian, our next stop, where our access to the interwebs should be more consistent.

If this is Tuesday, we must be in Viveiro

We are headed into a wi-fi free zone for the next few days, so I thought I’d check in briefly.

After Porto, we continued north and spent two nights in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, the supposed final resting place of the body of St. James, the disciple (called Santiago in Spanish). Santiago is very medieval and very Catholic (even today, these two things often seem to go hand in hand), perhaps a little too Catholic for me. The sincerity of some of the pilgrims finishing the Camino de Santiago kind of creeped me out, but I readily admit to having a low tolerance for certain brands of spirituality.

Our best find in Santiago were three hedge mazes in the Parque de Belvis that the kids and I played chase in for at least an hour. That was some serious family entertainment.

From Santiago, we continued north through the green fields and forests of Galicia to a tiny town on the north coast of Spain called Viveiro. We chose it as a base to explore this rugged coast for a few days. And if Siles felt like the middle of nowhere, Viveiro feels like the edge of the world: a little town clinging to hillsides that end in a beach and a bay. The whole world here is bordered by mountains on one side and the sea on the other.

As our Andalucian friends warned us, the weather has been cloudy, breezy, and not particularly warm, but we are staying in a swanky hotel with a covered swimming pool. After exploring the beaches and cliffs of this amazing landscape, we can retire to the pool for a dip or entertain ourselves with a round of mini-golf. Yes, we did book this place to give the kids a break from ancient buildings and images of dying saints. And we’ve blundered into another saint’s day celebration as well, this one St. John. The party is rockin’ the beachfront down below our hotel even as I write.

We’ve had some wonderful seafood here by the coast, but I’ll spare the details. The highlights have been almejas a la marinera (steamed clams in a yummy sauce that had cream and basil and some other stuff), pulpo a la gallega (Galician octopus), and buey de mar (ox of the sea).

Best seven-year-old comment of the day: “Hey, I can see my penis in my shadow,” exclaimed by H as he waited in the nude to be de-sanded after a morning playing on the beach at Praia do Picón (Picón Beach).

We are headed back into the mountains for a few days now in the community of Asturias. We’re going to see if we can spot some Iberian brown bears. Fear not, they are much smaller than grizzlies, and, honestly, I think we’re about as likely to see one as a grizzly, but it gives the kids something to search for as we drive and hike.

The longest day in Porto

I’m sitting on the patio of our apartment in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, drinking a 10-year-old tawny port I just bought yesterday in Porto, Portugal. How cool is that and when will I ever get to write that sentence again in my life?

My father-in-law always refers to the summer solstice as the saddest day of the year because it starts the long day’s journey into the dark Minnesota winter, but we took advantage of that long day yesterday to do Porto. Porto is Portugal’s second city, and folks like to say that it put the “port” in Portugal for several reasons. It was on one of the earliest settlements, and its name dates from the Roman period and is the reason the area was called something close to Portugal way back then. It is also the capital of the port wine industry if it is not exactly where port wine was first distilled.

Porto is smaller and grittier than Lisbon with more empty storefronts and ragged residential
 neighborhoods. Nevertheless, for some reason, it appealed to both Chris and me more than Lisbon. Perhaps we were just hitting our Portuguese groove by the time we arrived in Porto, but we found the city more accessible and easier to enjoy. It could be that some people are just meant for the provinces rather than the capitals. We are, after all, from fly-over country in the U.S. and we like it that way.

The Douro River runs through Porto and joins the Atlantic at one corner of the city. There are beaches there, and though it was sunny, it was not sunny enough and hot enough to tempt us to spend a day on the sand. Instead we explored the city, mostly on foot and by the three historic tram lines (think trolley– like straight out of
Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood trolley) that run through the old city. We were on the ball with public transportation in Porto and even managed to squeeze in a ferry ride across the mouth of the Douro, which reminded me of my university days in New Orleans when the cheapest “riverboat ride” was the ferry across the Mississippi to the West Bank and back.

We exercised our carnivorous gene in Porto as well. We discovered the beauty of a Portuguese churrasqueiria, a restaurant that specializes in grilled meats. The “mixed barbecue” included sausage, chicken, flank steak, ribs, thick-cut bacon, and pork loin, all grilled to perfection, nothing dried-out, and it was even delectable the next day because we were so gauche we took the leftovers home. With fries, rice, and a salad, there was really no way to go wrong.

This was only outdone by our grilled fish extravaganza the next day in the Afurada neighborhood out by the sea. The grilling at Taberna Sao Pedro was happening in big 50-gallon-drum grills out in the street next to the restaurant. Rather than suffer through the Spanish-English-Portuguese game, the waiter just dragged me over to the grills, and I pointed to what we wanted: fresh dorado (a wonderful, flaky white fish) butterflied and grilled and grilled skewers of langostinos (giant prawns that taste like lobster), squid, sweet peppers, and onions. The squid was the most tender and flavorful I have ever put in my mouth. With salad, boiled potatoes in olive oil, and Portuguese green wine, this was another meal that was hard to stop eating. Perhaps I’m starting to make it clear why Porto was easy to like.

And, though we are not necessarily proud of it, nor are we too proud to admit, we did use the iPad to put the kids on pause long enough to enjoy one port wine tasting since we were in the capital of production for said beverage. We were not disappointed, and we were even given note cards to take home so we can share our new-found knowledge of port with friends and family. The brief summary: 20-year-old tawny is the way to go, but who can afford it.

In between stuffing our faces we visited the cathedral, an impressive Gothic pile coated in blue and white tile pictures inside, and walked the old parts of the town and the riverside, including a stroll across the Ponte de Luis I (Luis 1 Bridge), a great iron structure with two levels crossing the Douro.

I suspect that’s enough breathless rhapsodizing about Porto– and I haven’t even started on the pastries and breads– but if you ever find yourself in Portugal, it’s worth a stop.


A week on the road

Today marks the first week of our end-of-year adventure. And It’s been a weird week.

At 5 AM this morning I found myself reflecting on the week as I drove in a light drizzle back from the Lisbon airport where I had just dropped our friends R&D for their flight back to the States. In this week we’ve had blazing sun and beaches in the southern Portuguese town of Tavira. We’ve been surrounded by a non-stop party for St. Anthony in our apartment in the Alfama neighborhood of Lisbon. And we’ve had constant clouds, mist, rain, cold winds, and cold weather blowing off the Atlantic in the beautiful coastal region of Sintra. Portugal has been a string of surprises, both pleasant and not so.

Our first experience of Portugal in Tavira was mostly odd for its differences from Spain– for starters, they don’t speak Spanish (imagine that)– and its similarities to the U.S. As H noted, “This feels like Florida.” He wasn’t wrong. It feels like Florida with more British and German accents, and the quaint buildings in the old part of the city are actually ancient rather than being designed by Disney just to look so. The highlight was definitely our day on the Ilha de Tavira (Tavira Island), a largely unspoiled 11 km sandbar with beaches and dunes to spare.

Lisbon is not so easy to encapsulate. A city built on hills by the water, it strikes me as a slightly smaller Barcelona. However, I fell in love with Barcelona, and I just felt estranged from Lisbon. I’m willing to accept the blame for this dysfunctional relationship. I don’t think I was ready to love Lisbon. I was on the rebound from 10 months in Spain, I had not read enough about Lisbon before we rolled into town, I don’t speak the language, I had no plan for our first date, and I had two seven-year-olds in tow. It would take a special town to embrace me under those conditions.

Given these circumstances, it shouldn’t be any wonder that my favorite memory of Lisbon is sitting in a wine bar near the Castelo de São Jorge on a sunny afternoon with our friends R&D being schooled in Portuguese red wines, ports, and green wines (yes, there are green wines– who knew?) by a slightly surly sommelier with what sounded like a Russian accent to his English. Eating delicious Portuguese sausages, sharp Portuguese cheeses, flor de sal, and olive oil harvested during a full moon (I had no idea this was a big deal) along with our wine lesson didn’t hurt either. Runners-up in the good memory category are stumbling upon a saxophone quartet blazing through some ragtime on Sunday morning in one of the courtyards of the Jeronimos Monastery and a leisurely visit to the Belém Tower where we watched boats entering and exiting the Rio Tagus from the Atlantic, including a fleet of million-dollar multihull sailboats tearing out on the next leg of a multi-stage European race. These are great memories, but I can’t help feeling that Lisbon never received my full attention. Perhaps we’ll get a second chance some day.

And now, we have Sintra. Sintra promises spectacular cliff-backed beaches and rugged hills crammed with palaces and gardens, and these promises have been fulfilled, but only at the cost of really . . . seriously . . . crappy . . . weather. But how could it be otherwise in a place that bills itself as the “Romantic Capital,” meaning romantic as in the artistic movement romanticism, not roses and chocolates? Romanticism in nature is symbolized by wildness and decay and fancy; thus, romantic weather must be exactly the opposite of the roses and chocolates idea of romance– not sunshine and warmth, but raw and unexpected.

We’ve (R&D and our family) been rained on in the gardens of the Pena National Palace and buffeted by wind gusts on its balconies. The clouds have covered the sun and the stars and then come down and engulfed the hills as well, blotting out even the views of the Pena National Palace and the Monserrate Palace that we have from the deck of the cabin where we are staying. The wind whips up the waves at the beaches so we have only red flag warnings and makes the air temperatures too cold to use the pool only a few steps from our door. I’m all for celebrating the wild in nature, but I’m not sure why we have to do it for three days in a row in such a chilly fashion in the middle of June. If I wanted this weather, I could have gone home to Minnesota.

Tomorrow, we head north for the Portuguese city of Porto, and we hope warmer weather. We’ve got pictures around here somewhere, and we’ll try to get some of those up soon as well.