View from tower of Plaza España

Five Things to Love about Sevilla

As I made my way along the river that flows through the city of Sevilla, Spain to my morning Spanish class, I watched a flock of white birds alight across the shimmering water. The beauty of that scene filled me with love and gratitude for my presence of mind and for walking in the morning light on this river path, in this new city. River of Sevilla with Tower of Gold in background For me, especially in my work as a therapist, I have learned that remembering to be grateful for things in your day, even the simplest of moments, has a way of connecting you deeply to that moment.  It brightens the colors of the scene, sparks a feeling of happiness, combats even the darkest moments, or the moments when anxiety has a vice grip on your heart and lungs. Gratitude is powerful. I am grateful for gratitude and I am grateful for our time in Sevilla.

In thinking of the many ways to write about Sevilla, a simple formula comes to mind:

Five Things to Love about Sevilla, Andalusia, Spain (in no particular order):

1) The Orange Trees:

In each new city, I always find myself riding in the backseat of the taxi, Jacob likes to be brave and practice Spanish with the driver and I don’t mind managing the girls. The benefit of the backseat is that I get to listen and try to decipher the conversation while I watch out the window, taking in the scene of our new surroundings. As we ventured from the main train station to our apartment in the Los Remedios neighborhood, the orange trees immediately caught my attention. They line all the streets. They are filled with dozens of oranges. What do they do with all these oranges? Are you permitted to pick them and eat them as you meander down the sidewalk? What happens when they fall off? Is there a river of oranges that are smashed on the street or used like soccer balls on the sidewalks? What is it like in spring when the trees are blooming?orange trees in a park filled with oranges

I was certainly struck by the way they provide the perfect accessory to the city’s collection of Moorish buildings with their rounded roofs and walls accented with hand painted ceramic tile. Like glass balls in a Christmas tree, the bright orange fruit brings color and magic to the green leaves and branches. A walk down a sidewalk or path lined with these trees is like a scene from Alice in Wonderland. It is likely that the citrus trees also produce a bit of a hazard to the unknowing passersby. Jacob watched a woman leap to her feet from her peaceful sitting position on a park bench, after a large orange fell with a “thud”, mere inches from missing her head.

One evening, while we watched him make freshly ground beef for us to use for our dinner of meatballs and pasta later that night, a butcher answered my questions about these mystical oranges. I learned that in the spring, the city is filled with the sweet smell of orange blossoms. You can pick the oranges but it is not recommended, as they are muy fuerte (very strong). There are even some fruit sellers who pick them by the bushel and sell them at their stands for very cheap. I suppose you are paying for someone else’s labor and trained nose. When they start falling off the trees there are custodians out every day shoveling mass amounts of these fallen orbs to avoid the smell of rotten fruit from over taking the city. I did see the fun of using them for a game of kickball and it is impossible not to have a few dozen smashed in the street.

2) The Food

Of course you know I am going to write something about food! Really, I only write about it if it is worth mentioning. In some cities the really good fare is hidden in the expensive restaurants but in Sevilla, you are not required to break the bank in order to find delicious taste bud temptations.

There are many popular, traditional dishes in Sevilla. Some restaurants stick close to the original style while others have modernized versions or have new creations all their own. Spaniards throughout the country love their pork and Sevilla is no different. You can see whole legs complete with hoof (sorry my vegan and vegetarian friends, it’s the reality) of the coveted Jamón Ibérico hanging in the windows of the neighborhood carnicería or held down to a bar top by food-appropriate fancified vice grips. The bartender, chef or party hostess (yes, we have heard one does not have a complete kitchen in your home in Spain without this tool), slices the cured meat into thin strips that look very much like pancetta. It is served tapas style piled high on a stark white plate. Order it with a matching plate full of Queso Manchego, a bowl full of the local olives, a caña (small glass of beer) and wham! you are in business. Another of our favorites of the traditional fare is the Espinaca con Garbanzos. Now, neither Jacob nor I usually choose stewed greens of any kind especially not cooked spinach. However, if done correctly (some restaurants are better than others) the spinach has a great balance of smoky, savory spice while the garbanzo beans help keep the texture from being, well you know what cooked greens can be… slimy. How’s that for a description? Scoop it up on a slice of toasted baguette and the crunch completes the experience.

On our last, day in Sevilla we went to La Chunga and ordered another typical dish, Solomillo al Whiskey. Wow, you need to like roasted garlic for this one and if you are with someone you plan to kiss later, you better share. It is thinly sliced, grilled pork loin placed on top of roasted potato slices of the same thickness delicately glazed with an olive oil and whiskey sauce. Happily dropped on top are whole cloves of roasted garlic that you open up with your knife, discard their papery wrappers, and slather the golden goodness all over the meat before shoveling it into your mouth. Drooling yet?

The last food review, actually restaurant review, (there were so many great ones, but I had to choose) was our favorite, a must-go-to if in Sevilla, Puratasca. My favorite kinds of restaurants are those that are unassuming, simply decorated and allow the food to speak for itself without all the fanfare and starched service. Puratasca is one of these (they don’t even have a website). Hidden behind a large red awning, typical of many establishments around the city, in the Triana neighborhood, (tricky to find, I promise) is this little hole in the wall. You must make reservations or arrive RIGHT WHEN THEY OPEN for either lunch or dinner as they have about 5 tables inside. On warm days they have more seating outside.   We hustled (as fast as the girls allowed) to get there right at 1:30 when they opened for lunch. With no reservation, we were seated along side the bathrooms but really never noticed because for the entire meal, we kept our mouths full and attention on the fireworks sparking across our taste buds (girls included).small beer with cheese plate in the background

There are two dishes that pop into my brain as I remember our experience there: the simple cheese plate and the arroz meloso con setas, parmesan and white truffle oil. Anyone who knows me will remember that I do not like mushrooms. I won’t even go into my disdain for them, BUT this rice, made in the style of risotto was incredible. It was creamy but countered with the sharpness of the parmesan cheese, balanced by the earthy truffle oil and thankfully the setas were chopped to a size that their texture was not bothersome (one of the characteristics of mushrooms I do not like).  The cheese plate was a simple presentation of hard and soft cheeses of the region on a plate covered in butcher paper with a smear of berry jam and sprinkling of toasted walnuts. Classic, creative and just what I love.

3) Spanish Class

Language is incredible. You could dedicate your life and career to learning the origins of languages. How did the first languages split into the over 6,500 known spoken languages around the world? Like the first person to perfect the chemistry of a loaf of bread experimenting millions of times with different combinations and quantities of ingredients to finally reach into the fire and pull out bread. Then, sharing the discovery with neighbors who taste and request the recipe, perhaps improving on it and sharing it once again. This is language to me; a compilation of thousands and thousands of years of points and grunts that eventually developed into the chemistry of language of naming things, actions, and concepts paired with person to person engagement, throw in a little evolution and migration and you have languages.

When you cannot speak the native language of a country it feels like there is an iron wall between you and the people of that location. I can see where one might develop a sense of fear of those who speak a different language, practice different rituals, or live by different mores. To never fully engage in conversation, learn about differences or share areas of similarities, might drive one to create their own conclusion about a given culture positive and negative or might even prevent some from traveling at all. It makes sense, the frustration that comes from the inability to ask for the things you need or share the things you have to offer but finding a way to walk through that fear to the heart opening experience of new cultures and people for me, is worth a little anxiety.

Learning a language different from your own is no joke. I know there are those out there that say “oh, I learned to speak 5 different languages in a month! Just follow this easy recipe and voila…”. I’m not sure that is realistic for me and most people but I have found that by trying to learn and speak at least a little bit of the language in a given country opens people up to you who might otherwise have dismissed the interaction once the language barrier was discovered. Plus, you get to tell hilarious stories about your language follies. My favorite language mishap, and believe me I have MANY, has to do with the words mujer (woman/wife) and mejor(better). My ears can hear the difference but my brain struggles to differentiate between these two words when I try to use them in a sentence. I am constantly saying woman when I mean better. So, when the x-ray technician at the public hospital in Sevilla spoke to me very quickly, I managed to say “hablo pequito Español, pero mi esposa habla mujer”. Hopefully I did not insult her by saying that “my husband speaks woman”.

With all that being said, our choice to participate in a Spanish language program in Sevilla was an obvious one. We chose a company called Sevilla Habla. Not only did it fit our budget but they also offered morning and afternoon classes, which allowed Jacob and I to switch off attending class and taking care of the girls. The teachers were fun and also serious about why we were there. I have concluded that this is one of the best ways to meet people from all over the world while traveling. I suppose there is also the option to stay in a hostel but let’s face it after you reach a certain age sharing a dorm with ten other people just isn’t that fun anymore. Jacob and I would come together at the end of the day full of energy sparked by hilarious stories about class, the fun we had with the other students and our mistakes. The emersion class was the best way to optimize our retention by listening, thinking and speaking in Spanish for at least three hours/day. Obviously, it is not realistic to take a class in every country over our year of travel, our budget just won’t allow it but we can try to pick up a few phrases.   Who knows, since Jacob is the language guru of our family, perhaps he will be one of those people who learns to speak 5 different languages and touts the ease of it when we return.

4) Natural Rhythm

Sevilla is one of the cities in Spain that holds tightly to the siesta schedule. Locals use the two and half to three hour break in the middle of the day to pick up their kids from school, enjoy a leisurely lunch (it is the biggest meal of the day), and take 20 minutes to close their eyes and rest. My Spanish teacher made a point to discuss the misperceptions of the siesta in one of my classes, making it clear that it people do not sleep for 3 hours but rather take the time to regroup, be with family or run personal errands. The school day for kids runs from 9a.m.-1:00p.m. They take a siesta for lunch and then return to school at 3:00 p.m. dismissal is at 6:00p.m.IMG_1986

There is a misconception of Spaniards being lazy and to which perhaps the siesta contributes.  Does the definition of hard work have to mean a schedule of working 8-9 hours straight in a day?  To me, the siesta seems to allow for the balance between personal needs and employment needs. I would have killed to spend two hours in the middle of the day with my kids and husband and have my employer doing the same. There are some down sides to this way of life, of course.  I could schedule doctor appointment as late as 8:00p.m. Good for me, but how bout the doctor?  Typical dinnertime is anywhere from 9:00p.m to 11:00p.m. Eating that late is probably not very healthy but dinner is usually light, tapas style.  The possible downsides are really just a change in concept of how to organize a day and despite the late dinner in general, Spaniards seem to be pretty fit.

It amazed me how easily we slipped into this Spanish schedule. Before leaving for Spain, Jacob and I were warned about the late dinner times and how we would have to train our kids to stay awake if we wanted to go out. Maybe something slipped through our filtered water or is sprinkled on the all the food but the schedule felt so natural to us like we had lived there for years. The girls and I were typically in bed by 8:30p.m. in the states, but in Sevilla, 10:00p.m. for the girls and 11:00p.m. for me felt like the just right time to hit the sack.

5) Flamenco

Haunting. Impossible footwork. Improvisational. Deep, passionate expression of emotion. These are some of the ways to describe Flamenco. While I was in college, I took a beginning ballet class. As a break from the plies and rond de jambe our instructor brought in a flamenco dancer to teach us some of the “simple” rhythms with our feet and hands. I remember feeling completely befuddled by how she could hold one rhythm with her hands and perform a completely yet complimentary rhythm with her feet. My ability to dance is one area in my life in which I feel the confidence to express myself, but this style was out of my realm. Flamenco is not just baile (dance) it is the combination of dance including the clapping (palmas) and snapping (pitos) rhythms, guitar (toque) and voice (cante).   While the performers know which songs they will perform, they often improvise and feel their way through the performance together instead of following sheet music or choreography.

Some say Flamenco was born in the caves of Andulusia where performers were forced to hide their otherworldly, passionate displays of music and dance.  Now out in the open, there are many Tablaos around Adulusia and abundant in Sevilla who host performances for tourists. I have a feeling that these are the “pretty” renditions of the art, that if you were able to really engage with the Flamenco culture you would have an entirely different experience. Jacob was able to catch a glimpse of the more authentic, rougher and spontaneous Flamenco. He was invited to go with an Israeli friend from class whose wife was in Sevilla to train in Flamenco. He stayed out until 4am moving from one venue to another witnessing at least a little of the authentic Flamenco. Shoulder to shoulder with patrons of the bar, he watched all ages perform from the Flamenco trainee to the seasoned old women singing with the ghostly vibrato.

Toward the end of our time in Sevilla, we brought the girls to an evening show at Casa de la Memoria. Kids had to be at least six years old to attend presumably because the dancer expresses strong emotions often anger. I wish my Spanish were better; I would have loved to understand the words of the songs about oppression, love and death. Perhaps this was a show for the tourist but this didn’t diminish the spellbinding performance. Coming out my trance after a Cante Grande, I noticed I had been holding my breath. I turned to Quinn to ask what she thought and she responded matter-of-factly caught in her own trance, “I have no idea how she moves her feet so fast”.

Our experience in Sevilla is often our choice when we ask each other the favorite part of our trip so far and so to conclude, I write her a letter:

Dear Lovely Sevilla,

Thank you for your openness, your orange trees and beautiful river. Thank you for your playgrounds, your kids programs and Flamenco. Thank you for your twisty streets filled with history, the Real Alćazar de Sevilla and your horse drawn carriages.  The lively people and Churos dipped in hot chocolate. Park Maria Lusia and Plaza España.

Some day, somehow, we will be back.


Travel with Kids: Health

Keepin’ It Real: Travel with Kids

Installment #3: Medical Mishaps

….and so I sit on the red twill couch in the sunny living room of our apartment in Sevilla, Spain. My knees propped up with pillows obeying the instructions of Dr. Ruiz from Hospital Universitario Virgen del Rocio, who, after painfully draining it, told me I was not allowed move my knee for at least 24 hours. Jacob took the girls to their art and theater class for me instead of going to his Spanish class this evening because the girls deserve to get out of this house and do something fun. Sitting quietly and obediently at a busy hospital for two hours is a lot to ask of an 8 and 6 year old.

The growing pain and inflammation in my right knee had been haunting the back of my mind since we arrived. Each time we travel to a new destination, my knees seem to get a little inflamed but then it subsides and I am able to keep up with our adventures. So, I thought this is what would happen here too. I ramped up my yoga practice trying to be gentle on my knees, not over tax them. I found an English speaking Physiotherapist/Orthopedist/Eastern Medicine practitioner nearby and made an appointment. I surfed the Internet for an Acupuncturist as a treatment supplement. All while the inflammation grew and grew. The increased walking here could have been the cause or maybe over the last 5 months I have not properly rehabilitated my knee. Whatever the reason, two days ago I could no longer walk without looking like Igor from the movie “Young Frankenstein.” My knee was so inflamed it looked like an over full water balloon ready to spring a leak at any moment then burst.

Jacob immediately relegated me to the couch and instructed the girls to push me around on a rolling office chair if I needed to use the bathroom. He went to stock up on food and walk by an Acupuncture clinic whose website made it seem like they were still in business; however, their email bounced back and the message I heard when I called could have said it is no longer in service but it was in Spanish and so I wasn’t sure. He returned half an hour later with food and news that the clinic was indeed closed down. We spent the afternoon trying and failing to figure out options for English speaking doctors in the area. When that proved difficult, Jacob took to consulting with Dr. Google instead and determined that:

a. I have some strange disease I have never heard of

b. fibromyalgia is causing the inflammation

We decided those weren’t the most hopeful of prognoses and went back to seeking an actual doctor. After a couple of phone conversations with receptionists, the Physiotherapist I had an appointment with later in the week, texted me at 10pm to tell me he could see me at his office at noon the next day and included the address. “Wait”, I thought, “this address looks different than the one on his website, better consult Google again.  Hmmm, it isn’t showing me Sevilla, there must be a mistake”. I sent him a text explaining my confusion about the location and thanked him for rearranging his schedule for me. Alas, his clinic was NOT in Sevilla it is in Madrid. He hasn’t practiced here in over 4 years. Great. That’s only a 4-hour car ride or 2 and a half hour train ride away! I immediately started to cry. The pain was getting worse and the fear growing that our broken Spanish would not be sufficient to get treatment and we would have to go home. However, now here I am less than 24 hours later, relishing the relief from the pain caused by pressure in my knee and feeling more hopeful that with proper rehabilitation we can continue our journey.

A Keepin’ it Real blog post about health has been bouncing around in my head for a while now. What better time to write it than after seeking and receiving medical care in a foreign country?? I must admit, I sat in the waiting room of the hospital looking around at the mass of people awaiting their care and witnessed myself experiencing many different emotions. I felt a lot of trepidation about the quality of treatment I would receive immediately followed by a feeling of shame for that thought to come into my mind. I felt relief that we were in Spain and not in Panama or Peru when this happened. There was a sense of hilarity at the situation. For instance, about every five minutes or so, Jacob and I immediately stopped our conversation and strained to understand the name and instructions being said over the loudspeaker. When we were finally called to “Rayos numero dos”, Jacob pushed me in my wheelchair, out into the hall around and around a pole, the girls following behind like obedient little ducklings, trying to determine what the instructions meant since all the doors in the hallway were closed. OH! Of course, silly. It means x-ray! At the moment of our realization, the x-ray technician opened the door to “Rayos numero dos”.

Finally, after the x-ray and initial consultation with a nurse, I lay on the treatment table in the third and final room of our medical adventure and I felt the feeling of vulnerability. No matter the country, no matter the facility, lying on a treatment table in an unknown place is vulnerable; however, I also felt trust. Trust that this man was doing exactly what his education and training had taught him. In fact, looking back, it seemed they were actually more careful about sterilizing my knee prior to the treatment than the fancy sports medicine doctor I saw in the States. I even got a little numbing spray on the injection site prior to being stuck with the giant needle.

Knees aside, the biggest unknown about long-term travel for me is health. How do we stay healthy? If we get sick, how do we get the medications and treatment we need? All blog posts I have read say everyone at one time or another will get travelers diarrhea. So, when Quinn came down with it in Lima I was scared we would be unable to keep her hydrated. Happily, that was not the case. Common sense was our best ally. Even the common cold can foul up plans for exploration. As everyone knows, if one member of the family is ill it is likely to get passed to all.

We battled this type of illness beginning in Urubamba, Peru. It was our first stay in a hostel and there were three other petri dishes, a.k.a. kids, staying there as well. One of which already had a cold. So, you can imagine the cold found its way into everyone in the house then followed us around through the Sacred Valley. Airplane travel is another kind of petri dish so we likely picked up another bug traveling from Peru to Spain. All told, at least one of us was sick for a full month.

Even with all the precautions and immune system boosting protocols, the risk of catching a parasite, virus or bacterial infection is very real. Up to this point in our travels, our experience has showed us that in Costa Rica, Peru, Spain and Paris, one does not buy medications at a grocery store but instead at a pharmacy. Usually, you have to speak to the pharmacist to explain what you need and she/he gets it from behind the counter, even ibuprofen and vitamins. In fact, in many of these countries a trip to speak with your pharmacist is your first course of action.  Doctors are reserved for emergencies or when the pharmacist is stumped. One time, in my broken Spanish, I asked the pharmacist for fish vitamins instead of fish oil…oops what’s the word for oil again?? How about the word for fish when it is swimming in the ocean and not in lemon juice on a plate?

Trust is a big factor when it comes to medicine in a foreign country. Can I trust the pill, treatment or advice I receive is the same or as good as what I would find at home, where I am more familiar? I think this speaks to so many issues of diversity. Can I trust the unfamiliar? Can I trust that another culture is as good as or even better than my own or that I just might learn something from that other culture? More aptly can I accept this as a possibility? The experience at the Hospital in Sevilla taught me that yes, I can and at times I must.

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. – Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Our strategy moving forward is of course, mindfulness and preventative medicine. I need to accept that I have some sort of problem with my knees and listen to them, seek out rehabilitative advice and do it.  I don’t want to avoid travel because of the fear of getting sick. I don’t want to make judgments based on secondhand knowledge or assumptions. I want to ask questions and research to find out what is available so I can negotiate treatment in a way that feels safe.  Otherwise, I am allowing my fear to grow and fester to an unnatural size and creating a self-imposed barrier to potentially amazing experiences and people.

Some tips to stay healthy:

  • Listen to your body and rest when needed.  Traveling is tiring and when you are tired your body has less energy to fight off infection. The girls are perfect, at times loud, little gages of when we need to rest.
  • Vitamins are important.  We are now taking daily multi and “fish vitamins”. Every little thing you carry has to be weighed according to its importance and cost.
  • Eat more vegetable soup. We thought we could get our nutrients through eating healthy foods and follow the advice of smart travelers ahead of us, only eating fresh veggies we have washed and peeled ourselves. However, when you are bouncing around a lot preparing your own fresh veggies can get tricky and in some places the risk of parasites on those fresh veggies is very real so you end up skipping it.
  • Carry hand-sanitizer everyday.  More often than not, there is no soap (or toilet paper) in the bathroom; therefore, I carry around a natural hand sanitizer made from essential oils.


for the love of Gaudi

For the Love of Gaudi

Jacob’s question, “should we take trains today or buses?” replayed in my mind during our walk to the metro station on our way to La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain. The girls of course chose trains because they love going underground, putting their tickets in the ticket-taker and pushing the button to open the doors of the metro trains. I went along with the decision but wondered if a bus wouldn’t be the better choice to allow us to see more of the city on the way. However, when we surfaced at our station the “wows!” from my husband and children met my ears before La Sagrada Familia met my eyes. Once it did, a “wow!” escaped my lips as well. From across the street, the cathedral looked so close it seemed I could reach out and touch the spires that towered high above our heads. I would have missed this reveal had we taken a bus. This was just the beginning of the reveals that were in store for us that day.

Surprisingly to me, Mackenzie requested that we have a guided tour through the Cathedral. She must have developed a liking for guides when we were toured through the Catacombs in Lima. Mackenzie was like a magnet to the tour guide’s side often leaving us in the very back of the 15+person tour. When asked about it, she said she wanted to be the first to see what was next. Of course Jacob and I agreed to her request for the La Sagrada Familia excursion despite the added expense and I am so glad we did. Our tour guide, Bernat, was a wonderfully enthusiastic, well-informed guide who engaged the girls often during the tour. He looked at them with his bright eyes to ask them questions that they could understand and answer. This approach kept them engaged for the full hour-long tour and had Mackenzie chasing after him asking great questions like “if Gaudi’s plans were all burned during the (Spanish Civil) war, how is this building here?”.

sparkling ceilingEntering the Cathedral for the first time is an experience I wish I could have over and over again. Losing my ability to breathe and speak, I gazed up at the columns towering above our heads painted by the afternoon light that was shining in through the multicolored stained glass. The whole atrium was lit up like a rainbow. The ceiling sparkled like stars. In fact, we learned, Gaudi’s intention was to allow Mother Earth to paint the inside of the cathedral each day with her sunlight as it bursts through the stained glass. Gaudi’s art was inspired by nature. He paid homage to the colors of the earth as a way to depict the symbols from the bible. His plans directed builders to install one side of the cathedral with red and orange stain glass, a symbol of the passion and blood of Christ, and the other blue and green to symbolize the Holy Family. The colors evoke a sense of water, air, earth, and fire. According to Bernat, 3:00pm, our chosen time, is the best time of day to get the full effect of the sunlight in January.

Because his plans were burned during the war, they had to be reconstructed using the scale models he built.  Many did not believe his engineering and math would work but standing under the enormous domes his genius is clear.  Starting with the roots in the ground, the columns in the cathedral are like huge trees shooting up through the atrium and branching out to form the ceiling.  I am in awe of Gaudi’s ability to observe the geometric designs and engineering constructed by nature and his ability to transform that knowledge into his design.  It is heart breaking that Gaudi was only able to see a small portion of the church built before he died. He never saw his vision literally come to light; the stained glass was only added five years ago.  The goal for completion of the entire cathedral is 2026, 100 years after Gaudi died.

tower of a building designed by Gaudi in park GüellGaudi left his mark all over the city in the form of ironwork, furniture and art. Another of his famous additions to the city of Barcelona is Park Güell. Mr. Güell was a wealthy entrepreneur who became good friends with Gaudi and commissioned him to design the park, his family home and other buildings on the property. The buildings, bridges and landscape in the park for me are reminiscent of something out of a fairytale; specifically Hansel and Gretel come to mind. In the “monumental zone” section of the park, the section requiring tickets, brightly colored mosaic ceramic tiles cover many of the roofs and walls. It seems to me that Gaudi loved movement; loved to make his structures seem like they are undulating like the ocean or a flag in the breeze. Stark white columns contrast the colors of the mosaic tile. Outside of the monumental zone the fanciful, magical energy continues using the landscape and natural stone.  twisty columns line a walkway made from natural stoneThe bridges and columns scattered around the park look like the process of wind and water formed them. Again, Gaudi created movement with the columns as they twist up to the ceiling and create a spiral at the top. A mosaic of shades of brown stone are meticulously placed making the surface look like the scales of a dragon. I could spend hours and hours at this park. Really, one needs a full day to explore the massive expanse with secret little walkways and stairs scattered throughout.

I’m not sure if it is the nature of the culture and people of Catalonia, specifically Barcelona, or if Gaudi’s influence seeped into the people over time, but it seems that the residents of Barcelona are drawn to creating light, whimsical, storybook art that is caught in time. We were lucky to be in Barcelona for the holidays because we got to participate in the many activities in Plaça Catalunya. The girls made brightly colored origami birds, wrote their wishes to Santa on them and hung them on trees constructed of wood and twigs. We watched a silly show with clockwork characters, couldn’t understand a word as they were speaking Catalan, but the spirit was fun and engaging. We took from that show inside jokes that make us giggle even today.Clockwork clowns performing

I could write and write about the gems of Barcelona and Gaudi’s art. His work is so detailed and because he was a deeply devout catholic, some of the details had very significant religious meaning to him.   However, I feel I must hold some of it back. I wouldn’t want to take away the experience of surprise and wonder as you explore the city and lose your breath when your own “wows” slip out of your gaping mouth.

View of buildings of Barceloneta from marina

Barcelona, the Blues and Bonding

Amy walking by a stand of different colored chili peppers and spices
Mercat Sant Joesp

We have been wandering the streets and parks of Barcelona now for almost 4 weeks. For those of you who have been here, you know this city is not short on narrow, twisty, alluring streets that take you past old gothic churches and lead to beautiful, secret little plazas dwarfed on all sides by old buildings. I am amazed to see the ornate iron on the balconies going up at least 6-stories high knowing this place influenced so many architects and designers. As I look up at the balconies, decorated with potted plants or laundry hanging out to dry, I enjoy imagining the lives that are lived in those tiny spaces.

At eye level, reminding me that it is indeed 2016, graffiti decorates many of the rolling, steel doors that lock up a business for the day or sometimes just the hour. In fact, I really have no idea how these businesses sustain themselves. There is no way to take the same route twice through the Gothic or El Born districts. How do people remember which twisty street that small boutique was on?  How do people keep track of the seemingly random closing times? Between vacations, holidays and siesta we had a hard time keeping up with each establishment’s schedule. Our friend advised us to always call before heading out to ensure they are open (something we keep forgetting to do!).

street art animalsOne thing I do understand and know for certain; I can feel the sense of community in this huge sprawling city and the sense of nostalgia that is creeping into my heart. Even in the chilly January weather, one can see Barcelonans and visitors sitting outside to enjoy the food, the scene and each other. Each restaurant or café has drawn the boundaries of their space on the plaza with heaters, tables and umbrellas. Sometimes it is difficult to tell one restaurant from the next, but who cares? It’s more about the ambience, and the ability to be a part of the community. The little butcher shops are loud with friendly employees chatting with the customers and customers chatting with each other. The Mackenzie in a rope tube on a playgroundorganized chaos of the bakery is a sight to behold as you wait in line, sometimes out the door, to purchase the still warm baguettes or our favorite, chocolate croissants. I still don’t know how the staff or other patrons keep straight who is next in line but I have never felt slighted or ignored. You can hear the echo of children’s laughter bouncing off the buildings while they play on the playground (found in almost every plaza), a signal that the importance of kids in the community equation is not forgotten. At restaurants, people seem to linger over their meals engulfed in conversation.  The wait staff leaves you alone until you signal your need for something.  Perhaps it is because they are not solely concerned about tips and possess an understanding that the food is secondary.

Quinn standing in front of fountain
Fountain at Park Ciutadella

Párc de la Ciutadella is a large park that is located just at the edge of the El Born district and Barceloneta.  It houses the zoo, several museums, fountains, a lake and many nature trails. The community feeling is palpable here, too. There are groups of people greeting each other with kisses on each cheek, chatting, playing music or just lounging in the grass. I don’t know why this seems so foreign to me as you can probably find this scene in many parks all around the world but for some reason it feels different here. It seems to come from the energy of creativity that I can feel as I watch the group of tap dancers in a raised pavilion trading rhythms with each other and the many different artists drawing crowds by their African drumming, juggling or unicycle riding. Maybe it is the group of young men doing tricks on their slack lines who take notice Mackenzie’s interest and convince her to hop on and try that makes community feel different and more approachable here.

Many of the artists in the parks are just practicing their gifts while others are trying to earn money. My favorite community-building entrepreneurs are the bubble-makers. These folks have made giant bubble wands out of two sticks connected by several loops of thick string. They dip the loops into their tub of soapy water and then gracefully pull it through the air letting the breeze make big beautiful bubbles that draw every child within a 2-acre radius to them. The hat of the bubble-maker sits nonchalantly on the dirt next to them awaiting the loose change of the on-looking parents, who are smiling at their children and sharing the joy of this scene with each other.Mackenzie and Quinn chase bubbles

These wandering observations get my mind to thinking about the people we love back in Colorado.  Like those conversations I overhear in the plazas as we pass through, I can hear myself engaged in loud conversations with my girlfriends over wine and tapas. The wish to be shopping with my mom and sister or sharing the amazement of Gaudi’s architecture with my Dad floats through my mind with each day’s discoveries. My youngest, Quinn, has been tearful the last couple of days. She says she is missing her family at home. Mackenzie is less expressive of her homesickness, but I know she misses her friends and family too.

The holidays could be the culprit of the blues; my kids have always been surrounded by lots of family at Christmastime. December 23rd marked the third-month anniversary of our departure; perhaps it is the “three-month blues”. My therapist persona speaks to me and reassures me that these cravings for home are a normal part of being away. If it weren’t, there wouldn’t be so many songs written on the subject. Emotion rises and falls, this is its natural pattern. I haven’t read every travel article out there yet but those I have say nothing about this part. Maybe I’m weird. Maybe other traveling families do not experience these same emotions.

Are we are all getting sick of spending everyday together with no one else to provide different stimulation? However, even as I contemplate that question I have the laughter of Mackenzie and Jacob reverberating in my ears from their recent stop-in-front-of-each-other-while-walking game. Their bond is deepening beyond measure. I know Jacob is starved for this kind of connection after graduate school and work took up much of his time for the last 6 years. Travel articles may not talk much about the occasional feelings of isolation but they do talk about the family bonding, or “travel-bonding.” The constant togetherness with little or no break has given us time to build on the friendship part of the parent-child and sister relationships.   Planning itineraries, solving problems, sharing in amazements as a family has created a self-confidence in our daughters that is truly breathtaking to watch. They move through the metro, putting their tickets in the machine, leading us to the right station with heads high, shoulders back and eyes bright. Jacob and I share the knowing that we created this space for us all and that brings us closer too.

The world is not all butterflies and roses nor is it all wasps and weeds.

We can hold both the light and the dark. I can teach my kids to hold both too.  Hold both the desire to see Omi and Popa or Grandma and Grandpa AND the desire to walk through the amazing Sagrada Familia or the Catacombs of Paris. The lesson of living with ambivalence is priceless and strengthens our psyche. Right now, as I write this I am acknowledging the longing, holding it, comforting it and when my girls feel it too, I get to physically comfort that and then give our family a call; to reestablish those connections that fuel us and strengthen us.  Then we get to feel the excitement of our upcoming trip to Paris.  Make a plan of what we will see, where we will stay, people we will meet and what we will eat.  Maybe my longing is not so much to be home, but to have the people at home with us, sharing these experiences too.

the girls with Jacob sitting in front of a view of Barcelona
Steps of the National Musem
Mackenzie and Quinn sit on concrete stairs in front of the marina at sunset

A New Weird Christmas in Barceloneta

Two days before Christmas our elf Flutter left a note telling us to go see a Christmas market and find out what a “Caganer” was.  So we went to a christmas market in the Placita de la Seu by the Cathedral of Barcelona that looked like a castle and we saw a sign that said “Caganer”.  We looked around and we saw a stand with a guy selling little statues of people pooping. Daddy looked up on his phone why there were little tiny statues pooping and we found out that the pooping guys were the Caganer.  Another name for Caganer is “the little crapper”.  small Caga Tío logs with raisin and penuts for food and Caganger squattingHe lives in France or Catalonia.  He is a little statue with a red hat and his bottom showing!  People put them in nativity scenes with baby Jesus.  They put him in nativity scenes because his poop fertizes the world so that there will be food for next year.  Some people think that when you put a Caganer in a nativity scene it brings you good luck and good wishes and if you don’t you will get in trouble.  Some people think that it is bad to put a Caganer in a nativity scene because they think it is holy and sacred and they think that the Caganer makes it look funny and not very good.  In my opinion, I think that the Caganer is weird because he poops outside like a dog in the plants and not in a toilet.

When daddy went to go find a water filter I saw some logs with little hats.  Mommy asked the man selling the logs what they were.  He told us that they were Caga Tíos.   Caga Tíos are little logs with red hats and a smily face.  You are supposed give it a blanket and some food so they can grow.  On Christmas Eve you have to whack the log and sing a song: poop log poop out a present, poop log poop log.  The next morning all the kids will see the presents that the poop log pooped out.  I think  that the poop log or the Caga Tíos are good because I like taking care of the Caga Tío. People who live in Spain like the Caga Tío because they like taking care of the them too.Mackenzie stands in living room getting read to open a gift

On Christmas morning I woke  up and I ran into Mommy and Daddy’s room to tell them it is Christmas and “you need to get up”.  Then I ran into the living room and then Quinn woke up too.  When we were awake we had to first give everyone their presents then we got to open them.  In my sock a got a lego person, some candy and a bracelet.  Our Caga Tíos gave us each some chocolate eggs and some farm animals.  I unwrapped a  doll, a note book, a pen that has four colors, a lego set and some earrings from my grandparents.  Our family gave us some money and we will use it to go to Paris, France.  for the rest of the day we got to play with our toys.  It was a fun Christmas and I will never forget it.Mackenzie and Quinn stand with gifts of art supplies in front of the paper christmas tree we made

I liked it a lot and If I ever have a more fun christmas I will tell you!