Project Gaylord

Chronicles of a year in Spain without a plan.

Prague: The End of the Line

We caught a train out of Vienna and made our way to Prague, eating cheese and playing cribbage as the countryside whipped past. Prague is immediately beautiful and inviting – with its Disneyland-like architecture and grand setting along the fast-flowing Danube river. Our arrival was marred only by the fact that I realized that I had, for the fifth time on the trip, accidentally taken the keys from our previous AirBnB apartment.  After yet another trip to the post office to mail them back to their rightful owner and, hopeful that the lesson was finally learned, we checked into our charming new digs.

The apartment we stayed in was previously occupied by a family of seven, which boggles the mind because the place was simply a living room and kitchen with an outhouse restroom around the corner outside. The bathtub was literally next to the kitchen sink, and one could only imagine the chaos of an average morning as this huge family tried to get ready for the day.  It did lead to us getting one of the best pictures of the trip, which I have titled “Girl in Tub” (of course, there was also the companion piece, “Idiot in Tub”):

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Living in these tight quarters made us thankful for the spacious living that we enjoyed back in the states. Although modest, the place was adorable and served as the perfect headquarters for exploring the charming city of Prague.

Prague dazzled us from the moment we stepped outside. The sweeping views from the Charles bridge were breathtaking and we spent a lot of time hiking through the hills, which were literally bursting with blooming linden trees, the symbol of the city. With so many white petals, the hills appeared to be covered in fresh snow even though the spring air was warm and full of sunshine.  The effect was intoxicating.

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As you can see, Prague is a city of views and another amazing vantage point is around each and every corner. As a city that lived for decades under oppressive communist rule, Prague has a noticeable fascination with liberty and freedom of expression. Of of the more striking examples of this was the Lennon wall.

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John Lennon was a hero to the Czech’s and, after his death, this wall was spray-painted with his image and lyrics alongside other images of creativity, imagination, and protest. The communist government had it painted over, but each night people would return to restore the wall to its colorful glory. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Czech republic gained its independence and the wall is now a permanent fixture and popular destination for tourists and locals alike.

When we arrived Prague happened to be celebrating the spirit of creativity by honoring the works of director Tim Burton. The temporary Burton exhibition featured original drawings and sketches by the director which showed his artistic vision for many of his most memorable movies: Batman, Beetlejuice, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Edward Scissorhands. After a year of looking at classic and modern artwork, it was clear that Burton deserves the title of master artist. His work is decidedly dark, and sometimes downright scary, but it has a soul and tenderness just beneath the surface. Burton cares for his bizarre creations and wants the audience to care as well. As a boy who grew up in suburban Southern California, it’s impressive that he was so willing to go against the overwhelming pressure to conform, using bizarre new combinations of form and color to explore themes of isolation, death, and love. It was appropriate that Prague was showcasing his works; both the city and the man were rebelling against different forms of oppression.

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The city was full of its own delightful homages to creativity and defiance of authority:

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Yet, what most sets Prague apart from other European cities is its fairy tale architecture. The main square combines buildings from a host of different styles and centuries and looks like a movie set. On one end of the square, the Astronomical clock (telling the time, date, and position of the planets on a series of intricate dials and panels), which dates back to 1410, is a highly intricate affair that draws huge crowds. Not only does the clock chime, but gears spin, wooden figures whirl around, and death itself makes an appearance.

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The rest of the square included churches with enormous spires, royal-looking apartments with fresco walls and playful colors, and inviting cafes with outdoor seating. To top it all off, we happened to arrive during an Easter market, which meant bright decorations in the trees, children singing, and lots of delicious food vendors. With such a visual (and literal) feast, it was hard to know where to go first.

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Fortunately, we followed our stomachs and ended up at a highly recommended restaurant called Lokal, right next to our room, that is a reconstruction of communist-era style cafeteria eating. They even instruct the waiters to be somewhat gruff, which is how they used to be in the 1980’s. The main room was enormous and packed with Czech’s talking and drinking beer. I ordered a beef tartar that arrived looking delicious, but I was a little puzzled as to how to go about eating it. The friendly Czech guy next to me immediately sensed my apprehension and motioned at the plate, as if he wanted to take it. “It’s okay?” he asked. “Uh, sure,” I replied. He snatched the bread and raw garlic from my plate and began to furiously scrape the garlic into the bread until the entire surface was covered, then he spread the raw meat on top of that and took a bite. He immediately smiled broadly and clapped by back. “Good!” he shouted as he handed back the plate, which was now ready to eat. As I took my first bite, all concern about this stranger manhandling my food disappeared – it was absolutely delicious, as was all of the food that we encountered in Prague, from medieval feasts (we went to a tavern called U Sedmi Svabu) featuring pork knuckle and sauerkraut pancakes to vegetarian delights at an adorable place called Lehka Hlava (meaning clear head – this place was actually so cutting-edge that they had a “breathetarian” section of the menu where you ordered food that you absorbed simply by breathing the fumes – talk about low impact on the earth!). Prague is a city that tastes as good as it looks.

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Lunch and dinner weren’t the only things that Prague did right. The AMAZING bakery you see below, called The Bakeshop, was so good that we went back literally every morning. By morning number five, we were a little embarrassed to be back, yet again, ordering a mountain of pastries and coffee, but we just couldn’t help ourselves.

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It would be a shame to have all that food and not have something with which to wash it down. Lucky for everyone, the beer of the Czech Republic is exceptionally good and plentiful. We spent an entire afternoon in a beer garden up on a hill with a view of the Danube, playing cards and watching the locals drink and hang out in the sun. This is a city that, like most of Europe, really knows how to kick back and enjoy life.

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The Jewish Quarter was another fantastic neighborhood to explore, full of the sad but resilient history of Prague’s Jewish population. One of the more amazing sites of our entire trip was the eerie cemetery where generation after generation of families are buried and tombstones so numerous that they push up around each other like plants competing for sunlight. The Spanish Synagogue was the highlight, a building of incredible Arabic architecture, from geometric domed ceilings to enormous archways and stained glass, all imbued with rich blues, reds, greens, and browns. We were lucky enough to get tickets to a performance and were treated to works by Gershwin and Ravel while our heads remained on a constant swivel, trying to take in all the beauty that surrounded us.

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Finally, the Danube itself is a major show in Prague, with the Charles Bridge providing the main event. Construction of the bridge began in 1357 and the whole thing is dripping with atmospheric history – we walked across it countless times during the day and at night, and never got tired of the scenery. To get a slightly different perspective, we rented paddle boats at sunset and sat out in the middle of all this splendor as the waning sunlight danced on the dark water. We were in heaven.

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This was it for me, the end of the line. Our trip together was at its end as we had just a few days left in Madrid before I needed to get on a plane back to San Francisco to start my job. Our final night, inspired by the Burton exhibition, we watched a Nightmare Before Christmas and something about the sweet little love song at the end of the movie between Jack Skellington and Sally just hit a huge nerve in me and made me cry like a little baby. I was sad to be leaving Laura for two months and even sadder that our Spanish adventure was at its end after so many incredible memories.

When you go on vacation for a year, you think it will last forever, because that is about 50 weeks longer than any other vacation you’ve ever been on, but the reality is that all things come to an end – even an entire year abroad. It was a harsh revelation, but as I fell asleep that night, I realized how short life is and how important it is to life our lives to the fullest. We have this rare, incredible gift of life and we have to make the most of the opportunity, because it will all be over before we know it. For me, the way I honor that is by spending every moment I can with this miracle of a person:

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And I am the luckiest person in the world…

So, whatever that may be for you – don’t wait – go do it! You’ll be glad you did.

The Hit List, Part II

Now that we’re back, a deep, heartfelt post summarizing what all this has meant to us is much overdue.

This is NOT it.

I simply wanted to complete Part II of the Hit List before I forget the names of all the cities we have been to over this past year.  Here’s the completed list, and I am pleased to say that we hit a perfect round number on our total: 80.

1 – Madeira, Portugal

2 – Lisbon, Portugal

3 – Dover, England

4 – Honfleur, France

5 – Amsterdam, Netherlands

6 – Antwerp, Belgium

7 – Bruges, Belgium

8 – Brussels, Belgium

9 – Madrid, Spain

10 – Dublin, Ireland

11 – Kashel, Ireland

12 – Kilkenny, Ireland

13 – Kinsale, Ireland

14 – Dingle, Ireland

15 – Slane, Ireland

16 – Galway, Ireland

17 – Inishmore Ireland, Ireland

18 – Cavoeiero, Portugal

19 – Burgau, Portugal

20 – Sintra, Portugal

21 – Coimbra, Portugal

22 – Obidos, Portugal

23 – Porto, Portugal

24 – Avila, Spain

25 – Burgos, Spain

26 – Santillana Del Mar, Spain

27 – Potes, Spain

28 – Comillas, Spain

29 – Bilbao, Spain

30 – Morga, Spain

31 – Gernika, Spain

32 – Mundaka, Spain

33 – Bermeo, Spain

34 – San Sebastian, Spain

35 – London, England

36 – The Cottswolds, England

37 – Pedraza, Spain

38 – Segovia, Spain

39 – Toledo, Spain

40 – Barcelona, Spain

41 – Ibiza, Spain

42 – Beaune, France

43 – Lyon, France

44 – Manzanares de Real, Spain

45 – Burgo de Osma, Spain

46 – Salamanca, Spain

47 – Benidorm, Spain

48 – Altea, Spain

49 – Nuremberg, Germany

50 – Munich, Germany

51 – Salzburg, Austria

52 – Granada, Spain

53 – Villanueva de la Cañada, Spain

54 – Rascafria, Spain

55 – Miraflores, Spain

56 – Garganta la Olla, Spain

57 – Garrovillas, Spain

58 – Alcantara, Spain

59 – Caceres, Spain

60 – Monsanto, Portugal

61 – Idanha-a-Nova, Portugal

62 – Leon, Spain

63 – Orellan, Spain

64 – Balboa, Spain

65 – Villafranca, Spain

66 – Cacabelos, Spain

67 – Celanova, Spain

68 – Parada, Portugal

69 – Santiago de Compostela, Spain

70 – Valensa, Portugal

71 – La Guardia, Spain

72 – Bayona, Spain

73 – Allariz, Spain

74 – Valencia, Spain

75 – Cuenca, Spain

76 – Pedraza, Spain

77 – Zaragoza, Spain

78 – Budapest, Hungary

79 – Vienna, Austria
80 – Prague, Czechoslovakia

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The remaining are sans Mike :o(

81 – Nieva, Spain

82 – Sevilla, Spain

83 – Fuengirola, Spain

84 – Mijas, Spain

85 – Aranjuez, Spain

30 For 30: A 30th Birthday Tribute

Happy Birthday to the world’s greatest wife and person!!!  I am so glad that you were born.  I can’t be there to celebrate in person, so I decided to put together a photographic chronicle of the top 30 moments of our lives together so far in honor of your 30th birthday.  Looking at these reminds me of how much we have done together and how many good times we’ve shared.  Everything in my life is better when you’re there with me!  I love you beyond description and I can’t WAIT to have you back in California in just 10 more days!

And now, the top 30:

#30:  The time we flew in a prop plane through the Andes Mountains (I look excited and you look mortified)

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#29  The time we lived at Downtown Abbey

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#28:  The time we became Harry Potter

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# 27:  The time we ran our first half-marathon together

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#26:  The time you supported me even though I had this mustache

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#25:  The time we backpacked in the Rocky Mountains

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#24:  The time we lived in Virginia and I had glasses

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#23:  The time we adopted a monkey

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#22:  The time we became Ukrainian for a day

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#21:  The time we had a tea party

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#20:  The time at Hog Island where you had the greatest cribbage comeback win of all time

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#19:  The time we went to our first ever Spanish wedding

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#18:  The time we started the McLively Ugly Sweater Christmas Party

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#17:  The time you got a tattoo on your boob

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#16:  The time I became black

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#15:  The time we discovered that you are really a sloth

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#14:  The time we befriended the British (and Irish)

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#13:  The time we learned how to make dynamite

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#12:  The time you forgave me for trying to strangle you in Utah

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#11:  The time we ate at the French Laundry

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#10:  The time we looked this good

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#9:  The time you wore the world’s best Halloween Costume

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#8:  The time I shrunk

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#7:  The time we went on our Honeymoon in paradise

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#6:  The time we discovered Zachary’s Pizza

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#5:  The time we decided we would give it 110% on the dance floor every time for the rest of our lives

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#4:  The time we hiked the Inca Trail

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#3:  The time we moved to Spain and lived in Madrid for a year

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#2:  The time we had our first child

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#1:  The time I married the most beautiful, wonderful, amazing, talented, warm, and kind woman I’ve ever met in my life.  Happy 30th birthday honey!  I can’t wait to have you back!  Hope you have a fantastic day, enjoying your last moments in Spain.  The next adventure is just around the corner!

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HAPPY 30th!!!!!

Love,

Mike

 

 

Budapest: Shots in the Dark

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The final trip of our year abroad was a tour along the Danube River in Eastern Europe. We hit three great cities on the way: Budapest, Vienna, and Prague.

We flew into Budapest, the capital of Hungary, once part of the mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was arguably the largest and most powerful since Roman times.

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Hungary sits on top of a huge supply of thermal water, so the Romans initially used the area for its natural baths. In the 800’s, the area was invaded and conquered by a tribe of fierce and nomadic horsemen from the Asian Plains called the Magyars. I like to think of them as more or less like the Dothraki people from Game of Thrones. After burning and pillaging their way through a large chunk of Europe, they were eventually pushed back to what is now the area of modern Hungary, where they settled permanently, adopted Christianity, and generally became good, civilized Europeans (Khal Drogo would not have been pleased with these developments).

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The result is that Hungarians have their own language that is unrelated to any other European language and a unique cultural heritage of which they are very proud.

After a day wandering around this picturesque city, these were our first impressions:

1) Hungarian food is delicious. It’s like Indian food, in that everything is deliciously spiced and there is an emphasis on creamy sauces. Plus, unlike in Spain, everything is served with a Saracha-like hot sauce that was as addictive as crack. Within two meals we had already tried the following: goulash, a red soup made with intense paprika and pepper flavor and chunks of tender meat; the “Hungarian Burrito,” which was basically a crepe stuffed with ground meat and slathered in orange spicy sauce and cream; catfish served with dumplings and the same amazing organs sauce; cabbage stuffed with pork; sauerkraut; and the best apple strudel we had ever tasted.

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2) Hungarian people are a little formal/reserved/shy. Everyone we met was perfectly nice, but not outgoing like the people in Ireland or Spain. We were not asked where we were from or how we were enjoying our time in Budapest. Laura attributes this to their experience over the last century with occupations first by the Nazi’s and then by the Soviet Union. I like this notion, but my personal theory is that Hungarians are just a little colder than the average European – maybe it’s because they descend from warrior-horsemen who didn’t exactly treasure the art of conversation. Who knows?

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3) Like the Spanish, the Hungarians seem to really like congregating outdoors to meet with friends. We spent time in lots of cool outdoor terraces serving up cold beer and good, cheap wine. And they were always packed to the brim. This is a city that feels very alive with young people out in the streets. It was here in Budapest that we found easily the coolest bar that we have seen in all of Europe. Called Szimpla kert, the “bar” is like a huge warehouse space that looks like the grand hideout of Roofio from the movie Hook (“Ru-fi-OOOOOOOH!”). There were at least twenty different rooms decorated with electric lights, paintings, graffiti, nets, statues, and a giant outdoor projector playing movies all night. There was a hooka section, a disco section, a chill cafe area, a garden patio, and basically everything in between. All with a communist-era nostalgia that gave it a totally unique feel. And it was stuffed with people from all over Europe speaking every possible language. If you ever go to Prague, don’t miss this spot.

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4) The cheapest/best Opera is in Budapest in a stunningly beautiful opera house. We bought tickets for literally 3 Euros a person and were led to an opera box on the third level. The people in front of us didn’t show up that night, so we moved up and had an unobstructed view of the stage for a better-than-expected performance of Jenufa. The music was absolutely beautiful and the singing impressive. Even the story-line was compelling: a step-mother murders her step daughter’s baby in order to save her from a life of solitude and poverty…only to admit to it on the step-daughter’s wedding day after the baby’s body is found in the woods. Infanticide – heavy topic for a night out at the opera! The only blemish on the evening was the couple in the booth with us who moved right behind us and then started making out Euro-style (if you’ve been here, then you know how much they love their super-passionate, and super-public, make out sessions), complete with an intense rubbing and petting. It was actually impressive in its complete disregard for our presence – fortunately they left after Act 1. For the price, there is just not a musical/voyeuristic experience like this anywhere else.

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Buda and Pest were actually two different cities separated by the Danube and only linked together as the mega city of Budapest in the late 1800’s. We stayed in a great house on the more mellow Buda side, under the shadow of Matthias Church and Fisherman’s Bastion which is an impressive complex on the hill which overlooks the rest of the city.

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With an easy one-stop metro ride, we were on the busier Pest side, where we took a tour of the impressively massive Hungarian Parliament building. Hungarians have only had democracy since they broke off from the Soviet Union in 1989, and they are rightfully proud of their relatively young democracy. In its massive central dome, the parliament building houses a glass display featuring the Crown Jewels, which are at least 800 years old. The crown is made of gold and contains elaborate figures of the Apostles along with all kinds of precious gems and stones. It is also crooked on top. The gold cross sitting atop the crown was apparently bent a few hundred years ago – but the Hungarians are just going with it: the crest you see around the city is topped with a cross bent at an awkward 45 degree angle (I guess it is too hard to repair with damaging it).

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We also spent a few hours at the very interesting House of Terror Museum which chronicled life in Hungary during occupation by first the Nazi’s and then the Soviets. During this time, Hungarians lost many of their freedoms and many people were executed for all kinds of imagined “crimes” against the state. It was a dark time in Hungarian history and they are doing a good job of preserving the horror that they experienced in the hopes that such things will never happen again.

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Perhaps the most pleasant surprise came on the last day when we decided to try an off-the-beaten-path exhibit called the Invisible Exhibition. The idea of this unique experience was to replicate life as a blind person. Basically you are put in a blacked-out obstacle course with an actual blind person from Budapest as your guide. Our guide was named Alex and was incredibly friendly and accomplished. Without much of an introduction as to what to expect, he closed the door and we suddenly couldn’t even see our hands waving in front of our faces. We then had to make our way along a hallway and then feel our way around the pitch-black room. Alex would place our hands on various objects and ask us to identify them. We figured out that we were in a mock apartment, complete with a sofa, TV, computer, and bathroom. Alex, as a blind person, navigated around this space as if he could see, while the rest of us (there were 7 of us in total), tentatively shuffled forward. He would go from person to person like a pro and always knew who he was speaking to (almost always – at one point he reunited me with my “wife” who, upon heavy groping turned out to be a young French girl). We navigated the apartment and then went out to the “street” with traffic noise and full size cars and experienced first hand the scary world of a blind person navigating the urban jungle. We walked to a “market” and felt different fruits with our hands. We then took a nature walk over a bridge with running water and tried to identify different works of art in a sculpture garden.

Alex then gave a demonstration (still in the dark at this point), of how to help a blind person on the street. He showed us what not to do by slapping me on the back, shouting “I help you now!” and then picking me up like a rag doll (Alex is a huge Hungarian guy who competes internationally in Judo competitions, so this was no problem for him), and carrying me across the street. The correct version involved saying hello and asking for permission to help and then giving the person your arm, rather than dragging them around which feels very unstable if you can’t see.

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We wrapped things up in a fake club (still blind), where Alex offered us beers and shots of Hungarian booze. I jumped all over that opportunity and we soon had the bar packed, listening to music and hearing about Alex’a life. He plays a sport like soccer for blind people where the ball emits a sound so that you know where it is. He also took special pride in showing me his iPhone which is already a great device, but rises to the level of miracle when used by a blind person. The screen in navigated completely by verbal indicators that tell the user what icon they are touching. When he touches his texts, for example, they are read aloud to him. When he opens up the camera app, it describes what he is seeing in the screen (up-close face, far away faces, etc), it was absolutely incredible. We were very impressed with Alex, needless to say, and left with a totally different perspective of what it means to be blind in this vision-oriented world. I hope this exhibition makes its way to the US sometime soon.

With a new appreciation for our sense of sight, we grabbed some delicious Thai food in a really cool, non-touristy neighborhood and headed off to the train station to catch our train to Vienna. Nothing beats traveling by train!

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Just want to quickly end the post by saying that…Laura looks like a Hungarian Muppet!

And she is very proud of the photo of her and the egg which she peeled in one completely in-tact piece of eggshell…

 

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Road Trip Through Galicia

We had heard so many great things about Galicia before starting our trip; the land of padron peppers, seafood so good and varied that the rest of Spain talks about it wide-eyed, clog-donned country folk with bagpipes, old fisherman, green hills, rugged coast, hearty stews, and pilgrims coming from all directions on the Camino de Santiago. On our eight-day road trip we saw a little of these things, but we also saw and learned so much more than the typical stereotypes we have of Galicia.  This is because rather than see the most popular towns across the northern coast leading down to Santiago de Compostela, we did an alternative, less-discovered route that pleasantly surprised us and allowed us to be the only tourists in almost every place (which is why we got invited into four different homes by strangers who were excited to see foreigners in their parts, one of which is chronicled in the previous post about Gallegos).

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Our road trip started with a pit stop in Leon, about 2.5 hours north of Madrid, famous for its incredible Gothic cathedral, and for good reason.  It was already raining there, setting the unrelenting weather trend for the next five days of our trip. But that didn’t dampen our awe at seeing this cathedral.  From the outside we could see the elegant flying buttresses, soaring up like the delicate but strong bones of a rib cage to support the immense height of the church walls made up of huge panels of stained glass. After seeing so many Romanesque churches with their fat, comparatively stumpy walls and small windows, it is truly amazing to see the architectural feat of an immense vertical space, a giant roof hundreds of feet above your head seemingly supported by delicate, light-filled glass.  And all this done with the technology of 700 years ago.  This cathedral showcases the beautiful stained glass by keeping the rest of the cathedral simple– no fancy, baroque altar or paintings everywhere…all eyes up.

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After a delicious lunch where we fell in love with roasted leek salad, we continued on to our pension in Orellan, a town of maybe eight houses nestled on a grassy mountain ridge below Las Medulas national park.  This was our home base for the next three nights, from which we explored a half dozen beautiful villages in the rain, ate delicious food, and life slowed down.  There was also a hippy commune down the road, where we escaped from the rain and enjoyed a beer by the fire in a bar crafted entirely from wood (including the homemade wooden espresso machine!) by its Humboltesque owner, Salva.

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Las Medulas would have been stunning in the sun, but it was still beautiful in the rain.  While its famous red, jutting rock formations look as natural as something you’d find in Arizona or Utah, it’s actually an ecological disaster due to human exploitation– it just happens to be a beautiful one.  During the Roman empire they needed copper to make one of their coins, so they chose this group of red mountains and completely blasted them apart by bringing in water through aqueducts from miles away and releasing it into tunnels dug into the mountains creating enough pressure to break them apart.  Pretty impressive, although an intrusive and destructive way to extract a little of what you actually need…

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Other highlights from this portion of the trip include walking around Balboa and Villafranca, beautiful villages that still have examples of the old type of circular dwelling called a palloza, with stone walls and a thatch roof.  (Speaking of roofs, all the houses in this region have a roof made up of layered slabs of slate, which looks stunningly black and slick in the rain.)

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We also trespassed onto a beautiful property guided by the rainbow in the photo below and ended up being caught by the proud owner who then spent an hour walking us around the property, the wine facility and pepper roasting factory.  His name was Prada, and we enjoyed seeing his face plastered over everything: the golf cart, the walls, the labels for the roasted peppers, etc.

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On the fourth day we moved camp to a town in southern Galicia, near the border of Portugal.  This town was even smaller and, in fact, didn’t really have a name. But 20km down the road was Celanova where the transvestite nun story in the previous post took place.  The day after that happened, we drove up to Santiago de Compostela, one of the world’s five main Christian pilgrimage destinations.  All throughout our trip we found ourselves on roads and paths marked with the yellow seashell, but being winter still, there were very few pilgrims walking the hundreds of miles in the cold.  Thus, we pretty much had the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela to ourselves, where we could see the “remains of St. James” (chances are the discovery of his remains in northern Spain was a convenient way to bring Christians to a fairly unpopulated  region that the Catholic church needed to defend as the boundary between the Muslims who had gained control of everything south).  But true or not true, it was cool being in a cathedral that had seen so many millions of pilgrims pass through it over the years paying homage to their faith.

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The next day we were ecstatic to see the sun shining for the first time.  We got an early start to explore the other direction, crossing over the northern border of Portugal to its only national park.  The pictures say it all, so I will just say that it was beautiful, quaint, and perfectly pleasant.

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The sunny weather continued the next two days, putting the Galicians who had suffered through six weeks straight of rain into a great mood.  We drove across the border again to a picturesque town called Valença, with a beautiful river running through it and lots of cute shops.  Then we followed the river to where it empties into the Atlantic, in the Spanish town of La Guardia.  Here we indulged in a Albariño wine and a mariscada, a platter of a dozen types of fresh shellfish, including fresh scallops, nécoras, zamburiñas, santoyo, buey de mar, razor clams, two types of shrimp, and this amazing little critter called a santiaguiño.  After our feast, we hiked up a big hill at the mouth of the river and got a fantastic view.  On the way home we stopped in Bayona where we got on board Columbus’ Pinta, impressively small and insecure looking to have crossed the ocean and back.  We watched the sun set before heading back to our inn for our last night.

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The next morning we packed up to drive back to Madrid, making a worthwhile stop in Allariz, one of the most quaint little river towns I’ve ever seen.  We walked along the cool river and the cobblestone streets before making our way to the public market.  Here we stopped at a microbrewer’ s stall who brews the first good, hoppy beer we’ve had in Spain.  We tried all three kinds while he sliced us thick pieces of salami, cheese, and empanadas.  We ended up buying a case of it to take home with us, which we dip into any time we’re sick of pilsner.  Energized by the good conversation and the sunny weather, we had a pleasant four-hour drive back to Madrid.

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Valencia and Las Fallas (Burn, Baby, Burn!)

At first glance, the festival of Las Fallas – which takes place in the port city of Valencia over a two-week period every March – just seems just like a good excuse to blow up and burn as many things as possible in a crowded urban environment.  And while it is certainly that, it is also at its heart a deep celebration of community that unites and excites the people of this great city in a way that transcends man’s mere desire to blow #*%! up.

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Preparation for Las Fallas takes all year long.  In a nutshell, each neighborhood competes in building enormous, colorful floats that look like something straight out of Disneyland.  Each Falla (float) is the size of a building and usually features comic-like characters along with satiric commentary on the current political situation.  Here is a picture of the 2014 first-prize winner:

ImageYou can see that these must take months and hundreds of thousands of dollars to build and there is one on every plaza and small square in the city.  Which is what makes the ultimate goal of Las Fallas so utterly shocking:  burning every single Falla in a single cathartic night of fire and chaos.  Awesome.

Everything about Las Fallas is done on a grand scale, so it is fitting that the whole thing is kicked off by the world’s largest and loudest firecracker/M83 show.  This show take place in the city’s main square every day at 2pm for TWO WEEKS straight.  Here is a video that gives you an example of how insane this is:

So basically, Valencians are shocked and awed every single day for a fortnight…and they love it.  Every day when the bombs finally stop, the pyro-technicians run out into the square and are given a roaring ovation of approval from the crowd as they wave like conquering heroes.  Laura and I arrived and met up with our friend El, who was staying in Valencia with her cousin’s best friend.  The friend was with her entire family, including their 8-year-old daughter.  They had arrived two hours early to see the show (called the Mascletá).

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As we drank beers, jawed sunflower seeds and played cards with them, they casually explained that the show happens every day at 2pm and that they only miss a show if work gets in the way.  They also said with a straight face that the bombs are so loud that you have to keep your mouth open in order to not have damage done to your ears.  As the moment of truth arrived, the huge crowd got excited and let out spontaneous cheers.  Then the show started and did not let up for 5 straight minutes.  Fireworks, firecrackers, M83’s, and pyrotechnics we had never seen before dazzled us and shook us in our very bones.  You could only smile and yell as the explosions got louder and louder and filled your whole being.  It was like a cross between a rock concert and a WWII bombing.  We were there on the last day and the family we were with literally has tears in their eyes as we cheered for the pyro artists.  It was like the end of Christmas for them.

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Anywhere else, this would have been enough for a great festival, but in Valencia, we were literally just getting warmed up with the high-intensity carpet bombing.  After the show, we met our friends for a delicious meal of paella in the Valencian style (chicken and rabbit) and arroz a banda.  We then walked around the city, filled at every square with huge Fallas and beautiful architecture.  One of the square featured an enormous Virgin Mary made entirely of white and red flowers, which you can see in the background, here:

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All this touring was punctuated by the sounds of firecrackers being set off – literally every few seconds.  When you first arrive, you jump every time, but by the end, we were getting used to it.  Everyone from parents to 5-year-old girls were running around and setting of firecrackers and sparklers.   By this time, the Fire Parade was ready to start and we snagged a spot by a roundabout capped with an impressive victory arch.  As we watched, every time of spark-throwing device ever invented was walked by us, from guys on bikes with sparklers attached to the wheels, to people on stilts with whips that shot sparks out of the end.  Then there was the giant armored turtle float that shot sparks out of it every 30 seconds.  The whole place smelled like gunpowder the entire time.  Just for good measure, the Parade ended with a close-range, super-intense fireworks show that was shot from the huge arch just in front of us.  I’ve never seen fireworks so close before – we literally had to shield our eyes from the falling ash and paper scraps.  It was like Chinese New Years on crack.

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THEN, we made our way down the nighttime streets to the giant light castle, which was a huge structure made of lights about 6 blocks long.  It’s lit up so brightly that you feel like you are inside and waking through a cathedral made of stained glass windows.  Then, as if that weren’t enough, they set the whole thing to music and it flashes along in time with the beat.  See for yourself:

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This is a good time to mention that this is apparently all put on by the various neighborhood Fallas Committees and not by some central government body.  This is just a good old case of keeping up with the Gomez’s, and the result is astounding.  During the entire day we heard marching bands, people in fancy traditional dresses, and thousands of vendors selling everything from doughnuts made of fried squash dough (buñuelos) to cold beers and sausages.

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After a quick outdoor pit stop for some delicious food (where we watched teenagers with a red and green sparkler launcher chase each other around pretending to be Harry Potter wizard-dueling and young families help their young daughters light tricky M83 fuses), we made our way to the first-prize Falla to watch the midnight burning.

Around midnight, nearly all of the Fallas are burned to the ground, city-wide.  These burnings take place in tight quarters, surrounded by flammable buildings.  We watched for about an hour as the bomberos prepared our area for the burning.  Giant tarps were unfurled from the surrounding buildings and then drenched in water for 20 minutes straight, literally creating curtains of water.  Then a firework was set off, the crowd cheered, and the Falla went up in smoke before our very eyes.  We could feel the heat pushing us backwards as the crowd balanced curiosity with the need to not burn alive.  Hot, wet ash fell down on our faces as the fire fighters’ water hose kept the flames relatively at bay.  Flames rose high into the air for about 20 minutes and then only the iron frame was left, all that work and effort gone in just minutes, reduced to a pile of smoldering ash.  See for yourself:

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Perhaps the biggest miracle of all this is that nobody appeared to be acting badly during the entire celebration.  No teenagers shooting firecrackers at old people, no fights, none of the horrible things that a festival like this would bring out in the US.  It was a great example of how Europeans can be infinitely more liberal (“lets combine firecrackers and small children and fire!”) and yet so much more civilized and orderly than their American counterparts.  I feel like this type of celebration is only possible here in Spain.

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Gotta love Gallegos: warm welcome from tranny nun and she-man

We’ve been in Galicia only fifteen minutes.  We are pulling into the teeny town of Celanova (which turns out to be a bustling metropolis compared to the ghost town we’re staying in down the road).  We park, grab our umbrellas from the car because it’s raining in Galicia (that’s like saying it’s raining in Seattle, big surprise).  We ask a woman walking by where to find restaurant o forno do lito, and she points us up the road.

Nothing seems to be open on our short walk up the street, so we’re not surprised when that same woman pulls up next to us in her car and tells us she just remembered that de lito is closed.  But we are surprised when out of the passenger seat pops her husband, wearing a complete nun’s habit and robe with a huge rack of fake breasts protruding beneath.  He walks right up to us and immediately starts telling us about his favorite joints in town, completely ignoring the ridiculous state in which he is presenting himself.  I tell him jokingly that it’s impossible to take him seriously when he’s dressed like a female nun with huge boobs.  He laughs heartily and tells us to just hop in their car so they can drive us straight to the restaurant. 

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I give a glance and a thumbs up to mom and Mike and open the car door to find a seven-year-old boy in the back seat.  The mom just tells him to move on over while the three of us comparatively behemoth strangers pile into the back seat next to him.  I give him an apologetic smile as I see him crushed up against the window and ask him his name. Meanwhile, the mom and the transvestite nun pull up to the restaurant and discover that it too is closed.  “Mierda!” shouts the nun.  “Coño!” we respond.
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Instead of saying “well, it’s been nice” and sending us on our way, they continue to drive us through town while deciding on a good place to drop us off.  They finally decide on a place and the mom turns around to say, “You’re going to love this place. You can’t look at the food or what they’re doing behind the bar because it’s disgusting, but if you close your eyes the food is delicious. Especially the octopus and the sheep kidneys.” Wow.

(So if you think that when they dropped us of we just waited for them to drive off and went to a different, cleaner, non-organ meat restaurant, you’re wrong. The nun had an accomplice.)

We pull up to the restaurant, and the transvestite nun says “I want to leave you in good hands” as he gets out of the car with us, walks up to a man standing outside and brings him over to tell him to take good care of us at the bar.  But we quickly see that this person isn’t actually a man, but rather a woman named Berta who is dressed like a man, complete with wig and fake facial hair.  The nun gives us big kisses, gets in the car, and the whole family goes on their way.

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So now we’re following Berta She-Man into the dirty octopus place and find ourselves ordering octopus and white wine.  It is the type of place you picture when you think of a small local bar in rainy Galicia– twenty square feet packed with families, windows dripping with humidity, pig heads and ham hanging from the ceiling… and to add to the surrealism, I have Berta on my left, who is barely recognizable as a woman given that we have no previous genderial context.  But while we chat with the moustached Berta and eat our delicious octopus (that crazy nun and his family knew what they were talking about), we quickly fall in love with Berta and with Galicia. 

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It turns out that these people aren’t in fact crazy, but that they are wearing costumes because it’s Fat Tuesday.  Berta is really enthusiastic, warm, and friendly and gives us a great introduction to Galicia.  After she treats us to our drinks, we invite her to a round and she suggests a place across the street.  So for the second time in one hour, we follow a transvestite to a Galician dive bar.

We order wines from Galicia and she tells us about the different grapes and wine regions of the north.  She tells us about her dream business venture that she is going to launch by summertime.  It’s going to be a local hangout/store/”home” that will function as a store with local delicacies (wine, sardines, peppers, cheese, etc), and as a place to gather to have a drink, play music, read, etc.  She has already acquired the space and asks if we want to see it.  Of course we do.  But first we need to go get the key from her house.

It’s still raining as we walk across the main square, stopping at the beautiful monastery on the corner where she gives us a quick tour, including the closed-to-the-public monastery kitchen.  We also go through a part of the monastery that the town has converted into a social hall filled with older people playing cards, having coffee and hanging out.  Berta knows everyone, and they all laugh at her ridiculous costume.

Right next to the monastery is Berta’s house: a charming, tidy, crooked little place that somehow cascades into four different floors. The floors are slanted at a 20-degree angle and I feel my butt muscles working just to walk across the tilted room. She has a cute little balcony overlooking the monastery.  She offers us some fresh torrijas (fried battered bread dipped in sugar) that she made that morning and we stand in her cramped little kitchen while we eat them up, lick our fingers, and laugh.
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Back on the street, through the square (where some old ladies recognize Berta in her man costume and exclaim, “Holy mother of the lamb! You look like Don Quijote!”), and up a tiny street, we arrive at a big blue double door.  This is the entrance to Berta’s dream project.  She unlocks the doors and flicks on the lights.  Everywhere we look is old wood: centuries old wood floors, long wooden counter through the middle, wooden cases with glass doors lining the right side, wooden shelves lining the left side with a second level above accessible by a wooden ladder.  This place breathes history.

She starts explaining how this will all come together.  Wines along here, food delicacies in this case, cheese over here, tables and chairs here for people who want to shop and eat all in one trip, instruments and stage over here, library over here… her vision and the potential of the space are all clear.

She starts digging through some of the cool old stuff she’s discovered while cleaning this place out.  She pulls out a roll of old coins she found here and gives one to each of us: copper Spanish coins with the year 1870 just barely visible.

We finish off the visit with one more drink at a different bar across from her store.  Berta’s mustache that she made with a charred cork has almost completely rubbed off. She gives us some tips on how to spend our days in Galicia, including to come back to her town on Friday to hear the traditional music in the plaza. 

If this friendly She-Man and the tranny nun who brought us to her represent the people of Galicia, I have to say that I really do love Gallegos.

Art and culture month

In the effort to keep up Mike’s promise of writing more about life in Madrid, I thought I’d record the art and culture exhibits we’ve packed into the first six weeks of the year.  This was our first and only six-week stretch without visitors, so we’ve finally been able to avoid the Prado and go to some of the less obvious exhibits Madrid has to offer.

Nicholas Muller, photography exposition at Canal de Isabella II.  Thoughtful black and white images by the influential Hungarian photographer who photographed Spain in the mid 20th century.

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Surrealism and the Dream, Thyssen Museum. Works by artists such as André Breton, Salvador Dalí, Paul Delvaux, Yves Tanguy, René Magritte, André Masson, Max Ernst, Jean Arp, Claude Cahun and Paul Nougé showing the connection between dream and image in Surrealism.

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Catala Roca, photography exposition, Círculo de Bellas Artes. Stunning black and white photos of Spain in the 1950’s by Catalan photographer.

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Mujer: Todos Somos Una, photography exposition by Francisco Magallo at Museo de Antropología.  Powerful exposition of 36 portraits of women facing incredible circumstances in their daily lives and what it takes for them to survive.

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Royal Tappestry Factory.  Founded by king Felipe V in the 1700’s and still in operation today, creating and restoring magnificent tapestries. The tour is wonderful, giving you a chance to watch the masters working at the massive looms with hundreds of spools of rich-colored thread dangling of the back side.  They also have a great collection of original tapestries and cartoons, including those designed by Francisco Goya.

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San Antonio de la Florida, Chapel in an unassuming little church painted by Francisco Goya in the late 1700’s.

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Temple of Debod. 2,200-year-old Egyptian temple, moved to Madrid in the mid-1900’s. Full of neat hieroglyphics.

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Real Academia Española: 300 Years of History.  The protectors and authority of the Spanish language have an exhibit with interesting documents, art and books (obviously including Don Quixote) in honor of their 300-year old organization.

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Lecture: Understanding Contemporary Art. Interesting two-hour lecture at a private art history academy on contemporary art essentials, how it differs from modern art, and how to appreciate it.

Fiesta y Color: Sorolla museum.  Beautiful museum in Sorolla’s mansion in the heart of Madrid.  This exhibit showcased some of his more colorful works with subjects of festive dress and costuming, rather than the typical beach scenes he’s known for.

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CentroCentro, temporary exhibits in the old post office.  Especially loved the textiles and screen prints by Dutch artist Kustaa Saski.

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Genesis: fotography exposition by Sebastiao Salgado at LaCaixa Forum.  Incredible images from exotic places around the world, with a definite environmental and social responsibility message.

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Picasso in His Studio, exposition at MAPFRE association.  Really cool exhibit focusing on the studios Picasso used throughout his life and the relationship between the artist/sculptor/painter and his model.

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The Hit List (Laura)

We thought that it’d be wise, before too much time passes and we start to forget, to record the cities we’ve visited so far. We are about eight months through Project Gaylord and in that time we’ve been to almost sixty different cities.  Some via the transatlantic cruise, some as day trips, and some as parts of longer, planned trips to get to know a country quite well.  This will not be interesting reading– this is more for us to look back on down the road.

1 – Madeira, Portugal
2 – Lisbon, Portugal
3 – Dover, England
4 – Honfleur, France
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5 – Amsterdam, Netherlands

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6 – Antwerp, Belgium
7 – Bruges, Belgium

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8 – Brussels, Belgium
9 – Madrid, Spain

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10 – Dublin, Ireland

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11 – Kashel, Ireland
12 – Kilkenny, Ireland
13 – Kinsale, Ireland
14 – Dingle, Ireland

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15 – Slane, Ireland
16 – Galway, Ireland
17 – Inishmore Ireland, Ireland

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18 – Cavoeiero, Portugal

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19 – Burgau, Portugal

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20 – Sintra, Portugal
21 – Coimbra, Portugal
22 – Obidos, Portugal
23 – Porto, Portugal

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24 – Avila, Spain

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25 – Burgos, Spain
26 – Santillana Del Mar, Spain
27 – Potes, Spain

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28 – Comillas, Spain
29 – Bilbao, Spain

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30 – Morga, Spain
31 – Gernika, Spain
32 – Mundaka, Spain
33 – Bermeo, Spain

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34 – San Sebastian, Spain

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35 – London, England

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36 – The Cottswolds, England

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37 – Pedraza, Spain
38 – Segovia, Spain

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39 – Toledo, Spain

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40 – Barcelona, Spain

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41 – Ibiza, Spain
42 – Beaune, France

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43 – Lyon, France
44 – Manzanares de Real, Spain

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45 – Burgo de Osma, Spain
46 – Salamanca, Spain
47 – Benidorm, Spain
48 – Altea, Spain
49 – Nuremburg, Germany
50 – Munich, Germany
51 – Salzburg, Austria

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52 – Granada, Spain
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53 – Villanueva de la Cañada, Spain

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54 – Rascafria, Spain

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55 – Miraflores, Spain

Spain vs. America: The Differences Explained (Mike)

So, this is supposed to be a blog about living abroad in Spain, right?  That’s what we thought when we created it, but we recently realized that, until now, we have mostly written about our experiences outside of Spain.  In the coming posts, we are going to try to fix that and hopefully prove to you guys that we have, in fact, been living here for months.  I think it makes sense to start by addressing the major differences between the US and Spain that we’ve noticed.  During our time here, the consensus has been that there are more similarities than differences, but there are still same important qualities that separate these great nations.

In no particular order, here are the critical differences:

1.  The Schedule

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(tick, tick, tick…when you’re ready to go to bed, the party is just getting started in Spain)

This is probably the most obvious difference for a citizen of the western world who experiences Spain for the first time.  To put it as simply as possible: everything is Spain takes place 2-3 hours later than it does in the US (or in the rest of Europe, for that matter).  Want to go out for a nice dinner and evening out with friends?  Great!  Dinner will start at roughly 11:00pm, and you’ll be out at the bar/disco until 4am at the earliest (6-7am seems to be more normal for young Spaniards).  Lunch is served between 2 and 4pm.  People seem to get to work around 9:30.  Then there is a long break in the middle of the day for a “siesta” (note:  I don’t think many Spaniards actually use this time for napping, so the name is misleading), which is usually just a long lunch out at your favorite local restaurant.  Then back to the grind from 4 to 8pm or so.  So, it’s not that the Spanish work more or less than other cultures, they just spread their work over longer periods of time.  For an American raised on Benjamin Franklin’s adage of “early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise,” the Spanish schedule takes some time to get used to.  An afternoon coffee becomes a necessity if you want to keep up.

As an interesting note, I just went out with a Spanish friend last night who gave me an interesting explanation about Spain’s curious schedule.  Apparently, at the start of the 20th century, Spain was experiencing a financial crisis similar to what it is facing now.  As a result, the majority of working men had to take second jobs in order to support their families.  Women did all the cooking during this time, so lunch had to be ready between 3-4pm, when the men were returning from their first job, and then the family would sit down to dinner around 11pm, as husbands came back from job #2.  These hours were reinforced during the 1930’s, when Franco decided that he would put Spain in the same time zone as Germany, rather than England (even though the British Isles are directly north of Spain).  Spain remains on Central European Time, which means that it is light here an extra hour.  During the summer, for example, it doesn’t even get dark until 10:0opm.  Nobody will be heading to bed at 9:30pm if the sun is still out.  So, between the double-shift situation and being in the wrong time zone, Spanish hours are all (from our perspective) out of whack.  Apparently, there has been some talk about returning Spain to its proper time zone because Spaniards are essentially sleeping at least an hour less than the rest of Europe.  We’ll see what happens.  Thanks to Fernando for the interesting explanation of this phenomenon!

2.  Take to the Streets

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The Spanish have an incredible culture of hanging out outside in the streets and sidewalk terraces.  In Madrid at least, this is probably because everyone lives in relatively small flats and, if you want to hang out with your friends, you’ll be way more comfortable around an outdoor table than in your cramped living room.  It’s not just young people that do this though.  During the summer, for example, around midnight, you can always find families walking around with their babies in strollers with young kids scurrying around their parent’s ankles.  If I remember correctly, when I was a little kid in America, I had to go to bed before it was even dark outside.  These kids are kicking soccer balls out in the streets until way past midnight.  It looks like fun, but young kids must be really tired after staying up that late (perhaps that explains the above-average level of whining in Spain:  see # 8 below for more on that topic).  It’s also not just something related to the incredible heat during the summer.  All during the holiday season, even though it was cold out, the main plazas are packed to the gills with people out getting fresh air and socializing.  I think this culture of being out and about is linked to points 3 and 4:

3.  Safety First

This is a huge difference between Spain and the good old U.S. of A.  From the moment we arrived, we felt actively safer in Europe than we felt living in Oakland.  In Madrid, for example, you can walk through literally any neighborhood at night or during the day without feeling uncomfortable.  Sure, there are nicer neighborhoods and worse ones, but you never feel like you are taking your life into your hands by stepping off the grid into a less developed neighborhood.  This is not the case in San Francisco or in Oakland, where there are areas that you literally shouldn’t enter, especially at night.  There is crime in Europe, but much of it is petty crime like pick pocketing.  You feel like the worst that could happen is that someone will try to grab your iPhone on the metro.  Finally, as far as gun violence is concerned, it just doesn’t exist here.  So far, nobody has really understood what I’m talking about when I say that I am a lawyer for a group that works against gun violence.  Compare that to Oakland, where, just before we left, there was a shooting at the Oakland Art Murmur event right in front of the food truck where we had been waiting in line only 45 minutes earlier.  This is an area where Europe is getting it right and the US has a lot of catching up to do.  Without guns or earthquakes to worry about, we didn’t know what to do with ourselves for the first few weeks here.  Now we worry about how we’re going to stay up until 3:30am for the fifth right in a row.  Maybe it’s because we feel so safe here that we’ve taken to so many self-actualizing activities like learning how to cook:Image

…or it could be the 10 hours of free leisure time that we have each day – it COULD also be that.

4.  We are Family

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Spanish families are physically, and oftentimes metaphorically, closer to each other than families in the US.  It’s not weird for grandparents to live with the core family unit, or at least nearby, and it’s completely normal for kids to live with their parents until they are in their 30’s.  People often stay in their city of birth along with their families and extended families.  Our friends that are our age that don’t still live in the family home still usually talk to their parents on the phone almost every day and, at the very least, will have a few meals a week with their parents.  There are several interesting products of this familial closeness that merit discussion.  First, there are old people all over the place in Madrid.  On any given walk around the city, you will see at least 10 people using a cane per 3 blocks.  I don’t think I’ve ever walked the streets of Madrid without having to come to a complete stop at least once to accommodate the wobbling octogenarian in front of me.  I think this is because older people mostly all have families living nearby that help support them and because the public transportation is so good that older people can get around without having to drive.

Another interesting result of close families is that it seems to have helped Spain get through the worst of its current financial crisis.  The rate of unemployment for people younger than 30 is through the roof right now, but many of these young people continue to live at home as they would have been doing even if they still had jobs.  Contrast that to the US, where kids are usually out of the family house by age 18.  I think if the US youth unemployment rate were to rise to the same level as Spain, there would be mass rioting in the streets by angry twenty-somethings who couldn’t handle having to live with their parents again.

The upshot of family closeness in Spain is that young adults lose a certain amount of independence, but in exchange, they receive a huge amount of support from their families.  This can be incredibly useful in hard economic times like Spain is having right now, but it also means that young people don’t necessarily learn the skills of living on your own until much later in life.  So there are pluses and minuses to each system.  We could definitely all learn a lesson from Spain in terms of maintaining close relationships with our families, especially when it comes to older relatives.  And, for the sake of fairness, I think Spanish kids could stand to have a slightly higher level of independence.  That’s why we instituted “40’s and Sharp Objects Night” with my 14 year old cousin Sarah:

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…just kidding.  This blog and its authors do not condone underage drinking.

5.  Public Transportation

This is an issue that makes you just smack your forehead in frustration if you are from the US and living abroad.  “Why can’t we, the most rich and powerful nation in the world, get this very basic thing right?!”  Public transportation in Spain is clean, safe, fast, and efficient.  That includes buses, trains, the metro, all of it.  In San Francisco, Laura and I couldn’t step foot on a public bus without someone smelling to high heaven or trying to cut their toenails on the seat in front of us.  And unlike Bart, the metro seats here aren’t made of carpet (WHO approved that decision, someone please tell me, WHO!?), so it doesn’t absorb every particle of urine and vomit like good-old Bart does.  That being said, people seem to respect the system in general and the levels of public acts of grossness far fewer on the Spanish system.  Spaniards LOVE their acts of public affection in parks, but for some reason there is an understanding that this is not going to fly on the public transportation system.  In the Bay Area, Bart really only works if you live walking distance to a station.  Here in Madrid, everyone lives walking distance to a station and you can get almost everywhere in the city in 30 minutes or less.  As a result, way fewer people own a car, there is way less traffic (generally), and everyone wins, including the environment.  This is a major point in the advantages column for Spain.

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(Even the wooden pig rides are more efficient in Spain!)

6.  Ambition is a 4-Letter Word in Spanish

We learned recently that if you refer to someone as “ambitious” that is a huge insult here in Spain.  Laura actually learned this the hard way during an interview for her current volunteer position.  As she was talking with the interviewer about the organization’s founder, she said something like “Wow, she sounds like a really ambitious woman.”  At which point the interviewers jaw dropped down on her desk and asked Laura if she knew what she was saying.  If you’re ambitious here, it means you’re willing to do anything to get ahead, at any cost.  Along those lines, we’ve also learned that if you try to start a business here in Spain, you may be looked at negatively by people.  Something like, “Who does he think he is?!  Why doesn’t he just take a normal job like the rest of us?!”  I find this to be a super interesting contrast between the countries, especially as a resident of the Bay Area, where entrepreneurs are hailed as superheros.  I feel like in the Bay Area, the situation is completely the opposite and if you haven’t started your own business by the time you are 30, you start to wonder what’s wrong with you.  To me, this is an area where Spain has a lot to learn from the US.  We need people to be taking risks and starting up new businesses and organizations…that’s the motor of economic growth.  If you get ostracized for trying to do that, then fewer people will take the risk or put in the work to make a successful business.  I think joblessness in Spain is at least partially related to this anti-entrepreneurial spirit.  The US does a great job of encouraging risk-taking.  Not only in terms of financial rewards, but in terms of respect and adoration from your peers.  To give you a concrete example, one of our friends here started his own social network company designed to bring customers together with service providers.  Our response:  “Whoa, cool man!  That is awesome that you are doing that!”  He was plainly surprised by our positive reaction and told us that the average Spaniard is not nearly as positive – so he usually just keeps it to himself.  Individualism has its drawbacks, but I think Spain’s current economic trouble illustrates the problem of having a collective mentality of “I’m just going to do what everyone else is doing, why should I try to do something better or different?”

7.  Spaniards Tend to be Smaller

I’ll let the photograph do all the talking for this one.  There is only one native Spaniard in the following photo.  (Hint: that small child on the right is actually my adult aunt).

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You get the point.

8.  Whining 

Simply put, Spain has a whining problem.  Children are allowed to whine at their parents in the most obnoxious manner and they never face any repercussions for it.  Being intelligent beings, they’ve learned that they can now get what they want simply by whining, crying, or some combination thereof – as loudly as possible.  It’s horrible and it’s also universal.  You’ll see it at the supermarket, out on the terraces, and in the homes of Spaniards with young kids.  It’s so bad, in fact, that the whining sometimes lasts way into a person’s 20’s.  I think being here has pushed our having kids timeline back at least 3-4 years.  Spanish parents, this is a problem with a solution!  You can do something about this!  The next time your kid whines at you, DON’T GIVE THEM WHAT THEY WANT!  Although kids are small, their little brains are more developed than you think…they know when something works, and they’ll do it again and again until they learn that it won’t work.  I hope to God that the next generation of Spanish parents gets this right, because the whining is truly annoying.  Major point here for the US.  We obviously have our share of awful little brats, but I feel like our general level of tolerance for whining is much lower.

I’m reminded of a European commercial that was shared with us a few weeks ago by some friends in our Spanish school.  This gives you some idea of what things are like here, but the punchline is incredible.  Enjoy:

9.  Exposure to Other Cultures

An interesting feature of Spain, and of Europe in general, is that they are just not exposed to other cultures or people of other races in the way we are in the US.  The result is that they just haven’t had to come to grips with issues of race-relations.  For example, it is not uncommon to hear a Spaniard refer to a minority with the diminutive, such as a “negrito” which means “little black man,” or chinito which means “little chinese man.”  Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t said with disrespect, but my point is that saying something like “blacky or whitey” in the US would never fly.  But the reality here is that many Spaniards do not personally know a single black person.  This leads to situations like this:  Three Kings Day is a huge holiday in Spain on January 6, to celebrate the arrival of the three wise men in Bethlehem.  One of the kings, Balthazar, is black.  To celebrate, Madrid has a huge parade down main street with floats for each king.  As we watched, we experienced a combination of amusement and disgust as Balthazar passed by the camera.  Marching before him were about 50 black drummers, and then Balthazar himself – as he turned to smile at the camera, we realized that he was a white guy with his face (and only his face) PAINTED black.  Apparently it’s been like this every year, so even though there is no shortage of black people, its as if Spain can’t bring itself to put an actual black guy in the role of ancient king.  I’m sure it’s not anything overt, but this just gives you a sense of how things are here.

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(Balthazar…yikes!)

Spaniards just haven’t grappled with racism as much and, as a result, I don’t think it’s first and foremost in people’s minds.  The homogeneity of Europe means that people are almost never talking about their origins.  In the US, for example, we are always asking people “so, what are you?” because the answer is inevitably interesting:  “I’m 1/2 Irish, 1/4 French, and 1/4 Native American.”  That question is just not asked here because the answer for everyone is: I’m from Germany or I’m from Spain…next!  It makes you appreciate that everyone in America has a story about how they got there and is usually a mixture of different nationalities.  That being said, Spain has some really interesting local variations, and in at least five different provinces that I can think of, people speak an entirely different language in addition to Spanish.  But in terms of having high rates of non-European populations, America is very distinct from Spain.

10.  Architecture and History

Well, this is an obvious win for Spain.  You can’t walk around here without noticing gorgeous old building after gorgeous old building.  It’s one of the things I will miss most.  Then, compared to our 200+ years of history, Europe has thousands and, in particular, the history of Spain is incredibly rich, especially since it was ruled by the Moors for a stretch of 800 years leading up to the middle ages.  Sorry US, I love you, but this is an area where you just can’t compete.  Madrid is particularly good at designing large public spaces that attract lots of users, so you always have this feeling of the city being alive and vibrant.  San Francisco is an amazing city with incredible neighborhoods, but it lacks a definitive “center.”  I think this is true of most US cities.  I’ll leave you with some pictures to prove my point.

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11.  Spaniards Are Super-Friendly

I wanted to end on 10, since that is such a nice, round number, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t include this final difference.  Across the board, Spaniards are amazingly friendly and open.  Stop and ask someone for directions and they’ll gladly drop everything they’re doing to help you on your way.  People always hug and kiss when they meet one another, which gets things started on a friendly note much better than the Anglo-American handshake.  There is not the ice-breaking period that you get with most Americans, Germans, or especially, British people.  Once you are introduced, they’ll talk with you as if you’ve known each other for years.  It makes it absolutely great for people like us who are living here temporarily – you instantly feel welcome.  One negative if you are just visiting is that the rate of English-speaking is not as high as it is in other European countries (probably because Spanish movies and TV are dubbed, so they don’t grow up hearing everything in Spanish live the Germans do).  However, if you do have a common tongue, the average Spanish person will treat you with incredible openness and generosity.  Most Spanish people we’ve met have a great sense of humor and an incredible sense of joie de vive.  These people know how to enjoy life and they are particularly good about slowing down, taking a break, and enjoying a conversation after a good meal without any hurry to get on to the next thing.  When it comes to this friendly demeanor and general attitude towards life, I think many Americans have a lot to learn from their European counterparts.  But it’s these differences that make living abroad such a magical experience.  (See below for proof of magical experiences being had).  Hopefully now it’s at least a little more plausible that we are actually living in Spain!

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