Thanksgiving Weekend

Even though we didn’t get to be at home over Thanksgiving weekend, we still got to celebrate in style.  We made a trip down to Bejár, which is located in the neighboring Comunidad Autónoma of Castilla y León.  The drive took about 5 hours, which was the only downside, but Andrew and I were both glad to be with friends, to be with a family who loves the Lord, and to be able to attend church with them on Sunday morning.  We ate in honor of a Southern Thanksgiving, complete with stuffing, potato salad, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce, and sweet potato casserole.  We had touches of traditional Spanish cuisine all weekend as well:  chorizo, gambas, churros for breakfast, and manchego cheese.  To work off all of our extra calories, we did some major hiking on Saturday.  First up, for a morning warm up, we climbed to the top of Peña Negra.  From the summit, you can see snow-capped mountains in the distance.  The Sierra de Bejár is at the tail-end of the Gredos mountain chain, which starts just north of Madrid.  After a huge lunch, we set off for another hike, which was a little strenuous since we had just stuffed ourselves.  I’ll admit I had a side stitch.  But it was great fun and we got to see a century old tree at the end.  We both had a relaxing, restorative weekend and are really thankful to be blessed with generous friends and hospitality here in Spain.

Andrew and I have talked quite a bit about what makes travelling enjoyable. He has said that it’s not always the destination that makes a trip worthwhile, but rather the people that are waiting for you once you arrive.  After thinking about this, I can say that I agree.  Sometimes the places that linger most fondly in one’s memory aren’t the ones filled with spectacular monuments and art galleries, but rather the places that teach one about true hospitality.

 

Reflections on Barcelona

While Barcelona is a city that is well worth a weekend-long visit, our recent jaunt to the Gaudí inspired corners of the Catalan capital left Andrew and I wondering if we are cut out for full-on urban tourism.

We started off our trip by checking into a sweet room that we found through airbnb.com. I can highly recommend this website for anyone looking for a less expensive alternative for accommodations when travelling in mid-sized to large cities. We have noticed a few gems located in pristine countryside in popular travel destinations as well. After meeting our hosts, Silvia and Oscar, we hightailed it to the Barrí Gotic, where we checked out the medieval cathedral that has been undergoing renovations for at least 5 years. After wandering around the twisty, romantic streets for a couple of hours, hunger, and panic, set in. One of the biggest challenges in a large city is finding a place to eat that isn’t too touristy, isn’t too expensive, is a good value and has a decent atmosphere. Our conclusion is trying to get a full meal in Spain in the evening when Americans are accustomed to eating dinner just isn’t going to turn out well. At night, clever restaurant owners hike up meal prices since they know typical Spaniards won’t mind since they aren’t eating dinner and typical tourists will pay since they are ravenous at a time when almost no one else is stuffing their face. We unfortunately got stuck in this trap and seeing as hungry people aren’t happy people, it didn’t turn out well.

Saturday morning we ventured over to Parc Güell, where an English style garden, decorated beautifully with sculptures, tile mosaics and innovative design by Antoni Gaudí, offers a vista back over the city of Modernism. It was packed with weekenders though, making it a little difficult to enjoy. The highlights of the venture to Barcelona for me were on Saturday afternoon, when we lucked into a delicious Asian meal for a reasonable price. The restaurant featured a conveyer belt with small tapas sized portions of different Japanese delicacies. After eating our fill of surprising samples of sushi, clams, fried vegetables, green seaweed vegetable, steamed dumplings and edamame from the handy dandy conveyer, we were served generous portions of miso soup, buckwheat udon noodles, grilled seafood skewers, grilled vegetables and a mixed sushi plate.  Don’t worry dessert was also included.  I must say though, after comparing the Spanish menú with the Asian inspired one, I left the Japanese restaurant still quite full, but much more comfortably so.

Once back on the street, we headed up to the Sagrada Familia, Gaudí’s most famous, unfinished work.  The unique cathedral spires must be the tallest edifices in the city and the church itself merits a visit to Barcelona. Unfortunately, admission to discover the inside of the cathedral for yourself is steep (+/-10 euros; similar to prices at other Modernist points of interest) and it is a well-known icon on the international tourist map.

Sunday included a walk up to Montjuïc, where we checked out the site of the 1992 summer Olympics.  We then drug ourselves up to the top of the monte. Once atop we enjoyed a Spanish fort that also functioned as a interrogation prison during the Franco dictatorship.

After lunch we made a quick stop by the Picasso museum (free after 3pm on Sundays. An impressive little museum; it is well laid out and won’t take more than an hour and a half to explore the permanent exhibit.)  We finished our visit by resting on a bench in the Parc Ciutatdella, moseying down by the water, admiring the statue of Christopher Columbus (who, ironically, is pointing in the direction of Libya) and by rolling our eyes at the sights and sounds of La Rambla.

Barcelona is a great place to take a break from traditional Spanish life, take in incredible modern art, and eat an ethnic meal, but we left with the realization that rural tourism might be more our style. Walking city block after city block made me long for the deserted hiking trails in the Picos or even near Laredo. Everyone has their own travel taste, but the rush of the open road and the suspense as to what is around the corner is irreplaceable.

Feliz día de acción de gracias

Happy Thanksgiving! We have had a minor celebration here with sweet potato casserole and Cuban black beans (yes an odd pair, but both quite tasty). We are very thankful for this year abroad in Spain, as well as for all our family back home. From Laredo, Cantabria, we wish everyone a very blessed day.

Elecciones españolas

A couple of days ago on November 20, Spain held its nationwide general election. Yesterday we learned that the opposition Partido Popular (People’s Party) won an historic election victory, giving the PP a new majority in the Congress as well as elevating Mariano Rajoy as the new Spanish premier. The polls here had been indicating for weeks that the PP would win the election and defeat the ruling Partido Socialista Obrero Español (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party…what a name!). But the polls had not predicted such a strong defeat for the PSOE, which in turn has given the PP their largest majority in the Congress since Spain returned to democracy in the 1970s.

The results of the election will obviously lead to a new cast of characters running the government in Madrid. The Spanish people clearly wanted to give some other political group a shot at trying to fix Spain’s enormous problems of high unemployment (21% officially) and unsustainable sovereign debt.

However, the PP‘s plans to improve the dire economic situation seem rather ambiguous at best. Most of the campaign was the PP placing blame for the economic crisis on the ruling socialists, who were in power during the ’08 financial collapse. The PP, which is a European center-right party, seems to me to be similar in many respects to the American Republican Party. The PP has promised to improve unemployment and cut the national debt, yet has also asserted no intention to dismantle the socialized medical system, the vast pension program, subsidized university system or other major welfare programs. I just don’t know how snipping around the edges of the spending is going to come anywhere close to paying off their national debt. But the PP plans to have the best of both worlds: keep the politically popular welfare state intact and also save Spain from total economic collapse.

Many here in Spain have realized that the PP will do very little different than the PSOE. Both of these major parties seem to accept the role of a large central government, heavy taxation and a welfare system. One party, the PP, wants to make government a little more efficient and plays up Spanish nationalism, while the other party, the PSOE, wants a little more redistribution and a little more multiculturalism. Thus many campaign signs here were graffitied with PPSOE, ridiculing the fact that both are essentially the same party.

Again, the situation parallels the two-party system in the United States. The Republican establishment and the Democratic establishment don’t differ that much on substance. Usually they are arguing over a few million dollars, when the country actually owes 15 trillion dollars. One party wants a little more warfare and one wants a little more welfare, but neither questions the bankrupt entitlement system, the Federal Reserve, or the unconstitutional wars (well, with the exception of Ron Paul of course).

With the ball in the PP’s court so to speak, we will see what happens in Spain. I predict a symbolic cut or two but nothing that could actually make Spain solvent. Hopefully I will be wrong for Spain’s sake.

Why I’ve decided I can still like the beach…

When Andrew and I found out our placement for Auxiliar de Conversación would be on the Northern Cantabrian coast, we were, of course, stoked.  But we were excited because we had been placed in the same town, in different high schools (hey, we need a break from each other every now and then) that are located around the corner from each other.  I didn’t really think too much about living in a beach town, with an ocean view from our balcony.

I’m not exactly a beach person.  I’m still not really.  I like mountains, hiking, green patches of grass, meadows and turning leaves in autumn.  The beach is a cliché. Where does everyone go on Spring Break in the great State of Alabama? No thank you, Panama City, send me to Utah, where the snow is three feet deep.  Strap me into a snowboard and send me hurtling up the side of a mountain so I can tumble back down it.  I don’t want anything to do with your skimpy bikinis and tropical flavored calorie dense fru-fru mixed drinks.  I prefer hot chocolate and warm gooey cookies at the Johnson Mill.

Recently though, I have a new found appreciation for a life right next to the sand. I am enthralled with the beaches here in Northern Spain.  I arrived a little jaded by Gulf Shores, but I find the ocean waves here much more peaceful. The beach in Laredo is long and incredibly wide, with space for everyone. There are no frat boys drinking beer after beer out of a cooler and staring at stupid, young, scantily-clad women as though they were meat.  The water is clean and clear and an aqua blue-green.  People walk along the water everyday, indie burn outs try to surf, and puppies splash happily. Sometimes we run or walk close to the water, close enough to get our socks wet, and then I am thankful to live in Northern Spain, where I can see green mountains while my toes are wiggling in the sand. Truthfully, we have the ultimate of both extremes.  Mountains literally surround us and I even hear rumors that there are ski slopes nearby.  And outside my window, waves crash against craggy cliffs and I don’t have to make a choice between mountains and surf.  At least for 7 or 8 more months.

La Playa de la Concha

Yesterday we made a day trip to the coastal Basque city of San Sebastián. We debated and decided our best mode of transportation would be the bus, if only for the facts that we wouldn’t have to figure out where to park once we arrived in the city and that we wouldn’t waste 20 euros paying to park in a garage.  I think we both boarded the bus yesterday at 7:45 am hoping that this would be the trip that redeemed the public transportation system in our minds.  After enduring two hours and fifteen minutes each way on a bus that reeked slightly of urine, I still can’t say I advocate the bus over your own personal automobile.  I can also safely say that even if you have a iron stomach, the highway between Bilbao and San Sebastián will make you feel queasy.  Although it is the one of the most expensive stretches of toll road in all of Europe, it boasts hairpin curves that cause even those cautious enough to take mulitple dramamine (ie me) to turn pale with bus sickness.  Once our feet were on the ground though, we found San Sebastián to be quite pleasant, charming, in fact.

San Sebastián’s main attractions are gastronomy and a picturesque beach. The city has a layout similar to Laredo, with a seashell shaped beach encompassed on both ends by hills, which offer impressive views back onto the old town.  We roamed the puebla vieja, ate overpriced, but delicious pintxos and tried to deal with the soaring temperatures.  I don’t know if global warming is real or not, but there were people sunbathing and swimming in the pristine ocean on the 12th of November at a latitude equal to that of Nova Scotia’s.  You can chalk it up to el viento del sur and call it an Indian summer, but I’m not so sure anymore.  Either that, or I myself live in a perpetual summer.  Anyway, we were wishing we could don our swimsuits and join them.

We hiked up to the top of Monte Urgull along with the rest of the French tourists. I felt satisfied that I’d made it (almost) to the summit on the way down, because every single expression on the travel weary faces headed the opposite direction told me they were wondering why they’d attempt to hike uphill on such a scorching day.

We tucked in at a popular local restaurant, where we treated ourselves to el menú del día.  My meal consisted of a first plate of mushroom and chicken risotto, followed by fried pork ribs and french fries, and finished with a coconut flan.  Needless to say we took an hour break in the shade after we pried ourselves from our seats.

Afterwards, we walked along the beach to the Palacio Miramar and enjoyed a rest in the shade on the sprawling green lawn.  San Sebastián is a great place to spend the day eating, relaxing, sitting on the beach, or people watching. We observed people of all ages, dressed to the nines, out for only a stroll, seemingly without the proposition of really going anywhere.  It is glamorous to pass a day like this once in a while, but as a lifestyle, I would go crazy.  San Sebastián is posh, upscale, a little expensive and exqusite.  It’s Laredo with a makeover.  You should go.

11-11-11

11-11-11 is a big day in Spain. No, it’s not Veteran’s Day or any kind of remembrance day. It’s a day of far different importance. It’s the drawing of a massive lottery worth somewhere around 66 million Euros.

Lotteries are very popular in Spain; here in Laredo there are kiosks all over where you can buy lottery tickets. It’s really incredible how popular the lotteries are. At Amanda’s school for example, all the teachers were putting in 20 euros to buy tickets for el gordo Christmas lottery. Maybe they think the stars will align and they just might win big. Who knows. I’ll take my 20 euros and we’ll have a nice lunch instead.

Meanwhile, the U.S. celebrates its annual Veteran’s Day. I’m sure there will be the usual calls to “Support our Troops” and reminders that “Freedom isn’t Free.” Flags will be waved and the military will be nearly worshiped for their service. But after thousands of American combat deaths and casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq, I can’t think of any better way to honor veterans than to call for ending the wars and bringing the troops home. There are many reasons for ending the wars, but the human toll itself is reason enough. Children have lost fathers and military families have been split apart, not to mention the many thousands of Iraqis and Afghans that have suffered death and destruction in their own countries.

As America’s military is worn tired and thin around the world, this Veteran’s Day I say let’s support the troops by bringing them home.