One to Grow On

June 29, 2010

Big Rocks by the Sea

Filed under: animals, children, food, Food Allergies, Italy — midway2go @ 7:05 am

Question:  What’s more fun than beautiful, swimmable sea?

Answer:    Beautiful, swimmable sea plus great climbing rocks!

Last week we floated across the Mediterranean on a ferry from Barcelona to the Italian island of Sardinia. Well, it’s heaven. We’re camping in Palau, on the northeastern corner in a busy part of the island called the Costa Smeralda.  Our campsite is surrounded by huge granite boulders and overlooks a tiny little inlet teeming with sea creatures. Rory spends all his time 30 feet off the ground, scampering around rocks and hiding from the sun and wind in a little cave he found, tucked into the side of a rock wall.   Nora filled up her bucket with sea snails, hermit crabs, and loads of kelp, before commandeering my dish pan and graduating to sea urchins and jellyfish.  She managed to catch five jellyfish before we learned that the gorgeous pink ones give a nasty sting.  She escaped unharmed.  An Italian named Aldo took us under his tutelage, and we learned all about urchins.  We sat there by the edge of the sea and ate the creamy orange eggs straight from the shell.  Then he took Rory out snorkeling to show him where to find them.   No wonder we came, planning to stay a couple of nights, and stayed a week.


June 22, 2010

Having a Ball at the Guggenheim

Filed under: children, homeschooling, Spain — midway2go @ 4:27 pm

Okay, I’d read all the stuff about the Guggenheim in Bilbao.  I read about the building’s  being so much better than the collection.  I read about the programs for children at the museum (plenty in Euskara and Castillian, nothing in English the day we went).  I read about the revival of the city.  I even read about how you shouldn’t go to the museum just becasue that’s all foreigners come to Bilbao to see (didn’t quite get the logic there).   What I did not read about is the amazing playground opposite the museum or how great for kids some of the installations are.  A permanent series of works by Richard Serra called The Matter of Time had us talking about memory and about how the past runs into the future and all while sounding for echoes and racing through those enormous steel structures that seem to close in over you then open up and wrap around on themselves.  Very cool.  One of my favorite moments happened in the exhibition of Anish Kapoor’s work.  He is an artist who does all kinds of stuff, like designing the Cloudgate in Chicago and a roomfull of what he calls modern ruins and what Rory and Nora and I thought looked like, well, piles of poop.  Anyway,  before he did Cloudgate he had been working with voids, these half-egg shapes that looked like velvety nothingness inside.  After that he became interested in a medium that reflected everything back out, that sent all the light and energy back, but changed.  Basically, he made really beautiful funhouse mirrors. 

Rory and Nora could have spent all day in there.  It was like the Mirror Maze at Wookie Hole, but so much better.  I watched this guy get in front of one of the mirrors and kind of  bob his head to one side, then the other.  Then a woman stood there doing graceful plies, like ballet class.  All very self-aware.   Well, Nora and Rory got up there and did it all: head-bobbing, bending, the works.  They  danced the robot; they did the Egyptian; they got down on the floor to see how it looked from the bottom.  And every adult in the room looked on, grinning,  probably wishing, like I was, that I could see what they were seeing.   Everyone, that is, but the guard, who stood by, arms crossed, making sure they maintained their distance from the surface.     It was great.  I hope Kapoor knows the pure joy he gave the world with those pieces, and I hope he enjoyed them half as much as we did.

June 20, 2010

Father’s Day and Rainy Days

Filed under: children, Spain, weather — midway2go @ 6:18 am
Well, it’s Father’s Day, and while the kids and I have sent our private greetings to our important dads I thought it was worth noting here.  Any more holidays and this blog will turn into a living calendar, which isn’t very interesting.  So, time for a flashback to Galicia…
We woke up to rolling gray clouds and wind, happy to be warm and dry in our hotel in Finsterra.  On an old plastic tricycle Rory  Nora took turns careening down the path in front of the hotel, making a ninety degree turn halfway down that more times than not spilled them off into the grass, screaming with pleasure. Good thing they had a chance to get some energy out; we had in store for us one of the most draining car days in the history of the automobile. We were off to explore the Costa da Morte, the Coast of Death, the backcorners of Galicia, already the backwater of Spain, which is, you might say, the backwater of western Europe. None of the three maps I had showed enough detail to make sense of the small tracks branching off from the unlined road we found ourselves on. We drove in circles, popping out to follow a cove around, but then to lose the road to the tip of the cape only to find ourselves facing a t-intersection, both ends of which led to towns we’d already driven through.

Do you like my use of the royal We? It was all my fault I didn’t know where I was going. If they’re no help navigating at least they don’t criticize, either. Rory and Nora had no idea we were driving in concentric circles all over the northeastern corner of Spain. They sat happily doodling in their books, listening to a Harry Potter audiobook on the iPod, trying to ignore my wild muttering. We passed some pink signs that promised the “Route of the Dolmens,” so off we went, chasing down stones marked on my Tourist Map of the Costa de Morte as islands in blue, nowhere near roads. We drove down the secondary roads, to terciary roads, then on gravel tracks, tracking down these Galician cousins to Stonehenge and the mighty standing stones of the north. Over dinners and around cafe tables I’ve been telling the kids stories from the Outlander series, by Diana Galbaldon, which center around travelling through time by passing through standing stones. This has really peaked Rory and Nora’s interest, and willingness, to drive for ages in mist and rain to look for old rocks.

We finally chased down what had to be the final track to the “Dolmen de Pedra Cuberta,” or the dolmen of the covered stone. We turned off the gravel road through a valley, surrounded by small plots of cleared land running up the sides of the hills. A path, barely wide enough for a car, bumped along, weeds and rocks scraping under the car, puddles from days of rain obscuring the tire ruts. Finall, after maybe 300 yards, my faith in the quasi-all wheel driveness of the Green Eel found its end, and we stopped. On foot! I cried, and, glad to be out of the car, Rory and Nora tromped on, pushing through tall wet grasses and quickly learning to avoid a low but violently prickly weed. Even I was beginning to have a hard time seeing this adventure as, well, fun, as the path dribbled away to almost nothing. I noted that the couple of farmers working in the valley sure were doing a lot of yelling. Gradually I noticed that some of it seemed to be directed to our side of the hill. Twenty feet on I thought, Gosh, it seems like he might even be yelling at us. So, there we stood, on a hill in the rain, trying to decipher screamed Spanish on the wind. I tried hollering back, “Are you talking to us?” which made the tiny little figure in the distance more animated. Were we walking on landmines? Was this hollow ground? Was this place protected by a fierce little band of Galician farmers, all wearing navy wool sweaters and funny black hats and wielding hoes, some rural Knights Templar? If so, why lure tourists here with the funny pink signs? Finally I made out that all the action was at the beginning of the path, back where we came from. I screamed my thanks, and we headed down, past the parked car, all the way to where we first turned off the road. There they were, huddled together against time. I will say that, though obviously less grand than the more celebrated stones circles that I’ve visited in Britain and Brittany, these guys really had their pull. They are so much a part of nature, not small but almost invisible at first, but definately placed,very on-purpose. Rory and Nora had a go at time-travel (too far from Beltane, thank goodness), and we toyed with the idea of a Covered Stone Family Picnic, but Rory said it felt disrespectful, so we slogged our way back to the Green Eel, tore down the wet path in reverse and slid out of there, back on the trail of pink signs and ancient connections.

We found one more grouping, without the help of the Farmers’ Local, and were foiled twice by tracks turned into lakes. By the time we crossed the main road I had had enough of small scale sightseeing and was ready to get on up the road. We finally fed onto a highway and got caught up in something like rush hour in A Coruna just before 4pm. Maybe a mad rush in the rain to get back to work from siesta? Not very traditional, surely. We made it through the city and, at last, into the part of Galicia known as the Rias Altas, the High Rivers, where the highest cliffs in Europe stand above the crashing Atlantic, where massive rivers carve the land into fingers reaching out to sea. I had been looking forward to this for a long, long time. I thought we’d stand at lookouts, cooing happily, then tuck into a rural hotel and have a nice big fishy dinner. We headed up, off the main road again, only to find that the weather was getting uglier and uglier. Little streams began to run parallel to the road. Once or twice they crossed the road to fall away down the opposite shoulder. Our road was climbing up to mount those massive cliffs, and I started to get a little uneasy. Twice we drove through enough water to make me nervous, nothing dangerous, but a couple of inches that had me creeping along. Near the top our way was blocked by a couple of work trucks cleraing a tree that had blocked the road. I asked one of the men if they road was closed. No, it was open. I asked if it was dangerous. Yes, it was. I asked did it get better from here? No, worse. We turned around. We drove the long way around, only to find that in the closest town to the cape whole stretches of the main road were under water. One of the tiny little cars, the kind they have here that runs on a moped engine and only merits a tiny little moped-size license plate, was stuck, quickly becoming stranded. It was then I gave up on traipsing around the cape. In this weather we’d be more likely to be blown over the edge or go down the maginificent cliffs in a mudslide. No, in this mild hurricane we’d just keep driving.

We found haven just south of Viveiro in a beautiful 15th century manor house-turned-hotel. The next morning the road we had driven through was on the front page of the regional newspaper; it had worsened through the evening until it was a river running through the town. I saved a clipping. We spent two nights at the Pazo del Trave, and although I hate to have missed the views from the Rias Altas I did enjoy the quiet and the rest I found there, and now I have a great excuse for bringing Brandon back!

 We spent a couple of nights there, hiding out from the rain and making good use of the wifi to plan our next few moves.  We drove five hours along the coast, out of Galicia and into Asturias.  We spent a great afternoon a the Museum of the Altamira.  The caves of Altamira were inhabited more than 18,000 years ago, and folks lived in them off and on for thousands of years until a landslide blocked the entrance about 4000 years ago.   When the caves were reiscovered in the late 1800’s, th first scientists to go in bevlieved the paintings they saw there to be a hoax.  The colors were too vivid; the perspective and execution, too avanced to be authentic.  Further study proved these paintings to be genuine paleolithic art, justabout as good as it gets (or as good as we’ve found so far!)  THe cave itself is closed to the public, but a “Neocave” was built in the museum, all the bumps and crags of the cave, faithfully rendered, with none of the damp and chill of the real thing.  We had visited the Pileta Cave in Andaluscia, with much simpler paintings from abouthe same time frame.  While the paintings were less elaborate I loved the experience of climbing up to the cave entrance, then following the slick rock path down past the stalagmites and stalactites dripping with water, watching the shadows throw by the gas lanterns.  I found it really easy to imagine sheltering my family through the long cold ice age winters there.  The Neocave, on the other hand, was pretty slick.  The rest of the museum was amazing and answered lots of questions we had about life 15,000 ago.  We spent four happy hours there, then headed back into the pouring rain.

Our next stop was Santillana del Mar, a medieval town so well preserved that our usually reserved Lonely Planet guidebook gushes on and on, claiming it looks like a movie set.  Well, it would have to be a movie involoving lots of animals lined up two by two… 


June 17, 2010

Ten Years in Barcelona?

Filed under: children, food, Food Allergies, Spain — midway2go @ 5:50 am

I found a Will Shortz book of crossword puzzles at our last hotel, and I´m feeling the effects…   Today is mine and Brandon´s tenth anniversary!  And Rory and Nora and I are in Barcelona!  Is that a good clue, or what?  

We´re in an internet cafe off the Ramblas, the street in Europe where you are most likely to have something stolen right off  you.  This is my own opinion, based on years of antecdotes and thumbing through guidebooks.  I´m typing with my backpack in my lap, so we´ll make this quick and save photos for later.  We surprised ourselves by catching the bus this morning from the campground 10 miles north of town.  Rory and Nora said we wouldn´t be up in time…  We´ve turned into nightowls here in Spain.  We strolled through the market and had a fabulous breakfast at a stall in the back.  I had fried eggs with fried potatoes, Nora had  slice of Tortilla de Patatas with some zucchini, and Rory had filet mignon with potatos.  He´d been looking thin again since his last growth spurt, and I think the refried beens and lentils for days on end weren´t satisfying our growing Jethro.   I can see how having  a teenage boy could get expensive. 

We´re off to visit yet another aquarium, although I think we just saw most of the ocean for sale on ice in the market.  We´ll stroll around, stop for coffee, look at the living statues, but all the time I´ll be thinking of ten years ago, a roomful of family and friends, and Brandon.   Happy Anniversary!

June 9, 2010

All the way to the end of the earth

Filed under: children, food, Food Allergies, Spain — midway2go @ 6:59 pm

Here we are at Fisterra, or Land’s End in Galicia.  As Rory pointed out over dinner, there sure are a lot of these!

We left Sevilla the day after Nora’s birthday, which was the start of the festival of Corpus Christi.  In Sevilla they carry these massive platforms with saints and flowers and riches on them.  The procession inlcudes priests and girls in their first communion dresses and lots of regular people being very casual with four foot long candles. 

We drove to Toledo, slowly roasting in the car all the way, to find a campground that looked way better on paper than in real life.  It occupied a bluff opposite the river Tajo, and the old town of Toledo was just visible, pink, in the light of the setting sun.  However, the beautiful pool hadn’t opened for the season, the shade at our site was spotty and the ground was gravelly, but, worst of all, a field nearby hosted a “Corpus Christi” festival all week, starting around 8:30pm and lasting until after 5am.  There was rock-n- roll; there was rave; there was screaming from the crowd.  There was very little sleep.  We stayed long enough to meet a man who made swords in Toledo (note: he was down to just 8 fingers) and to eat some marzapan, and split for the cooler corner of Galicia.

I have wanted to come to Galicia since my first anthropology class with Dr. Kelley.  It seems like such a magical place, green cliffs meeting the sea, big rivers carving their way into the Atlantic, a whole region with its own language (Gallego) and culture.  I have to say, though, that sitting in Toledo, in our un-air-conditioned car, the idea of driving seven hours FARTHER away from the rest of Europe seemed like a lot of work.  It’s very remoteness, sitting on top of Portugal in the far northwest corner of Iberia, is the charm of Galicia.  Brandon pointed out that if I didn’t go with four more months in Europe ahead of me when would I ever go?  So, here we are.

We camped in Nigran in the Riaxas Baixas area for five nights, and it was by far the best camping we’ve done in Spain.  The folks there were super friendly, and the beach was beautiful.  I knew we were the only foreigners splashing around on the beach that day; no one else would go near the “freezing” water.  We had great day exploring the nearby town of Baiona, once the most important Atlantic harbor in Spain.  It was into Baiona that the Pinta, the first of Columbus’s ships to return, first brought the news of their exciting discovery of a shortcut to Asia.  An almost exact replica of the Pinta is there in the harbor today,and I am going to tell you that I would think twice, and again, and again, before I would cross the Atlantic in that boat.  It was tiny.  Tall, but little.  And the Nina, one of Columbus’s other ships, was a couple of meters shorter still.  Wow.  AND, nine of twenty-six sailors on board the Pinta were under fifteen years of age.  So, it was a little boat largerly sailed by children.  Mercy. Well,  we had a fun hour climbing all over it.    I learned that Columbus and his crew, in addition to stuff like tobacco, potatos and corn and loads of other new foods that I knew about, also brought back hammocks.   On the outbound journey, and theretofore, all sailors just plunked down on deck when it was their turn to sleep.   I also learned tons of new Spanish words, mostly seafaring terms that I most likely will forget by next week, but, still, it was fun. 

Once the rain rolled in camping in the Snug Bug became a bit too snug, and a bit damp.  We woke up one morning to find ten snails sliming their way under the rain cover on the net part of our tent.  We watched and learned  how they move, how they sniff, how they retract when you tap on the net, how they poop.  Nora even found out what was under the shell when she accidentally stepped on one (there’s a big green organ under there, and  more wet brown stuff). 

We hid out from the rain in the car, driving to Ponte de Lima in Portugal for a few hours.  We weren’t there long, but I can say that I definately can’t fake speaking Portugese.  It really is not Spanish.  I can also say that the all-black look is very big again this year for the over-75 crowd.  We played around with some Roman solidier statues by the Roman bridge over the river (still in use), bought some hand-embrodiered napkins and learned to play water flutes.  Rory and Nora are enchanted.  Rory can make his sound like some attacking weapon out of Star Wars, but Nora is pretty faithful to the birdsong.   I got lost on the way back (surpirse, surprise), and we coasted over the bridge into Spain on fumes.  Gas in Portugal was a full 30 Euro cents per liter more than in Spain, which works out to be about $2 MORE per gallon.  Yowsers. 

We packed up, in the rain, and left Nigran this morning.  The tent and its parts were so wet I had to pack them separately in plastic bags.  I am not looking forward to setting up camp next time, but the forecasted nine days of rain was a great excuse for a night in a hotel.  We rushed to get to Santiago de Compostela in time for the pilgram’s mass at noon, but I got lost (surprise, surprise) and we only made it in time to see hundreds of people lined up to take communion while a nun sang.   In all the cathedrals and churches we’ve visited, this one felt like a working factory.  It was doing its real business, not just a show, and it was packed.  It would have been a lot more moving if Nora wasn’t jerking on my hand, wanting to leave.  This is travel with children.

Now we’re here at Fisterra.  Our hotel is great, and the rain that ran us off from the campsite has vanished.  Rory and Nora swam in the freezing cold pool, and a bee got trapped in Nora’s towel and stung her on the arm.  Her first bee sting!  She was really brave, and even posed for a photo with her attacker, who died for his sins.  For dinner we shared a massive fish baked whole with potatoes and tomatoes.  The kids were picking out bones and tapping the huge teeth (what in the world did the beast eat?)  They weren’t bothered at all to be dissecting a carcass at the dinner table.  When in Galicia…

June 7, 2010

Nora’s 6th Brithday, and then some

Filed under: children, food, Food Allergies, Spain — midway2go @ 7:27 am

Nora is 6!  For weeks Nora has started each day with the Birthday Countdown:  Guess what?  23 days until my birthday!  22 days until my birthday!  21 days until my birthday!  Brandon’s visit came and went, and the Birthday Countdown marched on.  For our birthdays this year we have all been choosing a big event to mark the day, in lieu of a partyand family  and presents (although there have been more of those than I would have thought…).  Rory chose to go to a ninja house in Japan.  I visited Salisbury Cathedral (of which I had ridiculously happy memories of visiting years ago with my beloved Dr. Kelley) and visiting Fiona and Rich and their girls in Cornwall (who took us to see the sun set over the ocean AND popped open a bottle of champagne- I think I chose wisely!  Blog to come!)  Nora chose to stay at a hotel in Sevilla (she was very clear about NOT camping on her birthday) and go to a flamenco show. 

So, we loitered in southern Spain for the week after Brandon left, camping in the Alpujarras on the southern slopes of the Sierra Nevadas and in Tarifa.  We toyed with the idea of going into Morocco for a  day or two, but we were all having food allergy issues from all our restaurant visits with Brandon, and I just didn’t have the heart to go over for just a day.  Instead we went to America – to Rota Naval Base, that is.  We spent dollars in the commissary, bought guide books in the bookshop, and watched lots of movies.  We even had oe fabulous afternoon on a beach on base.  The water was warm; the waves were gentle.  We dripped sand into massive formations and watched the sea reclaim them.  Then, leaving, we were nearly arrested by three Spanish national police. Oops.  Despite the open gate and the boardwalk leading to the water the beach was, we were told, closed.  Hmmm, right.  I explained that I had been given directions to the beach by the hotel front desk (it was a 5 minute walk), and they were prepared to let me go as being “malinformada,” but then te bomb dropped:  I didn’t have my I.D. with me.  Now, this was something to get excited about.   The American M.P.’s were called.  Rory and Nora and I had to sit and wait,  sandy and damp and slightly burned (me, of course).  The M.P.’s showed up, except that they didn’t speak SPainsh, so there was a lot of hand waving and sign language and muttering on both sides.  I don’t think the M.P.’s thought we were much of a threat to  Spanish national security.  I toyed with the idea of translating, but then sat there instead and mulled over the true meaning of the fifth amendment.  Finally it was decided that the two Americans plus one of the Spanairds would accompany us back to the hotel where my I.D. waited.  The final complication: Rory and Nora and I were on foot.  I had a picture in my mind of the M.P.’s driving very slowly behind us all the way to make sure the three of us didn’t make a break for it.   I’m sure there’s a Bruce Springsteen song about that, a mom and two kids, running for their freedom…

Okay, back to Nora’s birthday.  We left Rota with our names cleared and with a desire to get stationed there someday.  Driving north we passed Jerez de la Frontera then had an hour of driving across baking hot countryside.  Now, a word about the Green Eel, our car we picked up in England (thanks, again, Lucy- you rock).  It is a wonderful car, a Subaru Outback with a huge trunk for camping and enough room in the back for Rory and Nora to spread out.  It was two sunroofs, a great stere0 with an iPod dock so we can all listen to audiobooks together.  It’s zippy and looks more expensive than it really was(and will be for sale in September in Britain, if anyone is interested!).  What it is lacking is air conditioning.  Now, I knew that when I bought it, but standing in Fleet, England, hopping up and down to keep my feet warm, it seemed like no big deal.  Well, driving into the sun on a freakishly hot day in Andalucia it was a huge deal.  By the time we got to Sevilla my clothes were soaked through with sweat and the thermometer at the parking garage read 44 degrees- celcius.  That’s well over 100F.  I vowed to do early morning drives after that.

The morning of Nora’s birthday she awoke with a squeal.  I had set out a little table of presents, and she was thrilled to find I had bought the right sticker dolly dressing books all the way from England.  Brandon called to sing happy birthday, and she was one happy puppy.  In the afternoon we headed over the the cathedral to check out Christopher Columbus’s tomb and to hoof it to the top of the Giraldi tower, rising more than 300 feet over the roofs of Sevilla.  Nora, to be fair, didn’t want to go in the first place.  Rory and I did, very much, and off we went.  It was awful.  Hordes of people, multitudes of school groups, lines everywhere.  An audioguide for children was available in English, but  whoever made it seemed to think that being for children meant a paucity of information coupled with a patronizing tone.  The entry on Columbus’s tomb went something like, “I won’t bore you with facts about Columbus.  You must know all about him already!  Let’s talk instead about the symbols on the chests of the four pall-bearers.”  My kids glared at me like I’d been keeping Columbus a secret (it’s true, I’m no great fan…).  “Climbing” the tower was more like standing in a slow moving line at McDonald’s- over-weight ten year-olds shouting to each other while retirees sighed loudly at the delay. Yikes. 

 [Yet another non-birthday related observation: In Britain, lots of folks look fat.  Women, men, and kids.  Here in Spain, almost none of the adults are fat.  Maybe a beer belly (sherry belly?  who knows?) here or there, but no really fat people.  The kids, however, are definately chunky.  I’d say more fat kids than thin ones.  Shocking.]

The highlight of the day was supposed to be the flamenco show, but in truth I think Nora enjoyed playing with her presents and dressing up in her flamenco outfit.  I thought the show was amazing, even though I know it’s for tourists.  It started at 8pm and lasted 90 minutes, and Rory and Nora both did a fair bit of yawning.  I thought the music was amazing.   Flamenco grew out of the Gypsy culture brushing up against the other cultures of Andalucia, Moorish, Jewish, Spanish.  With only a guitar the artists created another world with their hands, their heels, and their voices.  The songs sounded like the Islamic call to prayer, and the dancing looked like drawing flowers in the air.  It was quite intense and powerful, and I was thrilled that NOra wanted to go for her birthday.  She didn’t really know what to expect, but the dresses and the flowers in the women’s hair were inspiring.  Rory, of course, like the 2 male dancers best (we’ve nicknamed them “Shiny Suit” and “Tight Britches”). 

After the show we sat down at a table on the sidewalk and ate tapas and drank a chilled glass of Rioja (well, I did, anyway) and reflected on dance and music and birthdays.  Now, everyone in our family has had his or her birthday for this year.  Last year, looking ahead and worrying about what was to come, we thought the birthdays would be some of the hardest days to be apart. This name for this blog grew out of that concern over these special, red letter days, and what it would feel like to live through them.  Now, with all four of them behind us, they seem, well, just like birthdays.  Anticipation, secrets, calls with singing, special plans.   Our family may be spread out over three continents, but that just can’t change some things.  So, happy birthday, Nora.   May your whole year be blessed and joyful.

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