Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Tourists No More

We are now at the point where we no longer feel like tourists, but more like the immigrants that we have become. We have a lease on an apartment, we opened a Spanish bank account, purchased local cell phones and we now own transportation vehicles (bicycles). Our Spanish lessons are beginning to make sense, we are making new friends and we have enrolled the kids in a local school (to begin when we return from Chicago in January). Oh, and we bought our first piece of furniture - a small, used dresser for the kids' room.

When we were at the school the other day, I couldn't help but remember my days teaching in Berwyn, Illinois - a majority minority school district (at that time, the population was about 60% hispanic). The majority of our students came from Spanish speaking households, but VERY few of the faculty spoke beyond basic high school Spanish (myself included). When a Spanish speaking parent finally got up the nerve to come to the school to deal with an issue involving their child, it was a mad scramble to find someone in the building who was able to communicate with them. Often, someone from the custodial staff was asked to handle the translation. It was shameful. (Luckily, the Superintendent at the time (my brilliant husband) set out on a mission to change the balance and made it the district's goal to begin hiring teachers and staff who were not only competent educators, but also bilingual). That was 14 years ago, and I understand that the district has since made immense strides in putting together a highly effective Spanish speaking staff who is able to meet the needs of it's diverse population. Still, though, being the immigrant parent of an immigrant child and unable to speak the native language is both frightening and humbling.

The advantage we have as English speaking immigrants is that our language seems to be highly valued outside of the States, as most of the European countries make it a priority to prepare their citizens to function in the increasingly global market, and including English in the school curriculum is the norm. Here, students begin receiving daily English instruction in preschool and, often, a third language is later added. In fact, the man who teaches the class that Henry will be in is French, teaching in Spanish and able to speak English - pretty cool. The woman who teaches English at the school was the person who answered our questions and showed us around, and she was lovely - very warm and friendly. She is someone with whom we will no doubt be in close contact over the coming months. In all, the visit to the school was a very positive experience (despite some big differences between schools in Spain versus schools in the U.S.).

Before we came to Spain, we were told by various sources that our life here would be very difficult if we did not speak Spanish because the Spaniards refuse to speak to Americans in English. This could not be further from the experiences that we have had here! Even in a city like Valencia, where culture and historical pride are prolific, the locals have met us with warmth, kindness and a willingness to communicate. It has not been a matter of resentment toward us as Americans that has hindered our efforts, but rather a certain sense of humility and lack of confidence in their own English speaking abilities. Once people see that we are trying to speak to them in their native tongue, and that we don't expect that they will speak English to us, their defenses let down and a dialogue (of sorts) begins. Often, their worst English is far better than our best Spanish, and we are able to meet somewhere in the middle. It is very manageable!

We are in the midst of preparing for our first trip back to the States in a few days and so much has changed since we first arrived in Spain almost three months ago. Originally, we thought we would still be traveling throughout Spain, exploring and 'adverturing.' However, we happened upon a true gem in Valencia, and we feel very much at home. We are very excited to get back to Chicago to see our family and friends and to relive many of our Christmas traditions with the kids. Being away from everyone that we love has been both a blessing and a curse - but definitely more of a curse. Our main goal while in Chicago is to fit in as much time as possible with loved ones (especially my mom).

Besides visiting with friends and family, we seem to have a long list of activities to fit into a short window of time. It will be nice to see snow and winter once again (mostly because we know we will only have to endure its brutality for three short weeks). We need to get to Marshall Field's State Street store (yes, I know it's Macy's now) to see Santa, we'll need to make a stop at Christkindlmarket, and we want to ice skate at Millenium Park. We want to go sledding if there is enough snow, we are taking the kids to 'Wicked' on Christmas Eve, and we cannot overlook the multiple favorite restaurants that must be visited. It will be a blissfully exhausting trip, and it surprises me - more than anyone - to admit that we will be visiting Chicago and returning home to Valencia in January!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Baby Steps

Though I have been away from the blog for awhile, it is not without good reason . . . I AM TIRED! In addition to starting our Spanish instruction this week, Victoria invited me to her Pilates class (taught by a Dutch woman who speaks English, but teaches completely in Spanish), and I am hooked. We are still trying to navigate our way in this intricate city and are trying to get out to explore as much as possible, but we still continue to get lost almost daily. Very simple tasks - like opening a bank account and figuring out how to change the language delivery system on the ATM machine from Spanish to English - seem like monumental triumphs for us!

We are making some headway in our ability to shop in the local markets, but we are never completely sure what we will get when we place our orders. More often than not, when we order food in a restaurant, we are served something totally different than what we thought we were ordering. It is because of this that we are learning to embrace the restaurants that serve a Menu del Día (a set lunch menu, usually about 8-10 Euros). Since we don't know what most of the food is anyway, we don't have to waste time pretending to interpret the menu and we are usually served the best of the restaurant's offerings for that day - it's a great system.

Speaking of restaurants presenting communication issues for us, on Monday we took a day trip up into the mountains to Teruel. It was a chilly, windy day so we spent the majority of our time in cafes and restaurants waiting for our train back to Valencia. We stopped for lunch at a wonderful little restaurant off the plaza. As we were leaving, Caroline needed to use the restroom and asked me to join her. Luckily, the place was pretty crowded so I agreed to go with her (we have been working on letting her go alone if the restroom is within sight). As we tried to leave the restroom, we noticed that the doorknob was broken off the door and we had no way to get out! UGH! Because of the crowd, my door pounding could not be heard and I had to use my cell phone to call Bill, who was waiting outside with Henry.

As Caroline began to panic inside with me, Bill tried frantically to tell the restaurant manager that his wife and daughter were stuck in the bathroom (under stress, it is pretty difficult to recall what you have learned about speaking a foreign language!). We could hear them yelling outside the door - which only increased Caroline's anxiety - as they tried to figure out a way to get the door opened. In what I can only imagine as desperation, the manager decided to kick the door open to get us out, so he had to try to communicate to Bill that he would need to phone me to tell us to stand clear of the door. Fortunately, there was just enough room to move away from the door (most of the public Spanish restrooms are TINY), and after a few strikes, the splintered door came flying in. The manager was extremely apologetic and we left amidst stares and murmurs from the remaining patrons (¡Qué triste americanas!). Such DRAMA!

I can't believe how flippant I was about picking up and moving to a foreign country - where we knew no one, didn't speak the language and knew nothing about the culture and customs. I think we made a bigger deal out of moving from the suburbs to downtown Chicago than we did about coming to Spain! There have been a few days - when the language seems completely jumbled and it feels like someone has moved all of the streets around on us - that I have felt defeated and overwhelmed, but those days are rare. That being said, though, I am very proud of the strides we have made and the efforts we will continue to make. Aside from the obvious benefits of growth and education we are all experiencing, the mental exhaustion is helping me sleep very soundly at night, and that's a wonderful thing!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Spanish Halloween and All Souls' day

Halloween, as we knew it in The States, is celebrated on a much smaller scale in Valencia. In fact, we weren't even sure if there would be any festivities to participate in. According to Anthony and Victoria, the 'day' is more of a 'night,' and instead of kids and candy, it involves adults and alcohol and stupidity. Henry and Caroline, however, were not very satisfied with this description and were determined to don some sort of costumery - even if they were the only people in town to do so! Bill and I have wonderful memories of Halloweens past with our kids, so we were more than willing to assist them in their endeavor. Selections at the local megastore were slim, but the kids managed to grab a couple of things to piece together some costumes that let them feel in the spirit of the day.

Luckily, on the morning of the 30th, Anthony called to invite us to accompany them to a kids' Halloween party with some of their friends - mostly Americans and Australians. Needless to say, Henry and Caroline were thrilled! Most of the other kids were in the 3-5 year age range, but our kids didn't seem to mind. It was bittersweet for me to watch Henry transition from being one of the little kids at the party to being 'the big kid' (a role he enthusiastically welcomed). Fortunately, one of the American dads had some pumpkins for the older kids to carve, so everyone was happy and entertained. It was an early evening, as trick-or-treating has not really taken hold in Spain yet (thank goodness).

The real holiday here is All Souls' Day (November 1). It was a gorgeous day and we spent it at an amazing park with Anthony, Victoria, Isabella and Antonio, as well as one of the families that we met last night. The park was packed full of Spanish families since most business were closed in observance of the holiday.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Almost Home

The internet, it seems, is both a blessing and a curse. It has enabled us to work out the majority of our last minute details along the way and has provided us this most important avenue for communication. Unfortunately, though, we recently got burned with its use. After finding what looked like a great little apartment to finish out this travel phase, we arrived in Barcelona yesterday ready to see some amazing things. Our plan was to ride the Metro to the apartment, but either exhaustion or ignorance won out and we were unable to decipher the maps/directions (I really can't wait to learn the language!). We, instead, hopped in a taxi and were dropped in what looked like a seedy little part of town.

Trying desperately to remain open minded, I held my breath as we climbed the decaying staircase in the building's entryway. Once we were in the apartment, the man who was there to let us in did a lot of fast talking (99% of it in Spanish) as he walked us through our accommodation. Luckily, we had not paid any money yet, because when I looked up, I saw that the ceiling was covered in black mold! Really?! Really. It was disgusting and not something that even the most open of minds could overlook! Bill called Lena, the woman he had originally spoken to about the rental, and explained that we would not be able to stay there as he feared that we would all get sick. She wanted to know if a discount would help - yeah, right. She then told us that she has another apartment for rent but it would cost us 50% more (an offer he graciously refused)!

So, after spending 5 1/2 hours on the train from Malaga, we were left in Barcelona tired, hungry and without a place to stay. Knowing that we wanted to have a great experience there, and the possibility of that was now greatly compromised, Bill and I made the decision to head back to the train station and book a train back to Valencia. Barcelona and all of its glory will need to wait for another, more suitable, time. We got to the station at 3:30 and were just in time for the 4:00 train. We were so relieved - both to not have to wait long for a train, and also to be getting back to someplace familiar. Bill called Anthony and arranged for us to stay in one of his other apartments until the 31st (when our apartment becomes available).

We are in Valencia now and are looking forward to relaxing. Though we are in a different, less familiar part of town, it is only for a few days and will allow us the chance to see some other neighborhoods. I keep saying it, but having Anthony here to help us has really made all of this more 'doable.' Venturing out and taking on so many new things at once has left me feeling especially vulnerable. Once we get some language instruction under our belts, I hope that we will rebuild some of our confidence and spontaneity, but for now, I am grateful to have an angel like Anthony to guide us (poor guy).

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

So Much to See, So Little Time

The past couple of weeks have seemed like a whirlwind - with frequent train travel, various hotels in different Spanish cities and seemingly endless historical sites to visit. Since leaving Valencia 10 days ago, we have seen 4 spectacular cathedrals, 6 castles and/or ancient fortresses, gone to multiple parks and beaches, and have seen original works of art by Matisse, Renoir, de Goya, Dali, Miró, and Picasso - and we won't even arrive in Barcelona until tomorrow!

Though all of this travel has all been wonderful, we are beginning to feel a bit exhausted. In fact, many of the details (like hotel room numbers, artistic masterpieces in cathedrals, restaurant names, etc.) are beginning to blur together a bit, but I hope memories will become clearer as time passes. The kids are becoming truly seasoned travelers and seem to be enjoying all that they are seeing (even though Caroline asked me this morning why we always have to 'tourist' everything). It is on days when we trek for hours on end that I am most grateful for the energy and exuberance that they both possess - if only Bill and I could be so lucky!

The biggest advantage to being in Spain while doing all of these excursions, I feel, is the amazing weather. We have only seen one day of rain since arriving a month ago, and the other days have been filled with beautifully sunny skies and very mild temperatures. It is exactly the kind of weather that makes me never tire of being 'out and about' and is one of the major reasons that we chose to relocate in Spain. We are trying to be mindful to balance opportunities for learning with opportunities for play, so the temperate climate here is perfect for our needs.

Tomorrow, we head to Barcelona for 5 days. With all that we have already seen and done - on top of our valiant efforts to adapt to the new language and culture - I hope that our brains are not too tired for what lies ahead. From all that we have heard and read, there is still a great deal of excitement awaiting us and we don't want to miss even a second of it!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Feliz Cumpleaños, Enrique!

Very early Saturday morning (as in 3:00 a.m.), we boarded the night train from Valencia to Granada. Aside from the fact that the train was supposed to leave the station at 12:44 and was delayed over 2 hours, it was a pretty cool experience for both the kids and us. We were assigned a family sleeper cabin, which included 4 small beds, a sink and a window. Poor Bill was pretzeled into his little bed, but we all managed to sleep (some of us more than others) before we arrived in Granada for the start of Henry's birthday weekend.

Our hotel, The Alhambra Palace, was designed after the Alhambra and was located just about 200 yards from its entrance gate. I think Henry must have said, "Thank you" about 50 times when he saw where we were staying - not exactly sleeping in a castle, but pretty darn close!

The only way to gain access to The Alhambra is with same day tickets (and only 500 are sold each day), so Bill headed out at 7:30 Sunday morning to purchase ours'. Visiting The Alhambra is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience! The Alhambra started being built in the 13th Century and is the scene of some of the most important events in Spanish history. Much to our delight, we visited The Alhambra during the short period of time when a special exhibit, Matisse at The Alhambra, was displayed. With Matisse being one of Henry's painters, it felt like kismet.

Within the walls of The Nazrit Palaces, located in The Alhambra, are the palaces erected by Isabella and Ferdinand when their rule of Spain began. In fact, one of the main rooms that has been preserved is the very room where Christopher Columbus gained their commission for his voyage that would later lead to his discovery of The Americas. It was mind numbing to think that we were standing in that very room some 800 years later! The day before we went to The Alhambra, we visited the Granada Cathedral and saw the crypt where Isabella and Ferdinand are buried - pretty amazing! It's a bit early to tell, but I think these experiences have been far better for Henry and Caroline's education than the coloring sheets of the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria that I seemed to get in school every year around Christopher Columbus' birthday!

On Monday, the day of Henry's actual birthday, he awoke to room service breakfast in bed and a nice, hot bubble bath. We took another train to Sevilla and will be here for a few days. We had lunch and took a handsome cab ride around the city, in honor of the birthday boy. Today, we hope to visit the Cathedral de Sevilla - the largest gothic cathedral in the world and reputed home to the remains of Christopher Columbus. We are so anxious to get out today and see more of this amazing place! My friend, Philomena, said that she left her heart in Sevilla many years ago. I think we may have found it.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Best Laid Plans . . .

Change is certain. This, along with fairly restless personalities, is one of the reasons that we have not planned our trip too far out into the future. After getting an e-mail from the realtor in Javéa yesterday, we realized that many of the things that she originally told us about our villa rental were not exactly accurate. She was asking for very large sums of money upfront (more inline with what would be asked for a yearly contract) and that didn't seem to be to our advantage. It took us about 5 minutes to change our minds - Javéa just isn't in the cards for us right now.

Ironically, all of us were experiencing very mixed feelings about leaving Valencia so soon. I was worried that we would not learn Spanish as quickly in a community like Javéa, and being more remote was going to make further travel more complicated. Also having Anthony here to guide us has proven invaluable. He - with his wife Victoria and 2 small children, Isabella and Antonío - has a wonderful family and we would miss them terribly. Having experienced condo living for our entire married lives, Bill and I both keep craving an outside space. However, we seem to be very drawn to more urban areas because we really enjoy the stimulation and accessibility they provide.

So, yesterday, as we sat searching the web for someplace to go next (our current lease ends Friday), our doorbell rang. It was Anthony checking in to see if we had finally figured out how to use our new phones (that's another whole story). We knew that our apartment would not be available after Friday because he was moving his parents into it (they were supposed to only be here for a week but ended up needing to stay much longer after his 75 year old father took a nasty fall on their second day).

Anthony had previously mentioned that he has several apartments around the city that he rents out, but we knew nothing more than that. Bill explained our situation to him and asked what he might have available for us. He took us upstairs - to the apartment across the hall from his - and showed us a very large, 2-story (loft) unit similar to the apartment that he and his family live in. It is currently rented to a man from New Zealand whose lease is up at the end of the month. Provided that the tenant does not want to renew (his secretary has apparently told Anthony that he doesn't, but Anthony needs confirmation), the apartment would be available for us. It would only be a little more expensive than the house in Javéa (actually less when the cost of utilities, car rental and extra charges are factored in).

Though not a yard, the new apartment has a nice sized terrace with a pretty view where Bill could put some potted gardens in the spring. We would be in the neighborhood that we are finally starting to become familiar with and we can walk, bike or take a short taxi ride to anything we need (Anthony has 2 bikes that he will let us use and we can rent/buy some for the kids). Travel from Valencia is easy, with different kinds of trains and an airport nearby. We have a multitude of options to begin some intensive Spanish instruction and, perhaps, some art classes. Like anywhere else, we still need to investigate the schools, but being in a larger city affords us more options.

As the other apartment would not be available until the end of the month, we will be temporarily homeless yet again. Bill - brilliantly - realized that now would be an excellent time for us to utilize our Spain rail passes and get some traveling in. Monday will be Henry's birthday, and we had already promised him that we would try to spend it in a castle (pretty cool place to turn 9), so that is what we will do. Plans aren't finalized yet (are they ever?), but we want to take the night train to Granada on Friday, stay a couple of days, then go to Seville for a few days more. From that region, we will likely head north and try to fit in Barcelona and some northern towns. Luckily, Anthony is going to give us some storage space while we are gone, so we can travel very light!

I slept very well last night, feeling at peace with these recent changes of events. I realize that it isn't finalized yet, but being able to stay here for awhile satisfies many of my previous misgivings. And who knows, tomorrow I may just post something else entirely different - this is an adventure, after all!

Decisions, Decisions

Two weeks into our stay in Spain, we are faced with several decisions that will effect our quality of life in the next year or so. Thankfully, our current landlord, Anthony, has been extremely kind in helping us navigate our way through some of our unknowns, so we feel armed with at least a little bit of knowledge (which will likely change the longer we are here). We have questions about retirement visas, local bank accounts, cell phones, communities, transportation, schools etc.

Retirement Visa
Anthony seems to have a pretty extensive network of American friends here, having helped many of them acclimate upon their arrival in Spain. Though he has a residence card and holds an Italian passport (his grandfather was born in Italy which entitles him to one), he said that the majority of the American immigrants that he knows have stayed without a legal visa. For the 4 of us to apply for the retirement visa would cost us a $520 application fee (not to mention a lot of time and effort), and that is without any guarantee that the visa would be granted. However, if we want the freedom to continue traveling throughout Europe safely, having a visa is the smartest thing to do. Also, there are real advantages to holding a residence card, which one can only do with a proper visa. We still have some more thinking to do about all of this!

Bank Accounts and Cell Phones
Opening a local bank account should be relatively easy with just our passport. This will enable us to transfer larger sums of money here and avoid multiple transaction fees (the fee is the same whether the transfer is for $1 or $100,000). Also, once we rent longer term, all of our bills will need to come directly out of a local account. Anthony told us that his bank is very easy to work with and everything is accessible on-line. Once we get settled, that is where we will start.

As I write, Bill and Anthony are biking to a local cell phone carrier to get phones for Bill and me. Anthony explained the easiest kinds of plans (some, he said, are very complicated), and agreed to go with Bill to be sure we got the plan that works best for us right now. We think we really only need local phones to be able to call each other, since we have Skype to call friends and family back home, but once we get a bit more settled, we can switch to a monthly contract that is cheaper.

Communities, Schools and Transportation
We rented a car for a few days and drove south along the coast to try to find a place that we want to be for awhile. Originally, we thought that place would be north of Valencia - between Valencia and Barcelona - but Anthony told us two things that changed our minds: the northern coast isn't as pretty due to overbuilding and it's colder up the coast.

About an hour south of here is a town called Javéa (Habea). Originally a fishing port, it has become a beautiful resort town. Homes are built in the hills on the mountains that line the coast, and the climate is perfection. The biggest drawback to Javéa is that it has become a major destination of many British expats, so English is spoken in many places. It is a place that we will have to really seek out Spanish immersion, but it may be worth it.

Another drawback to a community like Javéa is that we will need a car to get around. That was one of the things we really wanted to avoid. Also, unless we have a residence card, we cannot get drivers' licenses here (and even then there is a lot of red tape). Bill did some checking and found that he can get a temporary international drivers' license through AAA, so that is what we will do for now.

The schools in Javéa are supposed to be quite good, as well, but we will need to investigate a little more. We still are unsure of the procedures for Americans to enroll in the public schools, though we are told that it is quite easy.

We met with a realtor in Javéa and decided to rent a villa there until mid-December. It is a 3 bedroom furnished villa with a pool and beautiful view, and will only run us 800 Euros per month (about $1100). This will give us a chance to see how we like living a more suburban life here and if Javéa is right for us. The kids are, of course, so excited at the prospect of having their own bedrooms (I wonder how long it will take them to decide to share, though) and a pool, and Bill and I are thrilled to have such a beautiful outside space to maximize the amazing weather that this region enjoys.

It feels good to be making some decisions, if only temporary ones. We are all craving a little more stability right now and I think this will give us some. We still hope to travel and explore other parts of Spain in the coming months, though, and are not sure what the future holds for us!

Monday, October 11, 2010

9 de Octubre and Feast of San Dionís

In Valencia, as in much of Spain, festivals and holidays decorate the calendar almost weekly. Saturday was a day in which two holidays were celebrated simultaneously: 9 de Octubre (Valencia National Day) and Feast of San Dionís (a day for lovers, similiar to St. Valentine's Day). Festivities began on Friday night with a parade and HUGE fireworks display. We, unfortunately, missed this part of the celebration since, in true Spanish tradition, it commenced at midnight! We did, however, walk past the enormous setup site for the fireworks the next day and were still able to smell sulfur in the air at 2:00 in the afternoon!

Throughout the day on Saturday, various celebrations were held around the city. In the Plaza de Virgen, traditional Spanish dancers performed on a temporary stage. The elaborate costumes of the dancers were beautiful! Given the number of festivals and fallas throughout the year that offer opportunities to display them, much time and money is spent creating these works of art. We were happy to discover that the Cathedral was also open to the public during the festival so we were able to see it's interior - breathtaking!

Behind the Cathedral, in Plaza la Reina, a parade celebrating the history of Valencia marched down the street. Again, participants were elaborately adorned, and their procession portrayed the history of Valencian rule throughout the ages. The men and women on parade seemed to take great pride in their roles and put much effort into playing their parts. It was definitely a sight to behold!

Caroline was quick to remind us that, on the American Valentine's Day, sweets are shared with those that you love. She felt strongly that we, too, should honor the similar Spanish custom of San Dionís. Located on a corner in the Plaza la Reina was a huge candy store, so we had the opportunity to do just that. Actually, the traditional Spanish custom is to wrap a handful of handmade marzipan in a handkerchief and give it to your lover on Feast of San Dionís, but absent of a hankie and a place to buy the marzipan, we improvised.

Saturday night, around midnight, as I lay reading in bed, I heard the faint sound of beautiful Spanish music. At first, I thought it was one last procession for the Festival and would soon be over. However, once I noticed that the music did not seem to be fading, I got up and opened the wooden shutters that close off our bedroom to the street sounds below. To my amazement, I found that we were being serenaded by a band of 14 Spanish singers and musicians (Ok, so it was the young Dutch girl staying in the apartment below us that was really being serenaded, but it's my story so I can write it any way I like)! Caroline was still awake reading - having taken siesta that day - and came running into our room to see what was going on. As soon as Bill lifted her to the window, the musicians turned and directed their serenade to her - amazing! I'm not sure that she fully appreciated the rarity of her experience, but it is my hope that she will see many more serenades in her future!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Mercado Central, Valencia

Our apartment in Valencia is situated in a really artsy, wonderfully located neighborhood called "El Carme." It is in the old part of the city and is within easy walking distance to many of the places that we want and need - restaurants, cafes, parks, sites and trains. Our landlord, Anthony, is a New Yorker and has been a tremendous help to us as we work to acclimate to Valencia. He has given us recommendations of nearby areas to explore for our more longterm accommodations, and he offered to go to the local bank with us tomorrow to open a bank account (which he insists is very easy to do here).

Just 3 blocks from our apartment is Mercado Central - the Central Market. The market is unlike anything we have ever seen! Housed in what looks like an old train station are dozens of seafood vendors, fruit markets, cheese and wine counters and butchers (mostly selling ham). As I was still recovering from the food poisoning episode, we hurried through the pungent seafood section and found the meat and produce area. Bill was in heaven!

Serrano ham originates from this area of Spain and the Spainards' affection for 'all things pork' is obvious. Jamon (ham) is a staple on every single menu that we've read - whether it is for breakfast, lunch or dinner. At the Mercado, every part of the pig was for sale, in one form or another. The kids were intrigued (and a little grossed out) by the seemingly ordinary display of various pig parts. I still don't think they believe us that people really eat pig feet (manitas cerdo) or pig heads!

After taking quite a bit of time just walking around an looking at the various offerings at the Mercado, we finally settled on a combination of items to make a light dinner at home. As usual, Bill did a marvelous job putting together a dinner that was healthy, delicious and beautiful. The supplies in our small rental kitchen are a bit scarce, so he made the best of it and prepared a feast that we were all happy with. If he keeps this up, I may just have to marry him!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Holy Toledo!

We were supposed to leave Toledo on Sunday morning to begin our trip to Valencia. However, around 11 p.m. on Saturday, Henry woke up vomiting. "No big deal, " I thought - his stomach viruses never last more than a few hours. However, at around 1:00 a.m., Bill joined in. By his description of the pain, we figured out that they had food poisoning. The night-long battle for the bathroom was on, and the trip to Valencia was postponed. As the day wore on, Caroline and I both became ill as well.

At around 8:00, I made my way down to Aurora's apartment to ask if we could stay another night. I managed to communicate that my family was 'muy inferma' and could not travel. She seemed to understand, as she gave me some chamomile tea and some kind of liquid medicine (which we didn't take) to settle our stomachs. I think that was the last accurate verbal communication she and I shared.

Sometime around midday, we thought maybe we were well enough to travel (I still had not gotten sick), so I was tasked with talking to Aurora to see if she could help us call for a taxi to take us to the train station. I brought the train schedule with me, along with what I thought was the contact information for the taxi company. This time, though, I wasn't very effective in communicating with her. Not only did she not help me make the phone call, but she sent me back to our apartment with a pot of white fish and potato soup that she made for us (I'm pretty sure that the smell alone is what made me sick)!!! Within the hour, Caroline and I began vomiting (big surprise), so we decided to wait until Monday to try to leave.

Around 5:00, there was a knock at our door. It was Aurora. She was presenting me with a Tortilla España (spanish omelette), made with egg and potato. I think she was concerned about us because the markets were closed, as it was Sunday, and the only thing she knew to do was cook. It was very sweet of her, but I felt terrible knowing that there was NO WAY we could eat the food. Call me crazy, but fish and eggs are not exactly what come to mind as nausea reducing foods! I thanked her, though, and told her that we were all 'muy cansado' and tried to gesture that we were all going to sleep. I think she told me to knock on her door in the morning when we were ready to leave, so we said 'buenos noche' and went to bed.

By morning, we were still not feeling great, but we were well enough to travel so we headed out early and began the trip to Valencia. We really loved seeing Toledo and learn of its amazing history, but we were ready to move on. We didn't have a WiFi connection in our apartment, and we really underestimated the impact that being disconnected would have on us.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Vivir en España!

About a year ago, Bill and I made the difficult decision to leave Chicago and it's brutal winters for a while, so we began exploring different places to relocate to. Six months ago, we began researching, plotting and planning ways to bring our family to Spain. Then, on Tuesday, our efforts came to fruition. We left Chicago Tuesday evening and arrived in Madrid early Wednesday morning.

Exhausted and bleary eyed, we were very surprised to arrive in Madrid on the day that a major countrywide political protest was unfolding. When the taxi pulled up to our hotel, we found the streets covered in trash and the windows of the hotel covered in brown paper. Outside the main window of the hotel was a huge sticker that read, "CERRADO" (closed). Apparently our hotel was located across the street from the government offices and was, therefore, in the center of the turmoil. Fortunately, though, we did get our room and the protests only lasted 24 hours. By Thursday morning, the streets were cleaned and the millions of stickers that had been plastered all over the city had been removed.

We were trying to stay awake the first day in Spain, so we spent the afternoon at the Prado Museum and the Botanic Gardens (which were right across the street from our hotel). It was a beautiful - but exhausting - day. By 6:00 in the evening, we couldn't stay awake any longer and went to bed, sleeping for 14 hours! We spent the majority of Thursday at Retiro Parque, an enormously gorgeous park right in the center of the city.
Yesterday and today, we are in Toledo (To-lay-doh), and mid-sized medieval city 30 minutes south of Madrid. We muddled our way through an on-line apartment rental in the heart of the old town and are very happy that we did. When we arrived, we were greeted by Aurora, a probably 100 year old Spanish woman who has likely never left Toledo. Aurora doesn't speak a word of English, so it was very interesting watching her walk us through the apartment. For some reason, she decided to speak mostly to me, giving long verbal directions. I, of course, couldn't understand any of it but I am fairly certain that she gave me a lot of very important information! Our charming apartment looks out into a courtyard shared with a working cloister of a convent.

Toledo is an amazing city! As it was once the capital of Spain, the buildings and cobblestone streets here are thousands of years old. Streets are only about 10 feet wide (barely wide enough for a tiny car to wiz through) and are built on rolling hills. I read that Toledo is considered by many to be the religious capital of Europe, home to the largest number of cathedrals, mosques and synagogues in a single city. We hope to see many of these beautiful sites today.

Tomorrow morning, we head back to Madrid and board a high speed train to Valencia, where we will be for at least 2 weeks. I am anxious to get a bit more settled and fall into a routine. The Spanish countryside is just as I imagined it to be, and I cannot wait to experience more of it!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A Brief Stop in Chicago

So . . . as it turns out, you really can go home again. After 5 1/2 weeks of what turned out to be a four stop tour of Latin America, we are back in Chicago for 3 weeks. More specifically, we are back in Oak Park - in our old condo. We are so fortunate that our dear friends (and renters) David and Rodney have agreed to take us in until the end of the month while we touch base with my mom and reorganize ourselves for the trip to Spain.

It's funny to think that this condo was our home for 10 years. It is where we began our family - it was our first home, where we brought our babies home from the hospital and where we created so many memories. Because of the boys' impeccable decorating abilities, the condo looks nothing like it did when we lived here, but there is still something very familiar about it. Though I know it isn't here anymore, I keep looking at the wall in the kitchen where we hung our clock to try to see the time (it is now a chalkboard). We had so much dirty laundry to take care of when we arrived yesterday, so I decided to use our big washer and dryer in the basement. It had not been used in 2 1/2 years, since we also installed laundry in the unit and D&R use that. However, much to my delight, the bottle of laundry detergent that I bought before we left was still sitting there - waiting for me! I also ran into an old neighbor while I was in the basement, and we talked as if we had never left (except for how shocked he was at seeing how tall Henry has grown).

I still can't gauge the kids' reactions to being back in the old place. They definitely see it as D&R's home, but they are extremely comfortable here. On the train from the airport yesterday, Caroline said that she feels so much safer in Oak Park than she did in Chicago. I'm not sure where that came from, but I'm glad she feels it. Henry and Caroline absolutely love having D&R's dog, Lars, to play with (he even slept on their bed for a while last night) and are thrilled that they are now old enough to walk over to Mills Park alone (together, but with us watching from the balcony).

We'll be here for 3 weeks - unpacking, repacking, visiting with friends and family and spending as much time with my mom as possible. We leave for Spain on the 28th of September, and are VERY excited. We have learned a lot these past weeks and look forward to using that knowledge in the adventures ahead. Our focus now is trying to ensure that D&R still like us as much when we leave as they did when we arrived!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Presenting the new Mr. & Mrs. Jordan

Tic-toc, game is locked - all of the t's are crossed and i's are dotted. Yesterday, we welcomed a new Jordan into the mix, as Matt and Jackie celebrated their love in front of 45 friends and family in Cancun. The day could not have been more perfect! I have never seen Matt happier than he has looked this past week and by the time the ceremony rolled around, he was absolutely glowing! Surprising no one, Jackie was completely radiant.

There was not a dry eye in the house as Bill serenaded the newlyweds during their first dance as husband and wife. Several months ago, Matt asked his dad to sing Elvis Presley's "Can't Help Falling In Love" while he and Jackie danced their first dance. I have to admit, I was very nervous that Bill would not be able to get through the song without completely breaking down, but he did a phenomenal job! Many people later told me that they thought it was actually a recording of Elvis until they saw Bill's lips moving. I may be a bit biased, but it was my favorite part of the evening!

Matt asked Henry to be a Junior Groomsman and Caroline was one of two flower girls. They both did a great job in their roles and their participation made the day even more special for them. They both love Matt (Bubbie) and Jackie so much, and are so excited to have a new sister. Caroline was hoping that having a new sister would mean that Jackie would come and live with us, but we explained to her that this is the start of Matt and Jackie's new life together, so they might want a little privacy. She didn't much like that answer!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Wedding Prep

The sun is shining, guests are arriving and anticipation is building. In less than 72 hours, we will officially welcome a new member to the family as Matt and Jackie say their vows in a beachfront gazebo in Cancun, Mexico. I am in awe of their calm, yet celebratory demeanor as they hustle to finalize the few remaining details of their wedding. As Matt pointed out, it has already been a year of planning, so most everything has been taken care of. Still, though, I remember the effort that went into making our wedding so special, and it seems daunting to imagine having to do it from 1,000 miles away! However, both the bride and groom-to-be are glowing and are showing no outward signs of fatigue.

Matt and Jackie selected a very nice (yes, I said nice) all-inclusive resort to be the site for their wedding. Once again, our little family was upgraded to a room that is far too nice for our hillbilly ways, but we are trying not to embarrass ourselves (or anyone else). It is a Master Suite, so Bill and I are enjoying having our own bedroom for the first time in a month! I am a little worried, though, as Henry and Caroline keep mentioning how much they love staying in resorts. I'm afraid they are in for a bit of a rude awakening . . .

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Hasta Luego, Playa Del Carmen!

In just a couple of hours, we will leave Playa del Carmen and head up the coast to Cancun for Bill's son's wedding (on the 5th of September). It is a bittersweet morning - we are so very excited for Matt and Jackie and cannot wait for Jackie to become an official part of our family, but we are a bit sad to leave Playa. Despite it's changes and growth, we have enjoyed a lovely, restful 2 weeks here. We found some fantastic restaurants (small, local, out of the way - like we like them), met some wonderful people and stayed in an adorable hotel that we were able to treat like a home. It has been bliss.

As we leave Playa del Carmen, though, I cannot help feeling the way I do when I look at old pictures of my children. I want to hold it by it's face and scream, "Stop growing! You are perfect - I want to remember you just the way you were when you were still young and innocent."

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Shopping in Playa

Many, many things in Playa Del Carmen have changed since we were here in early 2003. For example, there has been a HUGE influx of Italians. Though Playa was always full of more European than American travelers, there was a stronger German and Dutch influence before. Italians now comprise probably 90-95% of the tourist base. Because of this, the marketplace has also changed. There are so many Italian restaurants, cafés and boutiques that it has actually been a bit of a challenge for us to find decent Mexican food to eat. I went shopping today to find a dress for Matt and Jackie's wedding and had a difficult time. I had envisioned a simple linen sundress that would have been popular last time we were here, but it seemed like every shop had apparel tailored to fit Italian tastes and figures.

One thing has not changed, however, and that is the aggressive sales tactics of the Mexican shop owners. Granted, it is the slow season right now - and many of them are really hurting for business - but I cannot believe how creative they have become! When we were out today, Henry asked me how we could "find the mayor of this town" - he wanted to report all of the pushy sales people! It was another lesson in cultural differences.

I wonder if, perhaps, the shop owners all attend training seminars to learn common American phrases. I wonder, too, if these are the only American phrases that they know. So
many of these are things we have heard before, but the bar has definitely been raised with a few:

"Almost free to you, señor."

"Only today. Only for you."

"Hello, beautiful family. Come to look in my shop."

"Hello, I have been waiting all day for you."

"Hey, Beautiful Lady - braids for your beautiful niña?"

"Best prrrrrrices in town, señor. I prrrrrromise to you."

"What you want to pay?"

"Welcome back. You promised me to come back."

"Hello, Big Spender! Is that you?"

"I have just what you always need."

"Hey, señor - Let me make you a deal."

And my personal favorite, that actually made me belly laugh:
"Let me be the last one to rip you off."

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Look Back

Though we have moved on from Belize, there are several pictures that I took while there that never made it to the blog. I saw things everyday that inspired my writing, but because of our early departure, I was unable to share many of them. Here are just a few of my favorites:

Reef House: our 'home' on the island

Our house was in sharp contrast to the houses that the locals live in. They live in tiny, often one or two room shanties built high on stilts. This was actually one of the bigger homes.

One of two Caye Caulker cemeteries (the other one is, literally, 7 crosses on the beach)

Henry, tracing shadows in the yard

Fantasia (18 months) and Oscar (3), brother and sister
We met these local beauties while swimming at the pier one day, and I was mesmerized by their smiles.

The bar at "The Split"
Juni told us that this whole end of the island is eroding quickly and that the bar will soon be under water (good riddance). It is pretty, but it is also where all of the riff-raff hang out.

Bill found a fun and interesting use for coconut palm bark!

Home Depot, Belize City
I saw this while waiting for the water taxi to the island - a bit different than in The States!

Henry really wanted to find a pretty conch shell, but after talking to many of the locals, we learned that to do that, he would have to find a young shell with a live animal still inside. Since it is not currently conch season, that would have been illegal. :(

Caroline's favorite midday snack: cold watermelon and toasted white bread

And, finally, Caroline gathered a bouquet of flowers that she found on the ground in our yard. They had fallen off of the trellis that connected our house to the front gate - very pretty!