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!