Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Next Phase

It has been just about a year since our family set out on our adventure to see more, do more and learn more. In that time, we traveled to Belize, Mexico, various regions in Spain, Italy and France (not to mention a few trips back and forth to the States) and Bill visited Amsterdam. We sold our 2 homes in Chicago and Oak Park, left everything and everyone that we knew and loved and, hand-in-hand, jumped off the cliff, having little idea what was ahead for us.

We have lived in almost primitive conditions in sweltering heat, survived a Dengue Fever scare, lovingly witnessed Bill's son marry the girl of his (and our) dreams, moved to a foreign country and became immigrants. We watched with awe as our children quickly learned to speak almost fluent Spanish (Bill and I have made some progress with our language as well), muddled our way through the Spanish public school system and learned about different cultures and ways of living. We met wonderful people from all over the world, and we saw and experienced amazing sites that opened our minds and expanded our perspectives. Our family has laughed, cried, struggled, laughed some more and survived. We have learned, expanded and grown - and we have done so because we were together.

Amidst all of this glory, however, we bid a painful farewell to my mom (Henry and Caroline's last surviving grandparent) in April and knew that our concept of "roots" had been forever altered. All four of us - and particularly Henry and Caroline - long for some structure and proximity to our family and friends. With that in mind, Bill and I have spent the past several months trying to figure out what that would look like for us - there are so many different ways to live.

In 12 days, we will again switch gears and return our family to the States. Our current plan is to explore Flagstaff, Arizona. From our research, Flagstaff seems to host many of the things that we value - climate, nature, beauty, health, education, affordability and, most importantly, closer proximity to family. Hopefully, it will work for us!

Bill, Henry, Caroline and I have spent many long hours discussing and deciding what we want our life to be; realizing along the way how fortunate we are that we have the opportunity to discuss and decide (a true gift!). Perhaps we will someday take what we have learned this year and use it to return to European life (Italy!), or perhaps we will find our peace and happiness elsewhere. Of course, we may never know if our current decision is the right one or not, but this past year has taught us (among many things) that if we are together in our focus, jumping off another cliff doesn't seem all that scary!

¡Adiós, España!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Las Fallas, 2011

I am finding it a bit difficult to describe what has been happening in Valencia over the past couple of weeks, but that is because most of what I have seen, heard and experienced simply defies explanation. Las Fallas, the biggest festival in all of Europe (including Germany's Oktoberfest) ended yesterday, but not without leaving an awesome impression on this Familia Americana.

Falla Na Jordana
an anti - anti - smoking statement
Valencia is home to several hundred Falla Clubs (social clubs), disbursed throughout the city. Over the course of the year, each Falla Club spends hundreds of thousands of dollars and the span of the entire year designing and creating a giant - as in 3 or 4 stories tall - polystyrene and wooden sculpture to display in the street during Fallas. Clubs vie for the best falla artists to craft the biggest and best monument, which usually represents a satirical commentary (or two). During the weeks leading up to March 19th, these impressive monstrosities are displayed around the city (there are a few hundred in all). It is a very important competition between the clubs in which the monuments are judged and awarded monetary prizes.

Each club selects Falleras and Falleros to represent them throughout the festivities. There is a Fallera Mayor (like a queen) and a court of honor at each club, as well as a Fallera Infantíle (under 10) and an Infantíle Court. Then, a Fallera Mayor (and her court) and a Fallera Infantíle (and court) are chosen to represent Valencia. This was, by and large, my favorite thing to see. The level of costumery and poise displayed by the Falleras is unlike anything I have ever witnessed! On a "boys' night out," Bill met an off duty Fallera who told him that the material alone for each of her dresses cost 7000 Euros ($10,000) - and she had to have 4 dresses!!!

On the night of March 17th, and again on the night of March 18th, thousands of Falleras and Falleros begin a procession to the Plaza de la Virgen to present a floral offering to a giant sculpture of The Virgin Mary. Artistic designers assign each club a specific type and color of flower to bring. Fourteen artisans work to ceremoniously gather the presented flowers to create Mary's coat while the crowd looks on.

The final design of Mary's coat is not revealed until the masterpiece unfolds. Once completed, the Plaza is transformed into one of the most amazingly beautiful and fragrant places I have ever seen - or smelled! Remaining flowers are used to create tapestries that adorn the Basilica and line the center of the Plaza.

For the Falleras who are granted the honor of making the presentation to Mary, it is a very moving and emotional experience. Many walk away in tears.

No story about Las Fallas would be complete without particular attention given to the final activities of the night of March 19th, La Crema (the burning). Not only does each Falla Club create a giant monument, but most also display a children's falla (infantíl). Around 10:00 p.m., the infantíls throughout the city are ceremoniously set on fire. Yes, the clubs burn their own outrageously expensive and time involved works of art every year! It is crazy.

Na Jordana infantíl burning

The biggest (and most anticipated) cremas begin shortly after midnight. We waited for what felt like hours in our primo location to witness the burning of the Na Jordana Falla (from above). There were dozens of bomberos (firefighters) on hand with their hoses to control the burn (in some cases, the fallas are only 10-20 meters from nearby buildings). The fronts of the surrounding buildings were draped in canvas tarps that were watered down to prevent burning. Teams of pyrotechnicians worked to encase the falla in ropes of fireworks that would create a chain reaction to ignite the fire. At around 1:15 a.m., we looked overhead to watch an explosion of brilliant fireworks and before we knew it, the falla was ablaze. Because we were so close, the heat was intense, but the display was amazing!

Na Jordana falla ablaze

To help the family get more into the spirit of the festival, Henry decided to design and build his own personal falla. His school had been focusing on music around the world, so he created a 60's jukebox out of cardboard. He had the vision and design, but needed Bill's help to execute the piece. After assembling the jukebox falla, the boys lined it with small firecrackers (Henry had been waiting all week to light firecrackers). After darkness fell last night, we all went out to a small area behind our flat (with Anthony and some of his friends who were visiting) and Bill set Henry's falla on fire. The burn was most impressive - perfectly engineered and beautifully designed!

This morning, the streets are clear, the air is quiet, the tourists are leaving and we are getting our city back. I swear - it's like it was all just a dream . . . a 14 day, 24/7, firecracker laden dream!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Just Keep Swimming, Swimming, Swimming . . .

I am an emotional eater - plain and simple - and the last year and a half have been filled with tremendous emotional ups and downs for me. My mom was diagnosed with a terminal illness and has yo-yoed between remissions and relapses, we were trying to sell two houses in the worst real estate market since the Great Depression and my husband retired after a long and fruitful career in education. We are still trying to sell one of our properties, but we sold our home and we left our friends and family and moved to another country where we didn't know anyone and could not speak the language. Somewhere along the way, I lost my priority to take care of myself.

With the kids starting public school here in January, I had some time to get myself back into shape. The extra weight had made running more painful and less enjoyable than it used to be, so I decided to start swimming again. There is a city pool around the corner from our flat and I was able to get a membership for only 15 Euros a month (about $20). My only obstacle was that I didn't have a swimsuit here, so I would have to buy one (gulp).

As far as I can tell, swimsuit shopping is an activity universally loathed by most females. As a taller than average, now slightly overweight, middle aged mother of two, I am no different. Add to this the facts that the average spanish physique resembles that of a kewpie doll (thanks, Rodney) and that there is no universal sizing standard for clothing in Spain, and what you have is a seriously stressed out shopper!

On what was - in hindsight - probably not one of my emotionally strongest days (and therefore not the day I should have chosen to shop for a swimsuit), I swallowed my pride and headed to El Corte Inglés - the local department store with a decent sporting goods department. Having absolutely no idea what size suit I might fit into, I perused the racks and selected about 15 (yes, 15) suits of various sizes and styles to try on. I was determined to make at least one of them work. After trying on each and every painful choice, I settled on a suit that I thought would work. It was a swimming suit, not a bathing suit, so it wasn't supposed to look good - just feel good.

Relieved to have made a choice that would enable me to begin my road back to fitness, I walked to the checkout counter practicing my Spanish along the way. When it was my turn, I smiled and handed the suit to the sales clerk. She looked me in the eyes and said something that I now know was probably along the lines of, "Te das cuenta que se trata de una traje de maternidad?" At the time, though, what I heard was, "Blah knsnfda kashfjsabf fjsabhfjdsb fjashfjhb sjfkjsbd?" I again smiled. "Un momento," she said, as she walked to the other side of the counter to 'confer' with one of her colleagues.

Upon returning, the clerk repeated her spanish phrase. This time, though, she added her own sign language to aid in my comprehension. She held my carefully selected (and adequately fit) swimsuit up to her body and made a sweeping gesture under the belly to indicate that it was, in fact, a ma-ter-ni-ty suit! My crimson face literally burned as she and the four or five other nearby customers and clerks giggled at my mistake. Being . . . well . . . NOT pregnant, I was horrified.

Pretending to have just accidentally grabbed the wrong suit, I walked toward the sales rack where the swimsuits hung as if I was going to make the correct selection. I approached the rack, hung up the suit, called Bill and made a b-line for the escalator. I have a feeling that I should have taken the stairs.

BTW, for obvious reasons, no photo will accompany this post :)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Catching Up to Carry On

So much has happened since my last blog entry that I have been at a loss for where to begin. We returned to Chicago for three weeks in December to celebrate Christmas with my family, and things did not exactly go as planned. A few days after arriving there, my mom was hospitalized with several very serious infections and her situation became precarious. She spent the remainder of our trip time in the hospital and was not released until after we returned to Valencia. One of the hardest things for Mom was being away from her children on Christmas Day. Ordinarily, the Maroney Christmas - in all of it's overwhelming glory - is celebrated in Naperville at Kathy and Gary's. However, this year's circumstances called for a break from tradition and a change of plans. Just about everyone (except for Eddie & April, Mary's husband, Jim, & their 2 girls, Matt & Jackie and Meghan) made it to the hospital to surprise Mom with a casual Christmas gathering in the Loyola cafeteria. She was delighted (and the cafeteria employees didn't even seem to mind)!

Coming back to Spain was especially difficult this time. Leaving Chicago without the knowledge of what would happen with my mom was hard enough in August, but now it felt much scarier. However, Bill and I had already decided that Henry and Caroline should be enrolled in public school here and we needed to return to Valencia to ensure a smooth transition for them. They are in school now and are doing very well - we are just so proud of them. In only a month, they are speaking Spanish and are functioning pretty independently. Caroline is pleased to be learning cursive handwriting, and Henry was especially proud of the fact that he, "Actually had a verbal argument with another kid - and didn't need an adult's help!" Daily homework assignments are pushing us all to learn the language faster.

Since we've been back, my mom has been in and out of the hospital - as has my brother, Eddie - so trying to stay focused on what needs to be done here has become a challenge. However, on a much happier note, Matt and Jackie arrived on Friday for a 16 day visit. Tomorrow, we all head to Barcelona for a couple of much anticipated days. Matt and Jackie will head to Venice from Barcelona and will be back here on Wednesday for a few more days before they go home. Perhaps they feel differently, but I think their visit could not have come at a better time!