Thursday, January 10, 2002
Estoy in Madrid! Yes, I arrived safely after a bumpy ride to London and a much smoother, 2 hour hop to Madrid's airport. I was proud of myself for remembering where to catch the public bus to get downtown, which then required a 7 or 8 block walk to reach the hotel. With my backpack stretched to its limits, weighing I don't know how much, and tired from the lack of sleep from the crowded, overnight flight, I struggled up the hill on the Gran Via where the hotel is located.
But, here I am enjoying the Spanish culture once more. Last night was spent eating tapas, drinking a few (small) glasses of wine and reacquainting myself with the city. The first tapa of the night was a round piece of toast covered with a crab and mayonnaise mixture, sporting a steamed shrimp and two pieces of crab leg as decoration on top. They also gave me a complimentary bar mix of nuts with the wine at my first stop. The next tapa included sardines and olives, which were given free with the wine in my next stop, but I then ordered anchovies on two small pieces of toast to accompany the rest of my glass of red wine. At my final stop of the evening, I ordered a racion (a larger portion than a tapa) of sautéed sepia (cuttlefish), which would remind you of calamari. The three small glasses of wine and my lack of sleep from the flight served to put me to sleep nicely at 10:30, just when everyone else in town was getting ready to have dinner. I slept the night away and awoke refreshed at 8:30, which is very late for me.
Today was spent strolling the city. When was the last time you strolled? I mean real strolling, with nothing to do and nowhere in particular to go. It was a spectacular experience. I walked to the Puerta del Sol (a main square), to the Plaza Mayor (another main square), to the Palacio Real (a huge palace, now partially a museum), through a beautiful adjacent garden where I took time to look at the fountains and the plantings, and continued back on the Gran Via to the hotel. On the stroll, I had a small breakfast of cafe con leche and a sweet roll where locals were stopping for their breakfast on the way to work. It was a great morning stroll. In the afternoon, I strolled in the other direction, but I won't go into detail. Suffice it to say that I had a day to waste, but it was no waste at all. I strolled, I got accustomed to the time change, and I enjoyed the Spanish culture. It was a great day. Take the time, go for a stroll!
Tomorrow I work. I must walk to meet my new employer and the other teachers and students at 1:15 p.m. Then we board a chartered bus for the 4 hour trip to Caceres where the immersion school will be conducted. I am eager for the experience. I will be out of touch, however, for the next ten days, so please forgive my absence. There is no internet access at the hotel (there is, but only for use by the hotel), so I will not be writing for a while. That is why the first page of my journal was so extensive. I figure that if you read slowly, you won't even know I was gone. See you in ten days. Hasta luego.
I had a fun evening last night with a couple of great experiences that I can relate. First, I found the restaurant/bar that I enjoyed so much on a prior visit to Madrid. It is called the Neru and specializes in food from the Asturia region of Spain, which is south of San Sebastien. I had two small glasses of wine and the tapas that were served free with each drink order.
The first tapa was the potato omelet that is so common here. It was served on a piece of toast. Then, I was served a piece of bread with blue cheese spread on it. Both were delicious. The bar was a beehive of activity with many locals discussing the news of the day, etc. The restaurant is downstairs and didn't open until after 8:00 p.m., but in the meantime everybody from the area seemed to gather at the bar to talk.
I spent almost all the time talking to an old man (he was even older than I). He didn't speak English, so we struggled to understand one another. I understood a few words that he was saying, but he sure thought that I understood a lot more. We joked with the bartender, whom I asked if he spoke English. The old man says, "He barely speaks Spanish," or something to that effect, and we all laughed. Then every time the bartender came near I would ask him something in English and we would all laugh again. I guess that you had to be there and have a glass or two of wine to enjoy the experience.
The other experience that evening was not such a pleasant one. Before I reached the bar, I stopped in a Farmacia (pharmacy in English) to get some Ibuprofen. When I came out of the Farmacia, which was on a back street, not far from the Plaza Mayor, a big guy with a map of Madrid approached me. He asked in Spanish if I knew how to get to Gran Via, which is probably the only thing that I did know. As I started to direct him, another, smaller man in a blue topcoat flashed a badge and ordered us to produce passports. I was immediately suspicious and instead of getting the passport out of the security bag beneath my belt, I said that I didn't understand. Then he said, would you rather speak English and, of course, I said yes. His English was not too good. He claimed to be with the Policia Tourista or some such thing protecting tourists from pickpockets, etc. He again demanded to see both of our passports. While the other guy reached in his coat to get his, I said, "no lo tengo." (I don't have it.) He asked where it was and I said back at the hotel. He said, which hotel, and when I told him the name of the little hostal, I think that he lost a little interest. But, he whipped out a cell phone and said, what is your room number? I told him and he pretended to talk to someone on the phone (my hotel never got a call, which is what I suspected). He then asked for another form of identification and although I had my wallet with a driver's license, I said, "I will show it to you in the Farmacia. I will not show it to you here. I do not know you." And I started to walk to the Farmacia, which was only a couple of doors away. He said, "wait, aren't you two together?" and when we said no, he said that we could go.
The other guy left in a hurry and the little guy with the badge warned me again about pickpockets and pointed in the direction of the other guy. I walked slowly away, thanking him for helping me, but I know that the two of them were trying to rip me off. They would have grabbed the wallet out of my hands and run away had I complied with his request.
As I walked around the corner to the bar where I had so much fun, I was really proud of myself. I stayed calm, refused to let the badge bully me into compliance and warded off the criminals. I had my mace in my pocket, but never thought about it until later. If it had become physical, I'm sure that I would have remembered it.
The whole thing only lasted a few minutes, but it could have been an expensive problem. I only had about $30 in my pants pocket, so they wouldn't have gotten much if they had pick pocketed me. If I had given them my wallet, they would have gotten no money, because I only keep pictures and ID in there. Had I gotten out my security pouch, however, they could have gotten a couple of hundred dollars in Euros, and maybe $50 American as well as both of my credit cards and my passport. It was another great lesson on why you keep all of your valuables under your clothes and to always be aware of your surroundings.
OK, I'm back! I hope that you haven't lost interest while I was away. Let me tell you about the 10 days of English at the national parque at Monfrague:
I met some of the group at the assigned street corner in Madrid on Friday afternoon and we got acquainted on the four hour ride to the four star hotel that would house the English sessions. A large segment of the group, especially the Spaniards, drove there by themselves. I had a private room and bath, which was fine. The three meals a day were adequate, but most people, especially the Spaniards, were complaining about the quality of the food. Wine was served with lunch and dinner, but the quality of the vino tinto was not very good either. Suffice it to say that I survived the meals quite well, since I am not too difficult to please. I even enjoyed the mortilla, blood sausage, which was served on top of a bowl of garbanzo beans for lunch one day. The English teaching was interesting and went very well. I actually did little teaching, except for correcting pronunciation and suggesting some vocabulary changes. The idea was to immerse the Spaniards in 16 hours a day of English spoken by native speakers. The Spaniard business executives, all at different conversational levels, had studied English for a number of years, but had not gotten a chance to dialogue with native speakers. Native speaking English folks are hard to find in Madrid and these executives were very timid about their capabilities in the new language. There was a rotation, so that every hour I began a conversation with a new Spaniard until the cycle was completed and then it was started again.
After a couple of days of instruction, with participants making evening presentations to the entire group until dinner started at 9:00 p.m., things were going too smoothly. It was then that I started to develop the earache. It was excruciating enough to send me away from the dinner table to seek relief, although it came and left quite suddenly. It awoke me at night several times and finally I decided that I needed to see a dentist. An appointment was made for me at the village of Trujillo, which was a 30 minute car ride away. The dentist took an x-ray, but found nothing wrong in the three teeth in which I thought the problem might lie. He prescribed a mild antibiotic and a pain pill and I returned to the hotel hoping for relief.
The relief was not to come and two days later, after biting on a piece of crust, which finally pinpointed the problem, I was taken to another dentist in a different town, Placensia. I was taken there because the Trujillo dentist had no openings. The new guy x-rayed the newly found tooth, found no problems with the nerves under the crown, but identified a bone infection in the bone under the nerves. He prescribed stronger antibiotics and pain pills and sent me on my way, telling me that we wouldn't know until later if the tooth could be saved. Trust me, after watching the two dentists give me x-rays without putting a lead apron on me, and not leaving the room themselves, I will save any work that needs to be done for the specialists in Madrid. One of these dentists held the film in my mouth by hand with a clamp while the picture was taken. The pain has subsided, but I have a feeling that the endodontists in Madrid will be getting a new patient in a week or two. The whole dental experience has been very interesting.
The 15 Spaniards, 15 Anglos, and the company's representatives got along extremely well and we said our good-byes only after exchanging addresses and emails all around. Kent, a New York born, former professor of literature, who is now an MBA business consultant living in Germany, drove from Dusseldorf to Madrid to take part in the class. His wife is president of Johnson and Johnson, Europe, and he will also teach in the February class. He wanted to go to Portugal on his way home, because he had never been there. I decided to accompany him and we were joined by Patricia, a turkey farmer from the Ozarks who is a pretty tough, old bird herself and willing to tag along with two men. This was the third time that Patricia had participated in one of these classes, but she will return to Arkansas before the next class. I will discuss our encounters in Portugal in my next update.
Thursday, January 24, 2002
The three of us, Kent, Patricia, and I drove to Merida, Spain, site of many beautiful Roman ruins, including a theatre which is able to hold 6000 spectators. I also went to a Farmacia so that I could pick up an additional four-day supply of amoxycillin for my tooth. No prescription necessary, the pharmacist filled my verbal request with nary a blink.
We then drove on the beautiful, four-lane highway all the way to Lisbon with very few cars on the road. Traffic increased as we approached Lisbon on Sunday afternoon, but we had no trouble navigating straight through to Cascais, my favorite fishing village at the end of the Lisbon train line along the ocean to the tip of Portugal's nose. We quickly registered at the little hotel where I stayed last year and drove along the ocean road, crowded with local Sunday sightseers. We stopped for Sunday dinner in a crowded restaurant where the seafood was delicious, but expensive. After dinner, we continued 20 minutes more to Cabo de Roca, Europe's westernmost point, to watch the sunset.
It was great to hear the exclamations of appreciation for the beauty of the Portuguese coast. Kent thought that it reminded him of the California coast along U.S. route 1, near where he lived for several years, while he worked with the area's venture capitalists. Patricia kept exclaiming about how much she loved the ocean. I guess they don't have an ocean in the Ozarks, do they? The ocean was rolling tremendous waves with the approaching storm that gave us two days of rain, which began the following morning.
We spent Monday dodging raindrops in the nearby mountain village of Sintra, which is a heavily visited tourist Mecca, featuring the ancient village and a castle at the mountain's peak. Both Kent and Patricia love to window shop, which is a different type of recreation than I enjoy. I endured long enough to make it to the lunch break in a little local restaurant where we enjoyed a delicious meal.
The late afternoon and early evening hours were spent in Lisbon traffic jams after Kent ignored my advice to go back to Cascais and take the train to the nation's capital. We got pretty wet in the rain as we tried to see a few of the sights before Kent's morning departure back to Germany. The evening was spent dining in one of my favorite restaurants in Barrio Alto where we enjoyed a great Cataplana. A Cataplana is a Portuguese seafood stew, not unlike a French Bouillabaisse with fish, shrimp, clams, etc. We were all thrilled with the meal and the friendly service. Two bottles of wine to accompany the meal and many appetizers left each of us with a bill of $20. Portugal is great!!
In the morning, Kent left for Germany and Patricia and I left for Seville on the bus, or so we thought when we left the hotel.
The hotel clerk attempted to call the bus station to obtain the schedule for Seville, but was unable to make contact due to a constantly busy telephone. We left anyway, hoping for the best. We took the 30-minute train ride to Lisbon, and then caught a cab to the bus station. It was there that we learned that buses to Seville only depart on alternate days and today wasn't one of them. I then asked about a bus to Faro in the southern Algarve section of Portugal. We could get to Faro, but there was no connecting bus until the following morning. That is what we decided to do, so after a five-hour bus ride we spent the night in Faro.
We awoke early to catch the 8:10 a.m. bus to Seville, which was no problem since our hotel was almost next door to the bus station. The bus stopped in every village between Faro and Huelva, Spain, so the ride to Seville was another five-hour trip in a pouring rain. But, here we are, a day later in beautiful Seville. Patricia took a tour bus ride this morning, while I sat outside at a cafe in the sun for one and a half hours, reading the USA Today, thirsty for knowledge of home. It is in the mid-60's today. She is still out there somewhere and I am hoping that she can find her way back to the new hotel, which we moved to this morning. Her room was ready, but mine still needed cleaning. So, I will return after completing this dissertation to unpack my bag again. We settled for a hotel just to get out of a pouring rain yesterday, but have moved down the street to a wonderful, little hostel where we got rooms for $20/night. This place is much cleaner and prettier and we are both a lot happier. I will leave now to unpack again. I'll update you when something interesting happens. Adios.
Monday, January 28, 2002
It was a quiet weekend in Seville, with great weather and temperatures reaching into the 60's. I saw youngsters without shirts paddling in a pedal boat on the Guadilquivir River yesterday. There were also quite a few young girls wearing sleeveless blouses and no jackets in the heat of the day. I think that they were pushing the season a little, however. The temperature is forecast to reach 68 degrees today, so it is very nice.
I think that I must say a few words about the change to the Euro being made by all European Market countries except Denmark, Sweden, and Great Britain. Portugal and Spain are doing a fantastic job and have made the adjustment very rapidly. When I first arrived, eight days after the advent of the Euro, people were struggling with the identification of coins, changing from pesetas or escudos (Portugal) to Euros, and the general problem of using two currencies. The old currencies are legal tender until the end of the transition period on the last day in February. It was very evident that they were confused and pained expressions, too much change, and other problems occurred pretty regularly. One cafe that I went into in Madrid posted a sign that read, "Clients who pay in Euros will get Euros in change. Clients who pay in pesetas will get pesetas in change."
Today, only 21 days later, the changeover is pretty complete. Clerks will closely examine the coins to be sure of the denominations, but that is the only problem still remaining and that won't last long. Older folks are having a little more trouble, but I have seen some carrying calculators so they can compute each transaction. Now, I never get pesetas in change and have seen no signs like the one earlier in the month in Madrid. It has been an unbelievable task for these folks, but it has made traveling from country to country a whole lot easier. Can you imagine the troubles that would arise if we had to completely change our monetary system? Do you remember the hassle that ensued when we were going to change to the metric system? This has been a very impressive changeover.
I talked to a British man at dinner the other night and he thinks that the British won't be far behind in switching to the Euro. He says that as soon as it starts costing the British money, like when the Euro rises and the pound falls, the British will demand that the government change. I do believe that Sweden and Denmark will change quickly, seeing the success that other countries have had. It is pretty hard to predict what the proud British will do, however. My hat is off to these folks for the unbelievably smooth job they have done to make the conversion.
Today, I go to an endodontist to get my tooth evaluated. I have experienced no further pain, but somehow, it just doesn't feel right. I don't want to cause another problem when I return to teach English again, so I will have the thing taken care of here. I will keep you posted on the process.
Patricia has left to return to Madrid and then to Arkansas, so I am alone now. It was nice to have someone to talk to at mealtime, but it will be nice to be alone again, too. No one to meet, no discussions in English of where to eat, no pressures of time, nothing to do. Sounds boring doesn't it? It happens in great weather, though, and I am now completely immersed in the Spanish language, which will make me grow, I'm certain.
I will keep you posted, if I can keep from dozing too long during my siestas, which happen to be a wonderful custom. I recommend them highly. Hasta luego!
Thursday, January 31, 2002
It is now 48 hours or so since my root canal and I can discuss the Spanish dental procedures with you. On my first visit to the modern dental office, I was ushered into the examination room and met with the dentist, Dr. Manuel Garcia Calderon, who was quite possibly the most handsome man that I have seen in Europe (relax ladies, I took his picture and it is on the way home to be displayed in my photo section). I was a little concerned about sanitation when I saw the galvanized bucket holding tools in the corner, hanging from a pulley and a winch of some kind. Sensing my concern, the doctor assured me that they clean the tools with the finest vinagre after every patient, which eased my mind a little. Again, they took x-rays of the top and bottom teeth, while the pretty technicians leaned over me holding the film in a clamp in my mouth. I enjoyed the proximity of the pretty technicians (Olga and Sandra), but I worried about their exposure. Later, they gave me another x-ray on a machine that traveled in an arc around my jaw and scanned my whole mouth. I have never had that kind of x-ray and it seemed like a very modern process. The technicians left the room for this photo, so I felt a little better.
The dentist spoke very little English and asked me to slow down as I explained my problem, but as his confidence grew, he became pretty comfortable speaking English with me. He agreed with the dentist in Placensia and said that the infection had gotten worse, although I felt really good at the time. He said that he thought that a root canal would help with the pain.
He explained that he wasn't licensed to do root canals (I think that he may have been an orthodontist), but that another dentist in the office could do it tomorrow, if they changed their schedules a little bit. He also told me that he had played golf that morning and that he would ride his 750 cc BMW cycle to work the next day so that I could see it. Nice bike!
I arrived the next day, feeling great, to have Dr. Rosario Compagni Morales do the work. What a shock to find that Dr. Rosario was a pretty woman and a very skilled endodontist. Men, her picture is on the way to my photo album, too. When you are a tourist, you can talk almost anyone into posing.
Actually, I must tell you before I describe the surgery, that there was no bucket of tools soaking in vinagre. The office looked every bit as modern and professional as any that I have been to in our country. I made that part up to create an atmosphere of tension.
The dentist and Ester, her hygienist, did a very professional job and the only discomfort I felt was from keeping my mouth wide open for an hour. After the Novocain shots, there wasn't a bit of pain. She didn't even ask if anything hurt before starting to drill; she was that confident of the effectiveness of the couple of shots she had given. She finished drilling through the crown, taking out the nerves, filling the hole with antiseptic or whatever, and closing the crown permanently - job done. She gave me a prescription for a pain pill, if I had any pain, she said, and I left still feeling pretty good.
I want to tell you, though, that after the Novocain wore off, I spent 24 hours in excruciating pain. I don't know if it was from the root canal or if the infection just got upset because we stirred up its environment again. Suffice it to say that the 600 mg of Ibuprofen that she had prescribed didn't dent the pain. All of the Spanish folks that I talked to seriously recommended vino tinto (red wine) as a painkiller, so I obliged and found them right. I didn't eat much solid food yesterday, and drank red wine for lunch and dinner, but this morning I am feeling better. I hope that this episode is behind me. I have now had six root canals. The first four were without pain and I wondered what all of the fuss was about from folks who commiserated with me. The last two have been with great pain and I now know why everyone sympathizes so much.
There you have it: a foreign dental experience! In a day or two, it will be a haircut. It is pretty difficult to have this much fun at home, except maybe at funerals.
Saturday, February 2, 2002
It has been 36 hours or so since I have taken anything for pain, not counting the medicinal red wine taken with lunch and dinner. The pain seems to be totally gone and I am grateful to the Spanish dental profession for helping out with what turned into a major health problem.
Now, the haircut story, but what kind of story could there be with a simple haircut? I submit the following, each and every word truthful with nothing added for local color or to increase suspense:
EARS!! It has been said that the ears are the last things to stop growing and probably even grow an entire lifetime. I can now verify that information. Each of us has this confidential, little understanding with our barbers and beauticians to make us look better. For some of us it is hair color, for others it is covering bald spots, for me, it is hiding my ears. My barber and I have the understanding that it is necessary to leave the hair above my ears full, so that the size of my ears is not exposed for all the world to see. This has been true since the flattop era of high school and college days, when tightly cropped hair above my hairs made me look like a taxi, with both front doors open, coming toward you down the street.
Getting your hair cut by someone with whom you cannot communicate your secret, barber-client understanding leads to the problem I now face. It began when I decided not to use elaborate hand gestures to communicate the importance of hiding my protruding ears with this new barber. At the time, I couldn't even remember the word for ears; and how often does that word come up in a normal conversation, anyway?
It seemed like a modern hair salon, serving both men and women with eight or ten chairs and both male and female barbers. I decided to leave myself in the hands of the very nicely coiffed barber, who had just finished stylishly cutting a young man's hair. What the heck, I don't know anybody in this country and hair grows back, right?
With no apparent regard for the hairstyle, which I had when I sat down, the guy cut and just kept cutting. Spraying water to wet the hair, which is just like what my barber does at home, he just kept cutting, but without the secret understanding. I should note that with my glasses off, I am blind as a bat and unable to see anything in the omnipresent, facing mirror, so I couldn't see to stop him.
I secretly hoped that he had produced a new "do" that would take many years off my image. He handed me my glasses and the hand mirror so I could examine his handiwork. EARS, all that I could see were the EARS!! My God, they had continued growing!! They were much bigger than during the flattop era. Upon closer inspection, I realized that he had ignored the uncommunicated, confidential, barber-client understanding and cropped the hair above my ears to "buzz length." He had also combed my hair straight back and painstakingly dried each section, so that the ears were even more pronounced. I retired to my room, hoping that a shower and some personal attention to restyling could compensate. Wrong!
I don't think that it is my imagination, but now I hear the Spanish word, "orejas,"(ears) wherever I go. People are talking about them when they pass me. This morning, as I sat reading the paper in the bright sunshine, the most popular tables were behind me, where the ears had provided shade. Immediately after the haircut and before I had restyled, I asked a store clerk next door to take a picture for posterity, although no one will be permitted to see it until my passing. The hair will grow out and, trust me, I won't return home until it does. Until then, I will endure the embarrassment and the popularity in sunny spots to continue to learn about the Spanish culture. What in the world could happen next? Stay tuned.
Although still a serious candidate for ear reduction and ear tuck surgery, I have decided to go on with my life. I figure that there are many others with heavier crosses to bear and eventually this problem will disappear with new growth. The problem certainly didn't interfere with my social life last night and that is the subject of my next update, which comes prematurely before the tale is forgotten.
Honest to God, if I weren't living these things, I wouldn't believe them myself. Unfortunately, I am not good enough to create these tales fictionally; I have to live them. While writing to my wife on the internet, yesterday, I developed a strong craving for sushi. I usually get this craving monthly at home and find a restaurant that can satisfy my hunger. This time, I remembered the Japanese restaurant that I had passed during one of my trips on the public buses here. It was about 8:00 p.m. when I boarded a bus that I thought might take me near the restaurant that I had seen.
The bus was pretty full of people returning home from shopping and I sat next to an old man who tried to help me find the restaurant. We didn't see any, but he was delighted to help me after I responded to his question by telling him that I was an American. I saw a warmth that I am not always accustomed to in this country toward Americans, although perhaps people think that I am British whom they do not care for very much. After he exited the bus, his place was taken by a woman in her 30’s who explained that there was a Japanese restaurant near her bus stop and she would take me there. It is amazing how helpful people are almost anywhere in the world when you need a hand. She was walking to another bus stop and the Japanese restaurant that I had seen was right there at her next bus stop. I thanked her and walked into the Restaurant. It was now 8:40 p.m. and the restaurant was not yet open, although the front door was ajar. It usually didn't open until 9:00 or 9:30, the young employees told me. I told them that I would return, fully expecting to do so.
I decided to walk up the street and look for a bar to have a drink, a tapa, or both. I ended up finding the first shopping center that I have seen in Seville. The place was packed with people and in the center of the large, open air lobby was a portable ice rink, full of skaters. The center of the rink was water, since the warm air wasn't compatible with the ice, but it didn't stop the enthusiastic skaters from buzzing around the oval. I watched for a while and headed back to the restaurant. I walked past a bar that I had passed minutes earlier, when it had a few people sitting at outside tables. It was now packed with people inside and out, eating tapas. The thought of the sushi quickly left me, since I know that the most important characteristic to look for in finding a good restaurant is a lot of people.
I took a stool from a woman who was just leaving and she spoke a few words of English, identifying me as American to the bartender. The bartender went overboard with hospitality, recommending that I try the rosemary encrusted, roasted pork ribs. I had three as a tapa to accompany my Vodka tonic. I needed a break from all of the red wine. The ribs were great, as were the three, small pieces of grilled pork loin that he recommended next. The third tapa, which completely ended my hunger for the night and wiped out any remaining thoughts of sushi, was a large, delicious grilled calamari. After saying that I would return, I paid the bill and headed back to the bus stop.
The remainder of the story I attribute to my lifelong friend, Danny, who has modeled a "seize the moment" philosophy for my entire life and especially during all of our winter golfing trips to Puerto Rico. Many times, I get into strange situations, ready to quickly extricate myself, and then I think, "What would Danny do in this situation?" and I decide to go with the flow and get involved. Well, you had to know the philosophy before you know why I reacted like I did when three elderly women in evening gowns with shawls over their shoulders approached me and asked in Spanish, "Do you know where the Mambo Discothèque is located?"
I started to reply that I had no idea and that I spoke little Spanish, when I remembered that I had walked past a sign that said "Baile Mambo," which I thought was a Spanish dancing school. Now realizing that it was the place they were looking for, I started giving them directions. Then, Danny's philosophy hit and I said, "Come with me." I walked them the two blocks to the disco and they invited me in. I was curious to see what kind of disco these ladies would be visiting, so I followed.
You won't believe it, I swear I don't make this stuff up; I walked right into a senior citizen disco. More than 50 people from ages 60 to 80 were dancing, sitting in sofas, and enjoying the drink that went with the cover charge. Most were women in their 70’s, wearing low-cut gowns and shawls and missing some teeth.
I watched in amazement as the elderly enthusiasts, with smiles beaming on their faces, matched the throbbing of the music using bodies which carried the weight of their years. I should have had this on videotape, but even then, you wouldn't believe it. I barely do myself, but it was really enjoyable. This was, quite probably, the only disco in the world where I could still be a bouncer. There wasn't anybody in the place that I couldn't handle.
I was the new man on the block and I sat in a love seat near the dance floor where almost every dowager in the place danced past me to see if I was interested. I kept fighting off their advances: they didn’t seem to be put-off by my ears. I knew I had to show these ladies that I was just as “with it” as they were. I finally accepted a dance and we boogied our way to the center of the dance floor. All the women stood still and watched in awe as I shook my booty!
Disappointing all the other ladies waiting to dance with me, I finished my drink and returned to the bus stop, only to find that the buses weren't running from that stop this late at night. It was 11:50 p.m. and I asked directions to center city and walked home, arriving at 12:50 p.m. I walked all of the way, seeing many people up and about, never once fearing for my safety. It is amazing just how safe it is here. They are doing something right and perhaps, just perhaps, it is the complete absence of guns. I won't go into my handgun control lecture here, but it surely is a different, safer environment without them.
Story over! I had a wonderful evening, dining and doing things very unexpected. Thanks, Danny, for the philosophy that permitted it. What will today bring? I have no earthly idea. Hasta luego.
Today is my last day in Sevilla, after a wonderful stay where my tooth has healed, my Spanish has improved slightly, and I have met some nice people. I am healthy, rested, laundered, coiffed, danced out, and ready for the second class of Spanish students. Tomorrow morning I leave on the 9:00 a.m. bullet train for Madrid, where I will catch the bus with a new group of students and teachers for the trip to the hotel in Monfrague National Park.
On Tuesday, I took a day trip to the old Spanish beach city of Cadiz, which is on the Mediterranean. I enjoyed the visit, got some sun while walking the promenade overlooking the beach, and exhausted myself with the miles of walking. Where is Leonardo when I really need him? I miss him, not just for the transportation, but also for the companionship. Despite his Italian heritage, he listened when I spoke in English to him and he was smart enough not to argue with me.
This city has been great and I have been able to make a number of observations while watching the many tourists who visit. I will share them with you, to help enlighten:
I leave now for the 10 day teaching session, after which I travel to Tenerife to see my wife and my son's family. Perhaps the grandchildren and the family members will help cure the homesick blues that I occasionally battle. I will try to update you from Tenerife in the Canary Islands. I will have a lot to report, no doubt. Adios.
Wednesday, February 20, 2002
I am writing from Tenerife, where the temperature is in the 70's and the sun is shining brightly. I arrived here after a two and a half hour flight from Madrid on a charter flight full of Spanish teenagers. The teens were well behaved and inexperienced enough in air flight to cheer take-off, landing, and every bump along the way, making the trip a lot of fun. It was great to see my wife, my son, his wife, and my two excited grandchildren waiting for me at the airport. There is nothing like an excited grandchild to make a guy feel pretty darned important.
The second English program went very well and I would like to think that I helped the Spanish speakers learn a little more about the English language. In both programs I met some wonderful Anglo and Spanish participants. We will no doubt keep in touch for many years to come. The management of the program was wonderful; going overboard to ensure that both Anglos and Spanish benefited from the time spent working together. I commend them for running an efficient program while not forgetting the human element involved. The first time I did the dentist thing. This time several participants needed the care of doctors and the on-site managers attended to all needs in a concerned and caring manner. Traveling to a foreign land to participate in such a program is a matter of putting yourself in someone else's hands. These were caring hands and I appreciated their efforts.
Now, it is time to rest and get tanned while enjoying the time with my family. On Saturday, however, the family heads back to Frankfurt and my wife follows that with a flight home. I will spend a couple of extra days here, before departing on Monday for the flight to Barcelona. After that, I guess I will go where the winds blow warm. If it is warm in Rome, I'll head that way. If it is too cold there, it will be on to Sicily, although if the weatherman says it is cold there, too, I will not hesitate to return to Seville, where it will be gorgeous. I will try to keep in touch as the geography allows. In the meantime, hasta luego.
I am writing from Tenerife on my last day in the Canary Islands. Tomorrow morning, at 7:10 a.m., it is off to Barcelona. Tenerife's weather has been all that was advertised. It will be difficult to leave the temperatures in the mid-70's and return to the continent, where spring has not yet officially arrived and the temperatures hover between the mid-50's and 60's. The continent holds more allure for me, however. Tenerife has little more than the weather and some unbelievable volcanic topography to recommend it. The place reminds one of what Ocean City, Maryland, would be without zoning laws. Streets and highways are lined with high-rise hotels and resorts and everywhere there are glitzy tourist traps of restaurants, souvenir shops, and bars. It is pretty hard to find any real Canary Island culture, except in the interior as one climbs toward the top of the volcano.
For all of my male friends out there with testosterone buildup, however, the place is full of German, British, Italian, and Russian tourists, most of whom practice the custom of sunbathing topless!! A lesser man would spend the day by the pool or the beach ogling the sweet young things, as well as their mothers and grandmothers, many of whom are topless. I, however, have spent most of my time at the local library researching the culture of these islands. It is fascinating.
The nights here are a little crazy, probably like Ocean City during the summer time, with live music blaring out of most of the open-air bars. Many of the entertainers are visible and performing very near the street, so that a stroll can get you a sampling of the evening's entertainment. A short stroll and a quick sandwich made an evening for me last night. I was tired from the long day at the library.
I will update again from Barcelona after a few days to get the lay of the land there. Until then, hasta la vista!
Friday, March 1, 2002
I am writing from Barcelona, which has made my list of the five most beautiful, large cities that I have ever visited. From its high hills to its beaches, from its wide, tree-lined streets to its gorgeous plazas, and from its hectic La Rambla to the Gothic old-town with its narrow streets, this is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It will be even prettier when the leaves begin coming out on the tens of thousands of sycamore (they call them plane trees), whose buds are just swollen to the bursting point. This place is gorgeous, the weather has been terrific and the architecture is amazing.
The other cities on my list of top five include San Francisco, Rome, Paris, and Buenos Aires. I did not see much of Buenos Aires and haven't visited Rio, yet, so there is room for change at the top of my list. Barcelona will not move from the top five, however. I have been wearing a golf shirt (four days - same shirt) and a windbreaker every day. You will, no doubt, be pleased to hear that the shirt has been changed today in preparation for travel.
My hostal room is near the beginning of La Rambla, the long, pedestrian walkway down the center of one of the main streets of Barcelona. It is on this street that locals and tourists by the thousand stroll each day, past mimes, flower stands, musicians, newsstands, restaurants, and outside pet markets, specializing in tropical birds and singing canaries. The smells and the sounds are electric, charged with human activity.
The criminals and prostitutes work the same area, so one must be a cautious traveler, which I am. I did have a great conversation with a 25 year-old, conservatively dressed, black prostitute from Sierra Leone, but that is a story for another time. Suffice it to say that I wasn't interested in what she was selling.
I will return to this city in April with my wife and our friends, so I did a little reconnoitering to see what I might show them when we get here. I spent one day riding the tourist bus around this magnificent city, marveling at the masterpieces of the famous modernist architect, Antoni Gaudi. His work, including the famous, unfinished cathedral, La Sagrada Familia, is absolutely breathtaking. This city has the finest architecture that I have seen in any city in the world and is something of which they are justifiably proud. One could spend a week here, just studying the fascinating architecture.
I had visited the Salvador Dali and the Picasso Art Museums on past visits here, so that was not necessary this time. I did visit Gaudi's famous Park Guell and that was a fantastic experience, too. Well, I am gushing here, but this city merits the hyperbole.
Now, it is on to Roma, the eternal city. I am eager to see the antiquity of the Roman capital again and to eat some of the spectacular food. I have been dining on Spanish cuisine for two months and I am ready for a change. Incidentally, I have been eating mostly fish, with little red meat in my daily diet. The oil on salads and bread has all been olive oil, too, and I can tell that my weight has dropped. I would guess as much as five pounds. The extensive amount of walking everyday helps, too. At home, like everyone else, I drive around until I find the space closest to the donut shop or shopping mall, so that I don't have to walk very far. Here, I'll bet that I average five miles a day more than I walk at home. It gives me some idea what is necessary in diet and exercise to keep my weight down, although I have been unable to maintain this routine in past attempts at home.
I am leaving for Rome on the slow train with two stops in Cerbere, France, and Ventimiglia, Italy, near Monaco before arriving in Rome 20 hours later. It should be pretty country in the daytime, as it travels along the Italian Riviera. I get a sleeping compartment from Cerbere to Ventimiglia (with 5 other people, I'm sure). I am fasting today to eliminate whatever effect food may have on nighttime flatulence and snoring. It would be terrible to awake in the morning and find that you were alone because strangers couldn't stand to sleep with you.
I arrive sometime tomorrow afternoon, just in time to try to find the convent near the Coliseum that the Wall Street Journal reporter who interviewed me recommended for lodging. She interviewed me for an upcoming article she is doing on the English immersion program in which I taught.
I may be out of touch for a few days, as I travel, hunt lodging, and scout around for an Internet source. Until then, Ciao.
Buon Giorno from Roma!! I arrived in Rome yesterday afternoon after a tedious 21.5 hour train ride. When they said a slow train, they meant it. I traveled in a regular train car to Cerbere, France, which is just over the border with Spain. There, at 11:30 p.m., I entered a sleeping coach that had compartments with space for four travelers, two-high on each side of the tiny rooms. My berth was one of the lower ones, thank God, since there was no ladder to climb to the top bunks. Fortunately, two, young, Indian men made the climb to the top bunks. Across from me, believe it or not, was a giant of a man from Puerto Rico. Who would believe this: an entire train compartment in France and everybody spoke English.
The Puerto Rican, who spoke English as well as I and who was also born in New Jersey, talked a long time with me about my many trips to his island. He owns a restaurant in Ponce and takes two, 20-day trips a year traveling alone, because his wife does not like to travel. His pregnant wife was running the 50-employee restaurant while he traveled around Spain. I don't know how he gets away with it!
Fortunately, or unfortunately if I had been a light sleeper, the Puerto Rican snored like a trooper and had a case of sleep apnea, which made the snoring even worse. He said that my snoring was so light that it couldn't have bothered anyone and he must have been right, because when I arose at 6:30 a.m., the other three were still sleeping. I used the travel toothbrush that I had placed in my coat so that I didn't have to open my backpack, washed my face, and I was ready to go. I also used the last of the bottled water to take my morning pills from the tiny, plastic case that I carried in my jeans. Fasting made it unnecessary to spend much time in the train's WC (water closet), which was, as usual, tiny and too dirty for comfort. At least I had planned well for the arduous trip.
I stood watching the sun come up over the French Riviera at Antibes and Cannes until the Puerto Rican joined me. I feel bad that I didn't get his name, but I gave him my card so that he can contact me. He loves to travel as much as I do and he marveled at the beauty of the Riviera. He and the Indians disembarked at Nice and I stayed on the train through Monaco to Ventimiglia, Italy, where I boarded an Italian train after eating a light breakfast at a cafe across from the train station.
I was alone for exactly one stop in a beautiful compartment with seating for six people. At San Remo, two, young, Italian mothers joined me with their sons, ages five and seven. We trained down the Italian Riviera and I enjoyed listening to the musical, Italian language for several stops before engaging the women in conversation. After that, I had a great time trying to communicate with the mothers and playing with the kids, showing them how to hambone, whistle, and talk like Donald Duck, like all grandfathers do. The women were from Rome and spoke a tiny bit of English, which helped me learn where I should hunt for a room.
I had obtained the names of two convents that rented rooms, one from the Wall Street Journal reporter and one off of the Internet. After arriving in Rome, following eight hours of travel with the mothers and kids, I taxied to Trastevere, hoping to find a room in the convent that I got off of the Internet. In my travels, every time I deal with taxi drivers I feel like I have been robbed and Rome was no different. The first driver wanted $50 to take me to the convent and the second one wanted $30. Of course, I took the second offer (there are no meters), but felt after arrival that $15 would have been fairer.
I am now safely ensconced in the convent, which will cost me about $54/day and includes breakfast. I mention the cost so that you might see how inexpensively one can travel on the continent. The last time that my wife and I were in Rome, we stayed in a small hotel that cost us more than $100/day. This is an expensive stop for me on this year's trip, but the room is immaculate and has two, tiny, single beds and a complete bath. All floors are tiled; there is a stocked mini-frig in the room and a free, electric shoeshine machine outside my door.
The place is no longer a convent, although this morning I got off of the world's smallest, slowest elevator on the wrong floor and walked right into a chapel. The building is owned by the Vatican, which has converted it into a hotel. I wonder if they could afford the cost of renovation or whether they had to take a home equity loan?
There are a few handicaps to staying in a Vatican owned, former convent, however. First, there is no TV in the room, which is refreshing. Secondly, there is a curfew; I have to be in by 1:00 a.m. Lastly, I must attend morning prayers in the chapel. Well, I don't really have to attend any prayers, but the other things are true. I should probably do a little praying after surviving the train ride, however.
Last night, after showering and changing clothes, I asked at the desk for a decent, nearby restaurant and they sent me to a real winner, not 100 yards away from the front door of the convent. Trastevere is noted for its restaurants. I sat beside the burning fireplace and watched as the place began to overflow with locals. This is always the sign that you have found the right place and I had. I have been criticized for talking about food so much, but that is one of the joys of foreign travel. Quickly, here is what I ate (remember the fasting): first, an antipasti sampler that included pickled artichoke, grilled eggplant, herbed, rosemary mushrooms, and the best roasted red peppers that I have ever eaten. Second, a roasted artichoke (carciofi al judia) which all restaurants seem to be serving this time of year and which the waiter insisted that I try. Then, homemade gnocchi with red peppers and tiny clams. By this time, after consuming half a bottle of red wine, I am pretty full. The waiter prevailed and brought me his favorite dessert, however, a warm apple tart with vanilla ice cream. The meal made the train ride seem worthwhile. I waddled around the block two times to walk off the meal and beat my curfew by about three hours. I was exhausted.
This morning, I was up early and walked across the Tevere River (Tiber River in English) past the Roman Forum, through the Piazza Venezia, pausing at the Trevi Fountain on my way to this Internet Center. The beauty of the city has cemented the fact that the long train ride was essential. I am glad that I made the journey and that the legend came true; the legend about returning to Rome, if you throw a coin in the Trevi Fountain. Needless to say, I threw another coin in the thing today, even if it was the local Chamber of Commerce who started the legend.
I can only stay in the convent for three nights, because the place is full after that, so I will probably move on to Naples. I decided on Naples to reduce the length of the train ride necessary to reach Sicily. There will be no more 21-hour train rides for this cowpoke. Until the next update and with apologies for the lengthy dissertation, Ciao!
One last update from Rome, because I had a great experience today. I leave early tomorrow for a train and ferry ride to Sicily and I'm afraid that I would forget to tell you about it, if I don't share it now.
Always be flexible, I say, and the past couple of days have proven me right in that regard. First, I traveled to the train station to secure a reservation for the ride to Naples, only to find that I could get a straight-through train to Palermo, Sicily, that will take "only" 11 hours. Going straight through will save one day for me on the 6-trip Europass that I purchased when I left home. I bought 6 days of travel over a two-month period on the Europass that I selected from a number of options, a couple of months ago. It required one day to make the 21.5 hour trip to Rome and will take only one more to get to Palermo. If I plan right, I will have one trip left when I return to Madrid to meet my wife and our friends in early April. That last day of travel will be used, if I plan properly, when we go to Seville on the first leg of our Spanish tour together.
The point being that I was flexible and didn't stay with my plan to stop in Napoli when I found out about the "quick" train to Palermo. I demonstrated flexibility again this morning when I returned to St. Peter's Square to mail a roll of film home. Vatican postal services are supposed to be quicker than the Italian and I am only 10 minutes away by bus.
After completing the mailing, I watched on a large TV screen in the square as priests announced in 5 or 6 languages that the Pope would be unable to attend his audience this morning, because of arthritis pain in his knee. His doctor had told him not to move at all, but he was going to watch the audience on TV and when the short service was over, he would appear at his apartment window to bless the assembled crowd. When I was at St. Peter's yesterday, an American couple had shown me a letter they had received inviting them to today's audience. They said that they had to get tickets from the Swiss guards and that I could get them, too. I decided against attending the audience, thinking that I wouldn't enjoy sitting that long. But now, the Pope was going to come to me!!
I stood in the square as close to the window as was possible, without having my view blocked by the marble figures that surround the square. I probably had the best seat in the house, since I could sit on one of the fountains to await the appearance of his holiness. Sure enough, about an hour later and right on schedule, his apartment window opened, his aides draped a maroon banner out the window, and the Pope appeared. I have a lot of respect for this man, who has served his church for 24 years as Pope, and it was difficult watching him struggle to fulfill his responsibilities. Fortunately, the big screen TV also showed his appearance, because even as close as I was, he appeared very small in the window. I found it to be an emotional experience to be blessed (along with the thousands of others) by the head of the Catholic Church. Although I am not Catholic, my mother's family was and I have gained a great respect for the commitment of Catholic believers. I'm sure that many of them would have liked to be standing beside me.
That is it, the experience in Rome and Vatican City has been a good one, but it is time to move on. At my age, one has to keep moving because old age may be catching up. I will update you from Sicily, provided the Internet has reached there. Until then, Arrivederci.
Monday, March 11, 2002
I am writing from an Internet cafe in Catania, Sicily. My exit from Rome was pretty smooth and I got back a little of the money that the taxi bandit got from me on my arrival there. It should have cost $11.00 to get from the train station to the hotel and the guy charged me $30. To return to the station, I took a trolley and a bus and didn't have to pay for either at that busy time of the morning. Then, during the 11.5 hour train ride to Palermo, none of the conductors marked my Europass for another day's journey. That means that I still have five more full days to use the pass. Sometimes the conductors are just not familiar with the Europass system, but I don't feel that it is my job to make sure that they mark my ticket. I have taken my own justice with the Italian transportation system.
The train ride was not all that bad, although 11.5 hours is a long time. Some of the trip was spent traveling along the coast with some gorgeous views, while other times were spent in the many tunnels necessary to get the track to the tip of Italy's boot. Sure enough, they put the train onto a train ferry for a 15 or 20 minute ride to Sicily. I could probably run it in 10 minutes with my little aluminum boat and my 15 horsepower engine. It really is not very far from the mainland to Sicily.
I spent 11 of the hours on the train with a 68 year-old Italian grandmother, who spoke no English, but who spoke a lot. She wanted to talk and I was the only other person in the compartment, so she talked to me. I determined her age, where her brothers and sisters lived in the far away villages of Italy that she pointed to on my map, and that she was visiting a niece near Palermo. The rest of the conversation sounded like it was in a foreign language to me, but I would nod every now and then and that seemed to please her. They had a dining car on the train, so some of the time was spent eating lunch, drinking wine, reading my USA Today, and watching the Italian coast go by.
I took a bus from the train station after dark, ignoring the taxi bandits trying to give me a ride, and checked into a little hotel that would be my home for three nights. The weather was not very good, overcast for much of the three days with a few sprinkles thrown in, and I didn't really get to see much of Palermo. The area called Mondello was beautiful, however, and fortunately the sun was shining when I visited the little fishing village that is part of Palermo. There, I had lunch and watched the fisherman unloading their catches. One of the fishermen had caught a sea turtle, which drew a crowd of spectators, including several policemen. I think that they were waiting for biologists to come to try to help the turtle recover from the fishing hook wounds, so that they could release him. He was a beautiful creature, about four feet in length.
Since Palermo, I have bused to Catania, thinking that I might take the fast ferry to the island of Malta. I have since learned that the ferry only runs on Saturdays this time of year, so have changed my plans again and will head for Taormina tomorrow. I have heard from Sicilian-Americans that Taormina is beautiful, so I thought that I would have a look. I hope that the sun is shining, so that I can see its real beauty. The weather has been warm, but overcast since I have been here. I have only needed a shirt and my unlined windbreaker when walking day or night.
This morning, I walked through a great fish market, where vendors loudly hawked their merchandise, stopping even a tourist like me to convince me to buy their fish. It was very interesting, with considerable bargaining taking place. I noticed that there were mostly men doing the buying at the market, as a matter of fact, I only saw one woman. It was a pretty helter-skelter place and maybe the bargaining and the purchase of fish are not a woman's task.
I will update you as I get the chance on the trip back north. I have noticed that Napoli, Barcelona, and Sevilla all have been experiencing warm, sunny weather; sounds like where I should be. Ciao.
From Napoli after a beautiful, 6.5 hour train/ferry ride from Taormina, Sicily:
I apologize to all the Sicilians who have read my webpage and thought me remiss for not gushing over the beauty of Sicily. Many of my early impressions dealt with the five days of overcast weather that diminished my opinion of Palermo and Catania.
The weather has turned sunny, and warm, however, and I have now been to Taormina, quite probably the most beautiful place that I have ever seen. The village sits high on a cliff, where it has existed for 2,500 years, witnessed by the beautifully preserved Greek Theater, which was there before the time of the Roman Empire. It was there during the time of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the time of the Greek cultural dominance in the area. Its narrow streets and colorful, small piazzas overlook the turquoise Mediterranean Sea and from almost everywhere in town the breathtakingly beautiful, snow-covered, smoke-spewing Mt. Etna can be seen only 17 kilometers away. Couple this with the many flowers blooming in window boxes from apartments and houses all through the town and you have one gorgeous place. If you ever get the opportunity, go to Taormina.
It is now the off-season, of course, but the town still had many tourists. I would hate to see the crowds there in the busy, summer season. It just shows that many times the tourists have it right. These places have been discovered by the tourists because of their beauty and you just have to go. It is nice to pick the off-season, though, so you don't have to deal with the crowds of people.
Now that I have listed the most beautiful large cities that I have visited, I will sometime soon name the most beautiful places. Suffice it to say, Taormina will head the list.
Again, the conductors failed to punch my Europass and I still have 5 trips left over the next 45 days. That gives me all the flexibility I will need for the rest of my travels. After a few days here in Naples, I will probably head for Nice and Provence. I always did want to browse that area a little further. I will update you on the events here in a few days. Ciao!
Monday, March 18, 2002
"Go with the flow," I always say and that flow has brought me to Oberursel, Germany, outside Frankfurt to the home of my second son. My grandson will be celebrating his 3rd birthday tomorrow and my son thought that I should be here to help; grandfathers are great at celebrations.
I got the invitation while in Naples and headed here immediately. It took a day to train to Milan, where I spent the night, feasting on authentic spaghetti pommodoro one last time. I finished off the meal with a chilled glass of limoncello, the sweet, lemon, after-dinner drink famous in this country. It is expensive at home, but worth the price once in a great while. It is absolutely fantastic and inexpensive here, so I indulge almost nightly. I recommend it highly.
The next morning I took a fantastic train ride from Milan, through the Swiss Alps, and into Frankfurt. It was a nine-hour ride, but the spectacular beauty of the snow-covered mountains and lush green valleys made the trip seem a short one.
I have learned a little more about my Europass. It seems that I am responsible for entering the date that I am traveling on my ticket each day. The conductors in southern Italy didn’t check or didn’t know the rule. The conductor from Naples knew and told me that I could be fined $50 for not filling in the date. I immediately read the directions on the ticket, which I had failed to do heretofore, and learned that they can confiscate the entire ticket, fine me up to $100, and collect the full fare for where I am heading. OOPS, thank God they left me off with a warning. I will fill out the date evermore. The conductors in Switzerland and Germany checked the ticket closely, too, so it is good that I am now complying with the terms of my ticket. I did accidentally make up a couple of days to account for the taxi driver rip-off in Rome, however. Things just seem to even out in the world!
I will stay here 3 or 4 days, long enough for the birthday celebration and to say goodbye to my son’s family, who is heading back to Philadelphia for a week on company and personal business. It is a great respite to be able to recharge my batteries with family for a few days.
In discussions with my daughter-in-law, I have come up with a plan for where to go from here. She and my son just love the Burgundy area in France, so I will head there on my way to Provence. First, a mustard sandwich in Dijon, perhaps, then to Beaune for a little of the famous wine. Then, on to Provence, where I will travel through Avignon on the way to Nice. I would like to spend a couple of days in Nice before heading back to Spain to meet my wife and friends.
Actually, I was ready to come home when I heard about all of the wonderful, warm weather that has bathed Pennsylvania recently. Then, I talked to my wife last night only to learn that it was sleeting and snow had fallen during the day. Provence sounded pretty good after that.
I really could use a dose of home, family, and friends right now. Three months is a long time to be away from home. I know that many of my friends have returned from Florida and others are getting ahead of me by practicing on the golf course. I will stay another month, however, and enjoy Europe while I can. I’ll have to catch up with friends when I return and just take my beating on the golf course. I’ll talk to you from somewhere in Provence. Au Revoir.
Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time! It has been 79° and 81 degrees and sunny the last two days in Lisbon. Sevilla has been in the low and middle 70's. I have had temps in the 50's with overcast, sometimes drizzling skies here in Dijon. It is still gorgeous here, however, with flowers and trees blooming and some trees beyond the bloom, in their stage of fresh, light green, leaf growth.
The food has been terrific, as advertised. Not to report too much about the food, lest I be criticized for dining my way around Europe, but lunch today consisted of six escargot, beef burgundy, delicious French bread, and a great plate of local cheeses. Believe it or not, I passed up the dessert that was included with the meal, because there was just no room. The half bottle of house pinot noir was a little disappointing, however.
I have my batteries recharged after the four days with my son and grandchildren and am looking forward to winding my way back to Sevilla in Spain. I only have two more weeks before my wife and friends arrive in Madrid, so that has cheered me as well.
A couple of new things to report:
1. Not to worry, the hair is back. I have resorted to clipping around the ears with the miniature, Swiss Army knife scissors that I carry at all times on the road. The question arises, however, do I trust another European barber, or do I let it grow, get a tattoo, an earring, have my body pierced, and come home a little more bohemian? I will accept input from home on this matter; I don't know enough French to discuss it with anyone here.
2. Last year seemed to be the motorscooter shop tour of Europe, with the frequent breakdowns. This year seems to be the medical office tour of Europe. It doesn't sound pleasant to talk about, but anyone who has developed one can attest to the pain of an ingrown toenail. Yep, you got it; I had to go to a German doctor's office while in Oberursel with an ingrown toenail. After the dentists and endodontists in Spain, I hope that this completes the medical part of my European tour. This visit was interesting and, fortunately, the doctor spoke some English, which he learned on the golf course. I'm telling you, I don't make this stuff up! He put some black salve on the offending toe on two consecutive days and gave me a prescription to do the same thing myself until I get home to see a podiatrist. If it were his toe, he said, he would remove the toenail, but what does he know - he has a 14 handicap.
Tomorrow, I will head for Beaune, only a half-hour's train ride south, but right in the heart of the Burgundy wine area. The local pinot noir wasn't so good, so I will try some more tonight and anticipate some great Burgundies in Beaune. A tout l'heure.
It is cold; so cold that I should be miserable! I had my fleece sweatshirt, with its turtleneck zippered up to the top, under my golf windbreaker as I walked to the train station this morning. I could see my breath on occasion as I walked, but miserable I am not. This place is absolutely gorgeous and I have learned more about wine in this short visit than I had accumulated in all my prior years of study.
There is a walled city of 25,000 inhabitants, surrounded by all of the famous vineyards of the Burgundy region called the Cote d'Or, or the Cote de Beaune. There are flower boxes and flowerbeds full of gorgeous pansies, trees in bloom, narrow streets, beautiful squares, friendly people, and then, there is the food. How could I be miserable?
Saturday, I visited the Hotel Dieu, Hospices of Beaune, built in 1443 by a wealthy man to provide a hospital for the poor. It was used as such until the new, local hospital opened. It is absolutely gorgeous with its multi-colored, ceramic-tile roof and I am sure that the man who provided the resources is smiling in heaven. It seems the vineyards he also gave, for future funding; provide millions of euros each year for the upkeep of the property, the new hospital, and hospitals in several foreign countries. The Catholic nuns who continue to run the hospital are now the largest vineyard owners in the area and have the world's larges grape auction each year at the old hospice.
Yesterday, I took a minivan tour of all of the famous vineyards and villages of this area with a visit to one of the wineries. All wineries were closed since yesterday was Sunday, but our guide had a key to a small vineyard in the Hautes Cotes (the higher hill), where we had a short wine tasting. I didn't need the tour for the tasting, however; I have been tasting at every meal.
The guide was outstanding and had a passion for wine. We stopped on tiny, single-lane roads through the vineyards where he explained that the vines produce for 80 years (although he knows one that is 93 years old), before they are replanted. They lay fallow for three years, and then it takes three more before grapes are produced again. The vineyards are so tightly controlled by the local wine committee that only the eight best bunches of grapes from each vine may be used for wine each year. Using more would get the vineyard owner a major fine and loss of the valuable certification as a Burgundy wine.
It would have been a crime to have passed near this area and not have visited here. It is almost felonious to have visited here without my wife, however. If you need a place to visit, or know someone who needs a unique and beautiful honeymoon destination, this would be the place.
That said, I'm still cold!! It is colder than the proverbial welldigger's derriere or the witch's teton (Please note how quickly I am picking up the language). I went to the train station seeking warmer climes. I'm headed back to Sevilla, where the temperatures are in the mid-70's: my kind of weather. I am proud of myself, though. When the train agent recommended that the best way to Sevilla would be to travel to Paris, then overnight on a bullet train to Madrid, I decided to spend a night in "the City of Lights" instead of just rushing to the warmer weather I crave. Be flexible, remember? I will force myself to spend tomorrow night in Paris in the cool, spring weather, before heading back to Spain. Life is tough, but I will endure. Paris is an experience I had not expected on this trip, but it will add to the memories. I probably won't get to talk to you again until I reach Sevilla. C'est la vie. A bientot!
Hola, from Madrid. It has been a few days and many kilometers since I have updated you, so I'd better bring you up to date. When I left Beaune, I left by train and headed back to Dijon, where I changed trains for Paris. I had taken a bus from Dijon to Beaune and it took an hour for the trip, through beautiful vineyards and villages, making it a wonderful way to see the countryside. On the train, it only took 25 minutes and I saw nothing. I was so glad that I had taken the bus on the way to Beaune.
I got to Paris in only one hour and 37 minutes. I was there before noon and had more than a day to spend in the French capital. There are several train stations in Paris that run out of the city in different directions. I came in out of the southeast to the Gare de Lyon. I would leave out of the Gare d'Austerlitz which heads southwest. These stations are, fortunately, only ten minutes apart by foot and I have walked between them before.
I had a plan, which is important when one has little time to see a city. I would exit Lyon, walk to Austerlitz, then get a hotel close to the station, so that I didn't have far to walk the next evening when it was time to leave. The plan was good; the execution was bad!
Outside every train station is a group of restaurants and hotels, which I like to avoid. They are generally noisy, pricey, full of transients (like me), and usually not in the best of shape. As I walked out of the station and saw that commercial section, I headed down a side street to look for a hotel, a tactic that had always worked in the past. Not only weren't there any hotels in that block, it may have been the longest block in the world. I was humping a 50 lb. Backpack and there were no side streets, no hotels, just a national museum and a Jardin des Plantes. I must have walked 3 miles before I found a hotel and it was full. The next hotel was also full and the third wanted too much money for a single room. I was quickly running out of gas and headed back to the strip that I wanted to avoid.
A quick thought, cut through the beautiful gardens and shorten the trip back. Wrong. I later learned that I had entered the gardens a short distance from where I wanted to go and headed through the plants in the opposite direction. These gardens were several city blocks square. As you walk through large cities, it is easy to get turned around and I did. I didn't panic, though, instead stopping at the far corner of the park, asking directions, then taking off the pack, sitting down and eating the banana in my pack, before turning around and walking back through the park. I was exhausted.
I took the first hotel that would have me on the commercial strip, although a few were full and I was getting desperate. The place I got was reasonable and pretty nice. Unfortunately, the room wouldn't be ready until 7:00 p.m. I had seven hours to kill and I could hardly lift one foot after the other. They kept my bag and I headed out to "see" Paris again. I took the Metro to the Place de la Concorde and strolled up the Champs Elysees. And I mean strolled. I could hardly get up the gradual slope. Near the Arc de Triomphe, I purchased a USA Today and strolled toward the Eiffel Tower. There, I collapsed on a bench and read the paper a couple of hundred yards from the tower, until the cold air got the best of me. Paris was cold, too.
I strolled along the Seine, found another metro entrance and headed back to the hotel, arriving at 6:30. Perhaps the desk clerk could see the exhaustion in my eyes, because he first said the room was not ready, then looked at me and said there was a room. I collapsed on the bed and slept until morning.
The next day, feeling much better, I did the Paris thing. It had been cold and overcast the day before, but this day was bright and sunny. People were drinking coffee in cafes that captured the morning sunshine, but I chose to be inside, where I wrote a few postcards to students at an elementary school. I took the metro to near Montmartre, climbed to the top and had lunch overlooking the square teeming with artists and tourists. Afterward, I walked to Sacre Coeur for the view of the city, headed down the hill and back to the Champs Elysees for one last stroll.
I took the 12-hour overnight train to Madrid that evening, arriving at 8:30 a.m. The night passed satisfactorily, although I was awake often, afraid that my coughing would bother the Egyptian young man who slept above me, the Madrileno across from him, or the Frenchman who slept on the opposite lower bunk. They were all very nice, even helping the old man put his heavy backpack on the overhead rack.
I am in Madrid, my wife will meet me here in only a week and I am recovering from the cough and sinus problem I have been battling. The temperatures are warming and all is right with the world.
This year, I have walked the Gran Via of Madrid, Calle Sierpes in Sevilla, Las Ramblas in Barcelona, the Via Veneto in Rome, the Champs Elysees in Paris, and had stops in Frankfurt, Naples, and Milan, but right now, I would rather walk up my street and sit on my porch. Marathoners hit walls and I have learned that travelers hit walls, too. I am not going on to Sevilla, despite how much I love the city. I will wait here until my wife and my friends arrive. Travel is fun, but enough is enough! I will update you again, if anything significant happens. Adios!
Despite the cough and sinus infection, my sex appeal remains intact!! I got picked up yesterday! I was out strolling about 10:30 in the morning, looking for an open pharmacy to buy my antibiotics. As I was crossing the street, a 48 year-old Phillipino man smiled at me and asked if I spoke English. Of course, I said yes. He didn't speak English perfectly, but I could understand him. He lives in London, works in a hospital, and has been in Madrid for a week, living in a house with his sister and her female friend. He said, "It is boring to be alone all day." Well, he is right, it is boring to be alone all day in a strange country, so I said so and we joined up. Actually, he joined me. I wanted to walk through Retiro Park, which was full of people on the holiday weekend. Mimes, musicians, puppet shows, jugglers; it was amazing. Next thing I know he is talking about his sex life, visiting sex shops, etc. and I am getting uncomfortable.
He stopped that line of talk and we continued to stroll and talk along the way. Every now and then the talk returned to sex and I was just not comfortable. I began to try to figure out how to lose the guy. On the way out of the park, I told him that I wanted to go back to my room to rest and he began to tell me that he was a homosexual (although earlier he had told me that he was divorced and had one child). I interrupted and said, "not me!!" We split up about 3 minutes later, right after we crossed the street.
In retrospect, I was pretty naive, but I thought that the guy was just lonely, like me. Do I still have it or what???? What a sexpot I am!!! My wife will be arriving to meet me in a few days; I hope she recognizes me through all of my animal magnetism. I will try to update you at least one more time before I head back home on April 22nd. Until then, Adios.
Buenos Dias from Barcelona again. I want to update you on the progress of our travels since my wife and friends arrived to keep me company. This could well be the last update before I return to wonderful US of A.
My wife arrived right on schedule in Madrid and it was great to see a familiar face at the airport. Unfortunately, her suitcase did not arrive until 32 hours later. In years past, this would have caused great concern and gnashing of teeth at the inefficiency of airlines. This time, she went with the flow, bought a new sweater to help fend off the chilly night air of Madrid, and enjoyed being in the different culture until the brand new suitcase arrived, partially covered in black grease, but with contents intact. Her attitude made her re-introduction to Spain more enjoyable and the suitcase arrived no more slowly than if she had been upset by the whole thing. Perhaps, she is adopting my philosophy to be flexible when traveling.
Our friends arrived the next morning and we immediately went about orienting them to the Spanish culture. A bus tour of the city to start, followed by a tapas bar crawl in the evening, ended with an enjoyable Jazz performance by American Jazz organist, Bobby Floyd, who was playing at a nearby Jazz Club. A full day, but it was a great introduction to Madrid and Spain for these first-time travelers to the Iberian Peninsula.
After a day or two of seeing the Madrid sights, we took day trips to Segovia, El Escorial, and La Valle de Los Caidos. These are all impressive sights and we enjoyed each day immensely. The days also included copious amounts of wonderful Spanish cuisine, which is among the best in the world.
Then, we took the bullet train for an hour and a half ride to Cordoba, making a visit to the famous and colorful Moorish-Christian Mosque, as well as a stroll through the narrow, whitewashed alleys of the old, nearby Jewish quarter.
It was back on the train for another half-hour to arrive in Sevilla for a three-day stay. They, too, fell in love with the city in which I have spent so much time during the past three winters. We did the double-decker bus tour thing first, and then toured the city on foot, soaking up the colorful Andalucian culture. The weather cooperated and it was sunny and warm during our entire stay, which was highlighted by the wonderful spectacle of a bullfight in the old Plaza de Toros. Sevilla is bullfight country and the arena was packed with 30,000 enthusiasts whose fervor added to the exciting atmosphere. My friend, Ron, was at first repulsed by the blood and the gore, but warmed to the spectacle. His wife was enthralled from the beginning by the electricity in the air and, just perhaps, by the tight pants of the matadors.
We were treated to the best matador that I have ever seen, a 19 year-old named Juli, who thrilled the crowd with close, dangerous, graceful passes. The second bull he fought either stepped on his foot or bumped his knee, but he fought on with a noticeable limp. His stumble and injury frightened and shocked the entire crowd. Both of his kills were completed in one graceful, humane plunge of the sword and the crowd rewarded him with thunderous shouts of "OLE" along with the waving of hundreds of white handkerchiefs. He was given the ear of the second bull as a tribute to his prowess.
Sevilla was once again very kind to me medically. When the problem with the ingrown toenail arose again, despite the battle I had been waging, I found a Spanish podiatrist. She was wonderful, gentle and skilled, and in 20 minutes had solved my problem, causing me no pain, despite an excruciatingly sore toe. The medical tour of Spain is now complete and I am 100% healthy again. Sevilla has been very good to me!
We left Sevilla and drove to the beautiful, ancient city of Ronda, located on the top of a mountain, surrounded by cliffs and a deep ravine spanned by a medieval bridge. It was a lovely visit to the town where bullfighting started and which has the oldest Plaza de Toros in all of Spain.
After lunch in a restaurant atop the cliff, with a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains and valleys, we drove through the rugged Sierra Nevada Mountains toward Gibraltar. We spent the night in a hotel overlooking the Mediterranean with the Rock of Gibraltar as a backdrop. We found the hotel in a 10-minute search of areas that we thought might have lodging, but we had no reservations.
The next day my three companions took a guided tour of the Rock, while I worked on having my glasses repaired. I had toured the Rock only a year or so ago. One of the temples on my glasses broke and I was hoping to find an optician to repair it. Unfortunately, no repair was possible and I had to buy new frames into which my old lenses would fit. I had two choices, both plastic frames and either rose-colored or blue. The dark blue frames were the choice and they are very modern and called "Sting" by the Italian manufacturer. Of course, this is a new look, which shocked my traveling companions when they came down from the Rock, and I have now begun calling myself by the singer's name. I think that with the small, sculptured, blue glasses, I bear a striking resemblance to "Sting" and if Prince can change his name, why not me?
Then, it was on to the Costa del Sol, with stops in Mijas, a white village high above the Mediterranean, Marbella, and Malaga. We stopped in another seaside hotel west of Malaga and spent the night overlooking the Mediterranean once again. We awoke and drove through ruggedly beautiful mountains with a distinctively western look, before reaching Guadix, where we spent the night in another delightful hotel. Guadix is noted for unusual houses dug almost completely into the clay cliffs, but with block or stucco entrances on the outside. We were lucky enough to stop where a friendly local gave us a tour of his newly constructed cave/home.
In the morning, we endured a daylong drive through beautiful, desolate, but colorful countryside on a well manicured and lightly traveled four-lane highway finally reaching Tarragona, where we found another wonderful hotel, you guessed it, overlooking the Mediterranean. Then, it was on to Barcelona, where we now reside, although we no longer overlook the Mediterranean. The town is wonderful, however, and everyone is delighted with its many architectural and gastronomic gems.
From here, we will drive to Madrid for one last night in Spain, before departing for home. It will be great to touch home soil again. Thanks for accompanying me on my journey. I will be glad to accept questions about any part of the trip and, of course, suggestions about future trips are always welcome. Right now, however, I am looking forward to home and renewing acquaintances with friends and family. Hasta la vista!
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