Saturday, August 13, 2016

Things I Learned from Europe

I still think about living in Europe.  All the time.  Right after we came back to the United States, most of my memories were about little things - missing my bike (vs. driving in a car everywhere), remembering American cucumbers (and how they really don't taste good to me anymore), having mixed feelings about everything being in English (easier, but also...way more boring).  Now I've transitioned a little bit and recently have been thinking about bigger personality/life-changing lessons I think I got from living in Germany and Denmark for five years.

Just sitting here on a Saturday morning, here are a few:

* Getting a deep, mind-exploding realization of how big the world is, how many many people (and entire lives) there are, and how I'm just one tiny tiny tiny tiny microscopic person.  It helped me grow a little bit out of some self-centeredness and/or self-importance that was still hanging on from adolescence.  It made me realize that even the biggest of my "life goals" I had before would still mean nothing.  That the world is like an infinite universe, and my little family is actually my world.

* The vast majority of people in the world are good -- 99%.  No matter where you go.  People are good.  We all share the same experiences, broadly speaking.  We all feel the same emotions.  Empathy and kindness are the default.  

* Stuff is dumb.  It's all so incredibly dumb - also, annoying to deal with.  Doing is the only thing that really means anything.  

* Quality is not dumb, though.  If you have to have some stuff, only have what you absolutely need and then only have the nicest one you can get.  Take pride in beautiful things - but only because they're beautiful, not because you want things.

* Time is the only thing I'll ever really own and, maybe counter-intuitively(?), the only way to use it well is to limit what you do with it and take it slow.  How else can I explain this?....  The best way to use your time is to not feel like you have to keep track of how you're using your time?  That there's never anything else more important than what you're doing right this moment?  

* Hygge.  A word without a direct translation.  Relaxation, calm, coziness, quiet, slow, warm and long intimate conversations, candles, a friend playing the guitar while everyone listens quietly, simple food, singing old songs around a fire, discussing abstract ideas with a cup of tea, sitting on a porch and listening to birds, running under a bus stop shelter and watching the rain, seeing the shadows of branches on your window -- these aren't pointless, silly, time-wasting activities.  These are the things that are everything.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Andalucia's Hill Towns, The Land of Ferdinand

Once upon a time in Spain...

We traveled by car from Seville to Granada, through the land of Ferdinand - one of my favorite children's books.  And on the way, we visited the hill town of Zahara, which, I'm pretty sure, was the model for the very first page of that little book about a peaceful, introverted bull.

Zahara is like a fairytale - isolated and absolutely untouched by sprawl.  The same cluster of whitewashed buildings zig-zagging up to the fortress on the hill as were there hundred of years ago.

I'm very proud to say that at seven months pregnant, I totally climbed that hill all the way to the top of that fortress tower.  Standing up there looking out into the impossibly blue lake (look at that picture!) and white buildings below, I was totally worth feeling like I was going to die trying to make that hike while seven months pregnant and in a dress.

We didn't stay long in Zahara - just a couple hours to climb the hill and gawk at its time-capsule-other-worldliness.  And then we were back on a road that kept winding up and up through the mountains and then back down through the tiny, hidden hill town of Grazalema.  

(Our only picture of Grazalema)

Grazalema isn't nearly as stunning to see as Zahara, but it is an adventure trying to drive a tiny tiny  manual rental car down and up through its even tinier whitewashed and completely un-signanged roads.  It was a tense five minutes, we try not to dwell on that time.  But the drive out of Grazalema to Ronda (perhaps the most "touristy" hill town) was through miles and miles of cork trees.

Cork trees!  Like in Ferdinand!  It actually took us a while (and some rifling through our guide book) to figure out they were cork trees in the first place.  I hadn't fully realized that cork is harvested from the bark or right below the bark, so we saw miles and miles of giant trees with a strip cut around their middles or all the way from half of the trunk through the larger branches, exposing the rich reddish wood beneath and it was so fascinating.  ...This is hard to explain, I'm going to go look for a picture:

Like this!  For miles and miles!  It was beautiful.

We had saved Ronda for the end 1) was just the last hill town on the way to Granada.... but 2) It was supposed to be the best one.

Mehhhhhhhhhhh Ronda.  Sure, it was an old town built up high...but just on a big bluff.  Meh.  And then its most famous draw - its medieval gorge bridge (which makes an appearance in Ferdinand!) - was completely not anywhere.  We drove literally three times all the way around that bluff with a GPS and trying to follow any signs and never saw even a tiny glimpse of anything that could possibly be that bridge.

I know it exists.  I've seen it in Ferdinand!  (And friends' travel pictures) But dag just decided to not exist for us that day.

But actually, that was totally fine because we now knew for sure that we had seen the best hill town in Andalusia, hands down - Zahara.  So we let it go and left Ronda for a final few hours through that dry Mediterranean landscape (strangely reminiscent of... central Utah?) and onward to Granada (!!).

(Where is this bridge, Ronda??)

Fairytale Zahara

Thursday, July 21, 2016

A Few More Memories of Seville

Today I got to thinking about blogs.  And remembered how important it is that I finish out as many Europe memories as I can here, even one year after moving back to the states.   Because the longer I wait, the harder it will be to remember the little things.

So, before I move on from Seville, here are a few more memories to archive away:

* Paul had done some extensive research before we left for Spain, finding the best ice cream in town.  One night he said he had a surprise and we walked what felt like, to my seven-months-pregnant self, three miles (it was actually only 1/3 of a mile), and took me to La Fiorentina as an anniversary gift.  It was amazing, highly recommended.  We went twice in the two days we were there.

* Seeing orange trees for the first time in my life.  And learning that most of these particular orange trees produced inedible fruit.

*Getting "lost" back in the medieval quarter and coming on a little street filled with heirloom baby clothes stores.  A lot of custom tailors for baptism gowns and the like.  I'm still heartbroken that I didn't pony up a wad of euros to get a little shirt/shorts/shoes set I saw and fell in love with - later I saw almost an exact replica of it (instead of in blue, in red) on little Prince George at his sister's christening and thought, "Dag nabbit.  Missed it."

*The intricate ironwork.  Fountains, street lights, window grates, everywhere.

* This convent right next to the Cathedral.  The nuns there are completely cloistered, but you can buy cookies from them by using a kind of transaction lazy susan in the wall.  You put your money on the tray, turn it so it goes inside.  Then they take your money, put cookies on the tray, and turn it back to the outside.

* Please note our ubiquitous Rick Steves guide book.  Never leave home (to Europe) without it.

* This world map!

* And a smattering of tiny other moments - seeing the ancient lead pipes still in place from the Roman aqueducts, sleeping in so late because of the complete darkness achieved with solid wood shutters, almost leaving my purse (with our passports) in a taxi on our way to the train station, being surprised at how small the famous bull ring looked, being surprised that this was the first country we'd been to where people generally did not speak (or try to speak) English with us (I always thought it would be France or something), the huge hanging racks of curing ham (jamon) from the ceiling rafters in almost every restaurant and the little cones beneath them that caught melting fat, tapas (legit ones), waiting out a rainstorm under a tiny porch on an even narrower medieval street, a city hall that looked exactly like Odense's, the largest and most gilt altarpiece I'd ever seen (biggest in the world, turns out), going to the Alcazar and standing in the reception hall where Christopher Columbus returned and gave his "hey, found something" report to Isabel and Ferdinand, and the very, very, very first time I ever heard Paul say a swear word.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Sevilla, Part II: Cathedral and the Alcazar

Did you know that the third largest cathedral in the world is in Seville?  Did you know that Game of Thrones filmed their Dorne scenes in Seville?  Equally fascinating facts.  ;-)

After our first, lovely night in Seville and sleeping in a bit in the morning (I loved how, to keep things cool, you could close solid wood shutters over every window and make the room completely dark.) we set off to see the cathedral.  THE CATHEDRAL.

It's gigantic and ornate and has roman columns all around the outside that are pretty much just traffic barriers (because that's how Europe works.  Roman columns are just lyin' around.)

It's also kind of a hodge-podge of architecture because, so the story goes, Seville started building their cathedral and then kept hearing about other cathedrals that were going to be they just kept adding parts to it.  Hilarious.  And how you get things like these elaborate flying buttresses.

I also remember that Christopher Columbus is buried in there.  So...history.  And...not...nice...history.

But my favorite part was walking through the orange tree courtyard on the way out.  You had to be careful to not trip on one of those irrigation canals running gorgeously throughout the whole place, but it was a little piece of cool, shaded, Moorish loveliness.  And a fantastic intro to Andalusian history - the medieval Christian seamlessly integrated with the Islamic.    Love it.  LOVE IT.  Also those little geometric channels and those arches behind the fountain there reminded me of Topkapi Palace in Istabul.  I loved seeing how cultures interconnected over centuries in ways that we typically don't learn about in our European History classes here in the states.  We owe so much to those Moors.

Then we walked across the square to the royal palace aka the Alcazar - a place I didn't even know about before we went to Seville.  And it was amazing.  Look at this courtyard.  LOOK!  LOOOOOK!  Look at the Moorish first floor with the orange trees.  And then the Roman second floor!  It was so so beautiful.  And, here's my Game of Thrones moment: the Gardens there are the "Water Gardens of Dorne."  So it was funny to watch that episode with all those assassins runnin' around in the exact place I was runnin' around trying to find the bathroom.

And then we went to a Flamenco performance that evening.  Wow.  I "knew" what it was but I didn't know.  I think I could feel Hadrian jumping and dancing inside me everytime they started their stomping and castanets.  There was a lot of sweat flying.  There was a grown man playing the guitar and sobbing his eyeballs out.  There was a lot of passion in that room.  I'll never forget it.  Flamenco!

We went straight into a castanet store afterward and got a pair as our souvenir. I actually figured out how to use them for about ten seconds one time.  It was very exciting.  One of my life goals is to be able to castanet like a boss.


Thursday, November 19, 2015

Sevilla, Part 1: The Long Journey

When we first moved to Europe, we made a prioritized list of places we wanted to see.  Most of them were shared, like Paris, London, know, the big ones.  But there were a couple surprises.  Paul really wanted to go to Norway, which had not been on my radar at all.  And me?  I wanted to go to Andalucia in Spain.

It just sounded so romantic.  Andaluuuuuusia.  Or, AndaluSEEEEaaaah.  However you wanted to go with that.  Plus, I'd dreamt about seeing the Alhambra since 9th grade when I first really got into Moorish history and culture.  I wanted the orange trees, the fountains in the inner courtyard gardens, the intricate arches and arabic calligraphy.  The spices, the seafood, the heat, the olives.  Spain!   Right?

So Spain was where we spent our 6th anniversary and our last adventure together before Hadrian arrived.  And I should add, was a big reason why we named him Hadrian in the first place.  Andalucia was the historical Hadrian's homeland, so to speak, and learning about the Roman influence in the area was a fascinating surprise for me.  

Anyway!  I'm sure you're here to learn about Sevilla/Seville and not to hear me wax rhapsodic about my dreams of southern Spain.  On we go then!

My first impression of Spain was Madrid, actually.  It was much cheaper to fly from Copenhagen to Madrid and then take the bullet train down to Seville.  I remember seeing the dry, high-desert surrounding the city from the plane, worrying a little bit about catching our train since we had to take a bus through rush hour traffic.  I remember people on the bus acting very alarmed when I got on, seven months pregnant with a stuffed bright orange backpack and waving aside people's concerned pleas for me to just take their seat!  

Side note: it wasn't that I didn't want their seat or didn't appreciate it.  Honestly, I kept turning them down because I was having trouble processing why so many people were suddenly acting so extremely deferential.  I felt shy and embarrassed to be singled out, I guess?  (I'm healthy and young and strong!  I don't need your seat, Mr. 65 Year Old Man!)  I think this was because, surprisingly, in Denmark no one treated my massive pregnant self with much deference - as I commuted by bike, bus, and train almost every day to Copenhagen.  So I wasn't used to it?  Plus, I think the Danish attitude had made me think that I must not have looked very pregnant.  ha ha.  I looked at the Spain pictures when we got home and was like, "HOLY moly I was big!"  So...yep. Denial.  Anyway, the point is that people in Spain were waaaaay more conscientious about pregnant women than I'd ever seen in my life.  Kudos to Spain.)

I remember us running (well, Paul running.  Me kind of sad-waddling after him) around the massive train station trying to find our track...or just the place where there were any tracks!  What was a bit disconcerting was seeing so many fully armed - we're talking armored vests and AK-47 - police just walking around (there was an echo of that when we went to Paris a few months before with my parents and sister.  Fully armed police all over the train stations...).  Plus the fact that we had to go through security and a metal detector to even get to our track!  Only in Spain did we come up against that.  It was actually the reason we were so lost in the train station - kept thinking, "Oh, well we don't want to go through that massive line to wherever!  We just want to find the tracks!"  

Let me just say here that the bullet train to southern Spain is posh.  Maybe the nicest train we've ever been on.  And a surreal experience to watch "Jack the Giant Killer" dubbed in Spanish.  Like...all the characters were named "Julio" and "Esparanza" or along those lines...but it was clearly set in England?  

Then we made it to Seville!

Aaaaaaaand had to take a taxi to get to the historic city center.  It's always strange for me when the train stations aren't just smack dab in the middle of the action, but that's the way it was in Seville.  Be prepared. You're going to pass a lot of mid-century apartment buildings before you see medieval streets.

Finally, we were dropped off next to the Cathedral and began our wander through some of the most interesting and get-lost-able streets and alleys we ever encountered in Europe.  I think Venice and maybe the Alfama in Lisbon could match or beat it.  Every now and then, the space would suddenly open up into lovely little squares with statues, fountains, and shaded by orange trees.

I was SO HUGE.  I am a travel ROCK STAR!
This was our "local square" just a couple turns away from our vacation apartment.  Our first night in Seville, we ate our first real paella at the seafood restaurant in the back there, with the white awning.  I remember a man sitting near the fountain, playing classical guitar and noticing the grey and white pebble patterns on the walkways as we ate.  I was so tired - it had been a long day with a lot of walking, but I was also jazzed to realize that I'd made it.  After dreaming about seeing this region of the world since I was 13 years old - here I was!  Eating legit chorizo in a gorgeous saffron paella, sitting across from a handsome man who actually married me, and seven months pregnant with my son.  Smelling roses and hearing that Spanish guitar, first night in Seville under the stars.
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