Friday, November 4, 2011

Sunless Sky.

When the occasional light beams down from a small opening in the heavy autumn clouds, it lands on the trees’ leaves in a graceful way that gives an entirely new meaning to my definition of color.

And in my quiet conversation lessons on long afternoons, I only feel tense and cold, wet from a hurried walk in the rain. 

“Do you like the color Y-E-L-L-O-W?”
“Yes, I like yellow.”

How simple and plain, boring and eventually ugly the colors that fall from my mouth seem. And what is yellow then, when I see her from my bedroom window, dancing on determined leaves, setting fire to Oak trees, bringing a sensation of heat in the autumn chill? Is she the same yellow from the I Spy game in Felisa’s darkened living room? A covered pillow sitting on a faded white couch?  Clearly the answer is no. Spoken she is yellow and seen she is golden. Vibrant. Radiant.  And how am I supposed to teach the feeling of sun kissed in this weather—when it only comes out de vez en cuando, when I’m all alone standing at the glass.

Fall rainstorms indicate nature’s retreat.  The cold edges its way in, the wind scurries me indoors.  This rain is not an awakening nor a renewal, no spring blossoms are budding nor are green grasses reaching up from the earth.  This is a shower before sleep, an outdoor housecleaning before the long still nap of winter.

Unfortunate also, that the November rain has moved in before I’ve received my first human paycheck and in causation will remain puddle jumping in my second-hand purple velour flats.  But patience is a virtue, and so, I’m learning, is frugality, so I shall wait another human week before making a low fashion, nature resistant boot purchase.  And that issue could’ve been easily averted if the the fake leather boots—brown paint peeling—I found on a park bench, while on a run, last Sunday, weren’t 1.5 sizes too big and ridiculously floppy in the toe.

Evident from the plunge in my livelihood these past weeks (attributed also to my being out of caffeine free tea and embarrassingly in need of a haircut) is my dependence on the sun.  Before the autumn hour change, I struggled to choke back the desire of wailing out in sadness, in protest of the counter-human and completely unnatural timetable of 8 a.m. class.
The moon is still out!
At least now, after last week’s “Fall back”, I watch the light slowly change as I walk and can teach first period with a wee bit of natural light joining us in the educational facility’s fluorescence. 

But now it’s the rain, soft light but dark clouds, and I’m often cold and always bootless, barely fitting underneath my see-through pink plastic child size umbrella.  I arrive to school with wet feet, wet sleeves, and a moist backpack. 

I’m just not ready for the sun’s seasonal farewell. 
Stay here!
I need you!
The confusion about life, this place, and this place in my life (not to mention the displeasure of speaking at an ice melting speed with crystal clear pronunciation all day) dissipates, just a bit, when the sun decides to shine.  For those who live in Seattle, for the Irish folks consoling in the pubs as well, I salute you, for this wet sad sunless sky is surely life sucking.

But at least my umbrella came with a plastic red whistle attached, so I can screech at all the kids to get to class when the recess bell rings.  

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Keep Tahoe Blue

The stillness of a summer ended invites the quiet parts of you to sit.

The lake is sapphire blue and flat out until the forever of the snow sprinkled mountains stop the water’s reach.  A few young people visit on the driftwood beach and in the clear teal of the shallow water, their happy dogs alongside. Occasional boats speed across, but the silent rhythmic sight of couples kayaking is the most enjoyable to take in.

Trees suspend against a perfect blue sky as if wind never existed.  I’d like to go on a sail boat, to find a new appreciate for the wind and feel what it truly means when they compare the water to glass. 

The stillness of a summer ended invites the quiet parts of you to sit.

A paddle boarder passes. It feels Native American to me.  It’s quiet, solitary, and presence demanding, quite an authoritative way of transportation across the lake. 

Dogs could swim forever. Could we?  Children can play on the beach for days. How long could adults stay content?
This blue bodied lake has provided serenity and swimming for humans since before we knew we were so. 
I point across the lake to Mount Tallac—which presides over Desolation Wilderness, in the great state of California.
“I’ve climbed that.” I can say.

Upon arriving to Hidden Beach I sought out the easily recalled structure made of driftwood, like a bony camel all different shades of beige. 
“I’ve made love under that.”

The log cabin we had our cheerleader sleep over in, a wood plank pier I jumped off after midnight, 16 and a half years old, dizzy with drunkenness.  No wonder we love it, this lake holds our memories, dreams, and young secrets in its pine tree bottom profundity, its Ice Age rocks, and the long alligator snout looking islet that sticks out into the water.

Pack a cooler but don’t bring a radio.
Swim, lay out,
and hope for a beer induced nap.
Stop at T’s on the way home,
roll down the windows as you drive.

And Keep Tahoe Blue.
Mantenga Tahoe Azul.  

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

New thoughts from the New home


Today I met another American. Her name is Kate and she is an energetic and athletic stay-at-home mom here in Tres Cantos, a suburb of Madrid.  When I asked her how she got here she told me she met her husband one month into starting her masters…..that was 13 years ago….and well, you know the rest.  She jogs every morning after dropping her children off at CEIP Carmen Iglesias, the same primary school where I take Luis everyday.  To speak so casually and quickly, hearing the relaxed American accent, pleased me.  Kate gave me some advice that pleased me as well. 
“Stay close to your family,” she said. Having her mom on the East Coast of the US and her brothers on the West, isn’t easy, and I imagine (making it back usually just once a year) having a family and living in Spain gets lonely.  Kate lit up when she told me that she’ll be going home this Friday to see her mother in New Hampshire.  She’s so excited she says she isn’t sleeping, that every morning is one day closer to getting home.

Later I am eating my delicious organic whole grain oats oatmeal at the glass table, looking out onto the view of Madrid mountains, which are just beyond the neighboring Holiday Inn Express. I am overcome by the emotion of love and family that is waiting for me in Reno.  Spain is my home for now, but I know eventually I will settle down stateside. Not being quick cover distance away from my childhood friends? Raising children without the frequent presence of my own mother? Not watching my nieces and nephews grow up? This would be too difficult, too far, too separate from what I see my life as. 

     “I can’t keep doing this.”
That was the thought I repeated over and over to myself on the bus ride from Baza to Madrid, on the first day of June.  I was exhausted and overwhelmed, so many goodbyes in so few days.  I can’t keep starting a new life, putting down roots, and then pulling them out each time I leave a place.  The irony of it I guess is that the goodbyes weren’t goodbyes, no adios but more like hasta lluego, see you later, as I am returning to Granada in the Fall.  But when your students present you with an engraved silver ring and bracelet; a bouquet of flowers; pictures, posters and cards; dance performances; and the teachers applaud you and hug you, giving you a specialized plaque, it isn’t too easy to not cry.  Rebecca and I made the rounds—the fruit shops, the Irish pub, the stores and the bars, all the places we’d made friends this year.  I felt so loved and grateful in that last week, saying so many thank yous, giving so many besos.
     The most difficult of course was the ending of the era of Rebecca and I in the Avenida de Almanzora flat, 2nd floor, apartment B.  We avoided the goodbye until the last minute, when Rebecca stood on the balcony and called to me in my bedroom, still taking the last postcards off my wall,
 “There’s a cab outside Jen Bell.”
     My sunglasses had more use that week than all of last summer, and I put them on again as Beca helped me carry everything down the marble stairs. When we embraced in the street, both red as tomatoes, I could feel her shaking with tears too. I’ve never had a friend like her, a roommate, a companion, a partner in crime.  We grew to understand each other, to care for each other, to have the chats over cups of tea, to walk to the shops not buying anything at all, to buy each other’s favorite groceries.  And although we’ll be only an hour apart next year, there is still nothing so sad as the passing of things.

Welcome to Suburbia

     Seeing as I have already visited a strip mall, the sister store to Home Depot, and ate a backyard barbeque Sunday dinner, you’d think I’d feel even more at home here in Tres Cantos.  But the transition from the old, Arabic influenced slow moving South seeped into my bones deeper than I thought and the first weeks in suburbia haven’t been a cake walk.

     The good thing is that I knew coming into it that adjusting to life as a nanny, living in someone else’s house, carrying for young children, would take time.  I am seeing that after two weeks, it has taken a little longer than I expected.  For the kids, the parents, and for me.  It’s a new job so getting used to each other, learning the routine, the rhythm, the way of the household, learning how to best operate with the children, where I fit in the puzzle is all part of the adjustment.  I would venture to say my change of lifestyle here has been more difficult than the move to Spain all together.  Moving abroad, term papers, relationships—I am now thinking that taking care of kids is perhaps the hardest thing I’ve ever done (and if you have kids I reckon you are laughing a little here). When I told my mother this (her support here has been phenomenal) her response struck me, and for some strange reason, I found it encouraging.
“Having children is the hardest thing you’ll ever do.”
     You think you are so mature, so ready to take on the world and then you deal with kids.  In two weeks I’ve learned mounds about myself, for example:  I’m not ready to have kids! My freedom is still too sweet and sacred! When Luis (4) and Ana (3) have tantrums, I must try my hardest to not fall apart as well. The screaming and crying, the carrying on, it is exhausting and depleting and I can’t continue to ride the emotional roller coaster with them.  Children are much smarter than we give them credit for, they are ultimate boundary pushers and master manipulators….it’s all a game, but I am still learning how to win.  And to win the right way. 

     Luckily I have mornings free, where I walk the long loop of the suburban park and return to the empty apartment to make a calm lunch.  The kids are opening up to me more everyday and now that the heat has begun, we’ll spend our evenings at the pool.  Francesca and Martha, good friends from home, live in Madrid, so my weekends take me away from this life and into a yoga, breathing, ayurvedic living in the bohemian city center. 
     We are always learning, always growing, adjusting, moving and shifting with the changes around us. When I asked myself this morning what changed, why life is becoming better, why my constant crying has ceased and I feel this on the upward, I realize it isn’t the things that are changing, it is me. After the weary period of transition it isn’t too difficult to come out in one piece. But then again, there’s always another temper tantrum. 

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Spring pt. II !

It is the beginning of April and although my time in Baza has not come to an end, all the planning and talk of next year and the upcoming summer brings me to reflect on my time here.   I go to Madrid in less than a week to pick up my mother at the airport. !!!! It’s difficult to sit still and be calm. I am SO EXCITED!  It’s the longest we’ve been apart and it will be the first time in our lives my mother stays at my home and I can care for her, a nice little role reversal.  Our Andalusian road trip and week in Barcelona with our cousins will be a wonderful adventure indeed. 

 This summer I will live outside of Madrid to be an au pair for the Ruiz family. I met the family in Granada, under the biggest full moon I’ve ever seen, which hung right over the Alhambra.  Three-year-old Ana was holding my hand and four year old Luis was skipping in front of us. I pointed to the moon and told them, “See that? That’s the moon. And you know that I am the moon too. How lucky, tonight to have two moons!” I am so excited to spend time living with a Spanish family and laughing and taking care of the children. 

After two months in Madrid it’s home to Reno for a visit in August.  My brother’s wedding, Burning Man (the theme this year is Rites of Passage… fitting) and the beginning of my 24th year. The slow movement of time and the relaxed lifestyle has brought me so much time to think, grow, and heal.   I’m coming into myself.
The sun gives me an energy and a happiness, a coming out of the dark feeling. And it feels so good.  The journalism student, waitress, girlfriend, Reno daughter is dying and someone new is coming through.  

Things Spain has figured out

The following is a list of small cultural differences I have found to make much more sense than the way I've seen it done before. 

1. Bedside light switch! Genius, no having to get back out of bed to turn off the light.
2. No obligatory tipping. Also meaning the waiters aren't at your side every minute begging to better serve you.
3. Braseros--small heaters put underneath a table, which is covered with a large tablecloth/blanket, promoting warm toes and a sense of community. In winter everyone sits around the table, wrapped in the large blanket, conversing, having tea or a sweet.
4. It is acceptable and common to date someone for 7 or 8 years without constant questioning of marriage or the need to have a ring on the finger.  Spaniards also tend to wait to have children. 
5. The cupboard above the sink is also dish rack allowing you to put away wet dishes and they drip into the sink as they dry. Genius. 
6.  Most Spanish people turn off the shower while they lather, shave, wash their hair, and turn on the hand held device when needing to rinse, thereby saving MUCH more water. Although 20 minute scalding showers are often missed, the environmental aspect outweighs my selfish preferences. 
7.  Small dinners and bigger lunches/breakfasts.  This has changed my life.

 .....more to come......


Spring seemed to come overnight.  In a matter of days the weather changed from cold and windy, with dark grey clouds, to clear and warm: Springtime Warm.  Previously absent birds returned to the pink blooming trees and the loud, aggressive construction that made its home in Baza before I did finally finished, unveiling newly paved sidewalks and streets, large Arabic style fountains, and a tree green park in the center of town.  The Spain the Spaniards had told me about—people out walking their dogs, children playing soccer in the street, the sunset beginning at 9 pm—has finally arrived, and not a moment too soon.  There is a tangible joy and newness in the air. My bug bites are healed and after an intense spring cleaning/disinfecting (see previous post) Spring is here!

This winter has been good, long, hard.  The cold days in Baza were all contrasted by small trips to the beach:  a day watching a fisherman hook a purple octopus right out of the sea (which I touched and got suctioned!), a trip to the Canary Islands, and participating in one of Spain’s most famous beach parties.

 I took myself to Lanzarote, the Northern most island of the Canaries, which due to its volcanic origin, reminded me much of Kona, Hawaii.  Now more accustomed to traveling alone, taking the trip wasn’t the big leap—renting a car was.  I spent three days driving all over the small island, singing at top volume and driving at top speed with the windows rolled down.  I watched the sunset at the Southern point of the island.  The large cliffs and the forever ocean made it look like the end of the world.  I watched the sunrise from the Northern part, where the tall dirt mountains eased slowly into the sea and the jagged volcanic rock at the bottom welcomed the waves.  The simple joy of non rushed driving, shifting up and down with the changing terrain…..ahh, driving is a freedom I have missed.   

My other beachside experience was visiting Carnival in Cadiz.  Cadiz is a small old beachside town in the South of Spain, famous for its Carnival celebration (Carnival is what we would call Mardi Gras in the States).  It is the time to dress up and party—eat a lot, drink a lot, dance a lot.  My friend Francisco and I went as Mafioso, and our group included a priest, a pirate, and my friend Leti who went as bubble gum on the bottom of a chair.  As we mixed drinks in plastic cups and danced to the car radio in the parking lot, putting on our accessories and costume makeup, I was reminded of The Playa.  The energy of everyone—excited and happy, ready to take on the night.  Carnaval was a good time, fun to see the costumes, creative ones, silly ones, but of course cannot compare to Burning Man.  The Playa has the art, the music, the surreal setting, and a magic that no place, even for a foreigner in a new country, can ever match.   
The night of cobblestone street stumbling, Michael Jackson tribute dancing, and fried shrimpfishcrabcalamari eating made for a good night. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Bug Bites

I have mysterious bites all over my body and each day I wake up with more. In fact a few hours ago one showed up on my neck, surpassing this morning’s count of 30.  The first few days I agreed to scratch. When they itched, I scratched.  They pull at my skin and make my breath short and panicked. I wake up a night to myself scratching. It is hell. 
~~~ I have been asking The Creator for some advice on some more spiritual things. While writing on the topic above this morning, I found a startling parallel with the bites and my ego.  I believe God has answered me in the form of bug bites.  Hear me out. ~~~

Wounds from a past relationship are still present in my memory and on my heart. When the soft loneliness of my bones calls out with an itch, I willingly “scratch” by recalling the good times, recalling the bad, listening to old songs, going over old conversations and imagining future interactions.  By doing this I am choosing to scratch, to claw with traitor hands, turning a small bug bite into a large scabbed welt, allowing it to stay longer if it wishes, on my skin and in my heart, preventing the chance to heal.  I also show the bites to others--“Look at these! So many bug bites I have!”--just so everyone knows I’ve been bitten.

I have a broken heart, just so you know. There is someone I loved and once loved me, and it still hurts…just so you know.

I don’t want to have bug bites anymore. They are agonizingly itchy, they hinder my daily life, and they are ugly.  I don’t want to scratch them. I just want them to go away.  Just like I am ready to move on in my life, move away from the ghosts I still allow to haunt me.  But if I am truly ready, am I willing to stop scratching?  What good does digging my nails in, recalling the memories, fantasizing of a future with him do for me now? Here?  It leaves me with scars unhealed.  It leaves me unable to open up to the future.

Today at work we took the kids to the swimming pool for P.E.  I didn’t want to go, not with so many ugly bites.  I didn’t want the kids to see me, what would they say? What would the Spanish lifeguards say?

How long will you let these bites dictate who you are and what you do?!

Knocked sideways by the parallel of the bites and my heart, I decided I had no other choice but to swim. And I did.  I splashed, did underwater handstands, and I showed off with springboard dives.  I laughed and forgot about the itching and scratching. The chlorine even helped the bites calm down.  I had a wonderful day with the kids.

No more scratching. And bring on the spring blossoms, I want to heal.  

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Winter Travels, pt. III

I turned the street corner and arrived in Plaza Mayor to face Santiago’s giant cathedral, glowing green and gold against the night sky.

Oh My God.

From Granada to Seville, and even Dublin and Salamanca, I have seen many cathedrals over the past four months.  But none compares with the moss-covered, regal ghost that is the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.  The raindrops only grew fatter and the people fled, leaving me alone under the illuminated giant.  

Without an umbrella, but ready with heavy boots and a waterproof coat, I decided to continue my soaked run through the town.  The place was empty.  The city was mine.  The sky didn’t mind that I was wet and died down only after I ducked into a small tavern on another sleepy street.  Acoustic music lured me towards the back, where bright green plants grew out of the underground walls. The music was live, not very good, and the drink I ordered expensive. But at this point, ten travel days deep, I was happy to be indoors, happy to be in Santiago de Compostela, and happy to be traveling on my own. 

Los Reyes Magos

Spain doesn’t have a Santa Claus.  In fact, the American and English influence of “Papa Noel” has started showing up, on advertisements, outdoor decorations, and Christmas packaging, mostly within the last ten years. I am with most Spanish people in my dislike for the cultural imposition of Santa Claus.  Spaniards have their proper holiday tradition—Dia de Los Reyes Magos—a celebration of the Epiphany, or the manifestation of Christ.  Much like in the United States, children write a letter to the Three Wisemen, are tucked into bed early, and wake up the following morning to a mountain of gifts.  January 6th is the day for presents in Spain, only a small gift for children would be given on Christmas.  The Reyes Magos, Melchor, Gaspar, and Beltasar, are distinct ethnicities and are depicted in all the Belens (Nativity scenes) of the towns and in people’s homes.  Each town has a parade, where the Three Kings throw candy from decorated floats and the town’s marching band livens the night. 

The Parade
Families appeared from their window balconies, looking down on children in peacoats and galoshes, who made up bouncy ball games and sprayed silly string on the sidewalk.  Men on horses preceded the parade, announcing the arrival of Melchor, Gaspar, and Beltasar.  Each king came by on a brightly lit float, each with his distinct color scheme and with costumed servants and animals by his side.  The children waved and screamed with delight and scrambled from under the arched sidewalks to catch the kings’ candy.

The procession led into Plaza Mayor, the same place I’d stood the previous night, alone and surrounded by nothing by quiet rain.  I stood surrounded now by umbrellas and strollers, laughing children and eager parents.  The Three Wisemen appeared on the terrace of the great Palacio de Raxoi and called out to the kids in Gallego—a mixture of Portuguese and Spanish.

Gallego sounds like Italian in its inflexion and song-like speech and its smooth “ch”s and “sh”s seem Portuguese.  Gallego is spoken in Galicia, the region in the Northwest of Spain, and is one of the country’s four official languages.  It’s magical and romantic and smooth, and a sharp contrast to the thick and cut off accented Andalusian dialect of the South.  Due to the close relationship to Spanish and the obvious context of what was being said, it wasn’t too difficult to understand the animated speakers.  

“You’ve all been good this year, right nenos?”
“Well make sure you go home and get to bed early, for tomorrow there will be presents waiting for you!”

I was struck by the intense joy of being on my own.  All the colors, the music, and the sounds of children were mine in that moment.  My heart sang as I watched families, the joy of the parents, and the joy of each child. Even though at such a different phase of my life, a free 23 year old, gasping and taking it all in under her umbrella under the cathedral, I felt the parental love.  Sharing something so beautiful with children, the giggles and wide eyed wonder, providing as parents they the infrastructure for the memories, and knowing the children give their parents so much joy in return.

It took me three days alone, three days of bus rides, long city walks, and hours of café writing, to get back to a place where I was okay being alone.  The transition from good company and social interaction was difficult.  I was in Salamanca, desperately lonely and confused.  But it passed.  I stayed with it, felt what I needed to, and worked it out of my system.  The reward was unimaginable.  I remembered how much I love my own company, and under the fireworks and magic of the raining Santiago sky I felt the same magic of the playa as I watched The Man burn under an August moon alone.  Lights, sounds, energy and love.  I thanked God in that moment, for giving me the time to have now, for myself, for travel, for learning and for love.  And for the moments when I will be the parent, ready to share so much love and joy with a child.  

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Holiday Travels chapter 2

Second Holiday, Spanish Style

In Navas de San Juan, instead of tapear (going for tapas) we ligar.  The literal translation is flirt, but the small town, where the accent is thick and the slang incomprehensible, entertains the tradition of afternoon tapas and drinks.  Born in Navas, Mari Carmen was my tour guide and my host. She also decided if I get baptized (because it’s surely blasphemous that I haven’t been) she will be my Godmother as well.
Mari Carmen teaches Geography and History at IES El Fuerte with me.  When she invited me for Noche Vieja (Old Night) I gladly accepted, eager to participate in a Spanish family tradition.  Mari Carmen helped me plan my entire winter trip, she took extra clothes for me to Navas, picked me up at the train station, and brought me into her family’s home.  Her father, Pedro, is a florist, with big brown eyes and a happy smile.  His wife, called Mari Carmen as well, is strikingly beautiful and she enjoys when the house is full of the kids.  Her parents, Domingo and Mari Carmen, live there, and Pedro, the crazy energetic teenager of 24, is in and out of the house. 

            Never Hungry in Navas
Meals in other countries are events.  Everyone sets the table, sits down, and eats together.  The time is dedicated to eating and talking and visiting.  No computers, cell phones, television.  We eat.  I like that. 
Mari Carmen’s mother’s cooking was delicious, especially the lentil soup with chorizo (who would’ve thought I’d actually like chorizo).  She made rice pudding for dessert, and papajotes (homemade doughnut/churros) for breakfasts.  It is true when they say the Spanish mothers only want to feed you.  Mama Mari Carmen insisted on serving me seconds, thirds, and always dessert.  For fear of offending her cooking, I ate it all—even potato chips smothered in olive oil, ground pepper, and sardines.  
The rain prevented us from doing much, but the day I went in for a Spanish hair cut—“Oh, just the ends and some layers”—was exciting as it ended in my bouffant stylish cut that the whole family agreed was much better, and much more Spanish.  I also enjoyed Mari Carmen’s educational tour around the mountains and the area’s reservoir. We were lucky to spot deer and some storks.  I was lucky to get to speak so much Spanish.

Bringing in 2011
My favorite night in Navas de San Juan, however bittersweet, was New Year’s Eve.  Luisa, Mari Carmen’s aunt, hosted us all for an elaborate dinner of crab legs, gumbo shrimp, pork chops in champagne sauce, and homemade tiramisu.  The celebration was very much like a Noche Buena (Christmas Eve) party at my mother’s house—everyone talking, loud laughs, hands reaching across the table, pouring wine, playing music.  Eugenio, Pedro’s dinner guest, entertained us with his professional Flamenco dancing and we sang traditional holiday songs.  Luisa had wrapped our New Year’s grapes in festive holiday bags with curled ribbon and we counted down the New Year popping soft green grapes into our mouths, laughing at each other, trying to get all 12 down without choking.  Everyone hugged and gave kisses when the broadcast announced that we had entered 2011. 

Americans do not eat grapes on New Year’s Eve. Most of us don’t dance Flamenco in the living room, nor do we drink light beer with our dinner, but we celebrate with family and we love to love. 

Ten year old Mateo laughs as his 78 year old grandfather attempts to cut the pork chop with his pocket knife.  Andrés keeps the Flamenco rhythm, tapping his fork against the wine glass, and Pedro puts his arm around his wife to kiss her.  We have different customs and different traditions, there is no doubt, but being together, with loved ones, celebrating life and living in love, is what we are born to do and what keeps us going.  New Year’s Eve was the hardest night away from home thus far, missing my mother, my family, the Happy New Year! text messages and having my best girlfriends at my side. But I wouldn’t trade my experience in an instant.  The Parrilla family welcomed me and loved me, showed me their family and shared more with me than I can ever hope to repay them.  And I know my Spanish New Year’s Eve will be remembered forever. 

An Irish Country Christmas
An Irish Christmas in the snow covered countryside was what I envisioned and what I experienced—a snuggled old dog in front of a warm fireplace, simple home cookin’ of spouts and potatoes, quiet company and Christmas crackers.  I spent four days with the Fitzell family in Portlaoise and two days in Dublin City.    

I attended Christmas mass with Margaret, Hollie and Rebecca while Sean cooked Christmas dinner.  My eyes enjoyed seeing a more simple church, barren and beige compared to the ornate and over the top décor of Spanish cathedrals; it was beautiful in its simplicity.  My favorite part was looking around at all the people—the fair skin and dark hair, and all light-eyed, with the occasional Ginger kids—red freckled and for surely the poster children for all things Irish.   

Grandma Betty bought us all Christmas Crackers, a British holiday tradition that The Fitzell family couldn’t believe I’d never seen, nor pulled.  And Rebecca’s sixteen-year-old sister Hollie was quick to explain the process.  Two people pull on a large paper tube, the one with the luck or better technique gets the whole of the cracker as it pulls apart—“CRACK!” and a paper hat, kazoo, and joke fly out.  We entertained ourselves most of the afternoon playing “Name that Tune” with our kazoos, parading around in our gold paper crowns.

Easy Living
The Irish, like the Spanish, seem happier with less.  The Fitzell home is beautiful, it is nice, and it is old.  The rooms aren’t redecorated and up to the latest fashion.  The curtains and the carpet, are quaint and country, there’s no need for improvement if it works just fine.  I noticed this, the simplicity of everything—the home, the meal, the days—and I admire it.  There is no burning need for more more more.  It felt calmer. It felt smaller. Less wasteful.  I enjoyed the simplicity of the family, the five us around the table, watching movies, just being together.  Margaret turned on my bed’s electric blanket every night before bed.  Uncle Billy gave me a Seamus Heaney book of poetry.  Sean made me oatmeal every morning and Grandma fed me Christmas chocolates out of a tin.  Hollie, Rebecca, and I walked through the snowy fields with horses and were triplets in our matching Christmas Eve pajamas.    
The Irish are perhaps the friendliest people I’ve met.  The cab drivers, store clerks, the fellow bus passengers—their sense of humor is exceptional and unmatched.  They are jolly, they are funny—smart-ass and sarcastic—and always “down to have the craic.”  Craic, pronounced crack, is the word for the Irish.  It means fun.  And it fits perfectly into most situations, as most of the time the Irish are in the pub, “just having the craic.”  

Irish Cuisine
I ate cream covered jelly trifle, Fish and Chips, oatmeal, rum cake, and drank a great many cups of tea. The Irish cuisine is distinct from the Spanish, I would say mostly in the difference of olive oil and in fish.  Where Ireland is potatoes, butter and salt, Spain is ham and olive oil and bread. 
The best thing I tasted on the Irish leg of my adventure?  Guinness.  Hands down.   I poured my own pint at the Guiness Storehouse, sat in the bar overlooking the city, and had the craic.  The thick drink is so rich and satisfying.  The beer has the dark flavor and heaviness that you might find in coffee, but the crispness is refreshing, and the smooth creamy head makes it completely unique.  The Guinness in the factory surpasses the pints poured in the pubs of Dublin and obviously stands miles above the Foreign Export we drink in the States.  I am spoiled now, because when you have the best, nothing else is ever good enough.  No pint of Guinness will ever compare. December 28th was Rebecca’s seventh time visiting Guinness, she brings all her foreign friends, and it doesn’t get old.  She knows it is something as important as the Saint Patrick’s Cathedral or Trinity College.  The culture is so based upon a brewery—a beer that literally symbolizes a nation.  

Holiday Travels

Three costumed kings waved down to the crowd of children from their green, gold, and purple lit balcony.  The illuminated cathedral of Santiago de Compostela stood behind, its presence regal and majestic against the dark night sky.  The two-hour parade had led the townspeople, huddled under umbrellas but dancing just the same, to Plaza Mayor, where live music and lights, candies and floats, awaited giddy children and joyful parents. 
And of course, when you think life couldn’t get any sweeter, it does, and fireworks blow up the sky—gold and pinkgreengoldbluered confetti spit in every direction, fluttering alongside the showering rain.  Cheering, laughter, and hugging in the rain.  

On The Road
My holiday adventures stretched over 15 days, beginning with a delayed flight to Dublin and a white Christmas in the countryside, a New Year’s Eve eating olives and grapes in Southern Spain, and a solo journey North—to the charming university town of Salamanca, and to Santiago de Compostela, the rainy city that holds the relic of apostle Saint James and receives over three million religious pilgrims every year.

The trip consisted of a lot of bus rides, plane rides, and two trips by train.  I enjoyed the cityscape of a grayed winter Dublin and Christmas light lit Salamanca.  I explored the Sierra Morena and the endless blanketed olive land of Andalusia, as well as the rocky beaches of the Galicia.  I enjoyed the company and the kindness of people, was privileged to be an honorary member of two loving families, as well as enjoy the company of myself, reaching a point of stillness where I could hear the world again.