26 August 2011


One of the cool things about living in or near New York City is that nothing ever happens here.

Well,  that's not exactly true. We have plenty of man-made disasters: house fires, plane crashes, terror attacks, and the like. But I'm talking about natural disasters. Generally speaking, we don't have a lot of tornadoes, forest fires, earthquakes, mudslides, or hurricanes.  They happen, but very rarely, and almost never in combination.

Until this week.  On Tuesday, we had a real earthquake. We apparently have earthquakes all the time, as we are located on a major fault, but they are almost never strong enough to be felt. I didn't feel Tuesday's quake, as I was out running errands, but my kids did; they said the living room furniture was swaying, and water was sloshing out of the fish tank. They were simultaneously frightened and impressed. It was exciting for them to see the earthquake coverage on the news. "See, Mom? We didn't make it up. There really was an earthquake!"

And now, we are expecting the landfall of a full-force hurricane tomorrow night. This is an extremely rare event in the New York/New Jersey area. We frequently get what the weather people call "hurricane remnants," heavy winds and rain left over from a hurricane that has made landfall a little further south. We also sometimes get nor'easters, storms that approach us from the (you guessed it) northeast. But New York City has not taken a direct hit from a hurricane since 1938.  During that storm, the East River surged over its banks and billions of dollars of damage (in today's value) were sustained.

Irene, the hurricane approaching us now, is at least as strong as the Great Hurricane of 1938.  States of emergency have been declared in both New York and New Jersey.  The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates the buses, subways, and trains in New York City, will be closing down over the weekend, as will Amtrak's Northeastern Corridor.  Almost everyone is taking this seriously.

As I write this, my son is bringing in all the potted plants from the back stoop.  The little folding table we sometimes eat on in the evenings has also come in from the porch.  The porch swing has come down and has been stowed in the garage.  When I finish this, I will go to the hardware store to buy some spikes to anchor the trampoline into the ground.  (It's too big for us to move indoors.)  By the time the wind sets in tomorrow afternoon, we should be battened down and safe.

One more thing - I am charging my laptop, so that even if the power goes down, I'll still be able to conntinue posting about Spain.  Stay with me - though it's just pictures and touristy stuff now, I promise it gets more interesting a little bit down the road.

Stay safe, wherever you are.

24 August 2011


We arrived in Madrid early in the morning on Tuesday, July 26.  As I mentioned, we weren't particularly well-rested, but that didn't matter.  We were excited to begin our adventure.

As I also mentioned, none of us had ever been to Spain before.  Our language abilities were limited.  My husband, who practices criminal law in New York City, has picked up some Spanish from listening to courthouse interpreters, but most of the time he relies on his fabulous bilingual paralegal to communicate with non-English speakers at home.  My kids have had some Spanish in school, but it's been entirely of the lady-with-a-guitar-singing-songs-about-the-names-of-the-days-of-the-week variety.  So while they could tell you that we had arrived on a martes, and they could ask for a bathroom and say please and thank you, they couldn't really say much more.

I had had six months of intensive Spanish instruction in college.  I'd signed up for the classes on a whim, not knowing what else to take my senior year.  I'd needed something fun and challenging but relatively easy to fill out my class schedule while I focused most of my academic efforts on writing and defending my thesis in German.  Granted, that was twenty-five years ago, but, as it turned out, I was the family member who was best equipped, linguistically speaking, when we touched down on the Iberian peninsula.

The first order of business was, of course, to find a bathroom in the airport, and this was the magical moment in which it occurred to us that we were a bunch of gringos without a clue.  For, as far as  we knew, a bathroom was called a baño.  We were pretty sure that was the right word.  But in Spain, a baño is a bath (as in a tub full of water in which to soak).  What we were looking for - toilets - are referred to as aseos in Spain.  This is a word none of us had ever heard before.

Fortunately, whatever they are called, we found them right away.

And then we were off on our adventure.  Madrid is a beautiful city, full of friendly people eager to try out their English on visiting Americans.  The first thing we did, after settling into our hotel, was to explore the neighborhood on foot.  As it turns out, we were just a few steps from Retiro Park, which was basically Madrid's equivalent of Central Park.  We took a stroll, stopped for lunch in a cafe in the middle of the park, and watched the boaters and the street performers.

Three American kids posing in the Retiro on their first day in Spain.

A street performer blowing a giant soap bubble.
We were also just a few blocks from the world-famous Prado Museum, which we took in on the next day.  The Prado is one of the world's great collections, and it certainly deserves more than just a day, but we did the best we could on our schedule.

Outside the Prado
One of the things we always try to do when we visit a new city is to get onto one of those hop-on, hop-off bus tours.  This sounds cheesy and touristy, but it is actually a great way to get our bearings and to make sure we hit the major sights in a limited amount of time.  The bus tours also usually have ongoing recorded commentary in a variety of languages, so we can soak up some history, culture, and a little bit of information about the town we're in.

We might not have found the old city and some of the more important sights if we had not hopped onto the bus.  Also, I am famous in the family for copping a nap whenever possible, especially on board moving vehicles, so the bus gave  me an opportunity to close my eyes between sights.

Contemplating a Spanish menu

Strolling around town

After our few days in Madrid, the next order of business was to get a rental car (in the city, we had been walking everywhere) and drive it to Bilbao, up near the northern coast.  This would be a full day's drive, so we packed everything but the guide books (we had brought Fodor's Spain 2011 and the green Michelin guide) and set out on our drive.

Coming up:  Burgos, Bilbao, and the northern coast

20 August 2011


If you were wondering where I've been, I have just returned from an almost-monthlong trip to Spain (with one very exciting day in Morocco).  We have friends with a home on the southern coast of Spain, and they invited us to come for a week.  In his typical fashion, my husband decided to turn our little week into a month of exploring a country neither of us had ever seen - and to bring the kids along and show them why they should try harder in Spanish class.

While we were there, we celebrated our twentieth wedding anniversary.

My next few blog posts are going to focus on the trip, unless some other subject keeps me awake at night and demands to be addressed in this space.  Don't worry - this won't be a typical boring, rambling slide show of someone else's vacation.  Try to stay with me.  It actually gets sort of interesting around Granada.

But I get ahead of myself.  The trip started early on the morning of July 25, as we flew from LaGuardia,  the smallest of the New York City airports, to Atlanta (where we had an absolutely fabulous long lunch with my old friend Helena), and then on to Madrid.

Now, before I start waxing rhapsodic about the Spanish capital, I need to tell you a secret (which is sort of a ridiculous thing to say, since this is a public blog, but whatever).  I am absolutely terrified of flying.

I was not always afraid of flying.  In fact, as a kid, I thought it was glamorous and exciting.  I could not wait to get onto a plane and fly off into the wild blue yonder.  But something changed, probably around the time I was in college, and made me nervous.  Maybe it was the rise of terrorism, real or in my imagination.  Maybe it was the watching of one too many plane-crash stories on CNN.  Maybe it was the Lockerbie disaster.  Or maybe it was nothing in particular; as I grew up, I became more keenly aware of my own mortality, and the thought of hurtling through the air in a tin can at several hundred miles an hour gave rise to a sickening fear within me.

I try to hide my fear, especially from my children.  After all, it is mostly irrational, and a little bit selfish.  How many people in the world have the opportunity to go on a month-long trip to Spain?  It seems a little whiny to complain about mundane details like the plane trip.  And I know that it's safer to get on an airplane than to ride in a car; I've read everything I can to convince myself of the likelihood of arriving at my destination in one piece.  Still, every little bit of turbulence, every unfamiliar noise, every sinister-looking stranger makes me nervous.

When he's close enough to reach me, my husband always makes a point of touching my arm lightly during takeoff and landing, or when the ride gets noticeably bumpy.  It's just a reminder, really, that he's there, and it temporarily silences the voices in my head that are screaming oh no, I never got around to updating my will and this is going to be really painful and please at least let the kids survive without catastrophic injuries.

Of course, so far, nothing disastrous has ever happened.  That is, if you don't count the time I was six months pregnant, en route to Chicago, and stranded on the tarmac for three hours while the flight attendants refused to give me so much as a packet of peanuts ("It's against company policy to serve food while we're on the ground," they told me, as I retched into one of the paper bags that company policy apparently did allow them to distribute).  Or the time we went to Colorado but our luggage went to Minnesota.  Or - this is one of my favorites - the time my year-old daughter screamed nonstop all the way from Newark, New Jersey to Portland, Oregon.  We actually happened to be in first class on that flight, and the other elite passengers banded together in an unsuccessful attempt to get me and my unhappy baby kicked back into coach.  As though having a crying baby constitutes some sort of breach of airline contract.

In a way, I am grateful for these little distractions, because they keep my mind off my ever-present fear of crashing and burning, or of blowing up in midair.  Now that my kids are older, we watch movies together, play video games, read, and sleep, and that all passes the time pretty quickly.

On our flight to Madrid in July, we were seated in the rear bulkhead seats.  At first, I was pretty excited, because we had lots of legroom, and the plane was only half full.  I anticipated a full night's sleep.  Then I realized our seats didn't recline.  My husband and my girls quickly found vacant rows in which to stretch out, but my son and I stayed in the rear bulkhead, tangled around each other, tugging at a shared blanket, and we arrived in Madrid nice and groggy the next morning.

But that was okay.  What awaited us was a truly spectacular trip.

Next post:  Madrid