28 September 2011

Seville



All the images you have in your head of Spain - from childhood geography classes, from travel posters, from history classes, from old opera records - they are all of Seville.



This is a seriously beautiful place.  The sun shines brightly and unceasingly; in August, the temperature hovers regularly around 40.  Sevillians are unfazed; they rest at the hottest part of the day, and then gather at outdoor cafes where a fine mist, distributed by overhead pipes, keeps them cool.  At night, they dance and drink local wine, and nibble on local olives and fish.

Cold water with lemon slices, and plenty of olive oil and vinegar.


My husband wants to move here.


Me, with one of my beautiful daughters, enjoying breakfast at a misty cafe.

In the orange grove near the cathedral.

We spent our twentieth wedding anniversary in this beautiful place.  We - all five of us - took a tour of the town in a horse-drawn carriage, starting at the cathedral square and ending at a flamenco show.



One of the doors to the cathedral.

The lovely young man and horse who showed us around their native city.

By the end of our stay in Seville, I was exhausted but happy.  Bobby had developed a cold, and I could tell it was going to be a bad one; his ears were hurting, and he wanted to do nothing but sleep.  I figured that made two of us.  Our next stop was Granada, and Bobby and I both slept the whole way there.

Good night, Seville.


Coming up:  things get interesting at the Alhambra.

24 September 2011

Facial

Yesterday, around lunchtime, I decided I needed a treat.  This thought occurs to me from time to time, and when it does, I usually just take a half-hour break from work and go down to the local nail salon for a $10 chair massage.  But yesterday, my need was greater than usual, and for various reasons, a massage was not in the cards.  I decided to splurge.  I decided to get a facial.

I almost never get facials.  (I think the last one I had was a gift from a relative, right after the birth of my son, twelve years ago.)  I have what facialists like to call "problem skin," which I inherited, along with my wry wit, from my English and Irish ancestresses.  Facialists generally treat this mess with instruments of torture that leave my face red and irritated, worse off than when I started.  I also usually get talked into buying all kinds of expensive miracle products, which I use for about a week before ditching them and replacing them with a bar of soap from the supermarket.

But yesterday, I wanted to be fawned over.  I wanted to lie on a table, with aromatherapy candles burning and Enya playing in the background, while some beauty expert with an exotic accent tended to my every dermatological need.  I deserved it; it had been a rough couple of weeks.  I called the spa down the road, and they agreed to fit me in at 12:30.

I drove a mile in the pouring rain to the spa, where I was escorted into a darkened room that smelled vaguely of sandalwood.  "You take off shirt and bra," commanded Susan, the facial lady.  "You put things in closet.  You put towel over you and lie on table face up.  I be back."

I complied.  Susan returned, pulled my hair back off my face, and shone a bright light on me.  Her tongue began to click.

"This terrible," she said.

Terrible seemed like an extreme word, but I didn't say anything.  I breathed in the sandalwood-scented steam and waited for the pampering to begin.

"You skin.  Very bad.  Very, very bad.  No facial for you."

"No facial?"

"No facial.  You need Green Peel."

"Green Peel?"

"Yes.  Your skin very bad.  Why you no take care of your skin?"

Now she was getting accusatory.  "I have bigger things to worry about than my skin," I told her.

"Nothing more important than healthy skin.  Very important.  I give you Green Peel.  Your face better next week.  Then you come back, I fix you broken caterpillars."

"Capillaries."

"Yes, but not today.  Today you get Green Peel."

Whatever.  If it would make my very, very bad skin look better, and take my mind off the obviously less important things I'd been worrying about, then I'd do it.  "Okay.  Green Peel it is."

She sniffed smugly and began the process.  She covered my face with a cold cream and then tissued it off.  She repeated this several times.  Then she scrubbed my face with something that smelled good.  Then she covered my eyes with cotton pads and applied a mask.  While the mask dried, she massaged my neck and shoulders.  She took the mask off with warm water and a soft cloth.  I was very happy.

When she was finished, she asked, "You go anywhere today?  After this?"

"No," I said.  "Just home."

"You face very red next few days.  Then begin to peel a little.  New fresh skin underneath.  Much better.  I give you cream to protect face from sun while peeling.  Very important.  I put cream on now.  You no take off.  Go straight home."

"Okay."

She applied the protective cream to my face and then instructed me to get up when I was ready, get dressed, and meet her outside by the register.  She turned on the light on her way out.

I stood up and put my clothes back on.  I looked in the mirror.

The cream on my face was green.

Like Frankenstein.  Like Oscar the Grouch.  There were two bald circles around my eyes, and the rest of my face was hallelujah green.

I picked up a towel and wiped it off.  I then brushed my hair, picked up my purse, and headed for the register.

Susan took one look at me and started to shriek.  "No!  You take off cream!  No no no!"

"I - I'm sorry," I said.  "It was green."

"BUT VERY DANGEROUS!  Your skin sensitive to sun!  Need protective cream!"  She hustled out from behind the register and approached me, her tongue clicking out of control.

I gestured toward the window.  The rain was coming down in buckets.  I could not see the sidewalk outside.  "I don't think the sun is too much of a danger today," I said.  "I'll be fine.  What do I owe you?"  I took out my wallet.

"YOU NO UNDERSTAND!  You face!  Very dangerous!  You need!  I put it back on."  She pushed me down into a chair and squirted more green lotion onto her hand.

This woman was insane.  "I understand.  But I CANNOT PICK MY CHILDREN UP FROM SCHOOL WITH A GREEN FACE.  I will run into someone I know.  THIS IS A SMALL TOWN.  My car is parked a block and a half away.  I need to walk down the main street to get to it.  Someone will see me."

She didn't listen.  She slathered me with green cream again.

I sighed and paid her a sum I can't disclose, because my husband reads this blog.  She handed me a plastic bag filled with miracle products, including green cream, which she instructed me to apply several times a day for the next week.

So, if you saw me yesterday afternoon, walking down the street in the rain looking like a green-faced freak, be assured that it was not a dread disease or early Halloween.  It was just an expensive, poorly-thought-out attempt to improve my very, very bad skin, and to take my mind off the pettier concerns of life.

Next time, maybe a pedicure.

23 September 2011

Walking

Sylvia Plath said, in her iconic novel The Bell Jar, that there are few problems that can't be solved by the taking of a warm bath.  I think she was probably right.  But I actually don't have a bathtub, so I have to settle for the other cure-all activity: dog walking.

My younger daughter has been watching a lot of The Dog Whisperer lately, and I have noticed, from the snippets I have seen, that each episode begins more or less the same way: with the Dog Whisperer snapping a leash on the problem dog and going for a nice, long walk.  (With very active dogs, he sometimes puts on his roller skates so the dog gets an even more intense workout.)  Then, with the dog calm, subdued, and tired, he begins the work of tackling the behavioral problem at hand.

There should be a show called The People Whisperer.  In which Trixie and Sparky, the well-adjusted rescue dogs, take a daily hour-long morning walk with their anxious, hyperactive mom, thereby tiring her body, easing her mind, and preparing her to tackle a day's work.  At the end of each episode, the stars enjoy a Milk-Bone or a yogurt, depending on their species, and then curl up and take a nap (or start writing a habeas corpus petition, again, depending on their species).

The People Whisperer debuted this morning, with a walk along the railroad tracks near my home.  I chose this route because (1) it's wide open and grassy, with no traffic to dodge, (2) it's easy to get to, and (3) we were unlikely to run into anyone we knew.

But look who we did run into.  I was amazed at how close I was able to get, while holding two leashed but excited dogs and fumbling with my camera.  I took this picture from about twenty feet away.



What a beautiful way to start a day.  I recommend it highly.

*************************************************

P.S.  Here's a bonus shot of Sparky, riding shotgun in my car.  He loves to ride in the car and takes it very seriously.  As you can see from his alert expression, he considers it his job to accompany me, even on the most petty of errands.  He is the definition of a good dog.



20 September 2011

The Basque Country: San Sebastian

The story is that Isabella II of Spain, whose turbulent reign spanned the middle of the nineteenth century and who suffered from some unknown feminine ailment, was advised by a doctor to seek the healing powers of the cold Atlantic coast in the north.  She chose the Basque city of San Sebastian (Basque:  Donostia), on the Bay of Biscay, just a few miles from the French border.  From that time on, San Sebastian became known as a beachside resort popular among the rich and famous.  Its beach is known as La Concha, or The Seashell, because of its unique covelike shape.  We stopped there on our trip in August because it is reputed to be one of the most beautiful beaches in Europe, rivaling even Nice and Monte Carlo.  (I have been to both of those places.  When I heard that San Sebastian was nicer, I thought:  this I've gotta see.)

La Concha Beach, seen from our hotel-room window.

The beach in San Sebastian is indeed shaped like a seashell.  As in Nice and Monaco, the water is electric blue.  Unlike Nice and Monaco, which have rocky shores that are uncomfortable to lie on, San Sebastian has fine, powdery sand, perfect for sunbathing.  The problem we found, however, was that the beach was packed with people, and the water was, sad to say, filthy.  (I know I already horrified you with the rat story yesterday, so I won't give you details.  Suffice it to say that after the first day, my husband lost any desire to be in the water.)

But the beach wasn't the only attraction in this beautiful resort town.  First of all, we had a great hotel room, overlooking both the city and the beach.

Bobby on the balcony

Me on the balcony

And once we left the hotel, we discovered a fascinating little town.  First of all, we knew the beach was safe because of the enormous, watchful lifeguard, who stood guard over the children and the ships from the top of the hill overlooking the cove.


The food was spectacular.  My children lost no time in finding their beloved baguettes and dividing the spoils amicably.

The favorite baguette was the "x-shaped" one on the lower right shelf.


They pulled it apart on the street like it was a giant wishbone.

There was so much to see and do.  There was a long boardwalk alongside the beach that led up the hills, past the fishing dock, and into the old city.


You could sit on the dock if you got tired during the walk.


There were exotic treats from the sea to sample at the docks.  The very friendly Basque fisherman who served us was astounded at the bravery and adventuring spirit of this little troop of Americans.

Yes, that's right, raw, shell-on shrimp (called quisquillas), eaten head and all, even by my vegetarian daughter.
At night, the old city came to life, with bright lights and delicious tapas (which are called pintxos in Basque).  In short, but for the beach, we could not have had a better time.  Spain was agreeing with us thoroughly, but, believe it or not, the best was yet to come.

We did not eat at McDonald's, but the kids were so amused to find it in this beautiful ancient city that they insisted we take a picture.


Next stop:  Seville, and our twentieth wedding anniversary.

18 September 2011

Rats

WARNING.  This post contains graphic descriptions of a vermin infestation.  If you're squeamish about such things, you might want to skip this one.

A few years ago, my family and I swapped homes with a German family for our summer vacation.  A lot of my friends think this was a brilliant idea and are constantly asking me about it, wanting to hear about how fabulous it was to vacation in Germany for free.  The truth of the matter is that it was a traumatic experience for me and one I am not likely to repeat soon.  While we had a great time, the Germans absolutely hated our home and our neighborhood - so much so that they filed an official complaint with the swapping organization upon their return and managed to get us banned from ever using that agency again.  They also complained loudly and at length to my neighbors about how awful my home was.  I was mortified and traumatized.  I am still nervous about having anyone over, even my closest friends.

The problem was that we live in an historic 150-year-old Victorian house that always has something wrong with it.  Shortly before the Germans arrived, we had a major plumbing disaster that required a total remodel of our only full bathroom.  The contractor worked two days later than he was supposed to, which meant the Germans had to stay in the local Marriott for their first two days, at our expense.  Though the brief hotel stay (in luxury digs) cost them nothing and they had the use of a brand-spanking-new bathroom for a month, beginning on their third day, they were infuriated.  At some point later in their visit, our clothes dryer broke down, and one of the benches at our kitchen table broke as well.  (The Germans freaked; we called a neighbor, who ran over with a screwdriver and fixed the bench for them.  They had to hang their laundry to dry for the rest of their visit, though, and this made them very, very angry.)

We are used to these everyday disasters and manage to take them mostly in stride.  We just cope with them as they come along and, except when they cause us great expense (like the bathroom or the new clothes dryer), we usually don't give them much thought once the urgency has passed.  To use a hackneyed phrase, we've got bigger fish to fry.  The psycho German lady who hates me, my old decrepit house, and my neighborhood ("too noisy") hardly ever crosses my mind anymore.  At least, she didn't cross my mind until this week, when something happened that would have absolutely sent her into the stratosphere of Teutonic house-angst.  I am enjoying thinking about how she'd react to this one.

One of my dogs, Trixie, had been spending an inordinate amount of time staring into a remote corner of our basement and occasionally lunging at an unseen foe.  I was writing some papers for the Supreme Court in another corner of the basement, so I mostly ignored her.  But then, on a recent evening, my husband was watching a football game on the kitchen television late at night when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a rat sidle up to the dogs' water dish.

That's right.  A rat.  Sidling.  In my kitchen.  Dear God.

Sam jumped up and grabbed a broom with which to whack it to death, but the wily creature vanished into the night unharmed.

I called the exterminator first thing in the morning.  She told me it was probably a mouse.  I assured her that my husband, who grew up riding the New York City subways and currently works in the Bronx, knew a rat when he saw one.  It was big enough to drink from a dog's water dish, for heaven's sake.  She said she'd send someone that afternoon.

That someone showed up as promised, but he had been told he was most likely looking at a mouse infestation, so he brought only mousetraps.  One look at the corner where Trixie had been spending her days convinced him that he was dealing with a more formidable quarry.  He apologized and said he'd be back the following morning with bigger traps and poison.

In the meantime, over my whiny girly protests, my husband and my intrepid housekeeper laid glue traps all over the basement.  I am fundamentally opposed to glue traps because I am fundamentally opposed to witnessing death whenever I can avoid it.  I want the rats to disappear without any mess or suffering - on their part or mine.  (I don't think this is unreasonable.  My husband, however, rolling his eyes skyward, says, "They're rats, Jennie."  He has hated rodents of all sorts ever since he suffered an unfortunate hamster bite as a child.)

Back to real life, I dragged Trixie out from her hiding place under my bed, extracted her paw from a glue trap she'd stepped in, and settled in at my basement desk.  I heard the scurrying and gnawing.  It was everywhere.  I felt like I'd been trapped in a Poe story or a Hitchcock movie.  At any moment, an evil Rodent of Unusual Size would appear out of the shadows and lunge at me, biting me and injecting me with plague-infested rat saliva.  Sweat broke out on my forehead.  I couldn't concentrate.

Nothing happened for a long time, until that evening, when Bobby, 12, and I were alone in the basement.  Bobby came to me at my desk and announced, "There's a rat in the trap by the dryer."

I gasped.  "Is it alive?"

He peered at the trap.  "Yeah.  It's struggling.  Do you want to see it?"

"No!"  I hastily texted my husband and the housekeeper.  "THERE IS A RAT IN ONE OF THE TRAPS.  AAAAAAAAA."

The housekeeper texted back in a flash.  "Don't panic.  I'm on my way."

God bless her.  While I covered my ears and closed my eyes, she got a shovel from the garage, scooped the trap out from its hiding place, and took it outside, where she dispatched the rat and disposed of the whole mess.  I heard the rat squeal, but I didn't see a thing.  Super Housekeeper then washed her hands and went home for the night.  I can't pay that woman enough.  I am in awe of her.

The exterminator came back and placed traps and poison.  The following day, he returned and confirmed seven kills.  He refilled the poison baits and reset the traps.  He'll be back tomorrow.  Sam spent today clearing brush near the garage, disassembling my compost pile, and discussing the problem with one of the neighbor guys while taking a break from mowing the lawn.  (I stayed far away, planting some mums in the front yard and then taking a long nap in the afternoon.  Denial and avoidance are my specialties.  Sunday afternoon naps, too.)

It seems the crisis has passed, or is passing, at least.  I don't know why it happened.  The suspects include the crew of guys who are currently working hard to paint the exterior of our house - maybe they disturbed the status quo somehow with their ladders and sent these critters fleeing into my basement.  (I doubt it, though.)  Or it could be my compost pile, conveniently located until today right by the kitchen door, full of tasty treats for rodents.  (A better theory.)  Or - and I think this is most likely - it could be one of those fluke things that just "happens" to us.  In a few weeks, like the German house swap, it will be a funny anecdote that we remember with a mixture of amusement and horror.


17 September 2011

The Basque Country: Bilbao


Most Americans, if they have heard of the Basque Country, have heard of it because of the numerous attacks launched against Spanish and French institutions by Basque separatists operating under the armed organization called ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, "Basque Homeland and Freedom").  More than 1,000 people were killed in these attacks between 1959 and January of this year, when the ETA called a permanent ceasefire.  The Basque Country, known in Basque as Euskadi and in Spanish as PaĆ­s Vasco, is now an autonomous community located in northern Spain, on the Atlantic coast, near the base of the Pyrenees.  It is, as we found in August of this year, a safe, beautiful, warm, and welcoming place for Americans to visit.  Its language is fascinating and perplexing (both to amateur and professional linguists, actually), but everyone spoke Spanish and a little English too, and the Basque people couldn't have been nicer to us.


The biggest city in the Basque Country is Bilbao (with around three hundred fifty thousand people).  Bilbao was our first stop after the spectacular cathedral in Burgos.  The thing you notice first about Bilbao is the flowers.  They are everywhere, and I couldn't resist photographing them at every turn...








...with or without my family standing in front of them.



In front of Bilbao's most famous building, the Guggenheim Museum, the flowers were sculpted in the shape of a giant dog.

My kids lived on baguettes for about three weeks.  At every turn, they were munching on baguettes.  You may notice this in more pictures as we go along.


The Guggenheim is Bilbao's crown jewel.  Designed by the Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry, it opened to the public in 1997 and houses an impressive collection of modern art.  Here are a couple of pictures of the building stolen from Wikipedia:


The Guggenheim Museum by night


The spectacular and dizzying curves of the building, seen by day

We liked the building itself more than the collection; as Yoda would say, fans of very modern art we are not.

We spent one day and one night in Bilbao.  Then it was off to San Sebastian (Basque: Donostia), the seaside resort in the north, for three days.  That post will follow shortly.  In the meantime, here's a little more Bilbao.

Inside the Guggenheim, looking down from the top floor

At the fountain in front of our hotel, the Hotel Carlton

Me and Sam, in the late afternoon light, by the fountain

Looking out from our hotel-room balcony onto the city

P.S.  As you know, I am writing this in my New Jersey basement, long after our return from Spain.  It is finally cooling off a little bit here, and the kids are settling into seventh, ninth, and eleventh grades.  With all that's going on, it's a lot of fun for me to periodically look back at our summer trip; I hope you are enjoying it as well!

11 September 2011

Eleventh

Today dawned bright and beautiful, just like September 11 ten years ago.  (I have already told you where I was and what I was doing that day; if you missed it, you can find my story here.)  I have always thought that September and October are the most beautiful months in this part of the world.  It might be because the weather is most reliably good at this time of the year - October is, in fact, our driest month, and September is almost always still summery but not brutally hot.  Or it might be because I find the return to routine that comes with the beginning of the school year to be satisfying and calming.  Or it might be because I have always associated September and October with an opportunity for a fresh start: my birthday comes at the end of September, and so does the Jewish new year celebration, which always made more intuitive sense to me than the secular January new year.

We went to our regular church service this morning, and then we headed home as quickly as we could for our town's memorial service.  Our town has a pretty little "Peace Plaza," built in 2001 in the midst of the municipal complex.  A few hundred people crowded into that space to see the police force's honor guard, hear remembrances, and listen to the high school honors choir's tearjerking rendition of "America the Beautiful."  (My daughter Becky sings soprano in that choir, so I snagged myself a prime seat and tried to catch the whole thing on my iPhone.  No luck - as you will recall, I am not a very good photographer -  but I felt I'd be remiss if I didn't try.)

I don't think there's a lot I can add to the national dialogue about the tenth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks.  The subject has been exhausted in the media, in the public discourse, and of course on Facebook and Twitter, where people have proclaimed their undying love for the land of the free and have changed their profile pictures to images of the Twin Towers against a red, white, and blue background.  People are exultant in their declarations of patriotism, in their quotations of lyrics, and in their praise of the New York police and fire departments.  Some people (and these are the ones for whom my heart aches) mourn the loss of loved ones, of friends and family members taken too soon and by surprise on what otherwise should have been a normal Tuesday late-summer morning.  That thought, rather than the land-of-the-free talk, is what gets my tear glands working.  It's not easy to have children, or to find your soul mate, or to make lifelong friends.  Having them ripped from you in a senseless act of violence can shake anyone's faith, and would cause a pain that could never be assuaged by mere images of flags or singing of songs.

My denomination has a big cathedral in Newark, New Jersey, at which a large memorial service was held late this afternoon.  This morning, a woman in my church asked whether I would be attending.  "No," I said.  "I need to go home, because Becky is singing in our town's memorial at noon."

"Oh," she said.  And then, conspiratorially:  "I'm not going either.  I would, but I heard there would be Muslims there."

At hearing this, my heart sank with sadness again.  I do not know this woman well, but I liked what I knew of her until this morning.  Now, all I can think is:  the terrorists won.  They successfully sowed seeds of hate, which have taken root in fertile ground.  We do not learn.  We do not grow.  We do not open our hearts, despite the overwhelming signs, all around us, that we must, if we are to survive.

If you are in mourning, I wish you peace.  If you are angry, I wish you peace as well.  Peace seems to me to be the eternal question, and the only viable answer.

07 September 2011

Burgos

The hurricane is gone - we just lost a few branches from the big old maple tree out front.  We cleaned up (mostly) in time for the start of school.

Now, where were we?  Oh, yes, it was the 29th of July, and we were in Madrid, renting a car, stuffing it full of our belongings, and heading north. Our first planned stop was Bilbao - my choice, as I wanted to see the Guggenheim Museum there - and then San Sebastian, on the northern coast near the Pyrenees.  San Sebastian was Sam's choice, as it is reputed to be one of the most beautiful seaside resorts in all of Europe.

When we travel by car, Sam usually drives.  I spell him when he gets tired, but he hates being a passenger and prefers to be in control of the vehicle whenever possible.  That's fine with me, so most of the time I sit in the front passenger seat with a map and a guide book, telling him which way to go.  I am an excellent navigator in the United States, but I am sort of iffy in Spain.  Also, I have a terrible habit - mostly beyond my control - of falling asleep at the drop of a hat.  In Spain, I was doing this mid-conversation.  It was driving Sam nuts.

Bilbao is an all-day drive from Madrid, and around midday, we started to get hungry.  We were near a city called Burgos, which I quickly looked up in the book.  Michelin said it had a spectacular cathedral, not to be missed.  Sam made a quick executive decision to pause in Burgos and have lunch near the cathedral.

In Burgos, as in most European cities big enough to have a cathedral, the cathedral square is a center of commerce.  We knew we'd have no difficulty finding a nice place to eat in the center of town.

The square near the cathedral in Burgos.

Walking down an alley, looking for a restaurant.  The lady in the skirt is a local - I am taking the picture!
Pausing at a souvenir shop because, to my kids' great amusement, they had "Bob Esponja" (Sponge Bob) t-shirts.
We often have lengthy debates before we choose a restaurant, because my oldest daughter is a vegetarian, my younger daughter is a huge meat-eater, and my son is, well, conservative in his tastes.  This time was no different, but we eventually settled on a place called the Casa Amarilla (the Yellow House).  It did not disappoint.  They had delicious paella (Sarah, being the good sport that she is, just ate around the bits of seafood) and their own house red wine.


After lunch, we had to tour the cathedral.  It turned out that El Cid was buried within its walls - who knew? (El Cid is a Spanish national hero of legendary proportions.  If you're not familiar with his story, you can catch up on it here.)

Going in.
Courtyard.

Forbidden photo of the interior of cathedral.  Look at all that gold.  Wow.
When we had seen the cathedral and walked off the wine and the lunch, it was back into the car to continue the nap drive to Bilbao.  But first, we paused for a couple of family pictures outside the city wall.  First, Sam and the kids:


And here's a rare shot of me with the kids (just in case you're not sure, I'm the one in the purple top).



How lucky we were to stumble on such a beautiful place, have such a delicious lunch, and learn something about the history and culture of Spain!  We couldn't wait to see what awaited us on our next stop.