Sunday, August 31, 2008

Festes Patronals Mare de Deu de Loreto

Today marked the kick-off of one of the larger town “festes”, the feast of the Virgin of Loreto. This is a week-long festival, with a multitude of events, parades, competitions and town gatherings each day. The timing was perfect for guests, and we got our first. Eric Steeb (friend of Suzanne’s from B-School) and his wife Susan – who just happened to be in Spain on their year-long trek around the world. They’re staying with us for a week and then head off to Islands before continuing on their trip. With kids and friends in tow, we headed eagerly into the port area of town looking for the “gigantesca chocolatada”, which the English paper translated as the “chocolate giant”. We assumed that this would take the form of a large chocolate statue, perhaps in the shape of the virgin, from which the kids would be able to break off pieces to eat. We showed up to the designated area to find several ladies pouring warm liquid chocolate into a cup and handing out sponge-like cakes for dipping. “Daddy, where is the chocolate giant???” I had to explain that we may have misunderstood the event and that perhaps the giant had been melted down into the cups they were now holding. While they seemed to enjoy the chocolate, they were clearly disappointed. We then headed over to the paella feast, where all of the children in town were served a delicious meal of chicken paella and drinks (note: the adults had to fend for themselves, but at least we were able to enjoy a sangria-a-go-go as part of the festival). Fortunately, our children have not yet acquired a taste for paella, so we had several leftover plates which I eagerly ate from once the children had finished. Perhaps a bit of the ugly American came out as the Spanish parents seemed to exercise much more restraint. But in my defense, their children ate most of the paella! It was quite tasty and we enjoyed watching them cook in a pan that must have been over 3 feet in diameter. Cooking paella is much more involved than I realized. We will have to figure this out while we’re here. That evening, we headed back into port area with Eric and Susan to catch the evening town parade, which was to be followed with a “correfocs fireworks” show at midnight. The kids all took proper siestas in the day and we promised that they could stay up on this special night. The town was all lit up with decorative lights strung across the streets and the float parade began with a series of large floats carrying many of the local children dressed in intricate and colorful ceremonial costumes. They were throwing confetti and candy off the floats as they passed by. We then had an hour to kill before the fireworks, and the kids were starting to get a bit rambunctious. I asked a local merchant where the fireworks were, assuming they would be shot off the port pier and was told, “oh no, these are not fireworks, they are more like sparklers that people march with up and down the streets, just like on your 4th of July”. So yet one more translation disconnect that daddy had to explain to the kids! Suzanne was pulling her hair out trying to herd our kids who were quite out of control at this point and in my infinite wisdom, I argued for staying a bit longer… The fire show began in one of the side plazas and we saw what appeared to be roman candles on steroids billowing above the crowded plaza. People in hooded costumes were carrying giant staffs with the fireworks lit on top and waving them at the crowds as they began the procession through the port streets. Sparks were flying everywhere and the participants would often run into the crowds chasing people with their staffs ‘o fire. It was both spectacular and chaotic – yet one more thing you just don’t see in the States! Thoroughly exhausted after this big day, we got home well after 1 a.m. and collapsed.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

La Tomatina, Bunol, Spain

Before we came out to Spain, I heard about a festival called La Tomatina, in where the sleepy town of Bunol holds a massive food fight each year, hauling in truckloads of tomatoes which are hurled about wildly in the streets. It turned out that Bunol is only 20 minutes outside of Valencia, so we began to plan a trip there. We enrolled the kids, who were very excited about the concept of throwing/squashing tomatoes and we used this to keep them excited about our upcoming adventure year. As it turns out, this fiesta is definitely NOT for kids. Basically you have over 40,000 young, drunk people swarming into a town of no more than 2,000 all packed like sardines into the town plaza throwing projectiles at each other. After viewing some videos on YouTube and talking with local residents, we decided to leave the kids behind, promising that we would organize our own, kid version back in Javea. With that in mind, I set out to Bunol on a “reconnaissance” mission. As I pulled off the motorway and headed into town, I realized that this was going to be big. There was a huge line of cars and busses headed into town. I pulled off the main road and found a dirt lot to park the car and started the walk in. It reminded me of football games at UM, where thousands of people would start the march towards the stadium, with beers in hand and lots of excitement. As we got toward the town center, you could hear the energy and cheers of the crowd, who had already filled the plaza and were packed along the side streets. I made my way around the back of town and slowly worked myself into the main street area. Immediately, I was doused by a bucket of water from one of the balconies above. People were lined up above on balconies and out windows, armed with buckets and or hoses and were dousing the crowd below. The challenge was to find a spot that was not directly under a balcony/window, but it was impossible to stay dry as many locals were hiding and/or coming out to the streets with buckets. Before the tomatoes, there is a “contest”, where they tie a large Jamon (cured pork leg) on top of a very greased flagpole in the town square – whoever can make it to the top and grab the ham can take it. At times, there were 10-15 people piled up along the flagpole, but as far as I could tell, nobody was able to get to the Jamon. As it got closer to the start, there was a larger surge of people, all of whom were trying to get into the main street and it felt being caught in the front section of a U2 concert. It was almost impossible to move at this point. People (sorry, predominantly men) began taking off their shirts and tossing them at each other, which apparently is part of the tradition. Then suddenly, about 15 minutes before the tomatoes were scheduled to arrive, several people started pushing their way down the main street and they were splattered with bits of crushed tomatoes. A cheer started from the far end of the street and as I turned down to look, the first truck had arrived. Now for those of you not familiar with small European towns, a main street should not be interpreted as wide. This particular street led into the town plaza where there are lots of shops and could barely handle two cars passing by each other, but that is about it. So when the truck started to make its way down the street, there was only about 3 feet on each side of the truck. This was a hauling truck, similar to those you see in the states for taking away dirt or broken concrete. Except this truck was packed to the brim with tomatoes, primarily of the roma variety (slightly bigger than an egg). The crowd started to part as the truck passed, going at a snails pace so as not to crush anyone. Reader Discretion: The following material may be considered inappropriate for sensitive children and/or those fighting to eradicate world hunger… Everyone crammed back along the walls, as about 20 people on top of the truck dropped and threw tomatoes off the truck. Hundreds of tomatoes were being lobbed into the crowds and it appeared that there was a melee brewing behind the truck. It was time to put on the swim goggles. As the truck slowly passed me (which took about 3-5 minutes), I was basically a sitting duck as tomatoes were raining down from above and I couldn’t move out of the way. Once the truck had finally passed, we began to pick up the tomatoes and hurl them into the crowd or back at the truck. It was hard to describe just how many tomatoes were in the air, which at one point appeared as a massive swarm of giant red bugs. Except these bugs landed with impact. When the truck got about 50 yards away, it began to dump the tomatoes. I worked my way towards that point, where there was now a pile of tomatoes about 3 feet high and people were diving on top and throwing them about violently. These were not all squashed yet, and stung on impact. After a few blindsides to my face, I hastily retreated back where there were fewer tomatoes, wading through a river of tomato puree, which had now reached my shins. Tomatoes were flying from all directions and I was getting pelted mercilessly, all in a spirit of good fun. All I could do was pick them up and throw them back, trying to avoid slipping on the squishy mess below my feet as another truck began to work its way through the crowd. It was hilarious. By the time the third truck arrived, it was not so hilarious any more. There were five truckloads in all, so a lot more tomatoes were coming. I was already covered from head to toe in sticky red goop and was exhausted from the constant rain of tomatoes in the air. I started my retreat out of the red zone and began to make my way to fresh air as the sun had begun to ferment the tomato puree on the ground! People began retreating from the battleground, all covered with tomato pulp and all looking quite weary from the melee. As the cannon shot off signaling the end of the trucks, I made my way back up from the town, welcoming the spray of hoses from the locals who were kindly offering to clean off the worst of the mess. I could see the bomberos (firemen) sitting back with their trucks, shovels, brooms and water cannons getting ready to clear out the crowds and begin the thankless job of hosing down the town square, returning the town back to its sleepy, peaceful state for another year. At the car, I toweled the pulp off my face as best I could to clean the sting out of my eyes. I looked back on the town, shaking my head with a mix of wonder and disbelief as to what I had just seen. This event could only happen in Spain. These people know how to throw a party!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Our Villa, Javea, Spain

Okay, let me just get it out in the open. I am/we are terribly spoiled. Our house at Lobo Canyon has forever changed us and we will be hard pressed to find a living situation that can adhere to the standard we have inadvertently set for ourselves. What I learned about myself is that I have become extremely sensitized to a comfortable and beautiful environment and in spite of lowering my expectations significantly, I was doomed to be disappointed. To be clear, our Villa is not so bad, and for most people would be perfectly fine. Split level, fairly roomy by EU standards, full kitchen on each floor, private yard with fully enclosed garden foliage, nice clean pool. For only $2,200 US per month, this is quite a deal. But this Villa has been run as a vacation rental for quite some time and you can definitely tell. The furniture is old, the house is somewhat musty and in need of repair and it just doesn’t have the feel of a home. Oh – and then there were the multiple power outages, frequent lack of hot water, some sort of mosquito or flea or bedbug infestion, and well – lets just say though roomy – we can definitely do better! Forget about soft, comfy beds and spacious kitchens! Suzanne took it much better than I did, as I was reluctant to start unpacking our bags and was ready to go out looking for another place immediately. As reason prevailed I began the process of settling in and started to help Suzanne unpack.

Arrival in town, Javea, Spain

So finally after almost 2 weeks of travel, with our 16 items in tow, we arrived at the Valencia airport and headed out to Javea. Surprisingly, our bags all arrived intact, although one of our biggest suitcases arrived early and it took a bit of time to track it down. The biggest stress point was whether we would be able to fit our luggage into the rental car, which was a Ford Focus station wagon. It was big by Spanish standards, but took quite a bit of creative engineering to get all the bags to fit. Suzanne and I were very much looking forward to settling into one place and putting these @#$%^ bags away for a while! Valencia is just over an hour from Javea, but there is a fantastic toll road/motorway that takes you straight there. I figured it would be easy to find, given I had been there in January. What I didn’t figure was that there was a non-toll version of the same road, veering inland and completely bypassing the coast. After about 45 minutes and seeing no signs anywhere pointing to Javea, I realized I had screwed up. Of course, we did not have any proper maps of the region handy, but we were able to dig up a map of Spain, which showed we were directly east of Javea, with a whole bunch of mountains between us and a few roads on the map that looked like they may be heading west. Suffice it to say, what should have been an hour trip ended up taking three, and what should have been a relaxing early entry into town turned out to be somewhat exhausting first day. However, we did see some very interesting small towns and some cool rural areas with old castle ruins in the countryside that will warrant further exploration when we have more energy.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Wrap-up of Belgium and England

Yes, we finally made it.  With 8 check-in bags, 8 carry-ons and 3 small children.  Believe me - no small feat!
As if moving to Spain were not enough, we first embarked on a family "vacation" to help ease us in to the time zones and European way of life. We initially flew to Brussells, where Esther Choi picked all of us up and took us to her family's summer home on the Belgian coast.   Esther is an old friend from Amgen long ago, who's been living with her family in Brussels for about 8 years now.  We spent 4 days at the seaside town of Knocke with her and Francois, Naomi, and Ashley (who we discovered was born the day before Kellen!).  We slept in, ate fabulously, rented very cool bikes by the seaside, flew kites, played minigolf, and even walked right by the Princess of Belgium.  The kids (especially princess crazy Casey) were very impressed - our first real Princess!!!  I can't think of a better way to adjust to a different time-zone than to relax and spend time with a great old friend.  Esther and family are doing great and we're hoping they'll come visit us in Javea this year.
Next, we were off to England to visit with Anne Heatherington, Steve Martin and the kids Hannah, James, and Sophia.  Also old friends from Amgen who've been back in the UK now for about 4 years.  We had a bit of a hickup trying to get to London from Brussels though.  We got caught in a baggage handler's strike and were stuck in Brussels for a couple of days.  It wasn't so bad... we were at an airport hotel with a pool and internet, and eventually opted to get all of our luggage, rent a car, drive to Calais, take the ferry to Dover, where Anne and Family picked us up and took us to there home outside of Canterbury.  Won't go into more details than that... but hmmm... was NOT easy!!!  Its that 3kids and luggage thing!
But - on to Canterbury.   We had a fabulous time.  The kids, all having known each other by being the same ages and in many of the same camp amgen classes, had a great time playing together.  Of course, it doesn't hurt to have slumber parties and a house full of toys and a trampoline!!!   We did lots of fun stuff in Canterbury, like went through a tour w/ sets from the Canterbury Tales that you listen to the tales as you go through.  Casey and Steve cut out early because it was dark and Casey got a bit scared... but the boys and I went through it.  It was all a bit saucy!  Had to explain a few things tactfully to the boys...   We took a boat ride, played in the park that had a maze, and the kids competed in all sorts of contests: hopping, crabwalk, etc.  Had a great time.  I however, was a bit sad that we had no room in our luggage for me to go shopping!!!  The shops looked great!  
We also spent a day going into London.  We first went and saw the Meridian Line, which was quite cool, and then took a ferry to the Tower Bridge.  At the Tower, we saw all kinds of things.  Its great that the kids are learning some history... but it took us a little while to figure out how exactly to explain the guillotines, the many executions that took place there, and of course, King Henry XIII.  Can't really see/experience history in Europe w/out all these things!  The kids found it all fascinating, but as Kellen said... "King Henry XIII was not the nicest king".  It was all great.  Great friends, great fun, great place.  We're really lucky to have friends in a few places in Europe as they greatly eased us in!
Going to sign off now and Steve will give the updates from here on out.