Friday, September 25, 2009

Prologue - The Family Adventure Lives On!

In many ways, Boulder has already exceeded our expectations on so many levels. Our house turned out to be even better than expected, and now that we have finally got all of our stuff moved in, it has already started to feel like a home. We have been continually amazed at how friendly and welcoming people are here, inviting us over to their homes and helping us network with other families and like-minded individuals. There is a strong sense of community and family here, which is what had been looking for but had never found in LA. It is nice to be so close to my brother Jeff, Lynn and their 1 year-old son Braydon who are only 10 minutes away and have helped us settle in quickly. Plus, we now live in the same town as our new best family friends, the Andrews - with whom we've shared countless highs and lows during our crazy adventures in Spain together. I love the fact that we can ride with the kids on bikes to school, watching with amazement as families seemingly pour out of the different streets along the route to ride with us. I love how our kids now regularly broker "play-dates" on the fly after school, as if drafting for a fantasy football league. The boys are in soccer and cub scouts (making a former AYSO junkie and Eagle Scout's heart smile), and Casey is now doing ballet and gymnastics. We found a local student who is from Mexico who is now coming out to work with the kids to preserve what little Spanish they have still retained, so we'll see how that goes! We are all continually meeting interesting new people and making new friends. They like their school and their teachers and Suzanne and I are filling up our time by volunteering at the school and getting to know the community. The biking out here is world-class, and I've had to re-set my perspective about what it means to be an athlete; the people here are on a completely different stratosphere! While the specter of employment and re-engaging in a career still looms in the back of our minds, we are quite content at the moment and are extremely fortunate to take this opportunity to really settle in before jumping into the next big thing. We have had enough craziness and uncertainty over this past year and it feels good to really take the time settle down and plant roots. We owe that to our kids, to ourselves and to each other. As each day goes by and we settle into our new lives here, our Spanish Adventure Year feels more and more like a vivid, fascinating dream. It is amazing to think about what a wonderful and crazy experience our last year has been and how much we experienced in such a short amount of time. All of us have memories which will stay with us for a lifetime, and although things didn't always match up to our expectations, that is what made this an "adventure" in the truest sense of the word. Viva Espana and Viva our new adventure in Boulder!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Moving On and Letting Go

With the kids out of the house all day, we turned our energy towards closing out our lives and preparing for our final move to Boulder. Things turned out pretty smoothly, save for the last day when it took much longer than expected to move our final stuff out of the house. Although half of our possessions were already in storage and given our constant efforts to pare things down, I was shocked to see how much stuff we still owned! We ended up tripping over the new tenants, who started dropping off their things. In retrospect, it would have been better had we demanded they come a day later so we wouldn't have seen piles of other peoples' things stacked up in the carport and big encroaching flat-screen tvs on the walls, so we could have preserved our memory of the house exactly as we had left it. However, it was interesting and encouraging to note that neither Suzanne nor I had nearly the same melonchally feelings that we had when we left our house over a year ago. As much as we cherished our property and the wonderful memories created here, it seemed we were finally ready to move on. Plus, we had become really excited about the prospect of living in a great new family-oriented place in Boulder. While we had hoped to have many dinner-parties and catch up with old friends, we simply ran out of time. It was not until our last day, after the movers had boxed up our remaining possessions and we were officially "homeless" once again, that we were able to have a nice evening with Jody and Rob and a quick breakfast with Eric and Susan (round-the-world travelers who stayed with us in Javea), before jumping on our flight to Colorado.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Next Stop on the Adventure Train - House Hunting, Boulder, CO

As it turned out, we only had several days to adjust, before Suzanne booked us on a flight to Boulder with the goal of locking down a rental home. Exhausted as we were, we were excited and admittedly a bit nervous to arrive there, knowing that this would be our new town. We stayed at my brother's place and began our property search with 5 promising options to look at. Unfortunately after 2 days, we had nothing to show for our efforts and we were discouraged. Seemed that everything we were looking at was either too small or had no yard. There were some interesting spec house options, but ultimately they were too expensive and we felt were more for showing/entertaining than living in. With our return flight looming, Suzanne asked me to stay 2 more days to keep searching and she headed back to pick up the kids from a long weekend with their babysitter. I must have called dozens of realtors and looked at over twenty places, but still did not have anything concrete by the time my trip ended. On one hand, it was only a rental, but we were going in with the attitude of finding a place where we might eventually settle, which made the search more challenging. Discouraged and frustrated, I headed back home empty-handed. The only angle that seemed to be working for us was by contacting the realtors of houses on the markets to enquire about rentals. After all, that's how we ended up renting out our house in CA, so we knew that this approach could work. It just meant more searching and a more creative effort. Suzanne began to dust off her previous house searches, and we started walking down the call lists. Fortunately, my brother Jeff and his wife Lynn were on the ground in Boulder, and they made several critical visits to "weed out" houses in our absence. Within several days Suzanne hit paydirt - a lovely house in N. Boulder whose owners were moving to S. Africa in August and had not been able to sell their house in time. Everything seemed to fall together perfectly for both families. The house was huge and sat on a beautiful five-acre park. Plus it bordered the local middle school, with several ballfields, a track and 8 tennis courts almost literally in our backyard! While we had not originally targeted North Boulder, it turned out to be a wonderful family setup and just felt right on many levels.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Last Hurrah in So. Cal.

As we were thoroughly exhausted from traveling and living out of suitcases for the last several months, it felt great to come "home" to our beloved property in Agoura. Although half of our furniture and belongings were locked away in storage, our house was still more equipped than many of the apartments we had stayed in during our adventure. The kids were thrilled to return to something familiar, even though their toys and furniture had been packed away long ago. It felt especially great to jump into our own comfortable bed and fall into a deep sleep, already letting go of the many "hard lumpy bed" memories that had plagued us throughout our adventure year. Our first morning back at the house was a somewhat surreal experience. After everything we had been through, being back seemed like waking up from an amazingly vivid dream, as if nothing had changed. The canyon and house looked almost exactly the same as we had left it. We had always loved waking up to the sun coming up over the mountains and enjoying the beautiful, peaceful views from our bedroom, and today was no exception. Although we didn't have our favorite automatic espresso machine, we did manage to get a strong pot of coffee brewing. And the kids wasted no time jumping into our pool the moment they woke up and managed to play there all day long! I found myself in a dream-like, jet-lagged state as I headed out to our local grocery store and wandered aimlessly through the aisles - awed by the selection of foods and the fact that the store was already open at 7:30 am. However, I was shocked to see the prices of wine and bread, realizing that our days of quality $3 riojas and riberos and $0.25 loaves of bread were now gone. Reacclimatization was going to be a challenge... While it was great to spend some time back here, I would not classify it as a vacation by any means. We had tons to get done in the next 2 1/2 weeks in order to prepare for the new tenants as well as to figure out how best to transition ourselves to Boulder, CO. Fortunately, Suzanne enrolled the kids at Camp Keystone down the canyon during our time here and they could not have been more excited to be at summer camp with other english speaking kids! They were also fortunate to be able to have one last pool party with their LA cousins, Kyle and Kelani as well as getting to spend a few days up in Petaluma with their N. Cal cousins, Alexa and Dominic. While we were sad to be leaving family here in California, we were excited to get to meet our new cousin, baby Braydon, who was born right after we left for Spain last year.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Heading Home

By now, we had whittled down our possessions to a very manageable 4 checked bags and 5 carry-ons. We called for two cabs and headed to the Santiago airport, eager to make our way back to Madrid, and ultimately, home. Suddenly, Suzanne jumped out of the cab in front and frantically hailed us to pull over - she had forgotten her iPod in the apartment. The iPod was probably her most important material possession for the next 24-48 hours, as it was loaded with podcasts and new movies to help make the flight more tolerable. I rushed back with our driver and tried to figure out how to get back into the apartment, but to no avail - we were locked out and there was no way to get a spare set of keys in time. I returned to the airport empty-handed. Suzanne would have to suck it up on the long trip home. Of all the things to forget! But all things considered - other than a lost DVD player in Seville- we managed to make it through the year with pretty much everything intact. Our only other hiccup on the flight home was on the final leg from Toronto to LA. Apparently, in all the frequent flyer mile-shuffling, Casey and I got booked on a later flight and it was too late to make any changes. Suzanne had to fend for herself with the boys and all of our luggage for several hours at LAX, while I had to assuage a very tired and sad Casey, who cried for an hour straight when she realized that our family unit was to be separated. That being said, everything went reasonably well (thank goodness for in-seat videos!), and once we reunited at LAX we made a midnight drive to our home in Agoura where we would be spending the next 2 1/2 weeks before embarking on yet another family adventure.

Winding Down Our Spanish Experience

As the so-called "leader" of this so-called adventure, I did what I could to enroll my family to enjoy our last few weeks here in Santiago, but the reality was that my family was done and had been done for quite some time. Finito. Terminado. Completo...DONE. Beyond done. Done with uncreative and limited Spanish cuisine, done with the struggles of learning a new language, done with communication challenges, done with limited internet and tv coverage, done with the lack of close friends, done with home schooling, done with hard, lumpy beds, done with living out of suitcases, done with the endless bureaucracy, done with cathedrals, museums and fiestas and simply done with being around each other 24:7. Just done. Try as I could, it was clear that the best thing for the family was to wind this experience down and move on. People would often ask us, given the still slumping economy, why didn't we stay in Spain for another year. Perhaps if we had lined up meaningful jobs in Javea, a second year could have been an option, but in reality, everyone felt it was time to go home. We certainly had a great run, but we now had our next life phase to focus on. Plus, we had tons to do before Aug 1 to transition out of LA and find a place to live in Boulder, which added a layer of anxiety to the mix. Suzanne re-booked our return flight back to LA several weeks early, giving us some much needed cushion to get everything done. Plus, it allowed us some time to enjoy our last few weeks in our Agoura home and re-acclimate to life in the States before starting up the adventure all over again in Boulder, CO.

Discovering Galicia on Bike - Connecting with the Way of St. James!

Ever since we vacationed here in the fall, I had a burning desire to explore the surrounding area by bike. Santiago is considered the third most important pilgrimage site (behind Jerusalem and Rome) of the catholic church, and hundreds of pilgrims stream in each day on bike or on foot along the "Way of St. James", which leads across Spain from the Pyrenes in France to pay their respect to the (supposedly) interred remains of St. James the Apostle. All told, there are about 5 different routes leading into Santiago, but all roads converge at the Catedral in the city center. I rented a mountain bike on the weekends, and set out to explore the different routes and see more of the Galician countryside. For me, this was the "sweet spot" of my Galician experience - out alone on a bike, connecting with nature, discovering new villages and people, getting lost - exploring the area in detail as a local might. The surrounding countryside was lush and beautiful, filled with thick pine and eucalyptus forests and peaceful, gurgling streams. At times, it seemed I could not escape the hustle and bustle of the city and would be stuck far too long in industrial areas on busy motorways (Rua de Ingles). On other routes (Rua de Plata and Rua de Frances), I felt like I was in a garden paradise, with post-card perfect little towns, rolling hills and spectacularly-preserved stone houses and churches in the middle of nowhere, where people still washed their clothes by hand at the local watering hole. The routes on the Way of St. James were marked with a characteristic scallop shell tile on a blue background, pointing the way to Santiago. It was always a welcome sight to come across one of these markers on many an obscure pathway, knowing I was still going in the right direction. On the way back from my last ride, I passed through a tiny village called Santa Lucia, where I was lured by the sound of bagpipes and singing. I got off my bike and found myself in the middle of the Feast of Santa Lucia. They were serving up sardines grilled on open flames served with warm crusty bread and lots of beer to wash it down. The local kids were dressed up in colorful costumes and were putting on a wonderful dance and singing performance accompanied by a bagpipes, flutes and a drum band. And of course, what festival would be complete without a life-size statue of the Virgin (adorned on the back of a flat-bed truck!). I got a few surprised stares from the crowd, probably wondering what a sweaty foreigner in bright lycra bike gear was doing at their festival, but overall it was just one big party. I headed back to Santiago, thrilled with my discovery and content that I had enjoyed more than my fill of festivals and could return to the States with no regrets!

Last Hurrah in Santiago de Compostella

While we were definitely ready to leave Seville, we had mixed feelings about returning to Santiago de Compostela. On one hand, we loved Santiago from our fall trip and were excited to return to Elena's apartment in the Plaza de Mazarelos, which was a great place in an ideal location close to the center of town. On the other hand, Santiago was a known entity, and a lot of the excitement had worn off now that there was little left to "discover". But we arrived there with no issues and immediately began to settle in. The kids were thrilled to explore the place as the memories started to return to them. We wasted no time taking advantage of the colorful local outdoor marketplace (Mercado de Abastos) and I endeavored to cook up some fresh Galician seafood and wonderfully thick juicy steaks that were so famous in this region of Spain. We also enjoyed the deliciously fresh and crunchy Galician raisin loafs and the handcrafted local cheeses - most of which were impossible to find anywhere outside of this region. The produce was also fabulous and I took advantage of the local favorite - pimientos al Padron. But the kids seemed to prefer keeping it simple. By far their hands-down favorite place to eat was the Bar Candelejas, directly below our apartment. They loved the grilled jamon y queso sandwiches (sometimes served with a fried egg) washed down with a Fanta limon. Although the meals were not very spectacular, it certainly was affordable! While Santiago is certainly one of the most picturesque cities in all of Spain, it also holds a dubious distinction as one of the wettest and least sunny (second only to Vigo) in Galicia. However, given it was the middle of summer, we were fortunate to only get a few days of rain, and overall it was spectacular during our time here. Being a college town, summertime also is a time for events and festivals. Of note was a cross-town festival of tapas where local bars would make 2-3 of their signature tapas in the hopes of winning various awards, and a music festival which hosted world-class concertos in intimate venues (churches, monasteries, palaces) throughout the town. Many of the concerts were free and we managed to catch a few really good performances (violin/piano, spanish guitar) while we were there. Galicia is also a region fabled for witches and dark magic. One evening, we took part in a local custom, the preparation of the "Queimada" - a bizarre alcoholic brew made with a grappa-like alcohol to which is added sugar, orange rinds and coffee beans. The concoction is then set alight and stirred whilst the participants say a chant to ward off evil spirits. Suffice it to say that the resulting drink was not particularly tasty, but it did make for a memorable experience!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Things We Won't Forget About Seville

The heat - although we thought June would be manageable, it hit close to 110 degrees during one of our weeks there. Our kids would only last about 2 blocks before melting down. Granizadas - those sour lemon slushies make the perfect drink for a hot afternoon. If only they were served more often with vodka (or any alcohol for that matter)! The Festivals - for a place that is 90% catholic, very few young people attend church anymore. But they sure know how to celebrate their patron saints! Seems like everyday is an excuse to get out and celebrate something. After a while they all seem to blur together. Doesn't anyone work around here? And don't they get sick of parades? Maria Luisa (Pigeon) Park - a wonderful place to take the kids and chill out on a hot spanish afternoon. For 1.5 euros, you get a bag of pigeon food and literally get swarmed by hundreds of pecking creatures. Even Hitchcock would be impressed. Be sure to wear a hat! The Alhambra and Gardens - stunning moorish architecture and a peaceful garden paradise smack in the middle of Spain's 4th largest city. If only the Moors could've conquered Los Angeles! Plaza Alfalfa - this is where the true locals hang out with their kids after work/school. Cheap canas and plenty of decent tapas while the kids play. Plaza del Salvador - this is where the locals come to meet each other, have a beer and some tapas and decide where to go out for the evening. The place seemingly explodes at 8 pm almost every evening. Long-distance shopping - nothing close to the Catedral and limited hours to boot. I still have numb fingers from where the plastic grocery bags cut into my hands, carrying 40+ lbs of groceries (wine, beer, milk) 7 blocks uphill in the blistering sun everyday. Good story to remind my kids when they complain that there is nothing in the fridge! Plaza de Espana - cooling fountain, beautiful collages of each spanish region, and a wonderful incorporation of brightly-colored ceramics into the buildings. Not the most durable building material, but certainly exquisite! Health Hazards - our apartment, while beautiful, turned out to be somewhat dangerous. First, Casey slices her knee on an exposed piece of metal from the pull-out bed and then Suzanne severely dislocates her pinkie finger (90 degree angle!) when slipping on the stairs. In both cases, the lack of a convenient urgent care clinic and our reluctance to brave the hospital system led to poor outcomes; Suzanne now sports a "football player" knuckle and Casey a very pronounced bright red keloid scar (making us feel like bad parents every time we see it!). Suzanne has already declared that Casey will be getting reconstructive surgery when she gets older.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

A perfect Spanish day? - eating snails and playing in the plaza

One late afternoon, we made our way to the Plaza de Alfalfa to let the kids run around for a while and enjoy some tapas. This plaza was great - a bit off the beaten path of the tourist areas and filled with local families who seemed to come out in force at 8 pm every afternoon (yes, in Seville 8 pm is still considered the "afternoon"!). Our kids were a bit down and tired of being dragged yet again out of the apartment, but picked up a bit when they saw a huge group of schoolkids in the plaza, many with hand-held videogames. While initially shy, they mustered up the courage to walk over and peer over their shoulders. At first the school kids ignored Kellen and Christian and would walk away from them. But Kellen was persistent and kept following them around. Suddenly, the tables turned and Kellen was surrounded by ~8 very animated kids, who were very excited learn he was an "American boy" . While Kellen was clearly surprised by the rapid transition from being the outsider to becoming the center of attention, he clearly was relishing it, save for the occasional embarrassment of his father walking over to take pictures. For the rest of the time, about 5 girls followed him around the plaza and it was very cute to see him with a smile on his face. One of the specialties here was caracoles (small snails basted in olive oil and garlic). Casey and Christian were very excited to have me order some and watch me eat them. Personally, I enjoy them - they are kind of like eating a small clam or oyster - and wasted no time devouring the pile. Christian mustered up enough courage to try a few and he seemed to like them, although I don't think it will be something he orders again! Casey on the other hand, liked to pose for the camera, pretending to eat them. To be fair, she was brave enough to try them once before in Javea. Suzanne and I sat back and enjoyed our canas (small beers), soaking up the atmosphere and watching our kids play and fit in with the locals. As for an inside peak into Sevillian city life far from the tourists, it couldn't get any more authentic than this!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Seville - Festival City, ESP

Given my label as a "festival chaser", I was disappointed to have missed Semana Santa (holy week) in Seville, which is considered THE most significant religious festival in all of Spain. But as luck would have it, there were many other opportunites to experience religiosity in Seville, as two significant festivals occurred during our time there. The first was the procession of Our Lady of Esperanza (Hope), in which a large procession of the Virgen Mary adorned with flowers and hundreds of candles was solemnly carried across town directly in front of our apartment - accompanied by parish locals, farm animals and marching bands. We had a perfect birdseye view from our balcony as they passed by. We had no idea that this procession was occurring, but were fortunate enough to be there for it. It always amazes me how well-attended these events are, but how little they are advertised in the public forums. Perhaps as a way to keep these more of a "local" flavor. However, the next festival, the Feast of the Eucharist (Corpus Christi) was much better advertised. One lazy afternoon, we noticed religious items being dropped off at various points around town, but we were not clear as to their purpose. As we finished up our meal in the plaza, we were amazed to see the town begin to come "alive" as the colorful displays were now fully set up, and were beautifully adorned with candles, flowers, tapestries and offerings of bread and wine. The whole city seemed to come out that evening, strolling the main pedestrian streets and peering into storefront windows, where each shop would sport its own mini display, often with a baby Jesus or figure of Mary along with offerings of bread and wine - all in front of flamenco dresses, lingerie and kitchenware. You gotta love the ironic juxtaposition of religion and commercialism - apparently Spain is not immune from this.