June 24, 2017

Sabbatical Data, Part 1

We're getting ready to fly back to the US in a couple of days, ending our international travel for the Sabbatical year.  In all honesty we are *both* ready to go back home and live a non-nomadic lifestyle.  E's been ready pretty much all year, but I've been getting there slowly over the last few weeks, and Iceland really broke me.  Looking at the numbers makes me feel a bit better about being ready to call it -- it was an ambitious project, for sure.

Total Countries (including the US): 24

Nights that will have been spent in each country, in descending order:

USA - 149 (40.8%)
Italy - 19 (5%) -- a bit of a surprise since we were only planning to attend a weekend wedding.
Canada - 18 (5%) -- as planned.
France - 18 (5%) -- longer than expected due to re-routing Europe.
Japan - 18 (5%) -- roughly as planned.
Argentina - 16 (4%) -- roughly as planned.
Thailand - 16 (4%) -- surprisingly longer than expected, we really enjoyed it there.
Peru - 14 (4%) -- roughly as planned.
Colombia - 11 (3%) -- surprisingly longer than expected, we really enjoyed it there.
Ecuador - 11 (3%) -- longer than expected due to opting into an 8 day Galapogos cruise
Spain - 10 (3%) -- a surprise country after the European re-route.  Delightful.
Chile - 8 (2%) -- longer than expected, but a great place to finish South America.
Mexico - 8 (2%) -- a surprise visit to friends, not remotely in the plans when we set out.
Iceland - 7 (2%) -- roughly as planned, although, in hindsight, perhaps too long.
Vietnam - 6 (2%) -- roughly as planned, although a visit to rural south Vietnam to see friends was a big surprise.
Malta - 5 (1% and less, below) -- roughly as planned, after we were advised to go in Thailand.  One of the best surprise countries of the trip.
Portugal - 5  -- totally unplanned, a wonderfully enjoyable side trip.
Taiwan - 5 -- roughly as planned.
Korea - 4 -- roughly as planned, too short.
Switzerland - 3 -- roughly as planned to see friends.
Denmark - 3 -- opportunistic stop from Malta to manage airfare.  Walking and riding bikes in Copenhagen was gorgeous in the Summer.
Malaysia - 3 -- unplanned but enjoyable overland train transit between Singapore and Thailand.
Philippines - 3 -- weather did not cooperate so we moved on.  Much shorter than we'd hoped.
Panama - 3 -- roughly as planned.
Singapore - 2 -- unplanned but wonderful quick visit to see the city and visit with a friend's parents for dinner at their home.


June 21, 2017

Iceland, Part 1

A good friend sent me the Oh, you went to Iceland? Amazing link.  It sent me into hysterical laughter.  You should read it if you have friends, family, or social media acquaintances who've gone to Iceland recently, you'll probably relate.  I did.

See, I already had a love-hate relationship with Iceland by the time we got here.

View of the Blue Lagoon from the approach to KEF.

[Full disclosure, this post is going to have some serious first-world spoiled rotten whine in it, because you can't really complain (even honestly) about being able to travel to amazing places without sounding like a bit of an asshole.]

Typical gorgeous road trip view
if you are unlucky enough to be in Iceland when it's storming.
So, we were doing Europe on our standard seat-of-the-pants "dirt-bag planning" that more-or-less worked this Sabbatical year throughout South America, most of Asia (but not Japan), and all of Europe right up until Iceland.  This approach means we don't usually have lodging or rental cars more than a week in advance (sometimes booking the day before), and typically, we buy tickets for trains, planes, ferries, etc. a week before we need them (or 2 weeks if we really have our shit together, or, on the other extreme, we just buy them the day of if we're convinced we don't need to purchase in advance).  Essentially, we're cheap, lazy, and late, and we tend to take the best of the dregs of the cheapest of what's available wherever we are headed with a dedicated bathroom ('cause we're old now), which generally tends to work out fine and occasionally results in some very funny stories.

Road trip views of the ocean and shoreline in Iceland before the weather turned.

We hadn't booked our flights back to the US from Europe, but I knew that Icelandair had free stopovers for up to 7 days in Iceland, and I knew that Chase Ultimate Rewards points could book on Iceland Air, so I figured we'd just go with this option and do some time in Iceland on our route back just like so many of our friends and family who've shown us their awesome photos.  First mistake -- I waited 'til about 2 weeks before we needed to fly to Iceland and called Chase Ultimate Rewards because I couldn't figure out how to book the free stopover on points online.  Turns out, they couldn't either.  Apparently, it's a benefit that's only available for people actually paying real cash to Icelandair.  I could have called and researched and tried to solve the problem but I decided that was too much trouble, so we just booked one leg to Reykjavik on the Chase Ultimate Rewards points on Icelandair.  And then, I built in a week stay for us to enjoy Iceland (without doing any research on hotels, mind you) and booked our flight from KEF to the US on airline miles after that week.

Stereotypical $110+USD a room night, in-room sink,
but down the hall for shared toilet and shower
Iceland special.
So, now we had flights in and out of Iceland right around the Summer Solstice.  In hindsight, I probably should have guessed that a place with that much Summer sun might be a popular destination around the longest day of the year...

But, I didn't.  So when I went to start reserving hotels, my jaw dropped at the prices, and I quickly downgraded to guesthouses and hostels with shared bathrooms, which, in most cases were still some of the most expensive lodging per night we'd purchased for the entire sabbatical year (including amazing suites and glorious ocean views and what not in places off the beaten track in Asia and South America).  In fairness, we did cheat a bit and used hotel points and Chase points in big expensive cities this year, so it's not a true apples to apples comparison, but even so, I was super shocked to learn that rural Iceland is *much* more expensive than rural Japan when booked late on our seat-of-the-pants-travel-plan (like 2X for a basic room for 2 in Iceland sharing a bathroom with multiple guests vs. enjoying a very private en-suite bathroom for half the price in a rural Japanese business hotel).

Waiting for the Geyser to erupt...
You know what none of my friends or family who'd been there before told me?  Iceland is CRAZY EXPENSIVE.  Like $10 pint draft beer special expensive.  Like $25 hamburger expensive.  Like $40-$60+ per person to get in the popular hot springs expensive (and that probably doesn't include towel rental, etc.).  Like now that we've seen our options, we actually plan to go to Taco Bell (secret guilty road-trip pleasure in the US normally) and see how much we can save with a run to the border for a road-trip meal before we leave.  All of a sudden, my cousins who brought their camping gear and MREs and did a road trip in a rental car and tent-camped around the Ring Road in May even though there was still snow on the ground don't look so crazy to me.

Beautiful Icelandic horses in the wind...

Oh, did I mention the weather?  Yeah.  Turns out, Iceland is green and beautiful for a reason.  Our day of arrival was gorgeous, but we'd come from Malta so we figured this was normal and didn't take too many pictures.  Since then... well, it looks like we're here for a week of serious wind and rain and cold.  Did you know Iceland is the windiest place in the world where people actually live?  Yeah.  It's true.  Thankfully, we have rain gear and hats and wool socks and gloves from some of our other travels, because it had not occurred to me that 21 hours of sun a day in Iceland would be anything other than glorious Summer.  I mean it was almost 25C in Copenhagen when we were there!  But the high today was 8C (46F), and it rained *all* day.

The face of the Eurasian tectonic plate from the rift walkway...
Anyways, Iceland is gorgeous, but the rain, wind, and cold has cut back on our planned enjoyment of the views, the running, and the hiking.  And, unfortunately, the food in Iceland is actually pretty terrible.  There.  I said it.  I'm from California, I've been traveling the world for a year (primarily to eat good food, if I'm honest), and today, I was excited to go to a diner where I could order mozzarella sticks with iceberg lettuce and a cucumber on the side with a large soda water for lunch -- this was a *great* option by local standards (in fairness, it's actually a pretty great little kid guilty pleasure lunch, just super unhealthy).  Not to be outdone, E had one of the famous Icelandic hot dogs and jalapeno poppers along with some fries (to the restaurant's credit, they gave us the fries for free and we both enjoyed them -- the fryer had more than they needed for the lunch service and we arrived on the late side of the lunch rush).  This gastronomic experience set us back $30, which is by far the cheapest meal we've had in Iceland thus far. 

Posing, with the famous Icelandic hot dog... (just fine, not mind-altering).
Make no mistake, Iceland is *not* a culinary destination.  Which is, of course, fine.  Its landscapes are obviously the reason to come.  But it's more fine if you happen to be here when the weather is good and the free views and hikes help balance out the value of the otherwise egregiously expensive trip with bland expensive food, or, it's fine if you're prepared with MREs like my genius cousins, or at least if you're pre-prepared for the amount of money you'll be paying for something that doesn't really qualify as a proper meal in many of the places you regularly spend time (I wasn't and it's still smarting, every day, to see the totals on our bills after mediocre meals -- oh, the 4 EU full-size amazing margarita pizzas in Naples, they do that one aspect of life better than just about anyone, and it really hurts to experience how badly Iceland missed the good food value boat).

June 19, 2017

Malta and Diving

On the advice of our awesome dive instructor in Thailand, we built in some time for a visit to Malta on the European leg of the sabbatical.  Shore diving?  (No need to get on a boat, just go straight in and start your dive.)  Sign us up!

The cliffs just drop into the sea creating great walls and dive sites.
Maltese is a living language.  Spoken by 520,000 people. Related to Sicilian, Arabic, Italian, English, and more.  With its own alphabet.  I mean, how can you not fall in love with these linguistic survivors of all of the various conquering invaders?

Maltese sampler (with chicken fingers for E): delicious bread,
pickled cheese, sausage, dried tomatoes in oil, olives,
capers, and bigilla.
Listening and watching our Maltese native dive team leaders interact with the local world was fascinating.  Easily 50% of the people we saw and interacted with in Mellieha were not Maltese.  But, this place has such an easy-going inclusive vibe that it didn't seem weird at all that the locals all preferred to speak to one another in Maltese, and did so while switching into and back from English at will.

View from the restaurant across the street from the dive shop.

Essentially, Malta was one of the best parts of our European leg of travel.  We came to dive, and we did.  6 dives in 3 days over a variety of sites.  We also fit in a couple of lazy beach/pool days.  It was amazing, and a nice slow easy luxurious stop after some of the more adventurous travel in Southern Italy and Sicily. 

Sunset view at dinner one night.
I struggled with air management for the first dive because I thought I needed 8Kg of weight.  When we let the air out on our descent, I dropped like a rock.  This seriously freaked me out.  I had obviously gotten the weight wrong, but I felt obligated to tough it out, which I did, but I was kicking quite a bit to avoid sinking and sucking air like a runner on land who isn't remotely concerned about saving air plus I was inflating my BCD and letting out air for buoyancy control way too much -- in other words, I was a scuba mess.  I let our instructor know about my air consumption rate as soon as I could, signaling 150 on the way out to the wreck after just a few minutes because I knew I was struggling and I was not going to be able to make a full dive, and I wanted her to have as much time as possible to plan.  Thankfully, she was awesome.  She turned the dive when I hit 100bars, did a safety stop, let me ascend, did a buoyancy check and told me to remove 4 Kg, and then sent me and the poor master diver trainee to supervise me on our way to the shore while the rest of the crew went out for another 15 minutes to another site.  The dive master trainee asked why she turned the dive and she said, "She hit 100."  He made a face and she later told me that I'd gone through the tank faster than anyone she'd ever seen (she's done 700+ dives).  Apparently, most people bail when things are uncomfortable (like way too much weight) instead of belligerently staying below and poorly managing their oxygen.

The next dive with 4Kg was perfect.  What a difference proper weighting makes!

Hike in to the blue hole shore entry:
Sometimes shore diving requires a bit of a scramble in full diving kit to get down to the water.
The next day, at the end of the most amazing but long and deep dive with a different instructor I'd bled a tank down to 30Bar, which meant the tank was super buoyant and I was severely *under* weighted and my dive buddy (E) plus the instructor had to physically hold me down at 5m for my safety stop, because otherwise I would float up.  In fairness, everyone else in the group had 15L tanks and they'd given me a 12L tank (let's just call a spade a spade and say they gave me a girl tank).  The buoyancy of the almost empty tank meant that I couldn't stay down, but I'm guessing if I had a proper dude tank on the same dive, there wouldn't have been a problem.

Views from the diveshop van, on our way to the dive site.
The next dive, with all of us on 12L tanks, and me back on 8Kg of weight at the advice of the instructor who'd held me down, I struggled with the sinking and BCD management, so, like the first dive, I ripped through my air, but not quite as badly, and no safety stop issues arose.  We still had to turn the dive due to my air consumption (you never want to be the person who turns the dive!) and I exited with 15Bar, which is *way* too low.  After chatting about it, the instructor and I agreed that I'd go out the next day with 6Kg on my belt, but he'd carry a spare 1Kg to give me at the end to counteract a low tank at the safety stop.

Thankfully, 6Kg on the belt with this kit worked perfectly ('cause my instructor gave away my spare 1Kg he promised to hold to another diver before we even got in the water...). 

The inland sea entry pool on Gozo:
swim through the tunnel (deep below the boats) and out to sea.
The last day, we took the ferry to Gozo (the middle-sized island of Malta).  First, we dived the inland sea, which is a pool of seawater that reaches the sea via a tunnel through a cliff.  Looking up to see boat propellers making lots of bubbles and listening to the buzz of their engines while 10-25 meters below them was quite the experience.

The blue hole with the former azure window in the back
(the left column and top are now on the bottom of the sea)
The second dive was down the blue hole, and around the site of the former famous arch, which, unfortunately, fell into the sea last winter -- we just missed it!  Actually, the boulders on the seafloor from the fallen arch make for a very interesting dive site, it's just not as beautiful of a view from land anymore.  This dive was definitely the most technically demanding dive I'd ever done, with the tunnel descent down the hole, an upward swim through a small vertical chimney from 18m up to 4m or so, and a cave exploration with torches. 

The peaceful sound of nothing but your own breathing and the bubbles you exhale coupled with buoyant weightlessness is definitely addicting.  Plus fish and other sea life are so cool!

Bragioli (aka Beef Olives) -- delicious maltese specialty of
thin beef wrapped around sausage in a tomato caper sauce.
Diving in Malta was wonderful.  We very much enjoyed the relaxed international vibe and spending three consecutive days doing such physical work (between getting kitted up, getting in and out of the water, the heat loss in the water, the actual dives, and getting out of the kit, we went to bed pleasantly exhausted each day).

I'm still learning, but I'm definitely over the initial scuba hump, and I'm so glad I pushed through.  I've got 15 open water dives in my dive log, and I can't wait to add more.  Also, the scuba community is full of the friendliest and most fascinating people.  Almost all of the dive instructors we've met have completely rebooted their lives to enable themselves to dive full time.  They come from all over the world and all types of previous careers and situations and the only thing they have in common is they love to dive and they are happy and grateful to get to do it for a living.  It's very inspiring to be surrounded by such positive, happy, and self-actualized people.

June 12, 2017

Italy and the return to Italian

E and I were talking about it, and it's agreed.  My Spanish, is, finally, after 3 months of immersion, miraculously, better than my Italian.

Classic salcicia e friarelli pizza.  (And a saltimbocca sandwich in the background).
But...  A little bit of Italian goes a long way in Italy.  Like way more than quite a bit of Spanish in Spain or French in France.

Plastercasts of people buried alive by the ash of Mt. Vesuvius in Pompeii.
Also, every day we were in Italy, my Italian got much better.  E told me about a week in that he was happy to see that service people stopped cringing when I insisted on struggling through in Italian when clearly their English is much better than my butchering of their language (conveniently, my face-blindness extends to a lack of awareness of people's frustration with my insisting on speaking a language I think I should be able to communicate in). 

I was unprepared for how large the Pompeii ruins are.  It's an entire city.
(That's been under constant excavation for more time than the US has been a country!)
And, somehow, along the way, I happily unlocked stuff that was 15 years deep in the recesses.  About halfway through our visit, a server counted the number of pieces of uneaten pasta on E's plate and motioned that he was not doing his job.  We all laughed and I said, "Vergogna?"  And then, certain I must have gotten it wrong, I proceeded to try about 12 different Spanishized/Fracophied/Latin-based modifications until the server stopped me and said, "Si. Vergogna. Shame!"  It's always very bizarre when your brain re-activates a long dead pathway.  I knew "Che pecatto" but for some reason at that moment, my neurons grabbed another word, one I had no recollection of actually knowing, but somehow did.

Running in Italy did not happen much, but aggressive hiking on sketchy trails to historically fascinating
sites was a regular activity.  (View from the hike to Tiberius Ruins on Capri.)
In the 15 years since I was last in this country, Italy has become much more English-speaking.  If you are a tourist, it's now hard to even do anything in Italian if you speak English unless you are in a non-touristy place, which, since so much of the economy of Italy runs on tourism, is kind of hard to find...

Sea Urchin Spaghetti -- Amazing
After 11 days of minimal Italian study and using it every day in the country, E commented at dinner, "It's probably true that your Spanish is better than your Italian right now.  But you are just so much more comfortable in this language.  Watching you talk to people in Italy after a week is like watching you talk in France.  You just expect that things they say will make sense to you and that they will obviously understand what you are saying. You visibly try much harder in Spanish."

Lemon ricotta, cream, basil, preserved lemon ravioli 
(Very traditional Amalfi meal -- no new world ingredients)
And there it is.  Despite years away, Italy and Italian is like a homeland to me.  I may love France and French, now, but I worked so, so very hard for it, whereas I definitely didn't do the same level of effort for Italian.  In fact, I think I probably have also done more total work on Spanish than Italian, and definitely much more recently, and yet, I'm just more comfortable in Italian (and they, in fairness, tend to be more comfortable in English as well).

2 kinds of tartare and 2 kinds of carpaccio with a side of beef sushi
(Appetizer before arguably the best beef meal of the year in Reggio Calabria)
I mean, I get their jokes.  That's really what it comes down to.  They are close enough to my people that I understand what they think is funny even if I don't totally understand all of the words.  And they see me laughing.  And they reach out, physically, because they are a loving, demonstrative, joyful, and full-of-life people that I'm so very happy to visit yet again. 

On the trail of the Gods hike in Amalfi
Also, it doesn't hurt that E looks like half of the men in Napoli and 1/4 of the men in Sicilia.  We've seen so many people who've reminded us of his uncle Vinnie (no joke) and his grandma on this trip.  And I have dark hair, and I may or may not come from people of this region (or its many invaders), but they often assume that it is true.  They are so accepting and loving and feeding you too much food (today at the airport the food service guy refused to take money for bread and breadsticks when I returned to buy them after realizing we hadn't bought enough).

The average Naples intersection -- we hadn't seen traffic on this level since Vietnam.
After 20 days of Italian chaos and joy, we left for Malta.  Despite the inefficiency and unpredictability, I was so thrilled and happy to be listening to and singing the song of Italy, enjoying its gorgeous countryside, talking with its people and eating its delicious food at every turn. It has been wonderful to return after 15+ years of absence.  And, I can only hope to return much sooner next time.

June 1, 2017

Portugal -- Already Planning a Return

Portugal was a surprise visit to a new country for both of us.  We knew very little about it.

But, the few times I'd had Portuguese food it had been delicious, and I'd heard from a few folks that the beaches were nice, so we went ahead and built in 5 days on our road trip.

Views of the Castle from O Arado, Montemor-o-novo.

Our first meal in Portugal was yet another entry in E's ninja restaurant-picking log.  We left Merida, Spain and drove over the border into a tiny town of Montemor-o-novo where E directed me up a mountain to a restaurant with a beautiful view.  We enjoyed bread, mixed goat/cow cheese and açorda de mariscos, which was a delicious stew unlike anything either of us had ever had (turns out: açorda does not mean assortment).  Next door to the restaurant was an open church with classic Portuguese tile decoration., and we were the only visitors, which was absolutely lovely.

Cable cars in Alfama
After driving a couple of hours, we arrived in Lisbon, and it was a bit of a shock.  We were staying in Alfama, and even though we were smart enough to park 1 Km away, the narrow streets and chaos of construction plus hordes of pedestrians were still harrowing.  On our walk to the AirBnb, at one point, the streets were just narrow enough for the cable car to fit between the buildings (as in, if we had been on the "sidewalk" we would have been squished by the cable car).

There's a mini golden gate bridge on the way into Lisbon from Spain.



It was hot while we were in town, and a cruise ship came into port on our first full day, so everywhere we went we were sweaty and the shady bits were flooded with tourists.  After all of our backroads travel in Spain, this was very different.  It's one thing to be in a consistently foreign place -- where the language and the people may not be your own, but they have patterns and consistencies that can, over time, make you feel more comfortable because you start to adapt and begin to know what to expect.  An international horde of tourists is just the opposite -- the only common language is English, but, of course, much like Southeast Asia, the tourist English spoken in Europe is also not anything close to the language that I know as my own.
View over the bay and the roofs of Alfama.
The biggest mistake we made was deciding to walk to the car and then drive to the AirBnB to pick up the bags on our way out.  After multiple Google maps failures due to construction or streets that were one way in the wrong direction, we agreed that I would just park behind a service truck, put on my hazards like them, and E would run to get the bags.  I got honked at.  A LOT.

Very stereotypical Portuguese lunch:
salad, mackerel, potatoes, and some sort of root vegetable.  Delicious.

And then, after about 10 minutes, the police rolled up behind me and flashed their blues.  With no cell service, I reluctantly turned off the hazards and prepared to pull away from the curb and just drive around until I found E, when out of nowhere, the trunk opened.  E threw in our bags, waving an apology to the cops and then jumped into the passenger seat, breathing in gasps from his 500 meter dash uphill with 2 10Kg backpacks.

Gorgeous trail system available for hiking or adventurous trail running on the coast in Lagos.
Lagos, thankfully, was the opposite of Lisbon.  Relaxed.  Easy.  No traffic.  No crowds. Great running.   Gorgeous beaches.  Great local restaurants and easy access to groceries and ATMs with reliable parking and no real traffic or chaos.  We drove out to the end of Western Europe, where the Med meets the Atlantic: Cabo de São Vicente.

Cabo San Vicente
We parked our very dirty and bug-covered 4 door Spanish plated rental car and viewed the lighthouse and cliffs.  And on our return, we were approached by Italian hikers who figured the Spaniards with the dirty car were their best bet for a free ride for slightly smelly hikers and their packs into the local town of Sagres

Their analysis wasn't wrong, just funny in why it was right. We were probably their best bet for a ride, we had a 4 door car and a trunk, we were a couple, and we could bumble along in Italian (which they expected from Spaniards, but were shocked when they learned we were Americans).  We also did them one better and took them all the way to Lagos, saving them at least a day of difficult bus travel from Sagres to Lagos, and in the meantime, we learned all about their hike down the Rota Vicentina.  There are villages along the way, and you can totally just do day pack hikes between prepared meals, lodging and hot water -- It's now very high on our list of travels we'd like to do in the future...

May 24, 2017

Spain

Ibericos and Pinxtos -- 2 major decision factors
In deciding to ditch the central European travel plan, the analysis went something like this:

[At an amazing meal in Dijon] E, taking another bite:  Oh man, French food is heavenly.

Me, taking my own bite:  Mmmm, I know.  Although, in fairness, on our first night in France, you totally ordered a plate of various Spanish jamons and chorizos.

E, grinning:  And it was good!

Me, taking a sip of wine:  And French wine, so reasonably priced in France...

Both of us, sighing contentedly.

E:  You know where the food and wine is not going to be this good?  ...Poland.  And all the other countries between there and Italy.

Me [laughing]:  It's true.  Remember the pickled sausage in Prague?

E: Also, it's been surprisingly cold in France.  Have we checked the weather in central Europe?

Me: You know, there's no reason we *have* to go to central Europe.  I want to visit all of those countries and sights on our list, but we don't have to do it this trip.  It is a fairly ambitious itinerary, and it's been so nice to take it slow since we arrived.  You make a good point about the weather.  I know how much you love Spanish food (Jamon & Pulpo), and, obviously, Spain is much easier for both of us, linguistically, than any of the central European countries, so if you would rather just stay in western Europe, we could add Spain and figure out some other stops before showing up in Italy for the wedding...

And that was that.

Surtido de Embutidos
After 20 days of eating gorgeous but filling composed plated meals in France (I pulled out all the adventure stops and had Andouillette for lunch as my last authentic meal - In case you were interested, that box has been checked by this *very* omnivorous eater and does not ever need to be revisited), the first dinner in Spain was such a great change. 

Pimientos de Padron -- when we get back to California,
I'm eating these every week until they are out of season.
Tapas that we could share. Olives with additional marination in the form of olive oil and some delicious spices on the outside.  A salad of sliced tomatoes with onion, olive oil and oregano.  A small plate of jamon.  A bikini (toasted ham and cheese sandwich). Pa amb tomaquet (bread with tomato juice and olive oil on it).  And that was it.  We left feeling satiated, but thrilled with the light food and lack of heavy fat, cream, and sauce. Conveniently, in Catalonia, my mixing of French and Spanish as I transitioned back was welcomed as closer to Catalan.

End of the run in Girona.
E and I started our road trip by running in Girona and then walking along the Roman city walls to cool down.  From there, we picked up the car and headed out towards Zaragoza.  E has developed a ninja-like ability to pick restaurants on our road trips.  I don't question his methods, because the results are unquestionably divine.

Best Pulpo of our trip.
This first road trip pick was a Catalan speciality restaurant in a suburb of Barcelona (the server spoke only Catalan to us, which was fun to decipher, but thankfully the menu was in both Catalan and Spanish, and they understood my Spanish with residual French mixed in just fine).  This restaurant had a gorgeous outdoor seating area, and we were drooling with each dish:  olives (marinated after curing, again, brilliant), a selection of cured sausages and cheese, pa amb tomaquet (smashed rustic bread topped with olive oil, garlic & tomato juice), pimientos de padron and the best eggplant preparation ever (dry! No oil!), and finally a grilled octopus arm over pureed potatoes.  We paired this with a little wine, a lot of sparkling water and finished it up with 2 espressos.  The meal took almost 2 hours, which broke up our longest day of driving to Zaragoza.  We spent the entire drive congratulating ourselves on our good decision making re: staying in Western Europe.

Zaragoza was a bit surprising, as neither of us had realized that Basque was prevalent there.  At some point on the drive the signage switched from Catalan/Spanish to Basque/Spanish, which did not help with me trying to revert my brain to clean Spanish post-French, but did result in some more delicious food.

The coral where they hold the bulls before the running.

We stopped for lunch in Pamplona and E's restaurant picking abilities were yet again on point.  After an 11EU 2-course Basque set meal for both of us followed by cheese and espresso, we stopped to enjoy a drink in the bar on the square where Hemingway passed the time while writing The Sun Also Rises, and after watching the world go by, we found our way to the start of the circuit of the running of the bulls and walked the route to the stadium.  This visit was particularly poignant for me, as Pamplona was one of the only places my Dad had ever gone in Europe (of course, for the running of the bulls -- he wore the traditional outfit with the red neck kerchief, although he didn't run and just stood high on a pillar and watched them go by).

View from Café Iruña into the Square in Pamplona.

Again, we were surprised to realize that the signage in Pamplona was Basque/Spanish.  The festival of San Fermin and the running of the bulls is actually a Basque Festival.  I had thought that the Basque-speaking region of Spain was much smaller than it actually is before this trip.  The only place I expected to find it in Spain was in San Sebastian, where I had been the guest of a French-speaking Basque family during the Basque Festival for the city, when hundreds of Basque descendants who had spread throughout the world (like my friend who took me from Bordeaux) returned to the town of their origins to celebrate.  This visit was much more sedate, although still quite international, as the tourists dominate San Sebastian, at least downtown and along the waterfront.
View of San Sebastian from the other side of the bay.
For the rest of our time in Spain, we were a little shocked to realize that our lessons from South America re: the Spanish being jerks and just brutally rolling in and taking over the local language and culture *also happened in Spain* (by the Castellano against the local European peoples with their own distinct languages and cultures).  Today, it appears there is a resurgence of respect for the dialects.  Most Spanish regions we visited had bi-lingual official signage in Castellano and the local dialect.  Also, menus, ATM instructions, and Museum guides could often be found in Castellano, Catalan, Gallician, Basque and more (often all of these options were available where English wasn't (but French usually was)).

Running route in Burgos
We had such a lovely time in Spain.  Not sure if our experience is true for the country as a whole, but somehow we put together an itinerary that made it very easy to run and workout. In most cities there were separated running/walking and biking trails and many people using them, including women in serious workout gear, often running very quickly.  (Another huge difference from France, where I saw some men in workout gear, but very few women.)

Our favorite Spanish Meal!
Before this trip, my ideal Spanish meal involved Pulpo a la gallega and pimientos de padron and some olives.  E's choice Spanish meal, of course, was a plate of Ibericos.  I'm happy to report that we had many different meals (lots of pinxtos, gazpacho, salmorejo, arroz mucoso a la Valenciana, etc.) but E and I are steadfast.  My stereotype remains as my favorite quintessential Spanish meal and because we'd recently had Jamon, we had it (minus the olives) as our last lunch before flying to Italy.

We ate so well and enjoyed the people we met and the ease of being in a place where we could use a language we spoke/read reasonably well that we agreed that Spain is now up there with France, Argentina, Japan, and Italy as one our favorite places where we will always want to return.

Goodbye Spain, 'til we meet again.

May 19, 2017

An Ode to Road Trips

Where and when I grew up, every single one of my friends and I took our drivers' license test on our 16th birthday.  It was a right of passage, and we did the work ahead of our birthdays (driver's education, both in class and in the car, hours with parental supervision and a driver's "permit" and whatever else they required) to make sure we could try to gain our car freedom as early as possible.
Our Spain Portugal Route
I bought myself a brand new sporty car to celebrate my first real job after college, and I loved it.  I drove it for 17 years (and on numerous road trips in the US) until I sold it last year to help finance our sabbatical year of travel.

Girona, one of many cities we never would have seen without a road trip.

It seems that the world is heading towards less young drivers (with the increased availability of car services and EU and US standards for youth driving permits being onerous and getting worse).  And, with self-driving cars, perhaps we're just moving away from human drivers in general. 

Nightime view from the entrance to our hotel in Zaragoza.

However, the mystique of the Great (American) Roadtrip exists for a reason.  I can attest that driving yourself (or being lazy and having your spouse drive you) is one of the best ways to see many parts of the world.  This year, E and I have done several great roadtrips (Northern US and Canada, Argentina, Southern US, currently in the middle of one through Spain and Portugal, with hopes for a short one in Iceland, and then the southern cross-country route from ATL back to the SF bay area to complete the full tour).

There's something very independent about a roadtrip -- you are there, in the foreign place that you are visiting, and yet, you aren't.  You are in your own vehicular bubble, with the people and things, and food and drink, and habits and language, and music or audiobooks that you've brought, which insulate you from the outside world. 

Navvare, Spain

Frankly, it's more comfortable than fully immersing yourself in a foreign place.  Assuming you've got the car, know the rules of the road, and can read some of the local language and have access to decent maps (thank you Google Fi) road trips just require way less foreign overhead than the same distance on public transit.  They also are a way off the beaten track to see sights and experience things that most travelers on the mass transit path will never see, which oddly gives you access to experiences that are much *more* culturally challenging than those available on the well traveled path.

Open road on the way to Portugal.
So far, for Spain and Portugal, because the countries are well populated, we've been able to string together visits to cities that have interesting things to see and do with something along the lines of no more than a 3 hour total drive between each stop.  This pace is very nice (and leaves time in the AM for running most driving days, which is hugely appreciated before sitting for hours).  Bonus, because these cultures enjoy *late* lunches (many restaurants don't even open until 1 or 1:30 PM) we've found that we can string together 3 driving days without any multiple night stays by arriving at the next city or a target along the way in time for a late leisurely lunch, doing afternoon sightseeing at our overnight destination on foot, an early by local standards dinner (8ish), and going to bed at a reasonable hour, and wake and repeat.

In the US/Canada and Argentina, our road-trip habits were totally different, mainly because the interesting cities were so much further apart so we had to drive very long stretches in one day, but also because of Argentina siesta culture and the ease of the US/Canada all hours eating culture.

When we look back on our sabbatical year, we will definitely think of road trips as one of the best things about it (all told, we're looking at about 16+ weeks on road trips this year).

May 14, 2017

20+ Days of French

After we modified our European travel plans to slow things *way* down, we ended up with 20 consecutive days in French-speaking Europe.

8 days in Paris.

Sunset view from our walk home in the 10th.

2 days in Dijon and the surrounding area.

Porte Guillaume, Dijon.

3 days in Lausanne.

View of the alps from a steamboat on lake Geneva.
7 days in Marseille.

Marseille Vieux Port, with La Belle Mere in the background on the hill.

4 cities in 20 days, with only 2 countries, no flights, and only one language was a big change from much of what this year abroad has looked like.

It was so wonderful.  We relaxed and enjoyed amazing food and wine every day.  After Paris, I got in many runs.  We leisurely made our way around sightseeing, but felt no pressure to do any particular *must-do* because this part of the trip wasn't actually planned with any goals in mind at all (other than avoiding the weather in central Europe). 

My veal, d'auphinoise, bone marrow, and E's salad, filet mignon & bone marrow.  Too much!

Also, it's the longest consecutive amount of time I've spent in a French environment since 1995.  I fell back into many comfortable rhythms and re-confirmed that I have a connection with this language and its people and its food unlike any other.  If you add the time in Quebec and speaking French in Vietnam, I have spent almost an entire month of our sabbatical year immersed in French.

This was a huge (and pleasant) surprise.

Elevator retrofitted into the gorgeous
1800s era building in the 10th.

Spanish was the planned language that was going to dominate our time abroad this year.  And it did.  When all is said and done, we will have spent almost 12 weeks in Spanish speaking environments during the Sabbatical.  Both of our Spanish has improved greatly, and this is certainly something that will continue to pay benefits in California and on future foreign travels.

But, oh, the return to French.

I've absolutely adored it and can't believe it wasn't always part of the plan.

Square of Chalon Sur Saone,
where we met my childhood French pen-pal for lunch.

I'm seriously considering never letting another year go by without some time in a French speaking environment (and of course the food and wine benefits that go along with that).  It's very bizarre to realize that something I spent so much time working towards as a teenager and then executing on in my late teens has been dormant, but remains a huge part of my identity and a thing that gives me so much joy.