May 24, 2017


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.

May 8, 2017

2017: Books Thus Far

As I mentioned in my 2016 books wrap up, it's hard to get the reading done while living our Sabbatical life.

Sometimes, instead of reading, I'm staring at art.
(Nike of Samothrace)

So far in 2017, I've read 8 visual books, which is quite dismal vs. my normal reading pace (even worse, I'm counting 2 novella length works). 

Okay, let's be honest. Art is a big awesome time suck. (Picasso)

Fair warning: I am *rough* on books. 
Don't lend to me if you believe they are objects to be kept pristine.

However, 3 of those 8 books have been in French, which is possibly the thing about this sabbatical year that I'm the most surprised and pleased by. 

I really didn't plan to start enjoying literature in French after a 20+ year pause.  And yet, I did.  And I very much enjoyed it. 

Re-realizing my adoration of French and the joy I get from its literature is one of the biggest improvements in my quality of life to come from the Sabbatical. 

Who woulda thunk it? (Oh, perhaps my conflicted enjoyment of book club's Lolita should have been a hint.)

The Wasp Factory
Ian M. Banks
A novella exploring many of the themes more fully fleshed out in the Culture Novels, including gender, the root of violence, humanity and what it means, and horrific destruction of things perceived to be "other".  Very well done and the twist at the end was delivered as a true surprise.
Trigger Warnings
Neil Gaiman
A short story collection by Mr. Gaiman.  If you like his style, you'll find this set of stories extremely entertaining.  The last story in the collection, a continuation of the Shadow tales from American Gods, is particularly enjoyable.  Short stories make for good travel reading when you can't make time to read except in random bursts.
Shave My Spider
Tony James Slater
In keeping with the theme, I'm enjoying the travelogues of more hard core travelers than us in the same region.  Tony Slater is a funny man, and somewhat disaster-prone.  These tales of his travels in Asia are hilarious, and I enjoyed listening to them while not doing anything remotely as dangerous or scary as his travels.  I don't think I'd want to travel with him.
Speed Tribes: Days and Nights with Japan's Next Generation
Karl Taro Greenfield
I picked this up to read something topical while we were in Japan.  I very much enjoy reading things about the places I visit while I'm there and this one did not disappoint.  Originally published in 1995, the book was a bit dated.  Japan has changed quite a bit since then, even just the little bits that my eyes see in our cursory visits.  However, for getting an insight into the nation and its people, this book is fascinating.  Each chapter is an anecdote from a certain character from one of Japan's niche classes such as bookies, yakuza, motorcycle gangs, juvenile delinquent scooter thieves, porn directors, young professional women who are of marrying age, etc.  Many of the tales are laugh out loud funny, and all of them are just weird the way that only Japan can be.
The end of all things (Book 6: Old Man's War)
John Scalzi
Return of many characters from previous events.  Same style, but more complex and clever with nuanced looks at both the Colonial Union and the alien allegiences it faces as enemies.  Possibly my favorite book in the series thus far.
Dix Petit Negres
Agatha Christie
Le Petit Prince
de St-Exupery

A classic short novella-length work.  Sweet.  Poignant. Still thoroughly enjoyable the umpteenth read.  I had to look up a few words despite its supposed focus for children -- turns out things like wells, caterpillars, and pulleys are not part of my immediately retrievable French vocabulary.
L'Elegance du Herisson
Muriel Barbery
I bought this book in Marseille and challenged myself to finish it before we left France.  That put me at an average of 70 pages per day, which was quite an effort.  Interestingly, when I read this book in English, I didn't notice the difference in the sophistication of the voices of Renee (54) and Paloma (12).  But, *wow* is there a huge difference when I read it in French.  I could quickly get through the chapters in Paloma's voice, usually only needing to look up one or two words.  But with Renee, I often had to read each sentence twice to decide whether I had the gist or needed to turn to Google translate yet again.  The struggle was worth it, though, and I confirmed that in English or in French, this lovely story can make me laugh and cry hard.  I re-affirmed for myself that it is one of my favorite books. The truth of beauty in the midst of tragedy and loss is hard to capture, but real, and this book does such a wonderful job of doing so.

For audiobooks, I've been very boring.  For most of the year, I continued with the remainder of the Inspector Gamache series that I fell in love with, and then, when it was fully exhausted, I switched to some titles that are relevant to our travels. 

Fruits de mer platter in Marseille.  The Food!

A Trick Of the Light
Louise Penny
Book 7 in the Inspector Gamache series.  I'm addicted.
The Beautiful Mystery
Louise Penny
Book 8 in the Inspector Gamache series.  The character growth and consistency of scenery is impressive.
How the Light Gets In
Louise Penny
Book 9 in the Inspector Gamache series.  Still addicted.
The Long Way Home
Louise Penny
Book 10 in the Inspector Gamache series.  This is where I started to fear that I would run out of books soon.  Ms. Penny is prolific, but she seems to only put out a book or two each year. 
The Nature of the Beast
Louise Penny
Book 11 in the Inspector Gamache series.  A fascinating tale that weaves in some real world Canadian history regarding a supergun designer.
A Great Reckoning
Louise Penny
Book 12 in the Inspector Gamache series.  A big twist in scenery and plot as the mystery is set at the Surete Academy, where Gamache has taken a job as the commander.  The next book isn't due out until September of 2017 (Sob!).
Pancakes in Paris:  Living the American Dream in France
Craig Carlson
The true story of an American former screenwriter who bumbles along as a newbie in business but eventually bootstraps his way into a successful American diner franchise in France.  Complete with awesome French cultural tales and first person horror stories of the reality of being a business owner in the French labor and legal system.  Fascinating and very enjoyable while in France.
Maisie Dobbs
Jacqueline Winspear
I picked this one up in the hopes that I'd fall in love with Maisie and then be able to fill some time with another mystery series until the next Gamache novel came out (only partially joking).  I liked that it was set in London and France and contained some historical references to the First World War as I would be in Europe while listening to it.  It's very light in terms of character development, but the story moves along in a reasonable fashion and it's not an unpleasant way to spend some time.  The GoodReads reviews are *all* over the place, and I think I can understand why.  It's a bit of a mix of a book, with clean functional writing about a plucky child prodigy who works her way up from poverty, some minor but not chair-clinging mysteries, and some hints of European history.  If you are looking for a serious treatment of any of these topics, you are likely to be disappointed, but if you can enjoy this one for what it's worth, then more than halfway through at this point (see below re: headset issues)  my opinion is that it's not bad.

Lately, I've been struggling with listening to English audiobooks while in places where I'm focused on other languages, so I've slowed on even the much easier than normal travel audiobook consumption. 

This is Charlie Chaplin's view from his house in Switzerland where he moved
after the US revoked his visa.  Seems like it worked out okay for him.
Also, my awesome noise cancelling Bluetooth headphones went caput -- the isotunes were definitely one of the best Christmas presents I received, except they couldn't hold a charge after being unplugged and, recently, completely died on me after less than 5 months of service.  If the Internet is to be believed, the majority of my complaints are not common, so half of me wants to buy another set and hope for a better experience, while the other half just thinks going with cheap disposable wired headsets like I have been for the last decade continues to be the best approach.  Any and all opinions on this issue welcome!

Goodbye Marseille!  Thanks for all the gorgeous miles.
In other news, last week's mileage topped 35 for the first time in 2017 (in a long while, actually).  More than half walking/hiking while we explored Marseille, but still, it feels good to see those big numbers. 

In future running goals, unlike the Paris Park Run 5K, which was for myself only, I am registered for the Peachtree Road Race, so I really do actually need to get my mileage, heat acclimatization (good thing we stayed in Western Europe!), hills and humidity tolerance up in the next 7 weeks.  After that, I'll be joining my long-lost E2 at Wharf to Wharf to welcome us back to California in July. 

And, because we opted out of Central Europe, now all of the prep for these races has to happen while living la dolce vita in the land of all of the amazing food and wine that is Western Europe.  We said goodbye to France today, but we've still got Spain, Portugal, and Italy at a minimum to contend with...wish me Buena Suerte (I'm gonna need it).