Castillo San Marcos

Castillo San Marcos
13th-century castle, El Puerto de Santa Maria. That WAS our house to the left and behind the tree!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Suzi Returns!

What I really wanted for Christmas was to have my sister move back and live with us again, at least until summer.  We’d gotten our visas, and the year of living together had been so—emotional—that I wanted it to continue.  Not to mention that, before she’d left last July, we’d gotten wind that this fabulous palace would be available, and that it was absolutely perfect for our two families together.

We MISS  these little guys!! Come back!  
But life has a way of making its own plans.  Once back in the States, Suzi’s book took off, Ethan found projects, the boys LOVED being back in their friendly Franklin Spanish immersion school, and…well…they came for Christmas.  Better a little than none!

Touring the Spanish side of the Base Naval Rota with our friend Ignacio and family
All together again
We threw a big zambomba before they got here; Suzi claims to be a “small party gal” now, unlike her glory days where she could light up a room of 300 partygoers.  So we invited everyone we knew to our new palace.  30 people had responded the day before the zambomba.  Oh, a small party!  I thought.  But 150 people showed up, with all sorts of fabulous food, and we laughed and ate and drank and danced until the wee hours.  The palace’s central courtyard was, again, a simply fabulous setting.

Christmas zambomba in the palace

Dancing bulerias

Tia ourclasses her mom in every way

Sasha has by far the most "arte!"

Band practice after the zambomba (by popular demand)
Singing with friends

Then we had a non-stop series of events.  Cheryl, my cousin Dana’s best friend from waaaaay back, came to visit, and I whirled her around Puerto and southern Spain, even sending her off to Morocco!

Cheryl the Adventurer

Then Ebru and Greg, the heads of the base at Rota, had their Christmas party, a gold-themed shindig.  Between visitors, parties, and cleaning and organizing the house in preparation for Suzi and Ethan’s arrival, I kept myself (and the happily-retired Todd!) busy.

Gold is mandatory

And finally, they were here!  They arrived, along with the winter cold.  Our palace is a SUMMER home, mind you, and it was a trick figuring out how to heat the place.  We dragged butane heaters from room to room, sanded down doors so that they could close off rooms, and wore lots of sweaters.

Christmas in Puerto: it's COLD!

We put all the leaves in the huge dining room table and invited friends to welcome them, and went exploring the zambombas out in town. 

Friendly welcome
Street zambomba

 They arrived right in time to practice the Christmas songs for Advent, along with my Aunt Paige and Uncle Hans and cousin Sophie from Germany.  The central courtyard was actually heatable, and the acoustics awesome.

Practice makes perfect

In the midst of this whirlwind, Christmas Eve arrived.  The kids, under Sophie’s direction, put together a corny interpretation of the equally incomprehensible Spanish villancico (Christmas song) “Los Peces en el Rio.”  The main refrain is:  “Beben y beben y vuelven a beber, los peces en el rio, a ver a Dios nacer.”   This translates to:  “They (the fish) drink and drink and drink again, to see God born.”   Go figure.

All the actors and actresses take a bow

It was awesome  to have our German family here for Christmas.  Sophie is a mix of cousin, daughter, friend, and sister, all wrapped up into one lovely bundle.  She lived with us for a year in Imperial Beach, and I’ve been extremely attached since.  The damp and humid weather in addition to the lack of heat drove my aunt and uncle to the cozy Hotel Monestario down the street, but we got Sophie!  

Father and daughter

Next on the line-up:  New Year’s.  Suzi asked for a small party, but, as parties tend to do here, it morphed into a family monster-sized event, with equal parts oldies and youngsters discoing under the palacio’s crystal dome.  Ignacio officiated during the Grape Ceremony, which was aided by the TV Ethan and Todd had strung from the ceiling. 

Ignacio officiates the countdown

Steph and Todd can still dance

Even Ethan and Ignacio dance!

Happy New Year! ¡Feliz Año!

We had a fabulous time dancing in 2015.  My only sadness: that our time together as a big ol’ family was coming to an end.  But I shouldn’t worry, they will be back for more come the end of June!!

Posing in the Palace

Sunday, November 30, 2014

La Boda de Lola

Catching a glimpse of a mystery palace

We’ve moved into this huge gorgeous palacio, and all I want to do is to share it with everyone.   Walking through the streets of Puerto, I have hungered to know what lies behind the big blank walls that line the sidewalks.  Occasionally you get a glimpse of an interior courtyard decked out with plants, the roof open to the sky.  But rarely do you get invited in to see these marvels.  Now I was living in one.

What lies behind these walls?

WE live behind these walls!

When Lola told me she was getting married and having trouble finding a place for the reception, my first response was to offer the palacio.   Lola is my flamenco teacher, a dark-haired, sharp-witted gypsy-look-alike who dances with a grace I can only dream about.  Her class counts double, as I learn both bulerias and Andalusian Spanish at the same time.  Only it’s tough for me with the constant banter competing with the keening of flamenco music as we warm up our wrists and feet; even after 18 months of class, I can follow only the general gist of conversation.  

The star and her students

It’s the special words and expressions that confound me.  Guasa sounded to me like the cellphone app WhatsApp, but it means bugginess or daring, depending on context.  It took me a month to decode “cho-cho;” I realized right away that it was some form of endearment, but every time Lola called me “cho-cho,” the other women would howl with laughter.  Turns out “cho-cho” means “little pussy,” (and I’m not talking about a cat here).  

Always joking around
Lola is unapologetic.  “I am who I am, and everybody knows it,” she says.  “I say what I think, that’s how I am.  But I love my students.”   When a male friend of hers walked in and she greeted him with smiling "Ayyy, piiicha!!" (Hey, penis!), I realized she loved me just as much.

Some of Lola's beloved students

So Lola needed a place for her wedding.  Hotel Monasterio down the street was already booked, although she managed to get the stage for the ceremony at noon.  After deciding to host the lunch at El Cortijo, a bodega close by, she asked if we could have the “after” party at the palace.  Sure, I said, and Todd agreed.

In front of the alcalde

And what a wedding it was.  Only Lola could pull off something so outrageous.  At first, as she told everyone, she just wanted to get married quietly at the Ayuntamiento (town hall).  Then her friends talked her into a lunch, and it quickly blossomed into a full-blown event.  Lola is a showperson with natural stage presence: For her entrance down Puerto’s main street, she did not want a car or a carriage.  For her, a tricycle decked out with balloons.

The grand entry

Her dress was designed and tailored by her friend and student Maria del Mar, a gorgeous flamenco-inspired work of art.  The mayor of Puerto came to Hotel Monasterio to officiate, and at the end Lola stood up and sang to him, breaking into a buleria and dancing the mayor across the stage.

Custom-designed by Maria del Mar

At El Cortijo, Lola and her new husband Francisco (Fran) entered the room throwing blue and yellow confetti in honor of Cádiz, Lola’s birthplace.  (She is, after all, known as “Lola de Cai,”  “Cai” being Andaluz for Cádiz.)  They sang Cádiz’s anthem, with the crowd singing along.  

Hail to Cadiz!

Those who sing together...stay together!

After a long and delicious 3-hour lunch, we moved on to our palacio at 5:30 pm.  And that is where the fun really began.  Lola sings to us every class as we practice bulerias.  The wedding crowd was packed not only with her family but with her students.  So it was only natural that once the gin and tonics were poured, the dancing would begin.

Lola in action

And dance we did, round after round.  Lola was at her best in her spectacular flamenco attire, and the crowd was appreciative.  The weather cooperated (mostly), raining in the end only about 2 in the morning.   

Fun with confetti

As guests slowly said their goodbyes and the music slowed down, Fran left to get the car, and Lola and I stood in the entry, a sound-asleep baby Gonzalo in her arms.  “Te ha gustado?”  she asked me, already knowing the answer.  “Did you like it?”  “Claro que si!”  I responded, and we laughed through the main events of the day, from my worry that I needed to send Tia and Sasha behind her to push her on the tricycle, to the mayor’s surprise at being danced across the stage, to the various performances of her students that evening dancing the bulerias. 

Lupe can dance...

Óle tu, Celia!

Even the guys got into it

And even the americana danced!

As I closed the door behind Lola and Fran, an exhausted Gonzalo tucked into his carseat, I again felt a great wave of gratitude towards Lola and Fran and Spain in general for making room for me in their lives.  Yet another reason why I love it here, and why I may never come back!  (Just kidding!  Sort of.)

My Lola

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Visa

We love Spain

I am wild about Spain.  I love it here, more than I ever imagined.  But much to my surprise, Todd is just as enthusiastic.  As we were going into our third year here, he turned to me one day and said, “Let’s stay.  Let’s get the visas going.”  Retirement on the brain, Todd was eager to try out this laid-back Spanish lifestyle I’d been enjoying.

Spain is fun

I was ecstatic.  Having missed more than 8 months of our three years here due to my mom’s illness, I was not ready to go home.  

Oh, Spain.  Land of flamenco and bullfighting…and bureaucracy.   I had not had much to do with Spanish officialdom other than the security office on base and our run-in with the police on our first day in Puerto. Much to my chagrin and absolute disbelief, I kept being told that to get our visas, we had to return to the U.S.  “But all of the paperwork gets sent to Cádiz for approval!” I objected.  “That’s 20 minutes across the bay!"  YES.  "You mean I have to fly all the way to New York ?”  YES.  “To turn in our papers in order for them to be sent to Cádiz for approval?”   YES.  “Isn’t there some way I can turn them directly in to Cádiz?”  NO. 

Not even military might helped me turn in my paperwork to Cádiz

I tried. I really, really tried.  I talked to everyone I knew, including several lawyers, the immigrant advocates, the base, and several people who’d been through the process.  I sent a lawyer friend to Cádiz to talk to the jefe (boss man) of the Extranjeria  (where all the extranjeros have to go—us foreigners, even though I don’t feel foreign here!).  My Spanish military captain friend talked to the admiral of the base, who talked to the big cheeses in Madrid.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  The answer was always the same.  You have to go to the U.S..

Ignacio even put on his best uniform 

So I gave up and made my appointment.  We pulled together all our documents, checked them thoroughly with the jefe de Extrajeria (now our friend), and booked one last military-sponsored trip to  the States.   Taking advantage of this forced trip, we decided to do a whirlwind tour through the East Coast, stopping in the Blue Ridge Mountains to see Todd’s aunt and uncle, passing through Washington, D.C. to pick up the infamous Hague Apostille (don’t ask) for our marriage certificate, traipsing down memory lane in Annapolis for a day (where Todd and I met and fell in love), swinging by New York for our appointment and to see some of the Big Apple, and then visiting for a few days with Todd’s brother Mark up in Boston before zipping back down through New York to pick up the visa and head out on a military flight out of New Jersey. 

On a side note:  The week before we left, just to make things more interesting, the bunny that Sasha had just gotten...added five more bunnies to our household.  Sigh.

You've got to be kidding

We arrived in the Blue Ridge late in the autumn afternoon, the hills ablaze with fall colors.  Unfortunately, Todd had misread his aunt’s email; she was arriving the NEXT DAY!  After several minutes of scolding (we had driven several hours out of our way to make this happen), we had to move towards DC due to our tight schedule.  We're sorry, Aunt Diane and Uncle Ron!

Beautiful Blue Ridge

It was our kids’ first trip to the Capital.  I love this city.  Truly love it.  Todd and I lived here from 1988 to 1993, and while going to school in Annapolis both he and I came here a lot.  It is multi-faceted and beautiful, spacious and in parts a little gritty, impressive and full of character.    

It looks just like the penny!

A shocking piece of history

Holding up the Washington Monument

 The girls loved the monuments, and we had dinner with my friend Chrystal and her husband William, who was about Tia’s age when I was her teacher her at Our Lady of Perpetual Help (OLPH) in Anacostia.   Chrystal is now a PAC nurse, and we had a good time reminiscing about “Our Little Prison Home” (as OLPH was affectionately known).


Todd started complaining about his feet.  At first he just started walking slowly, then more slowly, then started talking about gout.   He’d had a mild attack of gout during the summer, and one previously on the ship a number of years ago.  Now things were looking serious.  But he put on his game face and slogged through the touring, even enjoying lunch with friend Pete Fettner.

Old friends

Soup kitchen--a good history lesson

Glamming in front of the White House

Annapolis, capital of the state of Maryland and home to St. John’s College, was rainy and cool, perfect fall weather.  We made it to the campus and around the downtown, but then Todd started looking up which prescriptions he needed for gout.  This was getting very serious now.   Aspirin, dehydration, lengthy immobilization (on the plane), beer, heavy protein (think jamón), and lots of walking—all of which Todd had experienced in the past week—are all known contributors to a gout attack.  Annapolis was lovely, but we were all a little too preoccupied to really enjoy it.

Welcome to Tia and Sasha's future college

Todd and I waltzed here romantic

Off to New York.  By the time we arrived at the Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Coast Guard, and Airmen’s Club where we were staying, Todd’s big toe was on fire.  “I’ve never had pain like this—this is the worst I’ve ever experienced,” he said.  “Look!”  Tia pointed.  “Daddy, you can ride up the chair going up the staircase!”  Too proud to do so, Todd collapsed on the bed in our 4th-floor dorm room and sent me off to the pharmacy.  Then, not wanting to disappoint the girls, we bought tickets for the double-decker tour bus, determined to see at least a little of the Big Apple.

Rainy New York

Rain won't stop us...but gout might

The next day, the day of our visa appointment, Todd could not put his foot into his shoe.  We limped off to a taxi and to the Consulate.  In less than two hours we were done; all had gone swimmingly and we were told to return in several days to pick up the visa, so we got back on the tour bus before heading to Boston. 

Daddy rallies!

A new World Trade Center: Proud to be an American


In Boston Todd sequestered himself on the couch and barely moved the whole three days.  I went to the thrift shop in search of old slippers to cut up to get around his swollen toe.  We fed him sour cherry juice and avoided all protein, but still his toe formed a white disgusting gouty tofus that stretched the skin to the breaking point.  Even so, we enjoyed seeing Mark and Bridget, and Tia and Sasha were in heaven surrounded by their five cousins.  We got in a good visit with Todd’s mom Linda, who lives downstairs in the basement apartment of Mark’s house, and were SO sad to leave all too early.


Whoah...that's a lot of cousins

Brothers with bed-head
Our visas were ready. We swung back through New York and picked them up with no problem and stopped to see the Statue of Liberty just for good measure.  Then it was off to New Jersey to try to catch a Space-A flight back to Spain.

Lady Liberty

Peace to the NY skyline

We were in luck.  We caught a flight that day directly to Rota, an exciting ride in a C-17 full of bullets being air-dropped to help fight ISIS in Syria.  Sasha won 20 euros from Todd by calculating how many bullets there were (17 pallets with 88 boxes per pallet, and 800 bullets per box). 

Visa accomplished!    !ÓLE!

Anyone want a bunny?