Castillo San Marcos

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

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Ch-ch-ch-ch Changes...

“Turn and face the strange, ch-ch-changes…”  sang  Davie Bowie, and that’s how it seems to us in the last couple of months.  Things have been changing all over the place, and you either hunker down in fear or face it straight on! 

(picture of us)

First, Suzi and Ethan took my adored nephews Griffin and Ado and had the gall to LEAVE US!  How dare they!  The house suddenly became ten times bigger and eerily silent as the four of us rattled around our palace.   But due to some unpleasant events and even more unsavory people (the details of which we won’t bore you with), they ended up leaving three weeks earlier than they meant to, and will return in December.   The four of us—Todd, Tia, Sasha, and I—sat looking at each other around the now enormous dining room table.  “Now you’ll have to cook, Mommy,” announced Tia.   “Sigh…no more taco night, no more delicious stir fry, no seared tuna…”  groaned Sasha…WAIT A MINUTE!  I actually CAN cook, I just DIDN’T when Ethan was around. 

(Suzi, Ethan, and boys)

Suzi and Ethan are now happily ensconced in a little three-bedroom house in LA, their own house rented until the end of October.  The boys are back at Franklin Elementary in the Spanish immersion program, and are realizing the benefits of their Spanish year.  “It’s so EEEEEEEASY!”  proclaimed Griffin.  Yeah, without Aunt Steph breathing down his neck and making him do endless pages of calligraphy, I guess it would be.  “I am the only one in second grade who can write cursive!” crowed Ado, whose cursive was better than Griffin’s back in April.  “And they are doing 4+7!!  That’s so EEEEEEASY!”  This from the kid who could multiply already back in March. 

(Kids at school?)

Then came the startling news from our friends Cheti and Pat that they were being PSC’ed (that’s Navy lingo for being moved) back to Washington, D.C., and that the palace—I should say, The Palace!—that I originally begged Pat to give to me back when we arrived here in 2011 would actually be available in early September.  “Why should we move??  No WAY!”  said Todd.  “I like our place.  I like the pool.  I like my cave.  That’s a lot of work to move.” 

(pics of current palace)

But I begged and cajoled and took him to tour The Palace, and after the first ten minutes he agreed—as long as I would do all the work of moving, give up some of my extracurricular classes, and take the trash out at least half the time.  I quickly agreed, and we signed the lease last week.  It is a residence with a history, and a setting that is straight out of the 17th century, complete with a coat of arms over the copper-studded wooden entrance, a statue of Jesus, massive oil paintings of the Madonna and other religious figures, interior columns flanking an enormous covered patio, and an Olympic-sized pool set into an English garden.  

(pics of The Palace)

Todd is facing an ENORMOUS change: Yep, he is actually getting out of the Navy.  He vacillates between exhilaration and terror; leaving the nest of the Nav after 26 years is both hotly desired (no more deployments to Iraq, yay!) and fear-provoking (why am I walking away from a perfectly good job in this economy????).  I tell him about how good the life is here in Spain—flamenco, padel, horsebackriding, fiestas, cooking, traveling—so we have all our visa materials together, have reviewed it with the Extranjeria in Cádiz, and fly to New York mid-October to make it official.  We’ll stay here in Spain at least another year so that Todd can finally learn to play the bulerias, become a competent padel partner, and surf his heart out this winter.  Not to mention travel a lot!

(Todd in The Palace)

And speaking of change, Tia has some changes going on, too: getting rid of her braces, having her own room for the first time (yes, The Palace is big enough for that!), and starting a new school.  Tia graduated from her primaria (elementary school) to the secundaria, the Spanish high school.  We tease her about having to go back to first grade, because that’s what they call it: first grade of secundaria.  Sasha is relishing having a room of her own, too, and is already making lavish plans for decorating it.  The girls decided to change in their hamster for a bunny, and while initially skeptical about The Palace, they are already planning a big pool party.

(Tia without braces; Tia and Sasha in The Palace)

A very sad set of changes occurred in the pet department, aside from the hamster/bunny exchange.  Our cat, Circles, jumped off the balcony back at the end of July.  We searched diligently for her, making the rounds with posters and flyers, calling all of the veterinarians and animal protection agencies, posting on Facebook, and doing everything we could think of to find her.  I finally located her microchip number and sent it out to everyone.  A week later, we got a call from a private animal kennel saying they had her!  We joyously went to pick her up, only to learn that they couldn’t locate her.  Two days and many phone calls later, we learned that she had been moved to the quarantine area due to a respiratory infection, and had died the next day.  The girls were heartbroken.  Todd and I felt terrible: she was so close to being home, and it was such a bitter lesson. 

(pictures of Circles)

While trying to assimilate this loss around the dinner table that night, we heard a loud “thump” outside.  Flipper, our ancient 17-year-old cat, had just fallen off the upstairs balcony onto the hard patio concrete.  His kidneys failing, blind in his left eye, and skeleton-thin, he still purred as we held him and bawled.  Our wonderful veterinarian, Nathalie, took him home with her over the weekend, but then called us with the results of the blood analysis.  In short, it was time to put him to sleep.  He was the most amazing cat I’ve ever had, strong and calm, loyal and affectionate, and we will miss him dearly.

(Pics of Flipper)

Now the only other furry reminder of Suzi and Ethan’s whirlwind year with us is their cat, Smokey.  The airline didn’t allow animals to travel during the summer, so Smokey stayed with us as a furry hostage, one way to ensure that the Rico-Dubrows must return sooner or later.  And so they will!  If you didn’t have a reason to visit before, The Palace has an old-world guest room, too.  Come visit!

(Smokey and girls)

 (pics of old and new place, link to photo albums)

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Tracking my Gypsy Heritage

One of the many things I love about Spain is the gypsy roots of flamenco.  No matter that I am one-sixteenth German gypsy; all gypsies migrated from India to Europe in the 12th century, and my ancestors just didn’t ever venture so far south.   Clearly my affinity for all things Spanish, particularly flamenco, is in my blood!

(pic of me in traje Gitano)

My mother relished telling us about our Gypsy great-great-grandmother, die Relle, who would delight and terrorize her great-grandkids with gypsy stories, popping her false teeth out at the scariest parts for emphasis.  Born into a gypsy family that traveled from town to town in a horse-drawn caravan, she would admonish her children and grandchildren to “ganget, Kinder, und stehlet!”  (Go, children, and steal!!)  My grandmother Hilde, herself quarter gypsy with black eyes and hair, was a free spirit with a wild streak who was transformed, a la Eliza Doolittle, into a stylish flapper by my elegant, arrogant grandfather. 

Hilde at 16

Hilde shortly before she died

Hilde was killed during World War Two in a retaliation bombing meant to kill my rocket-scientist grandfather, inventor of the V-1 Buzz Bomb launched at London during the final months of the war.  She left behind five children, my mother only seven years old.   Hilde’s older brother and sister remained in Stuttgart, where they had grown up, but her two younger sisters, Gusse and Jule, both married Dutch men and spent their adults lives living 30 minutes apart in Northern Holland.

Dutch-Gypsy relatives

The Stuttgart siblings became stolid, solid Germans who never talked of their gypsy past (this was particularly dangerous to do during the Nazi regime, when gypsies were persecuted similarly to the German Jews).   But my two great-aunts, living in Holland after the war, celebrated their roots, living a bohemian lifestyle.  My great-aunt Jule, in particular, could be considered one of the first hippies:  she sought out alternative medicines and organic foods, eschewed all technology, and raised her own goats for cheese and milk in a thatched-roof ancient house amidst fields and forest in the flat Dutch countryside.

Jule's house

My mother’s cousin Annette still lives there, and we visited her for several days in late August, along with her daughter Rozemarjin.  Although Dutch, they felt immediately like family, even though I’d only spent a short amount of time with each of them many years ago.  Annette in particular had the dark, wise eyes and wildly curly hair of my grandmother, remembered in pictures saved from war-torn Germany. 

Annette with Jule's artwork

“What are we having for dinner?”  is Todd’s favorite question of the day.  His eyes opened wide as Annette displayed the beautiful wild mushrooms she had gathered in the forest that day. Their backs were brown and shiny, slightly slick with mucus, and the insides spongy with a tinge of green.  I knew Todd was fixated on the memory of my aunt Heide, Annette’s cousin and my mother’s sister, gathering mushrooms at our cabin in the Sierra Nevadas of California, and the desperate wild car ride she and her son Dean took to the emergency room of nearby Placerville, where they were both treated for mushroom poisoning after vomiting their guts out. 

Delicious dinner?

I’m going to give the girls a no-thank-you helping of the mushrooms,”   Todd whispered to me when Annette left for a moment to retrieve some home-made butter.  “Just so that if we die our genes will be passed on.”   But Annette’s mushrooms were delicious, fried up with onions, garlic, and heaps of butter, and ladeled onto rice.  Home-grown tomatoes, cucumber, and basil along with a savory soup created from an enormous green pumpkin rounded out the meal.  Even Tia and Sasha loved the soup and gobbled up the rice, picking around the mushrooms (which they avoid even in the best of circumstances). 

(picture of the four of us)

No one died.  In fact, the next morning Annette announced that we could go to the Pannekoekenhous for dinner, or get more mushrooms.  The girls and I did both, roaming in the forest looking for the sponge-bottomed delicacies, which Annette taught us to identify, just as her mother Jule had taught her.  “And here is another one I looked up in my book,”  she laughed,  showing us a rusty red mushroom with turned-up edges that looked straight out of Alice in Wonderland.  “It says it’s okay if you cook it, but don’t eat it raw…I haven’t yet dared to try it!”   We left that one for another day.  Biking past a small lake on the way home, Annette sighed about how we didn’t bring things to swim.  Out came my gypsy blood—“Let’s swim anyway!”  and we all did, stripping naked and jumping into the slightly coppery water, silky from the minerals of the peat bog underneath.  “Your hair will be so soft!” said Annette, and she was right—my hair and skin had never felt so smooth and sleek. 

We spent the day at ____________, puttering a boat through the tiny picturesque canals, eating ice cream and several bags of the 50+ kinds of licorice the Dutch adore, and feeding the ducks.  Rozemarijn was a wonderful tour guide, taking back routes through the absolutely gorgeous countryside with some of the most amazing skies I have ever seen.  Rembrandt was right to paint here; somehow the light takes on a other-worldly quality, and the sky fills with contrasting cloud formations and colors that made me stop to look over and over again. 

Rembrandt knew the Dutch sky

And it really looks that way!

We left the next morning for Amsterdam in search of a history lesson.  With just an afternoon to spend in this beautiful water-crossed city, we headed for the Anne Frank House.   I highly recommend the movie and this visit to spur dozens, if not hundreds, of questions about the whys and hows of WWII and Nazi Germany.  Then to The Hague, where our friends Greg and Anna Townsend, plus their sons Kai and Milo, graciously fed us and put us up even though it was their first day of school. 

(link to youtube movie, pics from Amsterdam)

The Escher museum was the right choice for our morning here, as it was highly entertaining.  The contrast of Escher’s precise, elegant, clean art against the Queen of the Netherland’s opulent palace was ideal, and we laughed at the ____ room.

(perspective room picture, Sasha with ball)

Rounding off our trip, and bringing us full-circle to gypsydom, was lunch with old friend Chris Fraass on his caravan-like, tiny little houseboat.  I’ve known Chris since 7th grade, when I would beat him regularly at arm-wrestling, but Chris left California in the late 80s and never looked back.  With Dutch citizenship in his sights within the year, Chris fed us well using his dozens of years’ experience as a cook for his own catering business in Moordrecht, and the girls had a ball jumping from the roof of the houseboat into the canal.

(Chris, and girls jumping into the canal)

My mother loved her gypsy heritage, and she passed that love on to me.  Throughout the trip she accompanied me, from the silhouette of Annette, who has her exact figure and is spookily similar in terms of energy and vibrance, to the memories of visiting Jule with my mom in 1994, to the meandering Hexenhäuschen (little witch houses) scattered across Annette’s farm property.   And the gypsy blood continues to call:  Annette and I danced the sevillanas together, she an accomplished ballroom dancer, I in love with flamenco.  We can only hope that she really does come to visit us here in Spain to learn the bulerias!

(pic of me dancing)

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Island-hopping, European-style: Sicily and Mallorca

Now that Todd finally has some leave accumulated, and since my sister Suzanne and company are leaving mid-July, we decided to check RyanAir’s schedule to find exotic destinations on the cheap.  

(picture of the two families)

As Todd’s favorite cuisine is Italian, Italy beckoned.  Even better, Sicily, the island at the toe of Italy’s boot with its bad-boy reputation as the mafia stronghold, seemed like the ideal place to eat well.   We bought the tickets (60 euros round-trip) and booked a villa in the lesser-traveled southern part of Sicily.

(picture of Modica area)

We arrived late one Wednesday night to a villa that was half romantic medieval palace, half grandma’s creepy Munster mansion.  The flickering fluorescent lights jammed into the cobwebby chandeliers did little to enhance the pictures of dead relatives and jampacked 50-year-old décor and doilies, and I watched my sister for her reaction—a dead giveaway when she said nothing at all.  “This is so—interesting!”  said Ethan, my ever polite brother-in-law.  Todd, Tia, Sasha, and I took the small, plain guest house, leaving Suzi, Ethan, and the boys to fend off the phantasms certainly inhabiting the villa.

(Link to Suzi’s blog, creepy picture of the villa)

The bright Sicilian sunshine the next morning made all the difference.   We threw open all the French doors, lace curtains blowing in the breeze, turned around some vases with unsettling faces painted on them, and hid several pieces of the worst clutter in closets.  The pool was simply glorious, a recent addition to this 300-year-old residence, and the balconies and pathways afforded views of the pastoral countryside, rock walls everywhere, testimony to generations of Sicilian attempts to clear the land.  We loved it.

(walls, pool)

Sicily has heavily touristed areas; we visited Taurmina’s cliffsides and Agrigente’s Roman ruins.  But our villa lay near the hidden gem of Modica, its claim to fame the Aztec chocolate brought from the New World (similar to but even better than the very familiar Ibarra chocolate from Mexico).   We wandered Modica’s streets, climbing up to the top of the town through winding footpaths, and dined al fresco in an unassuming but delicious street café. 

(Taurmina, Agrigente, and Modica pics)

Tia and Sasha were in search of “turquoise waters,” their brains full of images of Tahiti and the Caribbean, but while Sicily’s beaches were pretty, we had to wait until Mallorca, one of the Balearic Islands of Spain, to finally bask in blue.  Two weeks later (squashing months of travel into a span of several weeks), we arrived at our catamaran, home for a week of sailing around this famous (and overrun by Germans) island.   We all prayed that we wouldn’t kill each other cooped up in 500 square feet of living space! 

Sailing, sailing, over the bounding blue…leads to seasickness.  I was okay after a day, but every beach landing led to mal d’embarque, the rocking sensation you feel once again on dry land.  Ethan had it worst, the wristbands and Dramamine not particularly helpful, and he spent most of the first few days gazing at the horizon from topside. 

(view from the boat)

Still, the turquoise, crystal-clear water was enchanting.   Snorkels and masks in hand, we paddled through the seagrass, finding fish, rays, an octopus, and—uh-oh—jellyfish!  Despite our best efforts, Ado came screaming out of the water, big welts forming on his backside, but thanks to a lovely enfermera on the little island of Cabrera, he was fine in an hour. 

(Sunset, turquoise)

Sleeping on a boat is charming and taxing at the same time.   A catamaran affords more space, but still, it’s a boat.   Cooking anything resembling our typical gourmet meals was also a big challenge, given that Ethan could spend approximately 30 seconds in the kitchen before needing to skedaddle topsides.  But we managed, pasta and rice our staples, and

(on the boat)

We traversed the southern coast of Mallorca, seeking turquoise coves (easy) and  uninhabited beaches (impossible!).   The more daring showed off their cliff-diving skills, and we watched the US lose to Belgium (World Cup fever is alive and well in our family) at a fancy resort we sneaked into.   We were set upon by pirates, but talked them out of attacking with an offer of pasta with tuna, arugula, and grated cheese with a side of rice. 

(kids as pirates, Sergio launching)

The weather was fickle, bringing us a couple days of overcast and high winds which led to big waves, not great for a catamaran nor for seasickness.  A catamaran is wide, its living areas spread out across two pontoons, and this square design creates a rolling tossing bucking sensation that the kids loved. We made them put on life jackets.

(Ado at prow)

But in the end, we were happy to have sailed together, traveled together, and bonded even further in the confines of what is equal to a small apartment.  We were happy to get home to our palace, where we spent the final days preparing for Suzi and Ethan’s departure back to the states.  Cousin Olga came to visit as a distraction, and of course the world cup drama captured everyone’s attention.   Now for our next challenge:  Getting ready for Todd’s retirement October 1st!