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!

Monday, September 12, 2016

Leaving Spain, And a Piece of My Heart

Back from our last European travels (well, except for a 2-day stint in Paris coming up on our way out), we went into full-on pack-and-clean mode, at the same time welcoming in my German sister Martina and her family for 5 days, and of course a last massive flamenco party was in order!  I played padel, rode my bike through Puerto’s centro, visited friends, had some last dinner parties, packed like crazy, sold the big furniture we didn’t need, and cleared out the central patio for the goodbye party.

My friend Begoña gets the party rocking

Dancing my last bulerias

And what a party it was!  With Alejandro playing the guitar, Laura Alvarez singing in turns with Begoña and me, Enrique on the tambor y flauta, and a packed house full of people who had made Spain so all-embracing for me.  It was bittersweet, to move flushed and happy through the crowd, chatting with all the different people from our life we had created here in Spain, knowing that this was the end of an adventure that had changed and enriched me dramatically.

This is not your usual potluck!
And the most amazing goodbye gifts imaginable:  a Spanish tuna, complete in costume, serenading me in the street as I stood on the handsome wrought-iron balcony of my beloved palace.   That, along with a stunning hand-drawn portrait of me with the façade of our palace as a backdrop, a unique way to take a piece of Spain home with me, wrapped in memories.  These, along with some beautiful wines and sherries for our wine shipment, beautiful jewelry, and the hugs and well-wishes and offers of help and welcome whenever we return.  It made my heart sing and weep, such outpouring of love and friendship.

The tuna, serenading me!

Then they filled the garden with their harmonies

We cleaned the palace once more on Sunday with the help of Martina and crew, and then the movers came, packing and taking away everything in one fell swoop of a Monday. 

We'll miss this pool

Once we were packed, I was melancholy.  For a week I walked through my palace, now bereft of our things and left only with the remainders of Tomás Terry’s lovely and faded furniture.  I fixed up the main courtyard as best I could, hauling out an old green 15 x 20 foot carpet and arranging the old sofa and matching chairs from Todd’s man-cave.  We had a few plates and cups left so we could still eat at home, although those things disappeared as well as I finished up our yard sale and helped pack all the remaining items into a charity organization’s truck.  I completed all my lasts: last party, last flamenco class, last visit with this friend or that, last dinner with friends, last cleaning. 

Last dinner party at the palace

Last flamenco party with my compañeras

Saying goodbye to Juan at Bar Milord, where Vale That got its start

I’d thought that we would have more free time once our stuff was packed out, but there were so many things to do: a spa circuit at friend Mila’s hotel, the friends Tia and Sasha wanted to invite over one last time, the yard sale I persisted in, wanting our things to avoid the landfill and serve someone else’s needs, and the cleaning my beloved palace deserved.  
The most elegant office I'll ever have

Splendid façade

In the end, I didn’t get everything perfect, but I felt good that I had left the palace better than I had found it.   That would have to be enough.  We closed the door one last time and drove off at 5 am, headed away from a place that had been our home and that had taught me so much for five delightful years. 

El castillo de San Marcos, with my cousins Stephan and Kristen

What made Spain so special for us? 

The obvious: a familiar and delightful climate, warm to hot and sultry in the summer, cool to brisk and damp in the winter, but not too much on either side, and nearly always perfect for sitting outside and enjoying the view.

My beautiful Puerto de Santa María

The Things of Spain:  sherry, and the delight of learning about this hidden gem of a beverage; the Andalusian horses, with their massive necks, waving manes, gentle and noble temperaments, and willingness to please; padel, which never failed to make me laugh with the crazy backboard shots and tricky returns...

The magic flor of sherry

Riding on the beach

...the bullfights, controversial as they were, but with the brass refrains echoing through the Plaza de Toros and the Olés of the crowd, so quintessentially Spanish; the processions, religious and solemn and casual and deeply meaningful all at the same time; the Spanish language, rhythmic and flowing, my own mind catching it to an almost-perfection for brief moments, but always the joy of working its beauty on my tongue, the half-sadness at not having fully mastered it even after five years. 

Puerto's bullring

And then there’s flamenco.  From the first misconceptions of flamenco-as-tapdance, to the intricacies of the first bulerias moves, to the sevillanas and my first feria dresses and dances, the multifaceted world of flamenco fascinated me and left me determined to learn at least some of it.  And learn I did, learning first bulerias steps, then the wrist and shoulder movements, and finally daring to grasp for the attitude that makes a true bailaora.  

A pretty good flamenca

Through five teachers and the stealing of as many different sevillanas moves, I learned a great deal—and mostly learned how much there was to learn that I was not going to reach in a paltry five years.  Just to make that clear, I joined my teacher Jaime’s singing class in the last year, belting out my best attempt at sounding flamenco, much to my compañeras’ amusement, and I learned to play the castañuelas (castanets) barely well enough to dance with them last feria season. 
A flamenca wannabe

Four years of multiple dance classes per week, 20+ feria dresses with all the accouterments, and five fun-and-dance-filled feria seasons later, I know that I have just scratched the surface of what is meant by “flamenco.”   And I know that I will miss it dearly.

You gotta love feria

But beyond all the obvious lay a treasure most unexpected:  the Spanish people, and those we met in Spain.  We branched out from wonderful naval base friendships to the most delightful and interesting local friendships, and the more I basked in the wonder of our luck in meeting such amazing people, the more our luck grew.  

Naval base beauties

Olé Maribel!

Learning from the pros

I was welcomed into, not just one but three different groups of compañeras, women (and the occasional señor!) who loved flamenco and loved that I loved it, too.  We met people from many different regions and were welcomed into their homes and lives.  

At the Spanish Navy Ball with my amigas españolas

We were taught and invited by those eager to share their heritage.  The reason my blogs are full of such joy is due to the friendships created in five short years, and the big-heartedness of those we met and joined with in friendship.

Americans and Spanish all together now at the last Vale That concert

So glad to be here

And it is the main reason I am grateful to have these stories encapsulated in my blog, and why I enjoy re-reading it.  Spain, you have made my world so much bigger.  I will always be grateful from the depths of my heart.

Last dinner with our very first friends in Puerto:  How we will miss you!!

This will be the last installment of the Rico Petersons in Spain blog.  You can follow our adventures in the U.S. at the following link:

A California Adventure

Monday, August 22, 2016

Croatia, Budapest, Vienna, and Home to Stuttgart

I had never ventured into the Eastern Block except for a quick trip to Prague in 1986, and our Middle Europe trip seemed my last chance to do so for a while.  Italian Switzerland nearly touches Croatia, and Hungarian Budapest lies just to the east.  Tia and Sasha were enthusiastic when they heard that Budapest’s is renowned for its thermal baths, so we planned to cross northern Croatia and the Plitvice Lakes area on our way to spa heaven.

Feeding the birds at our Venice stopover on the way to Croatia

As we drove through Italy towards the Adriatic, Venice appeared on the coast.  Venice!  Who could drive by and not be tempted to stop?  So we spent the afternoon walking the narrow streets to Piazza San Marco, enchanted yet again by this beautiful city.

Evening in Venice

Italian glory

We arrived at our hotel on the Adriatic in the coastal city of Lovran.  We had just the morning to indulge in a swim in its turquoise waters.

Overlooking the blue, blue Adriatic in 

I’d promised the girls lots more swimming at what looked like an enchanting teal-tinged series of lakes in northern Croatia, but alas, the Plitvice lakes environment is so fragile and the tourist hoards so vast that no swimming was allowed (even though a naughty Swedish family jumped in as we walked by, making us all jealous). 

Enticing waters just out of reach
We slogged through the over-the-top crowded trail after waiting in line for more than an hour to pay the entrance fee.  The waterfalls were beautiful, but hard to enjoy when packed in like sardines.  Not recommended, at least in August!

Oh, the crowds, the crowds!  Like a Croatian Nature Disneyland.

Then for three luxurious nights in Budapest.  I’d not told the girls that we were staying in a five-star hotel—our one big splurge on this vacation—and they pulled me away from the door of the Corinthia, sure that this could NEVER be something I’d booked!  But it was, and I did.  We lounged in fancy bathrobes and jacuzzied and indulged in the fancy teas. 

Royal Budapest Parliament
We splurged: the girls got chocolate massages, I got a honey massage and wrap, and Todd got something called a Java massage.  He looked wide-eyed and shell-shocked when I returned to the sitting room after my massage.  “Have you ever gotten a Java Massage?” he asked in an ominous whisper.  Turns out a Java massage is not for the faint-of-heart, involving multiple contortions and excruciating muscle-to-bone contact—not what Todd had expected.  “Why didn’t you tell her it hurt?” the girls asked Todd.  Selber Schuld (German for “own fault!”)—Todd didn’t want to seem the wimp.

What Todd imagined

What Todd got

Budapest is simply a gorgeous city.  An amalgam of two towns, Buda and Pest, on either side of the river Danube and connected by the world-famous Chain Bridge, the city is both old and fresh, quaint and young, picturesque and hip.   

The famous Chain Bridge connecting Buda and Pest

We walked the city for three days after going for our morning spa, then returned to our fancy hotel to hop in the Jacuzzi again before retiring to our plush rooms.  We found the best ice cream ever: salted carmel and a salted pistachio with nutella.  Needless to say, we went back three days in a row.


From Budapest we traveled on to meet Helene Von Dam in Vienna.  Helene is a longtime friend of my aunt Heide, and was Reagan’s personal secretary in both California and Washington, D.C., before returning to her native Austria as ambassador. 
Helene writes about being Ronald Reagan's personal secretary and assistant

Just as poised, gracious and elegant...she's amazing.

She took us on a whirlwind tour of the exquisite and grand downtown, depositing us at the Kursalon for a concert that included a little opera, a little ballet, a little symphony, and a little comedy in a small but gorgeous 19th-century gilded concert hall. 

Viennese entertainment
We returned to dinner on her rooftop deck, and after breakfast the next morning we visited the House of Music (everything you would want to know about Vienna’s famous classical musicians) and walked to the Hundertwasser house (a disappointing tourist trap), followed by dinner at the open-air film festival in front of Vienna’s town hall—a monster screen showing Swan Lake. 

Warm summer Viennese evening

Our time in Vienna was far too short, but Stuttgart called—my “home” town, where I’d lived nearly two years and home to my Kral family.  We passed through Bernau and visited my grandmother’s grave, and stopped for dinner in Augsburg with Renate and Rudi, my mother’s cousins, Augsburg being my mother’s birthplace.

Renate and Rudi took us to dinner at the Fuggerei, a unique community in the heart of Augsburg

In Stuttgart we had tea with Valerie, my “German” mother (even though she is English!) in Erdbeerweg 4, where I’d lived as a 16-year-old, and reconnected with Rainer (my German dad) and his wife Siggi.  

My German English Mama

Erdbeerweg 4 will always be home

We reminisced over old stories involving both my family and theirs.  And we squeezed in a brief visit with Rebecca and her family in Gundelsheim on the way back to Frankfurt airport.  (Rebecca lived with us for a week during feria.)

New friends
Goodbye, Stuttgart, goodbye Germany, goodbye Europe.  A fitting end to our time here!   Now back to Spain to pack and head off to our American adventure!

Saying goodbye to Europe

Friday, August 12, 2016

Italian Switzerland and my German brother Thomas Oliver

Fancy Switzerland

Oliver was a perky, inquisitive 10-year-old when I came to live with the Kral family almost 40 years ago.   I’d always longed for a younger brother—my sisters seemed less fun than my friend’s younger brothers, and I loved to run around and play with them.   Oliver helped me learn German, pointing out my errors and correcting me as I read to him at night.  He also laughed himself silly when I said I had to wash my Haar—“What, you only have one hair?  Hahahahahahaha!”  (in German you wash your hairs).

Then he told me I looked like a “Brummer” in my blue-and-yellow snow suit.  When I asked what a “Brummer” was, he laughed and said in his sweet English-German accent, “A Bum-Bel-Bee!”  The image of myself as a big fat fuzzy blue-yellow insect made me cry, and my German mom Valerie scolded him thoroughly.   
Not exactly what I wanted to look like

But for the most part we got along famously, chasing each other through the house until Valerie yelled at us, playing epic ping-pong matches, helping with pear-picking and klettering with ropes up the Swabian cliffsides under father Rainer’s tutelage.  And when I was in Tübingen six years later, Todd and I went to Eichendorf and sailed on the Starnberger See with Oliver and his then-girlfriend.

Sailing on Starnberger See

Now Thomas Oliver, better known by his adult name, Thomas, is pushing 50 and lives in the Italian part of Switzerland, a nurse by profession.  He came to Tegna to attend a famous acting and performance school, then switched to nursing when his first daughter was on the way.  We’d long been talking about visiting him, going skiing in the Dolomites or coming up from Italy.  This was our last chance to see him before we left Europe, and so we planned three days in Tegna, a tiny village outside of the fancy Swiss resort of Locarno. 

Oli (or rather Thomas) looks a lot like I remember him at 10!

We left Colmar in the morning and stopped through Freiburg to visit my aunt Andrea, my mother’s sister and a medically-trained naturopathic doctor, and toured her house/office complex in this beautiful little city.  Then on to Switzerland, where we stopped for a coffee in a café overlooking the River Aare with our friend Flori, granddaughter of Elizabeth “Mamu” Kronseder, an artist and long-time friend of our family.  (Flori inherited Mamu’s house in Bavaria, my first introduction to Europe when I was 16.) 

The river Arn in Bern
I had planned a beautiful day-long drive through the peaks of the Alps on our way to Tegna, but alas!  It was our ONE rainy day that week, and the clouds obscured the jagged passes as we wound our way through the quaint Swiss chalet villages.  We arrived in Tegna having seen no snowy mountaintops, no herds of goats or yodelers, no fields of edelweiss or maids in dierndels.  Rats. 

What we missed
We arrived in Tegna late that night since Thomas didn’t finish his shift at the hospital until 11 pm.  We wove up the tiny streets, marveling at the stone houses and searching in vain for streetsigns, our GPS only getting us to the approximate location of Thomas’s apartment.  Suddenly a motorcycle parked next to us—Thomas!  We’d come to the right place.

The beautiful stone houses of Tegna

The next day Thomas took us for a quick swim before breakfast—to the most beautiful alpine-granite lake-stream I’ve ever seen.  Our granite-strewn creeks in the Sierra Nevada are beautiful, but don’t hold a candle to the amazing locations just short walks from Thomas’s apartment.  

A calmer part of the river
First we swam in this amazing pool of so-fresh-you-can-drink-it water, with an enormous waterfall cascading down one side.  That afternoon we went upstream to meet Thomas’s eldest daughter Johanna at a calm, boulder-strewn little lake with flat sandy spots to nap.  Then Thomas’s partner Andrea came in from Zürich, and we all went to a fine Italian Swiss dinner just around the corner from his apartment.

Secret swimming holes

But the following morning was the coup de grace: After hiking up to the little church behind Thomas’s house and enjoying the views, we went with Thomas’s other daughter Caroline to the Schlucht, or gorge.  My eyes popped wide.  

What a place to swim

Rising some 70 feet above the silken-black water, the gorge’s ancient granite walls were washed as smooth as glacier ice into swirls and caverns and undulating forms.  We swam upstream for fifteen minutes, slipping through the chilly but not unpleasant, deliciously fresh water.   Above us towered these massive cliffs, soft and whitened from eons of raging floodwaters, sometimes coming so close together above us that it looked as if you could jump from one side to the other.

Ancient stone-wash
Just watch out for the dangers...

We ended our visit at the “grotte” or cave-restaurant where Johanna worked, where we had polenta, fresh cheese, lasagna, pesto, and ribs.  We invited everyone—Johanna, Caroline, Andrea, Thomas, and his son Jonathan, who was traveling around on Interrail at the time, to visit us in California.  We would love to reciprocate by sharing with them our little Sierra Nevada paradise! 

Typical Swiss valley