Monthly Archives: May 2015

And a Dash of Macabre for Good Measure

I have to admit that there are few prouder moments for me as a parent than when I teach Liam something new. Learning brings a gleam to a child’s eye that’s like a ray of sunshine for a parent.

Of late, we’re been exploring some of the sights built by Barcelona’s favorite son, architect Antoni Gaudi. Our most recent was to a building known as La Pedrera, or Casa Mila for the family that commissioned its construction. And as we walked out of the building the other night and Liam turned to me and asked if he could learn more about Gaudi and see a picture of him, I swelled a little with pride that my son was curious and wanted to delve deeper into the history and the man.

Then he said, “I want to see a picture of him getting hit by the tram.” Well, so much for fatherly pride.

After all, it’s still a six-year-old we’re talking about here, so even the healthy pursuit of expanding the mind comes with an ample dose of the macabre, or mentions of caca, or fits of giggles that should be recorded for future blackmail. (Seriously, where do boys get giggles that silly?)

I’m still hanging on to the warm feeling I get when teaching Liam something. It speaks to the belief that the most fulfilled people are those that are helping others. Everyday is a new opportunity to expand his knowledge just a tiny bit, and it’s a process I truly do enjoy. Even if I do have to mix in the occasional gory bit to maintain his interest.

I’m thinking his teachers have learned this trick too, considering the inclusion of the tram story in their lesson plans on Gaudi. The class completed a whole unit on Gaudi, learning about his famous projects such as Sagrada Familia and Parc Guell, drawing huge posters of the projects as a team and proudly displaying them outside the class. It led to Liam having a real obsession with Sagrada Familia since he was part of the team that drew a poster of it.

Sagrada Familia is a truly unmatched church with so many building styles combined into one that it looks like something out of Hollywood. We had seen it from the outside, but we took Liam inside around his birthday. It really is breath-taking on the interior as well, but still tough to fathom that it’s been under construction for over 100 years and isn’t slated to be finished for another decade. It should be on your list to see if you ever make it to Barcelona.

We visited La Pedrera at night as part of an interesting light projection they do among the cone-shaped structures on the roof. It was quite entertaining, along with being a great vantage point to see the lights of the city. The building was originally constructed about 100 years ago for a wealthy family as a home, along with about a dozen rental apartments. According to local scuttlebutt, there are still four families in the building on rental leases from decades ago with rents at some incredibly low level like 100 Euros a month. It makes rent control on New York sound reasonable! Beyond them, the rest of the building is a museum.

And, unfortunately, Liam has the story correct. Although already famous and revered in Barcelona, the 73-year-old Gaudi choose to dress like a tramp and was hit by a tram in 1926. He wasn’t transported immediately to hospital because the nearby cabbies feared he had no money for the fare, and he ended up dying from the injuries just three days later. A sad end for a man who has left such a mark on Barcelona, but an odd tail that just might be enough to keep six-year-olds asking for more. Always a silver lining, you might say.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: We have been pondering moving apartments. I’d love a deal like those at La Pedrera, but it seems like rents are heading upwards from when we looked a year ago. Some landlords clearly target the ex-pat crowd with rents that locals would never pay. On top of that, the odd system here where the renter ends up compensating the agency (instead of the owner paying) makes moving cost-prohibitive. It all feels rather backward… I’ve been pondering trying to get a Spanish driving license. The good news is, I can take the written test in English. The bad news is, some say the translation is bad enough that you might as well take it in Mongolian. I have a feeling there will be some stories to tell in the coming months…

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Back to the Future/Past

As we walked down the ramp to board our flight back to the U.S. this month, it struck me how quickly your status in life can change. It seems like we barely left America, yet it’s almost 10 months since that day and this was now our second trip back. In no time, we won’t even be “locals” anymore. The world spins at a crazy pace.

Liam was excited from the beginning to go back because he had a chance to see one of his first school friends, Julian, and also spend a day back at his old school with other friends. And I knew, somewhere in the back of his mind, he also had a feeling that heading back to the U.S. would add up to presents. It’s probably a habit we need to break, but it clearly has a hold of him already. Sure enough, four DSC_0326days into the trip and surrounded by a stack of surprises from friends and relatives, the fateful words came out of his mouth: “I want to live in America again.”

While some of the world still believes America’s streets are paved with gold, I had to break it to him that it’s not quite as simple as that in the real world. Take the goodies with a smile while you can, kiddo, because presents on a daily basis simply are not how the world operates normally. For us grown-ups, the presents come with a Visa bill at the end of the month.

Coming back to the U.S. is this weird dichotomy of busy and idle. There’s always a list of things that we simply have to get done; some paperwork, a stack of mail, checking off a few things for our tenants and sussing out key food items that have been missing from our diets the last few months. But once we get through this initial rush, it’s a quasi-vacation, albeit spent on family turf instead of hotels.

It’s an odd feeling to be back to a place that was so familiar for so many years and now is already becoming a little foreign. New buildings have already appeared. The best route from point A to point B is not always top of mind anymore. And some familiar people just are not in the familiar places anymore. It’s a slow creep towards a loss of connection.

It’s funny to think that many of us are becoming more “worldly” because we travel to more places and even live in other places, but as we become more global we seem to also lose a little of our “local” identity by being less rooted to one place. Our parents or grandparents often were born, lived and died all in one town. Today, not so much.

I wonder what it teaches our kids. He’s only six and already Liam is an American/Canadian/Vietnamese kid who lives in Spain and is starting to pick up the language. So what does that make him? A citizen of everywhere, or a citizen of nowhere? I’m fascinated to think how he may identify himself as he reaches the teen years, or his 20s and even beyond. Certainly his image of himself will be 180 degrees from how I pictured myself at those ages.

For now, his image is of a big boy of six and constant seeker of goodies. At times, he’s a little put off that the Spanish lifestyle doesn’t include regular trips to the mall and constant opportunities to hit up his parents for whatever catches his eye. Occasionally begging for a chocolate at the bodega checkout just doesn’t stack up with the opportunity to gaze at aisles and aisles of toys to be manhandled at Target. But does less stuff add up to less enjoyment or development? To that, I confident can say a resounding no. The stuff really doesn’t get you any closer to happiness.

So after a whirlwind week of busy and idle, we chalked up a successful trip back to the U.S. for all this time around. We spent some time with old friends that we miss. Papers were signed, mail was sent, maintenance was done, family was enjoyed and some surprises were unpacked. What more can you want from a quasi-vacation?

RANDOM THOUGHTS: We flew to the US on USAirways, now officially absorbed into American Airlines. The effect of American is already clearly apparent, since we did receive some semblance of food and staff was reasonably pleasant. Flying the old USAirways was about as close to paid torture as one could get (with the possible exception of Spirit)… Living in a place, you do tend to stop noticing some things around you. That is, until you move away and come back. And what did I notice coming back to the U.S.? Well, for one, there’s a staggering number of tattoos wandering the streets. People do have the right to decorate up as much as they want, but I have to think that a few decades from now there’s going to be one hell of a lot of saggy ink filling the old folks homes. Not a pretty picture…

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Filed under Recent Posts, Relocation, Travel

Taking a Panda for a Ride

Faced with a long weekend thanks to the arrival of the Spanish version of Labor Day, we decided to grab some wheels and head out of Barcelona and play tourist for a few days. We packed up the (Fiat) Panda and headed north for a brief beach stop on the Costa Brava before making our way inland to the historic Catalan town of Girona.

Like so many of the Spanish towns we have seen, Girona has a remarkable history of occupation. If I’m learning anything from these road trips, it’s that Spain is not just a top tourist destination today. People have been showing up unannounced in these locales for a couple of thousand years. Romans, Moors, Visigoths, you name them, they have booked a visit at some point.DSC_0236

I do give Girona an extra point on the colorful history scale based on one famous former occupant, Wilfred the Hairy. He is said to have first incorporated Girona into the growing countship of Barcelona around 878, contributing to the early birth of Catalonia. With a name like Wilfred the Hairy, he may have not been No. 1 with the ladies, but this guy is scoring well in the history books. In the coming years after Wilfred, a thriving Jewish community arose in Girona, before all Jews were forced out of the region in 1492. Along the way, Girona survived a total of 25 sieges. Even the worst mother-in-law imaginable hasn’t racked up more bad visits than Girona has experienced.

All this fascinating history has made Girona one of Spain’s most notable towns to visit with part of its Roman city walls still in tact, a soaring cathedral and Arab baths that date back to the 12th century.

As you can tell, the history interests me a great deal, but even if that’s not your cup of tea, Girona is another great example of a midsize city with that comfortable, European ambiance that feels so welcoming. It’s very easy to wander into an open square here, pull up a chair at a local café and watch life wander past over a coffee or beer. That appeals to most everyone. And for the history geeks, be satisfied that the square is Placa de la Independencia, built to honor the War of Spanish Independence against Napoleon. Something for everyone, as they say.

The old part of Girona is a web of narrow streets, old stone buildings and history on every corner. Really, the historic center of Girona looks almost identical to so many other towns in this part of the world, but they all have a that feel to them like nowhere else. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of wandering through these mazes, no matter the name of the town.

Albeit brief, it was a nice visit to Girona before we set off again to see the mountain-side town of Montserrat, located only a short distance west of Barcelona.

DSC_0276Montserrat is famous as the home of a Benedictine abbey, Santa Maria de Montserrat. Although it’s definitely rather touristy at this point with the local shops overflowing with products “made especially” by the monks, the view heading into Montserrat is still worth the tip. The mountain is adorned with interesting, rounded rocks that make for some pretty spectacular views. It’s a great day trip from Barcelona, by train or car.

Packing a couple of towns into a couple of days made for a busy schedule, but it was well worth it to see a little more of Spain. Our little Fiat was a rather cranky Panda actually but it got us where we needed to go with a little less laboring than our previous ride via tuk-tuk. I think I’d be banned from tuk-tuk ownership for good had I dared the hill to Montserrat in the little three-wheeled wonder. All in all, it was another weekend well spent.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: The main highways here are smooth, fast and efficient. The only downside is the tolls, which can add up in a hurry and cost as much as the price to rent a car. Taking the older highways is a way to avoid the toll, but can also be rather painful if a bunch of Spaniards also have the same idea… It’s less well known than the south of Spain, but the Costa Brava offers nice beaches and really good value. Many of the hotels do half- or full-board packages. We did a dinner and breakfast package with the room this time and barely broke $100 for the night…

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