Fiesta Mayor de Grácia

Posted by Karie on Aug 17th 2008 05:18 pm

Each year the neighborhood of Grácia (where we lived our first few months in Barcelona) hosts a week long festival, complete with elaborately decorated streets, 15+ stages throughout the neighborhood, random competitions, and of course, food.  It’s hard to believe that an event of this magnitude is put on completely by volunteers in the neighborhood (with financial help from the local government and some serious fundraising efforts).

We had just missed the “Fiesta Mayor de Grácia” when we moved to Barcelona last year, so we’ve been anxiously waiting for it to come around again.  The street decorations and sets were so impressive that we decided to go twice so we could see them both at night and in the daytime – which are two completely different experiences.

We hung out for a few hours Saturday night, and planned to go back Sunday afternoon.  While we were wandering around Saturday night I had the good fortune of finding an event guide on the ground (which I later learned costs 5€). That’s when we realized that we were going to be able to check something off our “things to do while in Spain” list, that we thought we weren’t going to get to accomplish this year!

The “Castell,” or human castle, is a Catalan tradition where teams of people (Castellers) compete to build the most impressive tower.  It has a wide base made up of at least 20 men, and keeps building on itself with smaller people, until finally, a child (probably between 4-6 years old) climbs to the top of the tower and raises their hand with 4 fingers, symbolizing the Catalan flag.  Then they all shimmy back down.  It’s pretty amazing, and the good teams constructed and dismantled their 4-story “castle” in about 3-4 minutes.

Check it out:

While all the Castellers were impressive, some teams made it look easy, and others showed signs of how difficult it really is.  There was one team that called off the tower twice after reaching the 2nd or 3rd level of people, as their human “foundation” was not stable enough to continue. However, they ended up with a successful 7 level castle on their 3rd attempt.  Another team was extremely wobbly, and one or two people in the 3rd layer nearly buckled under the weight.  I was a little nervous, but apparently I underestimate their strength and skill.

The tradition of the Castell is often carried out at big festivals throughout the region, but for one reason or another, we had never been able to make it to a show.  Until we found that event program on the ground, we thought that they only did the Castell on the last day of this fiesta, on which we will be out of town.  We thought our dreams of seeing a human tower this year were crushed, so we were thrilled to get to witness this unique tradition after all.  Oh yeah, and the rest of the fiesta was really cool too.  The Spanish (and Catalans) really know how to put on a good party.  I need to add that to the list of things I’ll miss.

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So What’s Your Favorite Place?

Posted by Karie on Aug 12th 2008 11:54 am

That’s a question we get all the time.  I try to answer it, but it’s not that simple.  It’s like asking me to pick my favorite pair of shoes!  We have loved (almost) every place we’ve been, for different reasons.  So, being the diplomatic, facilitative, terrible decision-maker that I am, I’ve categorized my favorites.  It’s not so much like gold, silver, and bronze; it’s more like best in its class. Think of it like an awards show, but instead of Emmy’s or Grammy’s, this will be… um, The Kaufy’s.

Without further adieu, ladies & gentlemen, we proudly present…

“The Kaufy Awards”
Hosted by: Me
Produced by: Scott
As Voted on by: Me & Scott

Best City to Learn a Ton of Interesting Stuff:
Berlin, Germany

Place I Wish Everyone Could See, but Without Needing an Overnight Bus:
Cappadocia, Turkey

Most Breath-Taking Views:
Croatia (all of it)

Most Incredible Architecture:

Best Place to Live it Up on a Tight Budget:
Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

Best Beach:
Cádiz, Spain

Place That Convinced Me That Places Like This Really Exist:
Cinque Terre, Italy

Most Unique Experience:
Running of the Bulls
(although this title could be rivaled when we go to La Tomatina in a couple weeks!)

Best Food:
Karie: Florence, Italy – one particular bite of gelato that had the most perfect
cookie-gooey-crunchy-gelato ratio I have ever experienced
Scott: Athens, Greece – 2€ gyros

Place We Would Most Like to Live Later in Life:
Ronda, Spain
(or anywhere in the Andalucía Region)

Place We Had the Most Fun:
Anywhere we visited or traveled with friends & family
(I know that’s a cop-out, but it’s true)

Place We Got the Most Bored:
Tie between Málaga, Spain and Zurich, Switzerland

City with the nicest people:
Bilbao, Spain

Place We Most Want to Go Back to See More Of:
Eastern Europe

Most Unforgettable Place that We Only Need to See Once in Life:

And for the final award of the evening…. (drumrollllllllllll)

Favorite Country Overall:
(this might seem biased, but the voting committee has spoken)

-Close Curtain-
-Cue Wild Applause-

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The Bitter and the Sweet

Posted by Karie on Aug 7th 2008 04:53 pm

With the date of our return to the U.S. being just under a month away, I’ve been doing a great deal of thinking.  Shocking, I know.  Anyhow, while I am excited to go home, I am also very sad to leave Barcelona.  I was finding it difficult to summarize the reasons why, so I went back to one of my favorite activities – I made lists.  I even solicited Scott’s help, which he eagerly gave, despite the fact that he does not share my passion for list-making.

These are by no means all-inclusive. In fact, we probably won’t even realize most of the things that we’ll miss until we’re gone, but here are a few things that quickly come to mind:

What We Will Miss About Living in Barcelona:

  • Friends we’ve made here
  • Traveling frequently
  • The markets
  • Bocadillos (a super cheap sandwich on a baguette; our favorite is chorizo and cheese)
  • Not needing a car (walking everywhere or taking the great public transit)
  • Bicing (a service for residents that gives you access to thousands of bicycles around town for 24€ for the whole year)
  • Hanging laundry outside to dry (I realize I could do this at home, but not without the neighbors thinking I’m weird)
  • The warm and beautiful Mediterranean Sea
  • Neighbors, whom we lovingly refer to as: Orange Peel Guy, Monochromatic Laundry Lady, Antoni The Catalan, Celia’s Friend, and Dog with the Funny Bark
  • People here actually go places on the weekends instead of cleaning and running errands
  • Manchego cheese
  • Budget airlines (ClickAir specifically… even though they lost our luggage)
  • Stumbling upon random parades, music and fiestas in the streets
  • Spanish children, specifically Celia’s Friend (see “Neighbors” above)
  • Funny Christmas traditions
  • Double cheek kisses hello & goodbye
  • Lack of frivolous lawsuits and political correctness
  • Getting emails/comments from strangers on our blog (as well as from people we know!)
  • A real reason to use Guiseppe, our GPS device (this is one of Scott’s contributions, in case you couldn’t tell)
  • Being sheltered from the media
  • Monday or Saturday… no difference to us!
  • “Mañana, mañana, mañana…”

What We Will Not Miss:

  • Pick pockets and purse snatchers
  • The Euro (what a budget buster!)
  • RyanAir
  • Paying .45 cents for 2 ice cubes
  • 63 stairs to get home (not just regular stairs, but crooked/uneven stairs that are older than the United States!)
  • The mullet as an acceptable fashion statement
  • Putting bread on your table that you don’t ask for, then charging you for it
  • Mediocre Mexican food
  • People cutting in line (apparently it is acceptable here to step in front of anyone who makes the mistake of leaving a small space between themselves and the person ahead of them)
  • The clothes we brought with us
  • “Mañana, mañana, mañana…”

What We Look Forward to in the good ol’ USA:

  • Family & Friends
  • Penny Lane (best dog ever)
  • Meeting Davis (our godson), as well as other friends’ babies that were born since we moved
  • CVCF
  • My shoes, clothes and accessories
  • Full time dual income
  • Target.  Ah, Target.
  • Cheez-Its
  • Jiff peanut butter (although we’ve had plenty of this here thanks to our smugglers visitors)
  • Reasonably priced Listerine
  • Good & affordable sushi
  • Having a toilet paper holder
  • A full size shower with good water pressure, and a hot water tank that lasts longer than 5 minutes (to quote our friend Neal from Ireland, “Taking a shower in America is like getting shot with a firehose.” We miss that.)
  • Knowing where to find what I need (Thanks for sending me the rubber bands Dev!)
  • Understanding everything everyone says (in most neighborhoods)
  • Having our friends from Barcelona come visit

…Just to name a few.

I’m sure we’ll think of many more things over the next few weeks, but perhaps this list will help you understand our mixed emotions about moving back to the U.S.  Silly as they may be, apparently these things that first come to mind are what’s important to us.  Did we forget anything?  Feel free to add your two cents if there’s some treasure that we’ve neglected to mention.

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Luggageless in Lisbon

Posted by Karie on Aug 3rd 2008 04:58 pm

A few weeks ago we were talking with some friends about how smooth all of our travels had gone.  Of all the trips we’ve taken over the last year, we have been blessed to not experience any major problems or setbacks.  I should’ve knocked on wood.

We boarded our 32nd airplane of the year on our way to Lisbon (the last flight on which we will be checking luggage until we move home), but unbeknownst to us, our luggage never boarded.  We arrived in the baggage claim at the Lisbon airport, and took notice that every single carousel had 10 +/- bags left, with no one around.  Most of the carousels were not even moving, but random bags were lying around everywhere.  “Wow,” we thought, “there are probably people all over Europe wondering where their bags are.”  Before long, we were among them.

I waited in line for over an hour to report the lost bag, while Scott continually scoured the terminal, thinking that it must be here somewhere.  With all those bags lying around, we figured there was a good chance that ours just got misdirected and would end up on another carousel eventually.  This was before we learned that it never even left Barcelona.

Unfortunately ClickAir, our favorite budget airline, only has one flight per day from Barcelona to Lisbon, so our bag would not arrive until the next day’s flight.  Also, because this is a budget airline, there is no compensation for lost luggage.  If I wanted that, I should’ve purchased the travel insurance for 15€/person… which by the way, still would have cost more than repurchasing all the basics.

Oh well, whattayagonnado?  We’re pretty laid back travelers at this point, so we just sighed and joked about how wonderful it was to not have to lug our stupid bags through town and up the stairs to the hostel.  “Oh, how nice it is to be luggage free!  We should really travel without luggage more often…”

We were able to scrounge up some toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap and underwear, but by then many of the stores were closed so we were unable to find deodorant.  (Or at least that we deem acceptable.  Yes, we are still American deodorant snobs.)

The next day we got ready in a jiffy, and headed out to El Corte Ingles, which is a huge department store with a supermarket in the basement.  After we found suitable deodorant, I decided to test the skills of the lady at the MAC make-up counter, to see what she could do with my bare face.  I usually don’t like to take up their time unless I actually intend to buy something, but this time I was just hoping someone would have enough sympathy to give me some moisturizer and cover up the dark circles under my eyes.  I think the girl was so pleased that someone would allow her play dress-up with them, that within 15 minutes I looked like I was going to the prom… except that my hair looked like crap and my clothes weren’t the freshest.  I didn’t match with my own self, but it was kinda fun anyway.

We spent the entire day exploring Lisbon, and saw almost everything else left on our “must see” list… toured Jerónimos Monastery, sampled Pastéis de Belém down the street at the bakery of the same name, Belém Tower, wandered the Bairro Alto, shopping streets and squares, and one of my favorite activities, Tram 28.  The trams (similar to the trolley in SF) are a normal part of public transportation in Lisbon, so there are several lines that run through the city.  However, Tram 28 is a great tourist attraction in and of itself.  Not only does its route take you by many of the famous sites, but it zooms up and down some of those hills so fast it feels like you’re on a roller coaster.  Good entertainment, for the price of a regular public transit ride.

We were exhausted by the time we got back to our hostel, and super bummed to realize that our bags had not yet arrived.  I made a call to the airport, and was assured they would be delivered that night.  Around midnight, I finally gave up and waiting for my shampoo to arrive, and did the unthinkable.  I washed my hair with bar soap.  Yes, I did.  I could get away with not washing it the first night, with the hopes that our toiletries would arrive the next day.  But now, the next day was over and the shops were closed.  Oh the horror.  I actually considered not washing off my make-up so at least I’d have one thing going for me the next day, but upon further thought I concluded that this would likely not be a benefit.

Sintra, Portugal
Part of the motivation to go non-stop on our 2nd day, was so we could fit in a day trip the following day.  Sintra was referred to us by a friend, and once I started doing some research I read over and over where people said it was their favorite place in Portugal, or even in all of Europe.  It is home to three national palaces, beautiful landscape and views, and is credited for the birth of Romantic architecture.

A round-trip train ticket from Lisbon cost 3.40€, and takes about 40 minutes.  Once you arrive at the train station, everything else is uphill.  Until fairly recently, there was no public transportation to take you to the most popular palaces at the top of the mountain, so if you wanted to see it, you had to hike up the mountain to get there (which we hear takes about an hour for a person in good shape).  Thankfully, now there is a bus.  A 2-way ticket costs 4.50€, and is worth it if you’re short on time and/or too lazy to walk.

We headed straight for the Pena National Palace at the top of the hill – one of the most unique palaces I’ve seen.  It’s often compared to the Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria (which is believed to be the inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty’s castle), which we had visited while driving through Germany in March.  For budget purposes, we opted not to tour the inside of the castle, but for 7.50€, you can access the famous yards and the exterior of the castle, including the courtyards and chapel.  Everything I had read was true – it was a truly unique palace with stunning views of the Atlantic Ocean on one side, and Lisbon on the other.

There are plenty of attractions in Sintra, but it can get pretty expensive to visit all the palaces, gardens, etc., so we didn’t even come close to seeing everything.  Even with what we did see, it was a great trip; but I’d imagine it would be a nice play to stay in a B&B for a few days and take your time hiking through the beautiful mountains and exploring all the history.

The Best Birthday Present Ever
We returned to the hostel from Sintra only to be disappointed yet again that our bag had not yet arrived.  It was cool for the first couple of days, but now I was starting to worry that we were going to go back to Barcelona without it.  Scott was more concerned that his body was so attached to these clothes that it might reject new fibers if he tried to change.  Or maybe he was trying to pretend it was still Wednesday, so he wouldn’t have to acknowledge the fact that he turned 31 that day.  (Except that Scott barely even knows when his birthday is and has a tendency to think he’s older than he actually is, so I doubt this was the case,)

We decided to splurge on a birthday dinner (splurging just means eating at a place with a table versus our usual picnics on a bench or lawn) and tried to have some fun to keep our minds off how shabby we looked and felt.  Then, just when we had given up hope, Scott got the best birthday present of all (and so did I) – our luggage.  Granted, it came at 9:00pm, and we had to leave for the airport at 10:30am the following morning, but those last 13 hours we felt more comfortable than we had in days.

We really liked Portugal, so having only one pair of clothes and no skin/hair products for the entire trip really allowed us to use our time for the most important things, like getting out and about, rather than silly things like combing our hair and digging through the suitcase for a clean shirt.  I have reached a new level of low maintenance.  Thank you ClickAir for yet another lesson in patience; cheap flights are not the only service you provide.

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Ok, So I Was Wrong

Posted by Karie on Jul 27th 2008 02:49 pm

Since I was about 15 I’ve always felt like wherever I am in life is the best.  “Life can’t possibly get any better than where I am right now.”  I’ve thought that now for 15 years straight, and continue to prove myself wrong at every turn.

I remember the stress I felt when I graduated from high school.  I had attended the same school my entire life – Kindergarten through my Senior year. Wore the same plaid uniform, and hung out with the same kids, whose parents were my teachers.  I absolutely loved my high school years, and leaving that comfort zone was a big deal.

I then went to college, and behold, I loved that too.  I met Scott, made new friends, learned some stuff, and didn’t really want to leave, so I went back for graduate school.  For the next several years I worked for a company I loved, amongst great friends.  Scott and I got married, added Penny Lane to the family, moved a few times, relocated to San Diego, and our careers continued to advance… it just kept getting better and better and better.  Just when I thought life couldn’t be improved upon, we moved to Spain.  A full year of the most amazing adventures that I still can’t believe I actually experienced.

When I look back, I feel like it was all easy.  In reality, we worked extremely hard to get where we are, and there were definitely some challenging times along the way… and that’s when my dad reminds me that I had the same struggle at each one of my previous transitions between my “best phases.”  There’s always the fear, stress and anxiety, but once I get through that, I forget about it.  I guess it’s good to have both perspectives.  I love feeling like life can’t get any better than this very moment, but when I forget the growing pains I start to take the growth for granted… or worse, actually start to believe that life really can’t get any better, and that’s just absurd.

If it had not been for all the other times that I consciously thought “This is the best phase of my life… No, wait, now THIS is the best…”, I would probably be depressed that our year in Spain is almost over, and we will be going home in about six weeks.  The good news is that I love home too, and I know our best days are ahead of us.

So I guess my rambling is more or less in response to a comment that my good friend Sarah left on our guestbook a few weeks ago. In typical Sarah fashion, there were more questions that followed, but for now I’m only attempting to answer the first few:

# sarah on 22 Jun 2008 at 6:27 pm
“Hey Guys! (I think this one is for Karie, with Scott’s valuable input, of course.) As if you don’t have enough to do, I was thinking maybe you should write a blog about what you are feeling right now. Trip winding down, ready to go home, still haven’t done (blank), whatever…” (con’t)

When I received her comment we were traveling through the region of Andalucía in southern Spain.  Her questions stuck in my mind as we were on the train to Ronda, and when I turned my iPod on, the first song that played summed up how I felt at the moment:

Did you listen to it?  I know, I know, I’m embarrassed at my own cheesiness, but it’s so true!  I feel good about it!  For once in my life, I’m even (mostly) ok with the unknown.  Right now, I can honestly say that I have no clue where I’ll be in 2 months.  Job, cars, house… No tengo nada!!!  But I think I’ve finally learned that God has a plan for us that’s so much better than anything I could ever come up with on my own, and I’m at peace with that.  I’m feeling good.  Birds flying high, you know how it is.

(Dad, you can remind me about this when we move home and I’m upset that we have no furniture.)

To further answer Sarah’s questions, I could always come up with more that I could’ve or should’ve done with my time here.  For example, I do regret not working harder to become fluent in Spanish this year… but then I give myself the advice I used to give my clients:

“Stop should-ing all over yourself.”

As far as new experiences go, we’ve done everything we set out to do this year, and more.  We just have a few short trips to squeeze in (which I will certainly blog about), but for the most part our last six weeks will be in Barcelona, spending as much time as possible with the friends that we’ve made here.  I’ve written a ton of new goals for things I want to see and do later in life (we’re definitely not done traveling!), but my more immediate focus is to wrap up the best phase of my life, in preparation for our new best phase.

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The Running of the Crazy People (Oh Yeah, and Bulls)

Posted by Karie on Jul 13th 2008 11:58 am

My, oh, my… I’ll try to go in chronological order, since that’s the only way I can attempt to describe a few days of chaos in a way that might convey at least a little bit of what San Fermín (Running of the Bulls) was really like. There were a few websites like and (this guy is super cool & helpful) that were fantastic resources, but no amount of information can really prepare you for something like this.  You just have to see it to believe it, so trust me, you should really go.  These people are the craziest, friendliest and most fun in the world.  If you don’t want to read the whole blog, you can check out our videos to get a small taste.

Ok, back to the beginning… Our bus arrived from Bilbao around 12:30pm.  Unfortunately, we didn’t book accommodations as early as we should’ve, so pickings were slim, unless we wanted to pay 350€ or more per night (no thanks), sleep in the park (too old for that), or stay an hour outside of town (too young for that)… so we took what we could get.  We ended up renting a room from this company who owns several apartment buildings around town and rents out the rooms for this event.  I believe the term that someone on TripAdvisor used to describe one of their apartments was “hell hole,” so I wasn’t expecting much.

We were told to pick up our keys at their “office”, which was about a 5 minute walk from the bus station.  This is when we stumbled upon our first of many drum march band parade thingies (sorry, but I really don’t know how else to describe it).  A few days later we ended up in another one of these (this time voluntarily), and it took the crowd 40 minutes to move the distance of a small block.  Therefore, I do not recommend trying to walk through such a parade if you’re actually trying to go somewhere – and especially not if you’re carrying luggage.

So the office was in the front room of one of their other “apartments” (which I think would be better described as a small fraternity house).  We got the keys to our apartment, caught up with the drum band again, and eventually made it to our room… 106 stairs later.  Yes, that’s right, 106.  (Aunt Janice, the 63 steps to our flat doesn’t sound so bad anymore, huh?)  Upon arrival, we were given the option of 2 rooms, neither of which had windows.  Maybe that was actually a blessing, as we were warned to not plan on actually sleeping in this apartment, since the party goes 24/7 during the festival.  It was pretty stale in there, but it was cleaner and quieter than I expected, so I guess the pros and cons balanced out.

We dropped off our bags and headed out to buy our uniforms: white pants and white shirt, with a red scarf around your neck and sash around the waist.  EVERYONE wears this, so you will feel like the weird one if you’re not dressed up.  Your clothes will get ruined, so don’t bring ones you care too much about.  We brought our own white t-shirts and fabric for the waist sash, but purchased the white pants & neck scarves upon arrival.  I had planned to buy white pants in advance, but I’m glad I didn’t, as you can find them all over town for 5€.  In fact, you can get the entire outfit for about 15€.

So, we donned our new outfits and hit the ground running.  There are literally events all day and night long… bull running, bull fighting, parades, competitions, fireworks, fire runs, dances, children’s games, etc.  We were so excited to be there that we probably could’ve stayed up all night.  However, we had rented a balcony to watch the bull run early the next morning, and we wanted to be awake enough to enjoy it, so we managed to fit in about 4 hours of sleep.

The balcony.  That’s the most money I’ve ever paid for such a short event, but this is the whole reason we came, so I thought it was worth the 85€ tickets.  Our balcony overlooked “dead man’s corner,” which is where most of the excitement usually takes place, as 1500 lb bulls and hundreds of people go sliding around it.  The whole thing goes so fast, so you have to be ready or you will miss it.  You can hear the rockets fire, signifying that the bulls have been released, then about 20 seconds later, there they are, and then they’re gone.

Thankfully we didn’t see anyone get gored, but we did see one man get trampled by a bull, and another get launched in the air.  Both were carried away on stretchers.  I think the man who got launched only sustained minor injuries, as he was quite proud to wave and smile at all the spectators cheering for him as he was carried away on the stretcher.  I don’t think man who got stepped on was so lucky (Scott said he saw a hoof-print on his back), but I do know that he didn’t die.  In fact, only 15 people have been killed during the running since they started recording in 1911.  Loooots of people got injured though.  It was pretty common to see people walking around town all bandaged up.

The next day, we realized that the danger does not end when the bulls make it into the ring.  For 5€ you can buy a ticket into the bull ring to watch the grand finale, as all the bulls and runners complete the course.  I really enjoyed the combination of watching the run from the balcony one day, then the finale from the bull ring the next.  I recommend that you do at least one of those things, as it’s almost impossible to see anything from the streets.  (Tickets to watch from the bull ring go on sale the evening prior.)

So, we’re sitting there waiting, and people start running in.  Then all the sudden, people start running faster.  The bulls tear into the open ring with hundreds of people running in circles.  Some of them continued to tempt fate by getting as close as possible to the bulls, while others did not hesitate to dive over the wall for safety.  It didn’t take long to corral the bulls and get them through the bull ring and into their holding grounds, where they would remain until the bull fight that evening.  Then come in the Steers, which are sent before and after the bulls to make sure none of them stray or turn around (sometimes if a bull falls during the run he can become disoriented and start running the wrong direction, causing major problems).  The Steers are almost as big and dangerous as the bulls themselves, except that they wear these huge cowbells, which makes them look kinda goofy and loveable… at least from a distance!

Bulls and cows are now gone, but the crazies aren’t done playing yet.  All the runners stay in the middle of the ring, as a baby bull (the first of six) is released.  They wrap its horns in some type of protective material so no one gets gored, then they let all these idiots pretend to be matadors.  Even the babies weigh a few hundred pounds, so this is still very dangerous, but it’s the most hilarious thing to watch.  The baby bull starts running in circles while hoards of people are spinning out of control.  A few people got tossed around and stepped on, but we didn’t see anyone get seriously injured (at least that particular day, although it does happen).  The packed stadium cheered and jeered as people got poked in the butt, narrowly escaped being stepped on, or hung onto the horns and gave it a good ride.  Then, mamma Steer comes out into the arena to collect the baby, and they start over with the next baby bull.  Definitely one of the highlights of the festival for me.

We took a good long siesta that afternoon (every afternoon), then that evening we attended our first bull fight.  I can’t say that I was particularly looking forward to this, but I felt like I couldn’t live in Spain for a year and not experience one of their biggest traditions.  First a couple of tips about the tickets.  Each night after the bull fight (about 8:30-ish), the box office opens to sell tickets to the next day’s fight.  Get there at least an hour early, as it does sell out.  Tickets at the box office were 22€ in the sun and 28€ in the shade.  If you aren’t able to buy them at the box office, you can pick them up from scalpers the day of the fight for 40-60€.  Beware of fake tickets if you take that route.

The arena was full of energy.  The bands never stopped playing, and the audience often chanted and sang along.  Some people were completely doused in sangria before it began, and even more by the end.  I’ll leave out all the details of how a bull fight works, but there are lots of good resources online if you want to learn more about it.  To summarize, there were 3 Matadors (each of whom has his own team) and 6 bulls.  The most famous bull fighters are known for both skill and showmanship, and can often earn over 100,000€ per fight.  While I enjoyed it from the standpoint of a cultural event, I also hated it.

I’m not an activist, or even a vegetarian, but it was still hard for me to watch at times.  It does make me feel better to know that they actually use the meat from the bulls, so they don’t die in vain.  Back in the day they used to give away the meat to the poor, but these days they sell it at a premium.

We were lucky to sit around some really nice people at the bull fight, so I was glad that we were not among those involuntarily covered in sangria.  Then again, you can’t keep your red & white uniform too clean, or you just don’t fit in.  It’s actually impossible to do so anyway – even if you try – so don’t bother.  Your definition of what is clean and acceptable becomes more and more inclusive each day.  If at the end of the day, your butt is black, the bottom of your white pants are wet and stained, and you have a few spots of something or other on your shirt (that wasn’t even from your own food or drink), you will consider yourself clean.

The whole city and everyone in it is pretty much a mess, so just expect that. However, I was still very impressed with how well the city handled the crowds.  There were several bathroom trailers setup around town that were clean, and rarely even had lines.  There was also a constant stream of street cleaners following the crowds around.  So yes, it got pretty trashed at times, but I really couldn’t have expected a more efficient system for managing the million plus tourists that flood their city during the 8 days of this festival.

Another thing that really impressed me was the people.  While there were plenty of drunken foolios wandering around, there were also families with children, and a surprising amount of senior citizens – at all hours of the day and night!  An American staying in the room next to ours described San Fermín as “Mardi Gras but bigger”, but I’m not sure I completely agree with that.  While there were plenty of party people, somehow it still felt… peacefully chaotic, if that makes sense?  Hard to describe, but for example, we didn’t see one brawl, everyone kept their clothes on, and people were generally friendly and respectful of others (especially around children).

Ok, yes, there were also plenty of idiots who did some really dumb things that might result in a lifetime of negative impact for themselves or someone else, but I didn’t see that to the magnitude that I had expected.  I’m kind of annoyingly responsible, and I’m not the kind of person that usually enjoys this type of uncontrolled environment.  But here, I found myself laughing rather than feeling uncomfortable or at-risk.  Maybe it’s also that my patience and tolerance have increased as a result of all our travels.  Who knows, this might have been a completely different event for me if we had done it 10 months earlier.  So, hopefully our experiences will help prepare someone else, so you can go have as much fun as we did.

Anyway, even with all my rambling, I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of trying to describe everything that happened, so make sure you check out the photos and videos to see the things that just can’t be put into words.  (You might want to click on some of the images to see a larger version, in order to get the full effect!)

Links to videos:

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Bilbao, Spain: Gawking at the Guggenheim

Posted by Karie on Jul 10th 2008 10:37 am

We have found the most helpful city in all of Europe.  Five people gave us advice on how to get from the airport to our hotel, even though we only asked one.  People literally came up to us on the street and offered help.  At first I thought, “Do we really look that lost?!” But after noticing a pattern over a few days, I realized that’s just the way people are around here.  We also had people offer to help us at the bus station and the Metro station… in fact, that was the same guy both times.  He even missed his train to help us catch ours.  Nice, nice people.

Our primary motivation for coming to Bilbao was to see the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, designed by Frank Gehry. This is definitely the coolest museum I’ve ever seen – even cooler than the Guggenheim in New York designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (and we are huge FLW fans, so this is a big statement).  There is not a straight line in the entire building – inside or out – everything is fluid.  It’s artistic and engineering genius.

Honestly, the only reason I came was for the building, and I wasn’t so much looking forward to following Scott around the exhibits.  I realize this makes me sound uncultured, but after a while all museums look the same to me, unless there is a specific attraction.  However, I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised to find that many of the exhibits in the Guggenheim were almost as interesting as the building itself.  The 12 Euro ticket was well worth it.  Oh, but they don’t allow cameras inside… except that everyone had cameras.  Unfortunately, I’m a rule follower, so we left our camera inside the backpack at the coat check, but if you’re the sneaky type and have a small camera, you can likely get away with a few shots… as long as you’re ok with answering to God and/or the security guards!

The museum is by far the main attraction in town, but the town itself is also lovely.  I have a friend in Barcelona who works as a flight attendant, and after a couple of trips to Bilbao, she said it’s a place she could call home.  After visiting, I can see what she means.  It’s such a welcoming city – beautiful, comfortable, medium-sized, super nice people… and tons of cool art stuffed inside one huge piece of art.

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Aunt Janice & Uncle Dave Take on Catalunya

Posted by Karie on Jul 7th 2008 03:43 pm

Aunt Janice has been one of our biggest supporters almost ever since she found out we were moving to Spain.  At first she wasn’t too happy about it, but the more she learned about Spain, the more she wanted us to move so that they could visit.

My mom (who thinks “Barcelona” is Catalan for “stairs”), gave her big sister all sorts of warnings before their big trip… “Now Janice, it’s going to be a lot of walking and a lot of stairs… Are you practicing?  Did you pack the Ibuprofen?”  So Aunt Janice & Uncle Dave were well prepared for the trip.  It also helped that my parents, being our first visitors, were our guinea pigs.  After we ran them into the ground, we realized maybe we had tried to fit in too much, so we have since improved our tour guide skills.  I’m sure they are glad to have made that sacrifice for the well being of our future guests. Right mom & dad?

This was Aunt Janice & Uncle Dave’s first trip outside of North America, so I expected some things to be a huge adjustment for them.  What surprised me was which things were a culture shock, and which things were no problema.

I was so impressed with their open-mindedness and understanding of the Spanish culture.  They tried new foods, walked all over the place, braved the public transportation, saw all kinds of interesting characters that might by considered “inappropriate” in other parts of the world… and nothing really shook them.  Except…

Their first morning, Aunt Janice approached the receptionist in their hotel lobby and asked for 2 fresh towels, and 2 washcloths.  The receptionist only spoke a little English, so she had to repeat her request a couple of times.  Finally, the girl admitted, “I don’t know what you mean,” So Aunt Janice replies, “You know, washcloths”, while making a washing motion with her hands.  The girl, thinking she might be catching on now, replied, “Soap???”  After a few more minutes of discussion, Aunt Janice ended up walking away with 2 bath towels, 2 hand towels, and a bottle of hand soap… but still no washcloths.

They found it humorous that the receptionist had never heard of such a thing, and almost couldn’t believe it when we later explained that they just don’t use washcloths here.  Dave was appalled.

No condiments on sandwiches?  Fine.
Everything closes in the middle of the day?  Fine.
63 steps to get to Scott & Karie’s flat?  Fine.
Pickpockets everywhere?  Fine.
No washcloths?!?!  You’ve got to be kidding me.

Dave spent the next couple of days in search of a washcloth, despite the fact that we told him he’d never find one.  He eventually purchased a hand towel and cut it down to size to get multiple washcloths out of one.

Ok.  All is well in the world again.

Throughout the week, we took them around to all our favorite sites, and even sent them out on their own for the afternoon while Scott & I had to work.  However, we also got to have a few new experiences together.  My two favorites:

My 30th Birthday
I was pleased to have my aunt & uncle present as I bid adieu to my 20’s, and entered the land where everything begins with 3.  One friend told me, “It’s all uphill from here… that is, until you hit 40 and roll over the other side of it.”  Others told me that “30 is the new 20.”  I like that idea, but I have a feeling my second go ‘round at that decade will probably go a little slower than the first.  Anyhow, it was a great birthday, and they showered me with gifts of all my favorite things: clothes, Cheez-Its, Jiff peanut butter (all treats from home), and dinner out at a Mexican restaurant.  What more could a California girl ask for?

Tarragona, Spain
We had wanted to visit this town for a while, but purposely waited until we had visitors, so we could all experience something new together.  Tarragona is  about 1½ hours south of Barcelona, on the Costa Dorada (golden coast).  It has impressive amounts of well-preserved Roman ruins, including a large amphitheatre dating back to the 2nd century, when this was the ancient city of Torraco.

Among the usual games & spectacles that occurred here, it is also where the first Christians in this area were martyred.  After it was abandoned, a basilica was built on the site of the amphitheatre, in memorial of the martyrs.  Now, after a bit of restoration & reconstruction, you can see bits of both the original amphitheatre, as well as the basilica in the center.  Another cool thing about this amphitheatre is its location, set just outside of the town walls, against the backdrop of the beautiful Mediterranean Sea.

We walked around the town for a bit, stopped for a lunch break, then continued on.  For 4 Euros you can do the Archaeological Walk, which covers the most preserved parts of the Roman walls that once surrounded the entire city.  The towers along this wall date back to the 2nd and 3rd century BC, making them the oldest preserved Roman ruins outside of Italy.  Very cool.

We had taken the train into town, but opted to take the bus back home, which is probably one of Aunt Janice’s most vivid memories of the entire trip.  I’m not sure why.  The lines that separate lanes of traffic are just a suggestion, right?  He with the biggest vehicle wins.  That’s rule #2 here, right behind “no washcloths.”

Anyhow, we had so much fun hanging out with my aunt & uncle for a week.  It was great to have them here… and they kept up with us every step of the way!  The bar for “how much a tourist over 50 can handle” has been raised.  Who’s next, huh?!  Any takers who think they can compete with the energy of Aunt Janice & Uncle Dave??

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