Tuesday, 13 November 2007

I left a neat little pile in our hotel room in Switzerland, things we’d rather leave behind than mail home or carry with us. It included three books, two magazines, a pair of green pants and an orange shirt that shrank. I hope someone will be very happy with their find.

We arrived in Madrid, Spain after an uneventful plane ride and cab ride. We decided not to rent a car in Spain and just rely on the trains to get us from point A to point B. We definitely didn’t want to drive in Madrid. Our hotel setup is great, Alayna has her own little niche and the boys have theirs, Clay and I are next door, and our two rooms are divided from the rest of the hotel with a pair of doors. We’re tucked away in a corner where the boys can’t disturb unknown neighbors with bed-jumping or noisy wrestling, and they have been happily active since we arrived. All kids finished their first of three sets of schoolwork on the plane to Madrid, and Nate enjoyed cutting up some math pages with his Swiss army knife and sending little math paper airplanes around the room. Peggy and Maurice sent us our first “scheduled” package that we had prepared before we left, full of all sorts of trip information we need for the next phase. They also slipped in a few Christmas gift goodies and other fun things, like Ranger Rick and Lego magazines. Alayna’s friend also sent a package with some fun things, a book, sculpting clay and hand lotion for me and the cutest little animals to travel around in the kids’ pockets. We loved ripping into the boxes and going through everything.

After settling in we set off to do a little exploring. We knew that in Spain they don’t eat dinner until 10pm, but you can buy tapas almost any time so we figured we’d hit a few tapas bars as we made our way around the city just as it was getting dark. Shops and restaurants line the streets. We passed one restaurant near our hotel that had an aquarium in the window with eel and lobsters among other fish swimming around. I guess they wanted to make sure you knew your fish was fresh! They also had an enormous dead fish, its head was bigger than mine. It was hanging from a hook with his head pointing to the street, his mouth open so we could look into the goopy inside of it. Not appetizing, we marked that one off our restaurant possibilities.

We passed mimes and musicians and beggars and lovers and fighters and window shoppers and so many faces in the street it was overwhelming. It seemed everyone was out, strolling along, nobody in much of a hurry. We walked down several pedestrian streets. It was nice to not worry about cars, but I kept a tight grip on Benji’s hand. It would have been easy to lose him in the crowd. Bart Simpson was standing outside a store, and we pointed him out to the boys. As soon as Bart realized he was drawing attention he came on over, handed both the boys balloons, posed for a picture, and then demanded 5 euros! We told the boys to give back the balloons and told Bart sorry, we had no euros (we really didn’t, we needed to hit a cash machine).

We found Plaza Mayor, a huge square that was relatively empty at this time, and we let the kids run around a while. They raced each other to statues and back while Clay and I contemplated our next move. The kids managed to avoid colliding with passersby, and worked up an appetite, so we moved along. We ate meatballs, sausage, spinach and cheese in pastry, tiny sandwiches with all sorts of fillings, and some shrimp with chopped veggies that looked like pico de gallo. At one place Clay had to give his name to the girl at the register, and when she looked confused at “Clay”, he christened himself “David” (dah-veed), and the girl quickly wrote this down. Clay answered to David just fine.

The night was capped off with a dessert that I had read about in Rick Steves. It was described as fried churros, served with chocolate so thick it was like pudding. You dipped the churros into this concoction. It sounded wonderful. We got four cups of the thick chocolate, and while Clay sipped his coffee we dove in. It was delicious, but so rich. So thick. I couldn’t believe people were actually lifting their mugs to their lips and drinking it. This was no drink. This was sin in a cup. I felt horrible that night, and Alayna woke up with a stomach ache. I’m glad we ate that dessert the first night, so I didn’t dream about it for the next few days, never realizing it was too much, even for my enormous sweet tooth.


Wednesday, 14 November 2007

I had to wake the kids up this morning. This hotel has nifty black out shades that roll down at the push of a button, and they really work. It was black as midnight this morning when I went in their room at 8am. Most hotels in Spain don’t serve breakfast, so we got ourselves together and headed out to find some food on our way to the Prado. We lucked out and found a great, cheap place that had eggs and pancakes (the Americano), our first pancakes on the trip!

After breakfast (and the purchase of some Pokémon cards by the boys, the restaurant was adjacent to a convenience store that sold some toys, the cards turned out to be in Spanish but they didn’t care) we went to the Prado, touted as one of the three best art museums in the world. It sure was big. Paintings that made the biggest impression were El Greco’s, whose figures all look stretched, painted in a distinctive color palette I can’t really describe but enjoyed. Alayna liked Velasquez because he painted girls in pretty dresses (nary a nude in sight).

Everyone got a kick out of one titled, “Creation of the Milky Way”, in which some sort of goddess squeezed breast milk in a stream across the universe. Alayna noticed it first from across the room, quickly made a bee line away from it to the next room and quipped, “I bet that one’s called the Milky Way.” She was right, it really was! We all had a snicker. Hieronymus Bosch had some very strange paintings, and we saw a really famous Fra Angelico that I had seen in a book with the kids.

We were pooped after a couple hours of art. We decided to explore a park and see if we could find a nice sunny bench to rest on while the kids played. The playscapes were too young for them, so we found a tree Alayna could climb, with some sticks scattered around for the boys to play with. The only others in the square were some possible drug pushers that I kept a close eye on, and a group of young twenty-looking-year-old’s, possibly customers? We didn’t stay long.

We got ourselves back on the metro and headed back to the hotel, but when we came out it wasn’t the same place we had come in that morning. The same stop but a completely different exit. We were issued a map from our hotel of the city which proved to be very unhelpful. Clay decided he did not like it. He tried again and again to read this terrible map with the wind whipping it out of his hand and it never folding back to its original shape. Finally he very calmly and methodically crushed it into a ball and stuffed it down his jacket, to be thrown away at the next convenient trash can. The kids were very impressed by this display of destruction.

We eventually found the hotel and rested that afternoon, then headed out for tapas around 7pm.


We decided to settle in one particular place for dinner that offered about fifty different kinds of little sandwiches, served on crunchy little baguettes the size of your finger. They were good, but the place was small and smoky and we were glad to get out into the fresh air. I’m surprised at the amount of smoke here in restaurants. It was bad in Switzerland, too. Many places in Europe have added no smoking sections, or are entirely non-smoking. London was great. But Spain is still smoke-full.

The amount of people out in the street is incredible. It’s like a big party or festival is going on every night. We’ve noticed that Christmas decorations are going up all over town, but they haven’t lit them up, yet. The big department store has a giant display, a whole Christmas village is going up the side of their building, and a big Christmas tree in the square. Lights stretch across the streets, but nothing is ready quite yet. I don’t know what the magic day is, when the lights go on and Christmas gets into full swing. Maybe this weekend? Maybe December 1st? We hope to see some of it before we have to leave.

Clay is officially listening to Christmas music. He makes himself wait until November 1st each year and then he lets it rip. We’ve been hearing “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” and “Baby It’s Cold Outside” and Vince Guiraldi for a few weeks now, and it’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.


Thursday, 15 November 2007

Imagine walking to Sea World, or some other big amusement park. You walk past the booths where you get your parking ticket and across a vast concrete surface. Only, there are no cars. No people. You get to the ticket booth, visions of Wally World (National Lampoon’s Vacation) drifting through your head, but it’s open.

We went to Faunia this morning, taking a metro to a part of Madrid that is very different from our downtown home base. The streets are laid out in a straight grid plan and it was easy for us to find our way to this newly built zoo, where the animals are displayed in their natural habitats. It was so strange, it seemed deserted and I wondered how in the world this place stayed in business. Back home, Sea World is closed, except for holidays, until summer. We found out later that school field trips and retirement homes are this places bread and butter during the off-season.

The first thing we saw as we got into the park were the prairie dogs. It was so cool, their habitats were these islands with mounds of grass and dirt and trees, and there was nothing keeping them from racing across our path, there were no cages or fences. We squatted down and looked eye to eye with these chunky little guys, who seemed content to stay on their own turf.

We went to the jungle area, with a steamy room you could go into that had Spider Monkeys and parrots and toucans just roaming free. The kids figured out that you could pick up some mud and leaves from the ground and the monkeys would get curious and come right up and pick through your hands. A couple times they got up on the kids arms or shoulders. Alayna was in monkey heaven, and we stayed until we were all a sweaty mess. The jungle is a steamy place.

We saw meerkats that were all huddled in a sunny corner, leaning on each other in the sun. I noticed a fluffy little yellow thing by a tree that wasn’t moving. It was a dead chick. There was another one. This was no coincidence, apparently they feed the meerkats dead baby chicks. Nearby the meerkats was an area called “The Nest”, where different containers held chicken eggs at different stages of development. In some the chicks were just pecking out of their shell, in others the chicks were just hatched, all wet and damp and weak. Others had chicks all yellow and fluffy and cute. We decided if the chicks die, they’re given to the meerkats. I guess that’s nature, but it was a little too close to nature for my taste.

There was a dinosaur exhibit, a big hit with Benji. They were playing a little snippet of Jurassic Park on a big screen, the part where the t-rex comes and snatches up the velociraptors in the nick of time. On smaller screens were other scenes of dinosaurs from movies and TV shows. On one a cowboy lassoed a dino, and on another a group of cavemen battled a dinosaur while a scantily clad buxom cavewoman protected her child. There was a tiny statue of Mary riding on a t-rex’s back to Bethlehem, and a few skeletons in the middle of the room. It wasn’t perhaps the most informative exhibit, and all but the Jurassic Park video was in Spanish, but it had dinosaurs and that’s all that mattered in Benji’s world.

While we enjoyed Faunia, we did not enjoy the hordes of school kids there for field trips. There seemed to be a fifty to one teacher to child ratio, and some of the kids were totally out of control. Some boys were balancing on a wall that was part of a capybara enclosure, and one of the boys hopped right in and did a little dance. “Nah-nah I’m in the cage”. I only wish that capybara had given him a little nip on the bottom, something to remember the next time he contemplates hopping into a cage at a zoo. As we left we were all funneled through the inevitable gift shop. It was Clay’s worst night mare, souvenir shopping amongst a hundred out of control children, everyone screaming and yelling in Spanish and running around like little monkeys. Sheesh, it was a not so great ending to a really nice day.

I don’t know if it was the field trips or spending all day outside hiking around a wildlife park, but we were all pretty tired on the subway ride back into the city. The kids have started playing chess on Clay’s phone, trying to beat the computer. I see this as a learning thing, and welcomed the quiet as they thought out their strategies. Once on the platform I gazed at the windows of the train, everyone looked so tired. Their heads leaned against the glass, their eyes drooped, their expressions were blank, their brains somewhere else or shut down for the day. They looked like I felt.

But we weren’t quite done, we needed to get train tickets for our travels in Spain. There is a department store in Madrid called El Corte Ingles, and this place has just about everything. A department store, bookstore, electronics, post office, travel agency. If you need something, chances are you can find it here. We went to the travel agency to get our tickets, and while Clay waited at the counter the kids and I flipped through catalogs for cruises and Disney World. They were all busy planning our next family vacations and were perfectly happy to sit in their molded plastic chairs. The tickets took longer than expected, and we finally left Clay behind and headed back to the hotel to wait.

He returned maybe half an hour later, with good news. Not only did he have all the tickets we needed, he had found a huge grocery store. Guess where? El Corte Ingles! He settled in with the kids while I took off for the grocery store. Nobody felt like going back out to find dinner, this was the perfect solution. The pedestrian street I walked to get to the store was teeming with people. I passed a man with his four dogs all dressed up in costumes (a pirate, a policeman) and a cardboard sign asking for money. I guess he’s hoping people will either think his dogs are cute or feel sorry for them all cooped up in costumes on a street corner, and give him some money. A man with no arms held a plastic cup in his mouth, yelling “please!” and rattling it around. A man with no legs sat on a piece of cardboard, a garden gnome and a plastic cup for coins on the sidewalk in front of him.

People were everywhere, out for their evening stroll. Window shopping, smooching, taking pictures, laughing and yelling and speaking Spanish a mile a minute. I passed a jazz band and a mariachi band, and a jewelry store with rock music blaring. One mime we had christened “invisible man” sat against a wall with his head tucked into his sweater and a hat fastened to the wall where his head should be. Another mime was a cowboy in a black hat that moved if you put money in his can. Still another had a stiff tie and inside out umbrella, to look like he was standing in a windstorm. Winnie the Pooh had joined Bart Simpson to hand balloons out to unsuspecting passersby and demand 5 euros in return. A man sold roasted chestnuts, and another sold nuts and roasted corn and sweet potatoes. I saw all of this in just the five minute it took to walk to the grocery store.

I almost skipped down the aisle. I never thought grocery shopping could be so fun, but when you’ve been picking your dinner off a menu for so long, it feels so good to get a little control back and choose what you want to eat from raw ingredients. I was overjoyed to find a container of peanut butter, Benji would be so excited! I added honey and jelly to my bag, some cheese and lunch meat and white sliced bread. For dessert, Chips Ahoy cookies. Yeehaw! As I waited to pay two young guys were behind me, speaking English, I couldn’t help but listen. They were talking all about going to a club later and getting drunk and smoking illegal drugs. I felt so lucky to have a family to go home to. So lucky that I was going to have a picnic with a towel on the floor and everyone sitting around eating peanut butter sandwiches. I was tempted to invite those guys back home with me and show them what a real party was all about, but of course I didn’t.

Benji was thrilled. He ate two and half peanut butter and honey sandwiches and two pieces of cheese. That boy is growing! We were all happy to eat and just relax in our own place. We watched Seinfeld in Spanish while Clay translated and then got ourselves ready for bed.


Friday, 16 November 2007

You won’t believe what we did today. We did laundry. We did school. We went to the post office. We ate more peanut butter and honey.

One exciting thing did happen. The kids got El Corte Ingles catalogs during an especially long post office stay and scoured the toy pages to pick out all the toys they want to get when they get home. I think the catalogs were pretty good toys, themselves. Nate and Benji were occupied and happy for well over an hour as they toted them around town. Benji carried his under his arm like a little business man with lots of business to do. On the subway he had me hold it open for him while he found a specific page, then made careful price comparison, deciding if 29.50 euro was less or more than 21.95 euro, and how much should a decent spy kit cost? Can we call that a math lesson?

We packed ourselves up in preparation for our trip to Toledo tomorrow morning. We donated a shirt, some socks and a book to the chamber maid, and Alayna made a little note that said “Feliz Navidad” and left behind a cute little sculpture she had made out of clay. It was so tiny we were sure it would break during travel, and we like to think whoever finds it has a little girl that will set it on her shelf and play with it. A little bit of Davis cheer left behind in Madrid.