When Mom and Dad Comes to Stay

J and I haven’t traveled for a while, but that is partly because my Mom and Dad came to visit us earlier this month. It was their first time to Europe and despite the average of 23,000 plus steps of walking a day I think they enjoyed it.

What I learned:

-Playing tour guide is more tiring than you would expect. I think it gave me a taste of what having kids will be like– Can they walk all the way there? Will the tube be too crowded? Are they hungry? Are there places that serve the food they like near here? Are they bored? I’m sort of happy I have a few years before that becomes a constant… good luck to my little sis who’s expecting!

-How good a place is can really be determined by the weather, lines and the claustrophobic factor of the crowd, but a good (professional) tour guide can make everything worthwhile. We were lucky enough to have them at both the Tower of London and Shakespeare’s Globe. I may even ask for them by name if I ever return there. (I only wish we had this respite while waiting in the rainy cold outside Windsor Castle’s state apartments.)

-You will always spend more money than you think you will, so either stick to the budget and eat the equivalent of ramen or just let it go.

-No one can just spend an entire day in a museum (especially when the crowds grow)— plan snack and coffee breaks or just give up. You won’t remember everything you learned anyway.

-Also plan for rain and cold…. especially if you’re visiting London, even if its been 60-70 degrees and sunny for three weeks. Yikes!

Places that were more amazing than I expected:

-Kew Gardens: You have to pay around 13 GBP to get in, but its is amazing. Growing up with the trauma of spending Saturday afternoons in the garden department while Mom took her time to find plants that look exactly like the ones we have, I was nervous, but the gardens are large, peaceful and with enough exotic pants, architectural feats and rotating exhibits to keep even the less enthusiastic entertained.

-Shakespeare’s Globe: Its more than just a recreated theatre made to take advantage of tourist money (my cynicism growing up in tourist beach town comes out). In fact, its not that. Its a full blown, beautiful historically accurate (as much as possible) theatre that uses tourists to pay for its renovations and its live shows to show its passion. We had to rush through the exhibit part of the Globe, so I can’t wait to go back to explore that and to see a play (or five).

-Natural History Museum: Yes it has awesome dinosaur bones (that you have to see before noon on a weekday because ohmygod I’ve never seen so many children in one place), but I was really excited by its innovative rotating exhibits and its weird, but kinda cool Victorian collection of stuffed, preserved, and dissected animals, including some that are now extinct.

This is a short little mini recap of my parents visit, at least from my perspective and eliminating most of the details that I was too busy acting like a mother duck with her brood to take photos of. Next up is a visit from J’s sister, which may see some repeats and some new “hosting” wisdom for me. The last people that visit me and J before we move back will get the perfected experience. Sign up here. (Yea, there’s no link.)

I’ll let you know how three people in our tiny one bedroom flat for 10 days works out.

In Bruges (sans Colin Farrell)

The Markt

Last weekend, February 17-20, J and I went to Bruges (or Brugge depending on if you’re Francophone or Flemish).  It was our second time going there together–first trip was in 2008–and my third time total.  We were enticed into going by the Belgian beer (more J than me), picturesque views (more me than J) and a serendipitous sale e-mail from the hotel we had stayed in before (St. Martin’s–would recommend it).

Bruges is an old trade town whose golden age was in the 12th-15th centuries. Its in the northern part of Belgium in an area called Flanders (well known for horrific WWI battles). UNESCO has even claimed Bruges as a World Heritage Site. The city is remembered for its fine lace, bustling port and a few historical mishaps (for example, Hapsburg heir Maximilian of Austria was imprisoned in a cafe off the central square by the leaders of the city in 1488).  As with most flourishing areas, painters and writers flocked to this place (as well as the surrounding Flanders region) and their skill became recognized and honored to this day, as you’ll notice later.

I’ll try to give you the run down of what happened and my best pictures without sounding too repetitive (but we did spend most of our time relaxing).

Friday

On Friday J and I woke up relatively early to catch our train to Brussels. The first train takes a quick 2 hours through Northern France and then a quick transfer in Belgium’s capital gets us to Bruges in about an hour. Very doable and efficient altogether. After finding our hotel in a roundabout way–I was trying to go by memory, J quickly became nervous and used roaming data to check the map on his phone (I was heading in the right direction)– we struck out for lunch, feeling starved. I had used Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet to make a list of bars, restaurants and sites.  Scrolling through page after page on Lonely Planet, was definitely worth it. I probably should have written down more addresses and made some reservations though (who knew February would be a busy time?).

Luckily, one of my tagged restaurants was on the same street as our hotel, so we settled in for a three course set lunch menu (pampering) with croquettes, pate, beef stew, rabbit, chocolate mousse and ice cream with hot chocolate sauce (dame blanche).  The best thing about dining is pairs is that you can taste twice the food and everything was pretty delicious.

We weren’t particularly in a rush to see everything our first day since Bruges is small and we had 3 more full days. This allowed us to spend a few hours just wandering from the central Markt out to the ring (once a moat, now a road) around the city. It was nice to walk along the cobblestone as the city’s layout became familiar to me and new things became known. There are quite a few canals in Bruges (hence the trading), so we followed one of them peeking into house boats and then turning off into residential streets. By this time we were a bit tired, so it was time to get a box of chocolates and take a nap.

By the time dusk came around we were up and out exploring my list of food and drink once again. This time we went to t’Burgs Beertjes so J could begin to get his fill of Belgian beers hard to find out of Belgium.  The front room was crowded, but we were soon gestured through towards the hallway leading to the bathrooms which also led to a hidden back room. There were three other groups at tables, two of which seemed to be (at least partly) American. I’ve been shocked by how many Americans I saw while in Brugge, maybe even more than I do in London on a day-to-day basis.  The tables were small and wooden and the walls were filled with old ads for the beers they sold and maps of where different beers are brewed in Belgium. J got a relatively famous beer he read about in a book I bought him one Christmas since it is too expensive to contemplate buying anywhere else. I sipped on something fruity before sharing a glass of his. (I was shamed that the annoyingly loud American girls in the corner were drinking the same thing).

We set out for dinner, but soon found out first pick (De Stove) to be fully booked.  This will soon become a pattern with that tiny restaurant. Instead we began walking towards the other fancy restaurant we knew of nearby, why not? Den Dyver had space and we were quickly sat and offered some pastries in addition to our bread. We chose a three course menu with beer/wine pairings. After an amuse bouche, I had rabbit (which was good, but annoying with its small bones) and a delicious lamb dish before ending my meal with a cheese plate that I could not finish. By this point J and I were much to full to do much else and wandered back to our hotel. I would definitely go back to Den Dyver again (probably everyday if I could afford it!).

OLV (Church of Our Lady) and surrounding buildings

Saturday

We woke up starved and headed towards the Burg in search of food. We ended up finding a waffle complete with chocolate sauce. It was delicious.  We walked around for a while afterwards looking for a place for a proper breakfast and soon gave up in favor of lunch in a couple hours time. We got the museum combination pass and started at the Groeninge museum which is filled with Flemish art. The oldest paintings were from the Renaissance period and the collection slowly meandered through the next three hundred years or so until catapulting to near-modern day with a few more contemporary works during the 20th century.  Many of the paintings and its paired literature were centered around Bruges and Flemish artists. I enjoyed seeing the names I knew and the many I did not. Many art museums do not take the time to define the work by the region the museum is in, which can make for a more expansive collection, but doesn’t connect the viewer to the cultural history of where they actually are.

Then we walked around searching for lunch and ended up eating a cheap lunch inside a touristy fry shop near the Minnewater (which I believe means Lovers Lake). I had a lasagna and J had a Flemish beef stew with fries. Afterwards we went into the Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk (Church of Our Lady) and looked at the artwork and architecture while chatting quietly. The church’s boast is a Madonna and Child statue made by Michelangelo, one of the few of his works outside of Italy. I enjoyed seeing the statue and the church, but I didn’t fall in love with it as I sometimes do with churches.

The Belfry

Next (we were trying hard to get the most out of our combination pass) was the St. Jan Hospitaal located right across a tiny street from the church.  The old hospital was used during medieval times and most of its patients were those on pilgrimage. This helped explain the large collection of religious art that the hospital had. It was interesting to see the old sketches and paintings of what the hospital had looked like while in use. I could imagine the curtained off bed where I was walking among the scary old medical instruments and dimly lit images of the Virgin Mary. Overall the entire exhibit made me very grateful to be alive today where medical science had advanced past some pretty creepy theories and anesthesia is used more widely.

We walked around for a while afterwards looking for a pub or someplace to hide from the cold. The De Halve Maan brewery was crowded so we ended up walking around in search of another bar on my list. Given our lack of a map we veered off the most efficient path and ended up at the Zand (a central square), where we were able to acquire a map and get back on the right track. Just before we gave up our search for t’Poatersgat we found it. A tiny colored sign just above two impossibly small looking cellar doors along the sidewalk.  I had read it was a hole in the wall and it looked like the right place therefore we assumed it was just closed and we didn’t have to shrink ourselves and say the secret code in order to get in.

On our way back towards the Markt (and our hotel) we grabbed some fries in a fritterie off the Markt before heading back to the hotel for a nap. Once we awoke we headed about to t’Poatersgat to see if it had opened. Luckily it had, the small doors opened up into stairs that led down into a quite spacious cellar. It had dim, mood setting lighting and nice modern jazz playing. We sipped our drinks while gazing over the decorations on the walls (again many beer ads and labels). For dinner we once again tried De Stove, fully booked, and ended up having mussels at a touristy place near our hotel since we were too hungry and cold to roam far.

Sunday

We woke up late today, but I unlike most of my travel days, I was in the mood for that. After a chocolate waffle, we headed to the Gruuthuse which is an interesting building somewhat connected to the church and filled with household items, religious art and building tools for display. I didn’t really read about the history of the building or what the purpose of the museum was, which made it very interesting to go from room to room wondering what a guillotine, lace, china, religious tapestries, horns and hammers have in common. It did give us a picture of what life was life, especially for women, during that time, so if that was its purpose–it served. One of the best little nooks was actually a window of sorts that went inside the church as a type of balcony. I hadn’t noticed it the day before. It was neat to have our own private viewing and I’m sure the priests or rich patrons who used the building (J and I are divided on this) appreciated being able to pray without going outside or in the (probably) unheated church. I finally looked it up… I was right–it was an old mansion of a rich and important family.

Afterwards we walked to the nearby the Arentshuis (all the major museums are right next to each other) where I discovered the Flemish artist Frank Brangwyn and fell in love with his sketches, etchings and paintings.  I became one of the few people to stay in each room for longer than 5 minutes. (Poor J, I was in each room for more like 40) I wanted to study his methods to see if they could help with my own practice of sketching. The entire exhibit was dedicated to him (I believe permanently), but they add a few other artists from time to time. While we were there a few watercolors by a Japanese artist were displayed. It was wonderful to compare and contrast the two artists. Their lines and sketches were somewhat similar, but the Japanese artist’s Bruges landscapes gave an interesting, minimalist view of Bruges.

We weren’t really sure what to do next, we were kind of sick of museums, but wanted to get the fill out of our combination pass anyway. We ended up inside the Stadhuis or town hall.  I expected there to be a lot more on show–tours of old rooms and stairways, old desks and leadership costumes–but we were only admitted into a (beautiful) Gothic hall.  The murals covered all four ways all the way up to the ceiling and included some famous Flemish painters, artists, clerics and leaders. J and I didn’t get audio guides, so we left a bit earlier than some of the people that went in at the same time as us, but there is only so much time you can spend craning your neck upwards. Feeling hungry we walked to the Halve Maan Brewery for a late, slow  and delicious lunch. J had the fish stew and I had a huge hamhock with veggies. Their food was just as good as their beer, I would definitely eat there again. After a post-lunch nap we walked around the quiet, more “livable” areas of Bruges following the canals and searching for things unknown. Without realizing we were that close we ended up at t’Poatersgat and decided it was fate. After a drink and our habit of seeing that De Stove is booked despite trying to reserve it earlier in the day, we ate at Chagall’s  where the food was pretty good (J had rabbit and I had ribs) but the beer overpriced. We ended our night with two rounds at t’Brugs Beertje playing laughing over childhood stories we had never told each other.

The Begijnhof

Monday

J and I had our last day in Brugge–we woke up early to check out and then went back to our little non-chain chocolate shop to buy waffles for J’s coworkers and a box of chocolate to bring back home for us. We saw they had a tea room upstairs and ate a breakfast of waffles, tea and hot chocolate. It was pretty delicious and WAAY to sugary (which was my fault by adding the extra chocolate…).  This was probably the first time I had ever had a sugar rush complete with weird headache that made it difficult to think.  Afterwards we went for our last walk, through the Markt and down to the Minnewater where we went into the Begijnhof (a–very–old convent and place where widows lived back when women were giving basically nothing after their husbands died) and J took a crack at my camera. The results were mostly good, but we also got this gem: (don’t worry I also got a good one of J I’m keeping in the archives just in case…)

Once I was no longer concerned about whatever seemed to be going on behind me we walked back towards the marked to get fries from one of the vans (food carts) in front of the Belfry. It was still a few hours until we had to leave for our train so we walked off into the “suburban” part of Bruges to see the local houses, shops and schools.  Of course this didn’t look that much different from the rest of Bruges, except that there were no crowds, no tourist-geared shops and plenty of the same beautiful old buildings. After amusing ourselves by searching for hidden gardens and picking out which house we would buy along the canal, we headed back to our hotel to pick up our bags and head to the train station (getting slightly lost along the way). I read and wrote on the train while J dozed. He bought me Pierre Marcolini chocolates (my absolute favorite!) in the Brussels station during our transfer–now we have way too much chocolate.

That is the tale of our time in Bruges. No travel for us planned as we figure out our work schedules for the next couple of months (being a short-term contractor will do that to ya), but we will have visitors coming to see us in London, so I may write a bit about that.

DC v. London

I have been thinking about a post comparing and contrasting DC and London for months now.  I have toyed around with it for the last few weeks and I realized something–they are a lot more alike than I realized…

So much for a witty comparison. I put my more obvious and less witty observations below anyway, because I couldn’t leave you with nothing. To those who haven’t been to London, this could seem interesting, but overall I’ve learned that cities are more alike than they appear to be at first (similar to what I was talking about in this post).

I wanted to make this post because the atmosphere feels different and the culture is new in a lot of ways. Walking around the city doesn’t always feel the same as when I walked around DC, but when it comes time to pinpoint those differences it becomes unclear. Yes the English talk differently and spell some words differently, but they do a lot of the same things as Americans. Easter seems to be a bigger deal here, Thanksgiving doesn’t exist (obviously), but holidays are spent much of the same way–food, drink, family and (hopefully) fun. Both deal with traffic (human, metro trains and cars), noise and tourists. Once you get used to that in one city, any other one feels a bit like home because of it.

I’ll keep my eyes peeled for some glaring error or defect (in either city), until then…my cop out:

Six Months In: How Living Abroad Can Change You Unexpectedly

It is hard to believe that J and I have lived over six months abroad. Most days living in London feels like living anywhere else.  We have our work routines, our dinner routines, our errands and weekend patterns. It can all seem a little bit boring, normal, but everyone once in a while, when we are eating lunch at a cafe in South Kensington before going to a museum watching the people go by, it hits me– I live in London. That’s a world away from where I grew up and I am lucky to be here.

That’s not to say that London looks like DC or Virginia Beach or anywhere else I have lived. Or that it acts like it. But people are pretty much the same everywhere around the world and I feel like that is especially true in cities. I am grateful that I can live somewhere new and that it is enough like home that it is easy to get over that initial shock of “I am here and I have no idea what I’m doing.” That shock never disappears completely (I definitely don’t know what I’m doing long term), but its voice blends into the hum of the urban background that I have grown used to–the cars along the street, the British accents in the pubs and on the telephone and, even more so, the languages I can’t understand as I walk down my street.

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When I walked down a familiar street in DC just an hour after landing during my Christmas trip a few months ago, I felt strange…. it felt strange. Almost everything was exactly the same…. new colored lights were installed outside my old metro stop, that new office building was finally almost fully constructed…., but everything else was the same. The same except everything seemed so different as well. The streets were larger so it made it seem there were 50 times as many cars coming at me in directions that now seemed unfamiliar. There was so much space between the buildings. So much variety in the materials the buildings were made of. I wasn’t sure if I liked this street any more. I wasn’t sure if I liked DC anymore.

This revelation was even odder because I wasn’t sure I liked London as much as I liked DC just hours before when I had left it. I had been yearning for the familiar places and faces. Now that I had them (although I adored seeing the faces), it didn’t seem to match up. I suppose I had begun to romanticize my past because I was still so unsure about living abroad. It is difficult to strip away all of your favorite bars, places to eat, things to do, and people to meet up with. All those comfortable patterns and social events. I didn’t want to say goodbye to all of that, I only wanted a different background. I’ve told many of my friends that if I could transplant all my favorite people into London life would be perfect.

The commitment involved in finding new people, places and fun routines in a place somewhat foreign to me is still daunting. I can’t speak for J, but its harder than expected to find my way around. Not physically, but to create those new best friends out of a few people I had drinks with once or twice; or choose a favorite restaurant that I’ll never tire of out of the hundreds available (most of them I haven’t tried or even heard of yet). It was only by leaving DC that I realized how difficult it could be (at least for me) to develop those social relationships without some sort of common glue (college, work, etc.).  I’ve been working as a contractor and meeting wonderful people that could turn into friends, but its not the same as showing up to the same office and people everyday for a year. Everyone knows that eventually my contract will be up and I will move on. I think that is hardest on me… I put in less effort to making friends when I should be putting in more.

No one tells you what adulthood is like. I think its because no one knows. One day, after you’re out of college/grad school for long enough that you can’t really say you’re a recent grad (2 years for me) and it hits you that you must really be an adult now. You don’t feel any different, really. Well… you have more sense, work ethic and patience than you did as a teenager, but you still have no effing clue what you’re doing with your life and there are still the same concerns about your appearance, if people like you, how you can fit in. I’m actually not plagued by all of these things, but my point is that I moved to London and left my support structure in the US. It was then, in a way for the first time, that I realized I had to create my own life.

I can no longer sit back and wait for it to happen. I can’t be passive (written in passive voice…). I know it seems like I just moved to London how can I think I’ve been doing nothing, but I’ve been waiting for “the answer” to my future for over a year. It’s not going to just come because I’ve asked it to. No mysterious voice is going to tell me my perfect job and how to get it or what will make me happiest. Moving to London and away from the familiar faces and places I love has taught me to create happiness, love and fun for myself somewhere new. To start over and thrive (over simply survive). I can’t rely on my best friends from college to drag me out to go dancing or a society event to take me to a new museum. I have to do it myself…. be an active participant in my own life.

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I never knew I would love my family and friends as much as I know I do now that I can’t watch my little sister’s belly grow everyday with my new nephew inside, I can’t hug one of my best friends when she tells me she’s engaged and I can’t express to a long-time friend how impressed I am that he has grown up so much and beaten the odds since graduating.

But London is teaching me to appreciate all of that and more. London (and probably a whole lot of other things) has taught me to depend on myself–not because I need to graduate college with A’s; not because getting a good job is the next step–but because I am the only one that controls where I go from here. Not what society tells me is right or what I used to think was my dream, but what I think and feel now.

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This got a bit more deep than I expected (I guess that happens when you don’t blog for months), so thank you for making it this far. I plan to do a few more fun London reflection posts. I’m not sure how many, but I know I’d like to outline what I love and don’t love, what is different from here and the other places I’ve lived, and what I’d still like to take advantage of while I am here.

New Pictures On-line!

Hey Everyone. Apologizes for the silence, I have a few posts in the works and we are taking a trip to Brugge, Belgium soon, so watch this space. I got the camera I always dreamed about for Christmas (thanks J!) and have posted a few of the *hundreds* of pictures on facebook. So if you’re friends with me check them out!

Here’s a small taste:

London Skyline from Hampstead Heath

Blue Skies and Tapas

J and I went to Madrid to celebrate my birthday on November 11-14.  We had a fantastic time filled with long walks, great food and attempts to learn a little Spanish.  Here’s a few pictures and a day-by-day of our trip (sorry its so late!). *forgive all spelling in this post, I do not speak Spanish

Buildings along the Grand Via

Friday

J and I woke up at 5 am to train to the airport to catch our flight. We managed to get to the airport and through security relatively painlessly and I had a second breakfast (we ate pastries at the train station) while we were waiting for our flight to board. The flight was about an hour late, which was pretty annoying but we didn’t have anywhere to be and were still due to land in the early afternoon so I was happy with the extra dozing time.  Once in Madrid we metro’d to our hotel pretty near the city center. After check in and wandering around to find a bank to supplement the euros we came with we stumbled upon a bar for lunch/dinner (it was 4 pm). Our server didn’t speak much english and we don’t speak much spanish so we pointed to one of the specials on the menu and looked forward to our surprise.  We ended up getting about 12 mini sandwiches, some ham, shrimp, hot dog, etc.  I was not too enthused since we were looking for “spanish” food, but we ate as much as we could (12 mini sandwiches is a lot for two people!) and left to see the city center. Our server probably thought we were crazy ordering that, but he probably didn’t have enough english to explain so didn’t just like we didn’t try to explain to him that we ordered sangria and not beer. Sometimes you just gotta go with the flow–

Jardines del Retiro

The only thing I really knew was that the main tourist/shopping/food areas of the city were south, so we walked in that general direction.  We passed the Gran Via which is one of the main streets and is filled with tall downtown office buildings, restaurants and theaters.  Many of the buildings are rather old with statues and decorative architectural features so it was fun to walk down it (and we would many more times before the end of the weekend).  We ended up at Plaza Callo, which reminded me of Piccadilly Circus with its lights, ads and screens. For those who have never been to London or Madrid, think of a much, MUCH smaller Times Square. From there we wandered into some sculpture gardens that were in front of the Royal Palace.  I wasn’t sure if that was THE palace at this point, I thought there was more than one in that area. At this point it was dark and there were people milling about in large groups or many small groups walking in the same direction.  We followed the statues of people I didn’t recognize and the crowds up shopping streets toward Puerto del Sol (one of the main squares in Madrid). We stopped along the way to listen to an awesome harpist, avoid buying some flying pin wheel things from men with squeaky kazoo-like whistles in their mouths, and to watch an amazing jazz band (complete with comedic dance performance) play (their drums were a few boxes the drummer sat on if I remember correctly).

Once we passed through Puerto del Sol and down another street we ended up sitting on an outdoor patio of a pretty classy looking restaurant.  They were just setting up their outdoor seating area (it was around 8 pm, people eat dinner late here) and a guitarist began to play, but there was no one there, so I decided to save him and J agreed.  We sat down to some spanish red wine and a ham/cheese plate.  Within minutes the patio was mostly full, I think the restaurant should give me some of their profits for making the patio cool. We watched the crowds go by for a while before getting too tired to do anything but find our way home to the hotel (which I kept referring to as home during the trip for some reason…).

The Centro Centro building

Saturday

J and I had breakfast at a lovely cafe a few blocks away from our hotel.  I guessed at what I ordered and over the next few days (we ate there almost everyday) learned the words for peppermint and camomile tea. Then we walked towards city center planning to start our day at the Jardines de Retiro (somewhat like a smaller Central Park).  On the way we went into a really awesome building, now called Centro Centro (some sort of new civic cultural space) that used to be a palace.  The insides were partly refurbished in a very modern style to open up the space, but kept most of the beautiful ceiling tile work, ornamental columns and great interior balconies.  The exhibits inside were a bit disappointing (they may have not been completely set up) and the observation deck was closed, so my pictures weren’t from the very top.

View from Centro Centro

Afterwards we followed a little park down towards the Prado Museum (since I knew it was near the Jardines–I would realize by the next day we walked in a very round about manner to get there). The lines for the Prado were crazy and there was a 12 Euro per person fee, so we decided to go on to the Jardines. We entered through a manicured garden with marble stairs leading up to the main park paths. There were long tree lined avenues (changing with fall colors) and winding paths that didn’t seem to go anyway in particular. We stumbled upon a lake with row boats and a large monument on one side.  The monument was mostly marble (some bronze) with a huge statue and two curving colonnades behind.  The sun was shining the sky the bluest I’ve seen since we’ve moved to London (for perhaps obvious reasons)–it was absolutely gorgeous.  We called the long way around the lake taking in all of the puppeteers, people selling snacks and musicians before sitting down on the stairs that lead from the monument to the water to rest and water the boats row by (I especially liked when little kids would try to row the same boat in two directions at once–going in circles or weird zig zags).

Lake in Jardines del Retiro

After a rest we came upon the Crystal Palace with a beautiful glass installation inside.  It looked like a glittery night sky, but it was made up with punctuation marks. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.  From there we went off to find lunch, but got a bit lost in the park and exited at the southern end. We managed to find the right direction with our map and ended up eating in a cheap looking outdoor cafeteria. I had lamb and J rabbit.  It was pretty good, but nothing special–enough to keep us from starving. The next plan was to go to the Reina Sofia museum and we walked at least 8 blocks up a hill thinking we were going the right way only to look at the map and realize it was basically right across the street from where we ate, hidden behind a building.  Annoyed with myself, I led the way back to the museum and for some reason we got in for free! I think they knew it was my birthday.

Inside the Crystal Palace

We went through many of the exhibitions, but didn’t go to the top floors (exhausted by that point).  One interesting exhibit was on artwork inspired by French author Raymond Roussell’s work–his novels most be very imaginative judging by what they inspired, I’d like to look them up.  My favorite part of the museum (though the other pre/post war works were nice) was Picasso’s Guernica.  That iconic, wall-sized painting inspired by the bombing of the Spanish city. After learning about it in so many of my art history classes I adored being able to stare at it in person–I was shocked to see that you could tell where he painted over somethings to change the image “last minute.” This became even more shocking as I saw the rest of the exhibit which included pictures showing the progress mural as it was being painted, many of Picasso’s sketches and studies while he was working out his idea and information on the Spanish Civil War itself.  I am still so happy that I was able to see such a comprehensive look of how one famous artist worked.  It made me realize he was no first-time perfection genius, even after countless studies and changes he made to the “sketch” on the canvas he changed the final piece and the marks showed. This is probably not so exciting for most of you, but this may have been my favorite thing about Madrid (besides the food and company of course).

Picasso's Guernica, Source: Reina Sofia

After getting exhausted of the school group crowds we walked back up to Calle de las Huertas to find dinner. We had trouble finding a place since it was rather early for dinner in Spain, so we had chocolate and churros in one of the most famous and arguably best chocolateria’s in Madrid. If you have never had real hot chocolate and churros where the chocolate is so thick its like melted chocolate bars, you haven’t lived. From that indulgence we went on to another–sangria.  We were still in the hunt for dinner, but none of the places I had written down seemed to be good options in person, so we sat down in a large square and shared some sangria as we watched the sunset and buildings light up. J ended up looking up where we could eat traditional tapas nearby and though I was skeptical I’m so glad we went.  This tiny shop with tables in the back (perhaps called Casa Gonzalez) was the most delicious meal we had in Spain. There was goat cheese, wild boar, ham, bread, olive tapenade, red wine—as you can see, deliciousness all around. After dinner we eventually found our way back to our hotel (after getting a bit lost).

Royal Palace from Sabatini Gardens

Sunday

After another delicious breakfast at the Caffe del Artes we were off to the Plaza de Espana, Royal Palace and Sabatini Gardens. We took our time walked around the gardens which went right up to the side of the Palace. Before walking around the other side of the Palace to the ~Almudena Cathedral.  We decided not to pay to go into the Palace–I still had enough opulence from the Vienna Palace tour–but we did manage to sneak into the Cathedral as mass was starting to let out.  The Cathedral architectural was very normal, gothic-esque in style like many grand cathedrals in Europe. The interesting part was its ceiling paintings and stained glass; they all had mostly geometric (read: straight edges) shapes with bright colors. It could have been redone to look this way recently, because it seemed very modern to me compared to the age of the building itself. (A quick look at Wikipedia has shown me that the architect fooled me, but the interior artist did not–while other cathedrals and holy houses were on that spot in the past the Cathedral wasn’t finished until 1993.)

Other side of Royal Palace

I wanted to see another large basilica named for Saint Dominc, but by the time we got there (got a little lost on the way) we saw their masses ran basically back to back all day and it would be impossible to get inside.  Tired feet and hungry bellies overshadowing defeat, we walked up a nearby, well-known restaurant street, Cava Baja, in search for food. Of course, in keeping with every other meal on the trip, it was at an odd time for most Spanish people. After passing back several crowded bars (apparently the thing to do after mass) we found Orixe, a relatively fancy restaurant with places to sit. We split croquettes with various creamy goodness in them–can’t say I remember what–and each ordered a tortilla (think spanish omelette with lots of potatoes). Taking our time to eat slowly and rest we left the restaurant mid-afternoon and walked up to Plaza Mayor and back to Puerto de Sol before deciding to go back to the Jardines. We entered the park from the top this time (a few blocks behind Centro Centro, instead of the direction we went the first time) and rested on a bench or wandered the paths for a few hours. *This is where my camera died, sorry!*

As it got close to 6 pm and the sun was setting we came across the most hilarious juggler show I’ve ever seen where the juggler managed to find a volunteer who himself knew how to juggle.  J and I stayed behind to see if he was a plant, but no–volunteer was with a group of friends and seemed to have never met the guy before.  Amazing! I also learned that you don’t need to understand Spanish to get jokes–or at least half the jokes (many centered around getting manly men to do unmanly things, like prance and skip with female wigs on). We wandered on among many of the same streets we had grown to know over the last two days and was having trouble finding food nearer our hotel since it was Sunday and before 9 pm. We stopped at a small cafe, but they were not serving food yet, so we ordered drinks instead and got in from the chilly weather. Luckily we found a tapas bar nearby afterwards where J got nachos and I got a pizza, not necessarily Spanish, but both were delicious.

Sipping sangria in the square

Monday

We rolled out of bed in time to check out and found a juice bar for breakfast.  Our limited Spanish skills had J and I drinking the same mango/banana/papaya juice with a chocolate pain even though J is slightly allergic.  Luckily he survived (there was actually very little risk of death) and we went on to find the Tempo de Debod, an ancient Egyptian temple given to Spain for its help restoring other temples in the 1960s. It was pretty cool to see an actual Egyptian temple in person and very strange to see it in the middle of a plaza in Madrid.  Unfortunately we couldn’t go inside, closed on Mondays (maybe I should have planned this more? but then where’s the fun in that?) After looking at one of the best view’s of the city from the hill on which the temple sat we wandered northwesterly through the park admiring statues, rose gardens and other remnants of old empire.  We ended up at the Victory Arch which is taller than Paris’ Arc de Triomphe, but not as impressive. From there we metro’d back to Puerto del Sol, found lunch at a generic looking Spanish bar and cafe, which was a delightful three courses, and had our final chocolate and churros.  Actually I ate all the churros and chocolate J was to full and truthfully, so was I, but I was not going to leave without another dose.

Rubbing our full bellies we walked the streets deciding how to kill our last hour before we had to leave for the airport.  After saying goodbye to the central streets we walked so often we decided to start walking to a further metro stop for a more efficient airport commute.  We walked north, passing our hotel, awesome parks and architecture until we finally made it to the metro, then the airport, then London late at night where starved I forced J to buy us food in the train station and then ate greedily on the tube just like the people I hate who do that.

Outside the Crystal Palace

To sum up the trip (besides food and Picasso), I’d like to tell you a little story I forgot to mention…. On our last day after getting juice for breakfast I was finishing mine as we walked down the road towards the Plaza de Espana. We were chattering back and forth, talking about something absurd when J made a joke while I was sipping.  I immediately spit my mango-colored juice all over the sidewalk in laughter just as an old man exited a shop we were passing.  He looked at me in horror probably thinking I was puking on him.  I continued to laugh too hard to say anything to him as he hurried away.  Embarrassing or not, that was probably the funniest thing that happened in Madrid. (side note: J is no stranger to my laugh-spitting tendencies, I think he’s had hot chocolate, shaved ice, soup and other liquids launched at him over the years. It just hadn’t happened in a long time.)

*J and I don’t know what our next destination will be.  I’m thinking perhaps Budapest or Prague in January, but we shall see nothing booked yet!*

Thanksgiving Abroad

Celebrating Thanksgiving outside of the U.S. isn’t completely clear cut.  I was really excited to attempt to make some Thanksgiving foods this year (pumpkin pie, turkey or mac n’ cheese), but then I realized–canned pumpkin barely exists in stores, turkeys aren’t really around until Christmas and there is no Velveeta (and essential ingredient in my family’s mac n’ cheese). I ended up glad that a friend of one of J’s coworkers offered to cook for us–yes she must be crazy offering to cook Thanksgiving single handed for 13+ people, but we’ll get to that.

Since you don’t get Thursday or Friday off what did you do for actual Thanksgiving?

Cowboys & Indians--now that's Thanksgiving!

Thanks for the question.  I wasn’t planning on doing anything really.  I went to work, ended up there late (until 6 pm) in a meeting and got a spontaneous call from J asking if I wanted to meet him and a coworker at a diner for Thanksgiving.  Eating something besides leftover tacos from 2 days ago for dinner? I was in.  I met them in Soho and they were already at the bar enjoying some American-liquor only cocktails (their rule, not the diner’s). The diner was trendier inside than any I’ve seen in the US (indie pseudo-diners in NYC or DC don’t count).  We were escorted to a booth by a cowboy (yes the servers were dressed up like cowboys and indians), but we made him snap a picture with us since we couldn’t stop laughing that they thought cowboys and pilgrims were basically the same thing. It was a cooler outfit than a pilgrim’s… it came with toy guns!

Thanksgiving Specials

We sat down and immediately ordered milkshakes–chocolate and pumpkin pie.  I decided on a cheeseburger with sweet potato fries (my first burger since I moved here if you can believe it). J had their Thanksgiving special–turkey burger with cranberry sauce and sweet potato fries. Coworker got his burger with mac n’ cheese, so we had almost all the trimmings on the table.  Now the food was good (better than some of the diners back home–less greasy), but we were over the moon the whole time becuase it felt a bit like home.  We have been here long enough (and I without eating things such as fries, burgers and shakes) that we were craving a bit of home.  It didn’t feel like a cop out, it didn’t feel cheesy (though it kind of was). We were happy to be the loud Americans over in the booth getting excited over diner food. Since I couldn’t transport all of my normal family Thanksgiving foods here (with the family preferably) then I’d have to say this was the best day-of-Thanksgiving substitute.

So when did the expat Thanksgiving happen?

Wonderful, crazy cook’s Thanksgiving dinner was on Saturday.  We went over to coworkers’ (1 & 2) house and food was already ready for the most part.  Everything was spread out on the few coffee tables and small kitchen table (mostly held the huge turkey) wrapped in foil and peaking my curiosity.  When (mostly) everyone arrived it was time to turn cocktail hour into dinner time. Cook and sous chef began to uncover the platters showing spinach salad, french bread, mashed potatoes, sweet potatos, carrots & parsnips, routebaggah, breaded cheesy artichoke hearts, a pan full of cranberry sauce, stuffing, and the infamous hard-to-find organic 80 pound (the currency not the weight) turkey.

We are excited about our diner Thanksgiving despite the poor picture quality

I was a little nervous to see the vegetable-focused Thanksgiving.  It was one of the healthiest ones I have probably ever had–there was no cream or butter in the potatoes, everything was just mashed. Everything was delicious though.  I found out I like parsnips, think routebaggah is okay and absolutely adore her brined, very herby tasting turkey. I had at least two plates and at least two pieces of her amazing pumpkin pie and homemade whipped cream with allspice afterwards.  It did make me a bit homesick because it was different from my normal Thanksgiving foods (the unhealthy mac n’ cheese, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes with marshmallows, brown sugar honey ham— you can tell I’m still craving can’t you?), but Christmas is just around the corner (in the US Dec 15-26!)

and finally the greasy delicious close up...

Overall Thanksgiving was great despite being away from home.  There were a few I-don’t-really-know-you-but-I’m-eating-your-food moments, but we were a bunch of Americans (Canadians, one Brit and one Swede) feasting in our home away from home and that was enough to bring us together for an evening.  Next year, I’d like to have a hand in some Thanksgiving cooking and I’ll try not to be so lazy when looking for substitutes for the ingredients for my mom’s recipes that aren’t sold widely here (no instant pudding!).  One thing is certain–the diner day-of-Thanksgiving tradition is a must.

Love you all and looking forward to seeing many of you over Christmas!