Thursday, July 26, 2007

So, what about the knitting?

The trip of a lifetime is now officially over. I think it took me so long to blog about it because it was a way to keep it going in my mind. But now it's time to move on. Life has been happening. I've been knitting all along. My current project is a shawl for my sister Lynny. She wanted one like the one I made for my other sister Betsy two years ago. This was Betsy's shawl:

I was able to find the same yarn, a beautiful silk/wool/cotton blend and cast on back in April. The pattern for the first one was made up as I went along so I decided to be a little more "planful" on this one. Using the 365 Stitches calendar, I picked out 12 stitch patterns to use on 169 stitches. I did 20 kib (knit into back) stitches, then 43x3 of the pattern, then 20 more kib stitches. The pattern stitches were 12-16 rows (depending on the pattern...usually two repeats) followed by eight rows of either garter or stockinette and then the next pattern. It has been a tedious knit, going VERY slowly, partly because of so many interruptions but I am almost at the halfway point (about 36 inches). Here is my progress to date:

As usual, I'm not 100% happy with it. It is too wide, the divisions between the three middle "panels" are too distinct, there are mistakes, yadda, yadda... But at this point I am just determined to finish it for her. I hope my yarn holds out. I hope to put some fringe on it and would be REALLY unhappy if I can't do that. Her birthday was in mid-May but she knows it will take me a while to get it done. I showed her the very early stages when we had our sister's weekend in April. During that weekend, Betsy saw the bag I made for Lynny last year (the Constant Companion) and oohed and aahed so I think that will be her request for HER next birthday in February. She mentioned how much she liked the evening bag I made for her this year and Lynny perked up and said, "Evening Bag? Ooh, that sounds nice." So, I guess the lesson I have learned is to make the same thing for both of them.

It reminds me a little of the stories that my friends with two children tell about having to duplicate what they buy to keep both kids appeased. I never had to worry about that, having an only child.

I have been home from Europe for eight weeks and it already seems like an eternity since I was there. It didn't take long to get back into the groove (or rut, depending on my mood) and I have tried very hard not to start every sentence with "When I was in Europe..." but it is so hard avoiding the temptation to tell EVERYone about the trip. Meredith is SO over that, tired of my telling the same stories she has heard a million times by now. My new resolution is to keep my mouth shut when we go anywhere together and someone asks, "So, how was your trip?" I need to let her answer and tell people about her entire semester. Things have been a little...shall we say...strained since we got home. She clearly does not want to be home this summer, thinking of it as just an unpleasant pit stop between her glorious time in Milan and her impatience to get back to her friends in Burlington. She is working a lot of hours on her research internship and taking a (shudder) Physics class in a compressed semester...and it has all conspired to turn her into little miss crankypants a great deal of the time.

Ok, enough on that topic...I had better stop before my natural tendency to say how I really feel gets me into trouble.

We've had an interesting summer since I got back. The heat arrived just in time for the annual Bike Trek Across Maine on Father's Day weekend. That meant my crew and I were not only busy keeping the refreshments going for the 1800 bikers coming through but also keeping an eye out for anyone in distress with possible heat stroke. We were lucky this year and only had a couple of people who needed extra assistance from us. It was a gorgeous weekend with perfect weather until the very end.

Back in Portland, I spent a beautiful Saturday morning at the Rose Garden in Deering Oaks Park, one of my favorite places. Here are some of the pictures I took:

Just looking at those pictures relaxes me! Then I went home and took some pictures of our great masterpiece by comparison but there are some pretty flowers.

We even have some tomato, zucchini and cucumber plants that are doing very well this year.

These pictures were taken in late June and the plants are now twice as high as they were then. We will be picking our first zucchini any day now. And then look out everybody! I'll be breaking into cars to leave them in there just to get rid of all of them!

In mid July we celebrated Anniversary number 31. It wasn't the big deal like last year at the Franconia Inn but we took the day off and took a nice ride up the coast to a beautiful area called Bailey's Island. Here are some pictures from that day:

We enjoyed a delicious lunch on the outdoor deck of a local restaurant and indulged ourselves with some steamers...

which we made short work of...

and a wonderful seafood platter.

It was so nice to just sit and relax, take our time with lunch, chat and enjoy the seabreezes. A perfect day.

I'll miss not going up to the cottage for my usual two weeks in August but my trip was well worth the sacrifice. Besides, now I can go to my wild and wacky family reunion in mid-august instead. That will surely be an event worthy of a blog entry or two. My family definitely puts the "fun" in "dys-fun-ctional"...the challenge will be paring down all of the information to keep the entry from getting too long!!!

So, it's back to knitting the shawl-from-hell so I can give it to my sister at the reunion... I KNOW she'll be asking for it.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Mas de Madrid y Adios!

Day two in Madrid was another beautiful but hot one. We had really been lucky throughout our trip, having gorgeous sunny days every day but one. We got up early to maximize our last day in Spain and headed over to the Plaza Mayor to start off with a leisurely breakfast in one of the many plaza's outdoor cafes. We settled on the Cafeteria Magerit and ordered pastries, coffee and some delicious peach juice.

Zoom in on those glasses and see if you can pick out something that was a surprise... yes, there are not one but TWO ice cubes in each glass!!! We were astounded! Meredith seems to be staring in disbelief. It was a delicious breakfast. Shortly after it was served we were joined by a visitor.

He was very cute...

...very tame...

...and VERY persistent

but we reluctantly opted not to feed him since there were other sparrows very nearby and we were concerned about causing a "sparrow riot." He was not very happy with us.

The morning was so gorgeous and we felt so lucky to be enjoying it in such a beautiful place. We even had a very friendly waiter who actually seemed to be enjoying chatting with us!

This was the view from our table into the center of the Plaza.

After breakfast we took a walk around the Plaza, starting with the majestic statue of Felipe III in the center. The origins of the plaza go back to 1581 when plans were drawn up to build a central plaza to replace an older, smaller plaza. Construction did not begin until 1617 and finished in 1619. A series of fires nearly destroyed it and it was completely renovated in 1790. The statue of Felipe III dates back to 1616.

Hanging with Felipe

The Plaza Mayor has been the scene of a wide range of events: markets, bullfights, soccer games, public executions, and, during the Spanish Inquistion, "autos de fe" against supposed heretics and the executions of those condemned to death. The Plaza Mayor also has a ring of old and traditional shops and cafes under its porticoes. Celebrations for San Isidro, patron saint of Madrid, are also held here.

Along one side of the plaza is the Real Casa de la Panaderia, named for the Royal Bakery that was built here in 1619. The current building was done in 1673 after one of the many fires and now houses the Madrid Bakers Guild.

The frescoes were added in 1992.

We left the plaza through one of the nine archs that are placed symmetrically around the plaza.

It took us out onto some quaint old streets, so narrow and winding, and filled with very interesting old shops and buildings.

This cookware shop has probably been there since the middle ages.

We walked past a beautiful small church and found ourselves at a wonderful indoor market, not as opulent as the one we had visited in Barcelona. This one was obviously frequented by the locals rather than aimed at the tourists. The merchants seemed surprised to see us. One of them declared Meredith to be "muy bonita" (very pretty) and embarrassed her completely. As with the other markets, the best and freshest were on display.

Who knew there were so many different kinds of eggs?

These little piggies went to market...and probably wished they hadn't!

It was a double decker market. This was the view from the second floor.

We left the market and continued through the streets, reaching the Iglesia San Andres

and a fascinating fountain.

We passed this beautiful little park with the statue of Don Alvaro de Bazan, a 16th century Spanish admiral whose successes included suppressing piracy at sea, conquering the Turks in the Holy Alliance with Austria, and enforcing Spain's claims of land won in battles with Portugal. He also commanded the Spanish Armada which met a disastrous fate against Sir Francis Scott and his British fleet, when, due to delays in supplies, they were surprised in port and destroyed. He was named the first Marquis of Santa Cruz by King Felipe II and was a distinguished naval architect who designed the Spanish galleons which were so instrumental in transporting the riches of the New World back to Spain. He died in 1588 in Lisbon shortly before the Armada was ready to sail after being rebuilt.

It was noon and we suddenly heard a thunderous peal of church bells. Looking through the buildings we saw the towers of the Cathedral.

A few more turns and we were facing the Catedral de la Almudena, the largest Cathedral in Madrid.

Inside it was cool and very dark. I noticed bouquets of flowers on the floor and at first I thought they had fallen or been dropped there. On closer look, I realized that they had been placed there deliberately. It turns out we had entered the crypt and the floor was covered with gravestones. I started doing a kind of hopscotch dance to avoid stepping directly on these graves, much to the amusement of a couple of young priests chatting up by the altar. It seemed very strange to have all of these people buried INSIDE the church instead of in an adjacent graveyard until I realized that in the middle of an ancient city like Madrid, there was no room for any adjacent graveyard. The land was all spoken for. Nevertheless, the inhabitants of those graves must have had to be some very special parishioners to have merited such special final resting places. The Cathedral was built between 1879 and 1993 and most of the available space was occupied. We weren't able to go into the main part of the church but the crypt was most impressive.

The main entrance to the church faced the Presidential Palace...

...separated by the huge Plaza Armeria.

It contains 2800 rooms but only 50 are open to the public. It is used for visits by Heads of State and other Official Ceremonies but is not the official residence of the Royal Family. They actually live in a smaller palace outside of Madrid, a former hunting lodge. I have a feeling that it bears no resemblance to any hunting lodges here in Moose heads on the wall or rocking chairs on a porch.

We walked along the east side of the Palace and crossed the street to the Plaza de Oriente, a large park with meticulous gardens and many statues.

The most prominent one is a large statue of Felipe IV, erected in 1843.

A short distance away we came to the Plaza Isabel II and a statue to the controversial queen. Her father, Ferdinand VII abolished the Salic laws which declared only sons to be heirs to the throne, thus paving the way for her to become regent at 13. Her ascendency to the throne was challenged by her uncle, Ferdinand's brother who declared himself King Carlos V, precipitating a series of wars between his supporters and those who believed that Isabel was the rightful heir. She married her cousin at 16 to insure a continuation of her line and had thirteen children, of whom eight survived. Her husband/cousin probably fathered none of those children since he was gay and very open about his sexual preferences. Isabel was also very open with her many love affairs. She was dethroned in 1868 by reformists and sent into exile to France with her husband and children. She soon divorced her husband and abdicated her crown in favor of her eldest son. She died in 1904 and was returned to Spain for burial.

Adjacent to the Plaza Isabel II is the Teatro Real, Madrid's main opera house.

We were getting hungry and had walked almost 8 miles so we stopped for some lunch and a chance to rest our feet. Since we were close to the main shopping area near Puerta del Sol we did a little window shopping and picked up some souvenirs. It was now late in the afternoon and, once again, the heat was making us drowsy so it was time for a siesta. Fortunately, we were close to the hotel so it made sense to take a break from our travels.

We had decided that our last night in Madrid would be Paella night. We had enjoyed the Barcelona version but wanted to sample how madrilenos prepared this classic dish. We decided to try one of the many cafes at Plaza Mayor so we could sit outside and enjoy the evening while waiting for it to be prepared. Paella is cooked to order so it can take 20-30 minutes or more to be served. We enjoyed a glass of wine and did some serious people watching in the Plaza. It was a truly spectacular night. Despite being close to 9PM, it was still quite light.

The paella was delicious and very filling. We lingered over our dinner until after 10 and then took a leisurely walk through the center of the city for one last time. The streets were full of couples, families, groups of friends and all were enjoying a beautiful early summer evening. I took a couple of last shots of Plaza Puerta del Sol before heading back to the hotel for the final time.

(Sorry about the blurriness...I almost didn't post these but then I thought they had kind of a cool, kinetic feel to them much like the atmosphere on the street.)

The next morning we packed our bags and checked out. We hadn't been on Madrid's subways yet so we were expecting a repeat of our Barcelona experience with steps everywhere. To our delight, the subways were very "wheel" friendly, extremely clean and efficient. We purchased a special ticket that allowed us to take the train directly to the airport where we were scheduled to take a short flight back to Milan on one of Europe's many smaller discount airlines, Easyjet. We didn't know what to expect in terms of the time it would take so we gave ourselves plenty of time. It turns out we gave ourselves WAY too much time. We were at the airport in no time at all, leaving us with almost four hours until our flight. We checked in at the gate, had lunch in a small restaurant at the airport and waited to board.

Easyjet does not give assigned seats so you basically take whatever empty seat is available once you board. That could have been a recipe for disaster, given the European decided aversion for waiting in line in an orderly fashion. I had visions of being mobbed and elbowed as everyone jockeyed for prime boarding position. It turns out that they do have a system after all. We were allowed to board based on our check-in time. Having arrived so early gave us a decided advantage. We were among the first group allowed on the plane so we had our choice of seats. We watched as people who boarded later got more and more agitated and frustrated, especially groups of people who wanted to sit near each other. Finally everyone was aboard and seated and the two hour flight to Milan took off. We were served a soft drink and, before we knew it, we were on the ground.

It was cloudy in Milan and still beastly hot. We took a bus from the airport to the train station, instead of the Malpensa express train which I had taken when I first arrived. Our hotel was near the train station, one of the hotels we had stayed in before we left for Naples nearly two weeks earlier. It was the swanky one with the suite and the ballroom-sized bathroom where we had been able to store Meredith's large suitcase and a couple of other bags from her four month stay. This time we didn't get the suite but rather a smaller room but still very comfortable and with the highly prized free internet. We hungrily caught up on emails and checked our favorite websites, feeling as if we had been exiled to Siberia without that contact.

Meredith got in touch with a couple of her friends from the Collegio who were still around and we arranged to get together for a final dinner before we left for the US the next day. It started to rain as we left the hotel, the first real precipitation we had seen since I arrived fifteen days earlier. It cooled things down a little and felt very refreshing.

We met Kyle and Aleyna and had dinner at a great restaurant in the Porta Genova area of Milan. We followed it up with some wonderful gelato, including my first-ever Chocolate with Pepper gelato...a-may-zing stuff!!!! Truly good times!

The next day we packed up everything and headed back to the train station where we boarded the bus to Malpensa Airport. It was time to come home. I was sad to see my 15 days in Europe ending and I know Meredith was feeling even sadder about seeing her four month adventure in Italy come to an end. The flight home went smooth as silk and, before we knew it, we were in Logan airport. There was a bit of an uncomfortable moment as we went through Customs. As luck would have it, we had a tough female customs agent who found it hard to believe that Meredith had spent four months in Italy and had not purchased more than she declared. Meredith just looked her straight in the eye and said, "Everything was much too expensive. College students can't afford Georgio Armani!" The woman smiled, knew she had been bested, and let us go on through. It was a priceless moment.

We boarded the bus to Portland and headed home in a torrential thunderstorm. A very different weather picture than we had been used to the previous two weeks. Brendan met us at the bus station, gave his baby girl a big hug, packed our many bags in the car and we went home to recover from a wonderful vacation. We both hope to go back someday but this trip will always be a special one since it was our first taste of travelling abroad. So many wonderful memories.

Here are some things that made it so successful (in no particular order):

* Chris, our wonderful travel agent at AAA
* advance reservations for hotels and museums on the internet (I particularly would recommend for hotels and for museums)
* Lonely Planet travel guides (
* Streetwise Maps (
* Eurail passes and reservations (Again,thanks to Chris at AAA)
* A digital camera
* Good luggage on wheels
* Space-saver bags to help with compact packing
* A sense of humor and an adventurous attitude
* A flexible agenda and a willingness to change course for something interesting
* Using a smile as a universal language
* Knowing when to ask for help
* Patience

Armed with the above things, your journeys are bound to be successful!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Moving on to Madrid...

It was time for our visit to Madrid, the final city on our whirlwind tour. We almost didn't get there. Our original ticket request had been for a 7:30AM train from Barcelona departing from Estacio Barcelona Sants, the same train station where we had arrived. That train was not available so we were ticketed for a 9:00AM train, giving us a little more time in the morning. It meant we were traveling the subway during morning rush hour, not our first choice, but we got up early, packed our luggage and started the schlep to the subway around 8AM. We reversed the trip we had made two days earlier, complete with the up-four-steps, walk 50 feet, down-four-steps debacle, only this time with MORE irritated commuters trying to maneuver past us as they hurried to catch their trains. It seemed as if we went up and down 50 bezillion sets of steps with our bags. At the FINAL sets of steps, leading down to the subway platform, a young man took pity on us and insisted on carrying our bags down to the platform. As it turned out, he was an American going to school in Barcelona. Score a big Hooray for the good old USA! We thanked him profusely as he hurried to get on the arriving train. The car was packed solid so we decided to let it go and wait for one we could actually fit into. Three more trains came and went, all crammed full of harried commuters who eyed us warily as the doors opened, willing us to stay put with our oversize burdens. We gladly complied. Finally a train arrived that offered a sliver of space so we grabbed it. We got off at the right stop and struggled up the stairs to the street, ignoring the muttering in our ears as we slowed the flow of traffic. At last we arrived at the station and checked the board for our train. It was now about 8:40AM, just 20 minutes before departure time. Our train was not up there. We found a conductor and showed him our tickets. After a pause which seemed to last an eternity he explained that we were at the wrong train station. I thought my stomach was either going to fall to my knees or come up through my throat. Apparently, when the time of our train was changed, the station was changed also... to Barcelona-Franca, the station that was a five minute walk from our hotel! We could have spared ourselves that subway ordeal if I had only just looked at the tickets more closely. Once that registered a more immediate problem presented itself. Would we be able to get to Madrid from the wrong station? The fate gods must have had a good enough laugh at our expense to cut us a break. As it turned out, the train was leaving Barcelona-Franca and its first stop was Barcelona-Sants, the very station where we standing - sweaty, worried and feeling more than a little foolish. Ok, I was the one feeling foolish since I was the one who had booked all of the reservations. I decided the best thing to do was to give myself a "time out" for a couple of minutes and I headed for the nearest cup of coffee (Americana, gracias) and a monster pastry, assuring Meredith that I would be back in time to catch the train at 9:30AM.

The train arrived right on time and we boarded. Once again we were in separate cars...and once again, probably not a bad thing under the circumstances. She was about ready to place me in a home for the elderly and infirm. I probably would have gone willingly at that point.

The trip was relaxing. I knitted and took some pictures of the passing countryside.

We left the green terrain of the coast and headed into the more arid center of the country.

Occasionally we would pass a sleepy small town.

The topography flattened out considerably.

After a four hour ride, we pulled into Madrid's Atocha station. We caught up with each other, consulted the map and headed out to the street. Surprise, was HOT! One delightful surprise was the beautiful central garden in the station with an amazing pond just FULL of turtles!!!

After a couple of false starts, we finally headed up the right street to our hotel, the Astoria. More correctly, it was a Hostal, which meant that it was a couple of floors in a building with a very small sign at street level. We had some difficulty finding the address and finally asked a newstand vendor. An older woman overheard our question and offered to show us the address. We gratefully followed her. We arrived, checked in and headed for our room. Once again, we lucked out. It was small, but clean and had a nice modern bathroom. It was right on Carerra de San Jeronimo, a busy street, but we were high enough up that it was very quiet. Here are some pictures of the room and the view from our window:

The location was great, just down the street from the Plaza Puerta del Sol and close to the museums and the major parks.

We dropped off our bags and went to find some lunch. Around the corner we found a little restaurant that looked good. We went in and the waiter immediately seated us in a small side room. The only other table was occupied by a group of six young women who were having some sort of celebration for a birthday or an impending wedding. They were chattering away as one of the them opened her gifts. The room was small but comfortable. We ordered our lunches, some gazpacho and endive salad to start, followed by some veal scallops. We were thoroughly enjoying our lunch until the partiers decided it was time to light up their after lunch smoke. Most of the six lit up, quickly filling the small room with a foul smoke. A few polite coughs on our part were ignored. Spain does not yet have a smoking ban in their restaurants, something most of the rest of Europe has wisely adopted. We were considering having some flan for dessert but were forced to beat a hasty retreat to save our watering eyes and strained lungs. Ironically, we watched as most of the smokers just sat holding their cigarettes, not even smoking them, letting the ash just accumulate on the ends of the smoking cancer sticks. We made the decision to eat most of our remaining meals in Madrid outdoors wherever possible to avoid being trapped in closed spaces with smokers.

After lunch we took a walk along the Paseo de Prado, a long lovely boulevard adjacent to the botanical gardens and a number of the museums. We passed incredible fountains including the fountain of Neptune:

and the monument to Columbus:

We walked back down the long boulevard and decided to visit one of Madrid's premier art museums, The Museo Centreo de Arte Sofia Reina, the Central Art Museum of Queen Sofia. Chief among its exhibits is the breathtaking Guernica, Picasso's incredible depiction of the Nazi bombing of a Basque town in 1937 which killed so many innocent people, including women and children.

I saw this massive painting about 26 years ago at a travelling exhibition of Picasso's work in New York. It deeply affected me then and this time I was even more moved by the tragedy it depicts, given the pervasive images of war we encounter every day. It was commissioned by Spain's Republican government for the Paris Exposition Universelle the year of the bombing, at the height of Spain's civil war. He completed it in an amazingly short time period, driven by the powerful anti-war images that had disturbed him so deeply.

Also on display are masterpieces of other icons of modern art: Miro, Dali, Arroyo, Ernst, Gris and many, many others. Most of the artists are Spanish but there is a strong representation of surrealistic and modern artists from all over the world. Kandinsky is there, as well as Klein, and Alex Katz. There is also an eye-popping kinetic art display on the ground floor. Even the building structure is a work of art. The external glass elevator provided a great overview of the surrounding area...

...including the Atocha Train Station.

We spent about two hours in the museum and then decided to find a little cafe for a mid-afternoon pick-me-up. We had covered a lot of area, walked about seven miles, and we were fading in the heat. Time for another late afternoon nap to recharge for dinner. We were getting very used to eating at 8PM or later. The late sunsets fiddled with our internal body clocks too. It stayed light until after 10PM because of Madrid's position at the far west of its time zone.

After a couple of hours of refreshing zzz's, we looked for a tapas bar. We found a great little plaza, one of so many in Madrid, with a number of restaurants on the perimeter. As we were walking around checking them out, a young man stopped us and asked us if we spoke English. He went on to tell us that he was an American from Seattle who had been in a bad car accident with his friend who had ended up in the hospital. The rental car was totalled, the police had it impounded, and all of his money and documents, including his passport were in a briefcase in the car and no one knew where it had been taken. He had a nasty cut on his nose and his scalp which he said came from some glass that had embedded itself during the accident. The upshot was that he needed money to get a temporary id from the embassy so he could retrieve money that his parents were wiring him. Was he on the up and up? We didn't know. But there was something compelling about him and we didn't feel comfortable just walking away. He said he needed 20 euros. I couldn't give him that much but between the two of us, Meredith and I were able to give him 5 euros. He seemed very grateful and said that he would be alright. After he walked away we talked about the situation and decided that if it was a scam, he deserved what we gave him just on the merit of his acting job. We found a place that served some great looking tapas, ordered four types and some wine and enjoyed another gorgeous Spanish evening. After enjoying the meal, we poked around the area, had some gelato, found the Plaza Mayor, and decided to make that the start of our adventures the next day. By 11 we were back at the hotel and getting to sleep to prepare for our last day in Spain.

Next post: Plaza Mayor, Walking tour of the Centro, the Market, the Cathedral, hobnobbing at the Presidential Palace and so much more!