Europe

Andorra to Carcassonne_1166

When we head back to the U.S. this summer, I will miss the castles. There may be nothing quite so European as the castles that dot the continent. And when you tour one that’s been maintained or restored, or just hike around in one that long ago surrendered to the elements, there’s something extra cool about knowing the dates it was begun. 11th Century. 12th Century. I mean–right?!  Exploring places with the patina of so much age messes with my brain in the most extraordinary way: I stand inside walls mortared centuries ago, and I realize how short my life is. And how small I am in the scheme of things.

But enough philosophizing.

Sure, I have my favorites. I adored Lleida, in Catalunya, an hour and a half west of Barcelona. And I recently acquired a new favorite: the château fort in Lourdes, France, in the lush midlands of the Pyrenees.  But favorites aside for the moment, here’s another reason I love castles. When I was young, I used to want to live in one–you know, to be the Maiden of the Castle, so I could parade around in jewels and brocaded gowns and all that ish. But now? I’d decorate castles!–be the Official Designer, as it were.  (Since we’re fantasizing.)  Ohh the textiles! the grand furniture! the unlimited supply of sweet breads and beignets and other very naughty French pastries that would necessarily be written into my contract!

(Admit it: in your fairytale world, you’d sign on too, if you could!)

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You Know You’re In Europe When . . .

by Becky on January 11, 2013 · 3 comments

in Travel

Ten things that remind me I’m in Europe.

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One.  The Ferrari store, for kids, on Passeig de Gracia.  For what you pay in rent, you can find a groovy t-shirt for the little high-performance auto fan in your life.

Two.  A protest!  With horns!  Ten (or so) highly frustrated men are protesting the Caixa bank’s cataclysmic mismanagement of funds.  This occurs out in front of the bank.  All morning.  Yesterday.  With odd horns that sound like the loudest car alarms in the hemisphere.

Three. The exchange rate. You check it. Again. What the heck is wrong with the almighty dollar?!

Four. Your dryer, which is also your washing machine, has once again done you the favor of tumbling your clothing at the same temperature recently recorded on the surface of the sun. Your children’s t-shirts will now fit their cousins’ Polly Pocket dolls.

Five. Catalan. The most gorgeous language you’ve never heard of is spoken everywhere. (Move over, French.)

Six. Up ahead!–a Twelfth Century castle! And another–just there!

Seven. Panaderias, Pastisseries, Xocolateries! The breads, pastries, and chocolates do indeed demand your focused attention.

Eight. Endless labyrinths of narrow streets feeding into endless labyrinths . . .

Nine. The markets! Oh, gosh, where to start?!

Ten. The cafes. Everywhere! Europeans dine on the sidewalks, the streets, the meridians, the plazas.  Care for a bite?

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All week I’ve been freezing. And sneezing. Such a bore, being sick. So I decided to revisit our trip to Netherlands in early July. So much to love!–but I settled on five things.

One. Canals. And boats. And girls on boats.

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Millay and Tess on boat_8705

Two. Bikes. Thousands and thousands, all over Amsterdam, to carry people to Important Things and Small Things.

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Sometimes to the accompaniment of especially fine street music.

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Three. Thrifting in the Canal Streets. Episode was a favorite store.

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Four. Windmills.

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Five. Scrunching together in a place never meant for scrunching.

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Which tuckers some folks right out.

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Sometimes summer looks lazily good from December, doesn’t it?

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Looking back over some family photos from Christmas 2011 got me thinking.

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With the holidays approaching, I’m hung up on the always perplexing question of what to give my kids for Christmas, which is the holiday we celebrate.

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Seems like every year, just after Halloween, I get excited and anxious in equal proportions.

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I make lists, I plan, I start my Christmas errands, of which there are far too many.  But this year is different. Celebrating Christmas in the style to which we’ve accustomed ourselves makes absolutely no sense here in Spain.

If we manage to find a tree somewhere, it’ll be pint size, and, with all my ornaments and other tree-decorating accoutrements in storage back home, we’ll have nothing to drape on it but homecrafted stuff. But maybe that’ll be cool. Strings of popcorn and “caramelos” (hard candy) wouldn’t be difficult, right? And maybe a tinfoil star for the top?  I could delegate the tree ornamenting to Miss Zinnia, who would not only rise to the task but shine!

I realize I am smiling. Being unburdened by all my stuff could be a very nice thing indeed.

And all the home decorations? Well, we could spend an afternoon cutting out paper snowflakes, for starters. And maybe hang them around our loft, just so?  For this, I could enlist the help of a daughter who loves design.  I provide the supplies, she heads up the effort, gives us our jobs, keeps us on task, and stages the home, so to speak.  And a subsequent photo shoot for Habitania magazine–no big deal.

The baking, I can handle. I have a buttermilk cookie recipe given to me by my childhood BFF, Melissa. And we can surely find some Vince Guaraldi on Spotify and make a Charlie Brown Christmas playlist so we’ll have some classic background music to dose up on while we’re also dosing up on cookie batter. I bet I can even find some Christmas sprinkles for the tops of the cookies.

And we can go carolling. We sing all the time anyway, shamelessly, and we’ve made lots of friends here who would, at the very least, be amused by our attempts to spread a little musical cheer. We have coats. And scarves. And gloves. And ready voices.

Ahh, but the gifts!  What to give my children?

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Whatever we present to them we’ll need to pack up and take home next summer, so there’s that to consider. And my “wrapping factory,” (perhaps you have one, too?), also in storage, won’t help me one bit come December, when I’m normally closeted with my supplies and madly trying to create masterpieces of paper and ribbon that rival the gifts inside the boxes. Nope, not going to assemble a wrapping factory here.

What to give, what to give?  One thing is sure, though: whatever we do, it will be simple, and it will be more about experiencing than opening, more about seeing than collecting.

I like the sound of a little road trip.  Just the five of us this year, in some town no one’s heard of, waking up on Christmas morning, wishing each other well, breakfasting on pastries and breads and cheeses, then heading out into the day to hike through castles we’ll never set foot in again.  Hmm. I’m game. (And I’m smiling pretty big now.)

What are you doing for the holidays?  Are you going to stick with tradition or shake it up?  Do tell.

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You know those moments that, when they happen, feel both totally spontaneous and perfectly planned?–like they were always meant to happen but just needed the right kind of chaos to seed them?  Well, the chaos, we definitely had:  two adults and four kids in a small, European car in Amsterdam, where we almost killed several people who, blithely pedaling along on their bikes, had no idea they had just missed a date with death.  And did I say four kids?–three teens and one eight-year-old?  And did I mention that the teens, all arms and legs, simply could not manage to fold themselves comfortably into those darned seats?  Moreover, did I add that the eight-year-old (now nine, and with a new permanent tooth coming in on top!), the smallest person in the car, was certain he was being breathed on, squished, smashed, and generally disrespected by his (mostly patient) older siblings?

So, on the road to Zaanse Schans, when several cows grazing in a roadside pasture ignited an idea in the mind of one of our daughters, we seemed meant to stop and capture the moment on film.  And now that the oldest, gone for two years, is away from us, this little video gives us all the perfect opportunity not only to see him and hear his voice again but also to contemplate what happens when kids and cows and cameras are thrown into collision.

The cure for road trip madness:  a video camera, several imaginative kids, and as many laid back Dutch cows.

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My youngest adores his older sisters. Mostly. And, like all “caboose” children, he sometimes finds the girls exasperating, like when they try to tell him his business. Or kiss his face so much he worries his dignity has been permanently compromised. That’s the beauty of getting out of the house. Out of town. Out of the country, even! In a new venue, all that sister love translates into the most miraculous forms of distraction.

On the coast of the Mediterranean: combing the sand for beach glass and rocks to add to a special collection. Brilliant.

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Especially if you’re a boy who loves rocks of every kind, and more especially if you’re a boy with a sister who will stay in the sand with you until the tide comes up or the light dies or the world ends, whichever happens first. Having an older sibling of the female variety who loves to hunt for objects both small and beautiful–what a boon!

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And older sisters are the perfect people to show off to, aren’t they? So you think you can skip a rock the size of a cell phone all the way to Greece, do you? But whether you can or can’t isn’t the point. The point is that two sisters will watch . . . and watch. And when you decide to downshift to smaller rocks (for the sake of the beach, of course, since we wouldn’t want to empty it of all cell-phone-size rocks, now would we?) and surprise!–the little ones SKIP!–it’s the big sisters who holler and cheer like you’ve just been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

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Will the world ever be as easy to conquer as it was the day your teenage sisters made you feel like The Master of Costa Brava? Hooray for them for all the times they hugged you so tight they nearly squeezed the life out of you. Their devotion will come in mighty handy someday, when the presence in your life of two good women may likewise attract the presence of others.

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Flight info to Barcelona from London

About a month ago, we moved to Europe.  We’d always wanted to move abroad with our kids, and, strangely, everything sort of lined up so that we could.  Odd but cool.  So, after putting all our stuff in storage, selling two of our cars, withdrawing our kids from school, and getting on a plane, we are now in Barcelona, Spain, living in the seventh-floor loft we call home.  Are we nuts?  Definitely.  Is it a grand adventure?  Definitely.  Will we ever regret doing something that had been at the top of our bucket list for a couple of decades?  Nope.

Getting the kids on board with the idea was of course the first step.  Son number one was planning to be gone for two years and basically said Good luck, wish you the best, you go do your thing, I’m going to go do mine.  Which was important, really, because had he somehow felt that he was going to be missing out, we might not have come.

Daughter number one was key as well.  A senior in high school, she might have said, No way.  But she fell in love with the idea of living abroad:  seeing new things, sampling cultures, thrifting here, there, and everywhere (her Thing).  Though she knew she’d miss her friends, she also knew she wouldn’t have a chance to do anything like this again.

Tessa's MUN Friends at the Farewell Party

Friends say goodbye to Tess (center, in the “Y” t-shirt).

Daughter number two was hesitant.  A happy and talented song bird, she belonged to a choir she adored and studied with a voice teacher she adored equally.  When and where would she sing while we were gone??  Valid question, we agreed.  But it was only one school year, not forever, and her voice would keep, as would her gift, as would her enthusiasm for working her way toward a vocal music scholarship, her dream.  We suggested she could sing on the road, as it were.  Finally she bought in.

Millay at the Farewell Party

Millie enjoys the farewell party.

And that left our youngest, who, like all youngest children, goes where the family goes and does what the family does.  I believe he’ll remember this experience as The Year of the Sisters given the fact that they dote on him, pester him, and tell him his business in equal proportions, constantly.  But.  He’s connected with a new hobby–photography–and as long as he’s got his Puma sneakers on and the camera battery is full, he’s good to go.  A couple of days ago, during a family outing to the Raval neighborhood downtown, he took 350 pictures!  What other American nine-year-old gets to snap photos of the colorful effusions of foods in the markets?–the spray-painted artwork on the corrugated pull-down doors of the city’s endless stores?–the brilliantly engineered drinking fountains tucked here, there, and everywhere?  Yeah, he’s dealing okay.

Mom with Silas in London

Silas and I trade silliness in the airport.

Our Airplane to Barcelona

Tessa asleep in London

Silas asleep in London

Millay in Heathrow Airport

Long flight.  Sleeping.  Making our connection in Heathrow.  And landing in Spain.

On British Airways Flight to Barcelona Spain

Over Barcelona

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It’s all working.  Stay tuned for more thoughts on living abroad.  With teens.  And one groovy little nine-year-old.

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Family Fun in Passau, Germany

by Becky on October 2, 2012

in Food, Fun, Music

When our ship docks in Passau, a quintessentially picturesque city in the heart of Bavaria, I couldn’t be more excited.  A world-class organ in a centuries-old cathedral awaits–a fact that has my oldest son, the music lover, totally “stoked,” to quote his surf team coach.  And the possibility of vintage clothing and/or jewelry stores showing up in our day has my daughters equally breathless.  And narrow, cobblestone streets to zoom up . . . and zoom down . . . well, that’s about all my youngest needs.  Places to stretch his legs and flex his running muscles:  what more could you want when you’re eight?

The cool thing about being in a fairy-tale town in a storied little corner of the world?  Watching your kids, ages 19, 16, 13, and 8, discover it!

Turns out the concert puts everyone to sleep except Young Mr. Beethoven.  Turns out there is in fact the perfect antique trinkets/jewelry store parked on a tiny side street in town.  Turns out the patisseries are spendid.  (What more do you need in your afternoon than a fine piece of cake?)  And with my husband’s omnipresent camera, the story of the day is–voila!–a movie.

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Go See Vienna! And Take Your Kids!

by Becky on August 25, 2012 · 1 comment

in Uncategorized

When we dock in Vienna, we each have a few things we really, really want to do.  My son the Mozart lover, he’s about the music.  And the architecture.  I love watching his face each time we enter a cathedral.  My younger daughter and I want cake (my daily ritual).  My older daughter, the vintage queen, wants to do some thrifting, if there’s any thrifting to be done.  And my youngest–well, he’s the disappearing act.  I finally have to turn off my “quiet box” (the radio/head phone set that dials me in to our group’s historian-slash-tour guide) because I can’t manage to listen to her and keep track of my eight-year-old at the same time.  I mean, every monument in the city is begging to be climbed, and he has no compunction about dashing off to the nearest one, even if it means getting himself lost.

Notice the look of awe.   One of the best things about the trip is watching the kids react to beauty.

And watching them react to each other. 

Tucked into the tower of St. Matthias church, Vienna.  Better than playing in a fort . . . 

All smiles.  Does she know there’s a piece of cake somewhere in her day?  Below:  the “Che” beret that called out to her from the shelves of Little Joe’s Gang, a vintage clothing store in Vienna.

  • Vienna - Thrift Shop Vienna - Thrift Shop Outside thrift shop in Vienna
  • Vienna - Vintage Glasses 1 Vienna - Vintage Glasses 1 Compilation of vintage glasses at a thrift store in Vienna - photo 1
  • Vienna - Vintage Glasses 2 Vienna - Vintage Glasses 2 Compilation of vintage glasses at a thrift store in Vienna - photo 2
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  • Vienna - Vintage Glasses 4 Vienna - Vintage Glasses 4 Compilation of vintage glasses at a thrift store in Vienna - photo 4
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  • Vienna - Vintage Glasses 6 Vienna - Vintage Glasses 6 Compilation of vintage glasses at a thrift store in Vienna - photo 6
     

 The vintage queen selects a pair of glasses.  Who cares that they’re not prescription?  Take them back to the states, ship them off somewhere to be retrofitted with prescription lenses . . . and you’re good, right?  But which pair to choose?  Which PAIR?

 

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Hey. Guys. Bratislava Is Hot!

by Becky on July 23, 2012

in Fun

  • Bratislava - Tessa and Millay walking away Bratislava - Tessa and Millay walking away Bratislava - Tessa and Millay walking away
  • Bratislava - Tessa and Millay smiling big Bratislava - Tessa and Millay smiling big Bratislava - Tessa and Millay smiling big
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So we dock in Bratislava, Slovakia and set off, all of us, to discover the city.  The roiling summer heat nearly scares us back to our air conditioned cruise ship, but we persevere.  And hey!–the city brings out the kid in everyone!  The camera loves my kids loving this place.
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  • Bratislava - Tessa and Millay goofing off Bratislava - Tessa and Millay goofing off Bratislava - Tessa and Millay goofing off
  • Bratislava - Tessa and Millay on side street Bratislava - Tessa and Millay on side street Bratislava - Tessa and Millay on side street
  • Bratislava - Tessa and Millay as ballerinas Bratislava - Tessa and Millay as ballerinas Bratislava - Tessa and Millay as ballerinas
  • Bratislava - Street marking Bratislava - Street marking Bratislava - Street marking
  • Bratislava - Tessa on lamp post 2 Bratislava - Tessa on lamp post 2 Bratislava - Tessa on lamp post 2
  • Bratislava - Tessa on lamp post Bratislava - Tessa on lamp post Bratislava - Tessa on lamp post
  • Bratislava - Millay at door Bratislava - Millay at door Bratislava - Millay at door
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  • Bratislava - Tessa and Millay another ballerina pose Bratislava - Tessa and Millay another ballerina pose Bratislava - Tessa and Millay another ballerina pose
     

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