European travel

No photo today.  In fact, that I know of, there may be only a small handful of photos of Miss Celandine and me together–ironic, considering how long and faithful and brilliant our friendship has been.  We met in graduate school, years ago.  We got on famously.  We still do.  I thought I’d talk about two big reasons Miss Celandine is a great favorite.

One.  She beat the rush, got on a plane, and came to Spain.  To see me.  She stayed for ten glorious days during which we hit up museums (MNAC! Picasso!), sampled gelato (Llet Merengada!), wandered the streets of Born, Gotic, and Eixample (Tous!), hiked every inch of Park Güell, braved the evening tapas crowds (yes, we survived Tapas 24 and have earned the right to tell the tale), and hopped a train to Tarragona to see the Roman ruins and claim a spot in the sand, where we soaked up the Mediterranean ocean and sun for an afternoon.  Incurably funny, she charmed the petals and teased Goose.  To us, she’s an Event.

Two.  She beat breast cancer last year.  Yes, she did this.  With the help of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and intense personal grit.  Here in Spain was only the second time I had seen her since her diagnosis.  This trip was both a vacation and a celebration for her.  I could say Miss Celandine is brave, that she’s a fighter, but these are platitudes.  What’s true is that she did the work, and it was unimaginably painful, and she is now well and as alive as I’ve ever seen her.

This morning I put her on a plane bound for JFK and then for home.  She’ll resume her life as a university professor and All Around Extraordinary Woman.  Fly safe, Miss Celandine.  And by the way:  the Eleven O’Clock Mom thinks you’re grand.

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So last week we took off for Southern France.  More to come on that.  First, though:  if you road trip a lot, consider some packing tips that made our trip with our kids–more particularly the driving part–downright pleasant.

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One.  Take food.  I mean, like, lots of options. Let’s face it:  driving for hours is rough on kids and adults alike, even if the scenery is breathtaking (and it was).  For kids who may be approaching critical mass, I recommend the following: the makings for peanut butter & jelly sandwiches; crackers that come in cool shapes (the Simpsons worked for us); a good baguette that can be happily ripped into impressive chunks and dipped in hummus; fresh apples and a decent knife to cut them with; Greek yogurt plus the requisite granola to fold into it; (good!) chocolate; nectars, juices, and bottles of water; nuts of whatever variety the folks in the car like to munch on; and good potato chips (without msg). This is merely a start. If you brainstorm ahead of the curve and leave yourself time to hit up the local Carrefour or Mercadona (or of course Costco or Target . . .), you are so going to thank yourself when road restlessness sets in.

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Two. Take utensils/a small cutting board, paper towels, and bags for trash. Don’t laugh, but we take knives for cutting and spreading, spoons for, well, you know–all the things spoons are good for.  The small cutting board works brilliantly for sandwich making during short stops.  Paper towels are about the handiest thing since the steering wheel, especially when spills inevitably happen or carsickness sets in (yep).  Having a small plastic bag for garbage likewise keeps me sane: the car stops, the bag goes in a garbage can at a gas station somewhere, and the snacking resumes anew, sans mess.

Three.  Take a throw-up bucket.  Trust me:  you may never need it, but the one time you do, you will be.  So.  Grateful.  We currently use a nifty red container that once held ice cream.  It’s the perfect size, and its presence in the car helps me breathe easier on roads through mountains with hairpin turns or through European tunnels that go on.  And on.  (And on.)

Four. Take ‘interventions.’ Aspirin or ibuprofin for headaches or cramps. 7-Up & saltines for unhappy tummies. A supply of Kleenex for all the obvious reasons. Soap or antibacterial gels or lotions for similarly obvious reasons.  Kids’ pillows/blankets from home make the car feel more cozy; moreover, they do a nice job of delineating ‘boundary’ lines between bodies, the result being that kids feel less jealous of their own ‘territory’ (because it’s clearly staked out).

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Five. Stop frequently. Believe it or not, I consider this a key part of packing–a way of frontloading the trip.  Stopping breaks up the drive and gives everyone a chance to enjoy the scenery. We stopped in a small hillside town in the Spanish Pyrenees–Punt de Bar, population 18. We met a gentleman who makes goat cheese. We tasted his cheese. We got to check out the view of the mountains from his cheese-making kitchen. The kids made friends with a big, beautiful dog whose breed I couldn’t guess but whose friendliness made him an instant favorite. We laughed at the riotous birds whose country-fied chattering never stopped.

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Six. Very important. Keep a small notebook and a pencil handy, for jotting down the names and descriptions (and, if you’re in Europe, the dates!) of the places you see.

Happy travels.  (And stay tuned for stories of ours!)

(Town:  Punt de Bar, in the Spanish Pyrenees, population 18.)

 

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Traveling in Spain with our kids–two teenage girls and a nine-year-old boy–is an unusual proposition. The girls tend to gravitate toward things with color, or things with shine, or things with a certain architectural integrity. And the boys tend to like things on which they can climb (castles), or from which they can leap (stairs, which abound in Europe), or whose destruction they can witness (fallas!).  What happens once a year in Valencia appeals to both crowds.

Each one created by a different organization roughly equivalent to a neighborhood guild, the falla–which refers both to the creators and the creation–is a giant tableau, the result of months of painstaking construction and artistry on the part of the falleros and their engineers and artists.

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Those Disney folks?  They’ve got nothing on the falleros.

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The fallas are meant to satirize. Each falla–and they’re scattered all over the city, though more of them are clustered downtown–is a satire, its tone as critical as its colors are vivid. Whatever events have taken place in the country over the past year–political, economic, social–those events become the falleros’ inspiration and raw material.

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Heads of state–the king, for example, or the country’s former president–become the targets of many of the fallas.

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Crowds of thousands gather to see the fallas each year, wandering the city with maps that indicate which ones are where. Puzzling out the theme of each one was tricky for us, as the signs were mostly in Catalan, but the tone of each was unmistakable–like that of a political cartoon, except that the ‘cartoon’ is rendered in 3D! Below, a few of the enormous ones, some reaching up to five stories.

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As the night wears on, the pyrotechnics wind up. Everything you’re hurrying to see will eventually go up in smoke. Pretty soon, you’re running so you can catch all the fallas before the ‘bomberos’ (fire fighters) arrive to preside over the fireworks and the explosions at each site.

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And then.

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The crowds begin to swell.  The lights captivate.  Foods of all kinds beckon to folks itching for a late-night snack.

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And while we settle in to wait just outside the fence of our favorite falla, an enormous tableau featuring a cluster of giant babies . . .

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the fire crews start arriving to prep the sites, including ours.  For forty-five long minutes, we stand.  And wait.

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And just like that, just after midnight, it all. Goes up. In smoke.

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All over the city, each elaborately beautiful falla combusts, one after another.

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Miss Zinnia, she doesn’t know what to think.

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Everywhere, the fallas burn!

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Goose, he’s ready to watch fallas blow up until the sun rises.  The girls? Not so sure. Regardless, they’ve never seen anything like this.

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And they may not, ever again. Which is exactly why we wanted to be part of it!

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This morning, one girl waited for a plane to land.  Because another girl was arriving.

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Waiting can be difficult when the person you’re waiting for matters so much.

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Then. Here she came!

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She was real, after all!

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And it was just the same. No, that’s a lie–probably a hundred times better.

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This was happening.

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And it was brilliant!

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And now: new people to meet.

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Places to go.

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Shuttles to hop.

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Cameras to cozy up to.

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A train to catch.  (And music to wake up to.)

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A metro to grab.

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And a cosmic idea that needed some serious processing: Miss Primrose . . . was HERE!

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As Miss Lavender sits in the library, studiously finishing up the calculus she so detests (there, we’ve said it), a certain Best Friend is getting on a plane.  And tomorrow morning, when Miss Friend lands in Barcelona, the fun will begin.

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But what do we call Miss Friend? She needs a flower fairy name!

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Why, you ask? Well, Miss Lavender is Miss Lavender not only because she adores the scent but also because she resembles, almost perfectly, the Lavender Flower Fairy who leaped from the mind of illustrator Cicely Mary Barker in the early twentieth century. And, when she was younger, Miss Zinnia likewise perfectly resembled the Zinnia Fairy (though these days, she’s more of a Snowdrop).

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The girls and I have consulted the Cicely Mary Barker gallery, and it’s official: our beautiful visitor cannot be anything but Miss Primrose.

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Fly safe, Miss Primrose. And get here quick!

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Three things to love about being in Europe with three kids.

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One. Sib-love. The “darlings,” (holding hands in the photo) in the Born neighborhood. My younger two kids log lots of time together. Set them down on a street: Goose hurdles whatever’s in his path, and Miss Zinnia claps and cheers him on. Europe is their relationship writ large. He’s the master of derring-do, she’s the appreciative audience, and Catalunya is the venue. Five years apart, these two would have been in totally separate orbits at home. Here in Spain, they’re in the same one.

Two. Passion-play. Miss Lavender, who loves design, bumps up against it all the time, especially in the old part of the city, where Barcelona’s retailers configure their store spaces in often unexpected ways. In Kling, for example, where we hit up a sale the other day, a small space becomes an opportunity for self expression when shoppers are invited to write messages with magnetic letters on one of the store’s walls. When you take an old building, with its fabulous old bones, and put it in collision with elements like glass, steel, repurposed wood and antiques, or even opportunities for play, you’ve got a great formula for showcasing your goods. Wandering Gotic and Born is like a mini design internship!

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Kling, Tessa Lynn_5856

Three. Play-time. Sometimes, seems like you’ve gotta go somewhere else to remember how fun your siblings can be. A new playground means playtime feels new again. How about this old suspension bridge in Rupit, in the Catalunyan countryside? Yep. Works perfectly.

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Do you have a pair of kids who run hot and cold?  Sometimes they’re famous friends and partners in crime (eating bowls of cereal together up on top of the kitchen soffits), sometimes they’re Montagues and Capulets, if you take my meaning.

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One day, years ago, when I was thinking about these two children and wondering how to grow their love, a small, knowing voice inside me said something like this:  “Pair them up doing what they do well together.”  Hard to translate.  If you have your own “knowing” (a handy thing to dial into, when you can manage to quiet your mind enough), you know that while the meaning of those nuggets of wisdom is perfectly clear to you, it can be hard to put into words that mean anything to anyone else.

Anyway.  I tried to do that.  Tried to create moments of “collision,” where these two could come together in seemingly random ways to be silly and have fun and therefore decide (hopefully) that fun just happened better with a sibling alonside you.  Sometimes it worked.  Sometimes it didn’t.  Their temperaments were so different.  One was often his own best company and thus got impatient when others wanted onto the merry-go-round, as it were.  The other did want company, especially his, and got her feelings bruised when he was in a mood.

There were tears, sure.  But when it all worked . . . wow.  They were meant to be friends, these two.  I knew it.   “They’ll be okay,” promised that voice inside me.

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Eventually, the younger one decided she really liked who she was and had no particular desire to apologize for it.  Fiercely persistent, she threw herself into her school work, her talents, her friendships, and, predictably, she reaped the rewards of her hard work.  One day, the older one said to me with a bewildered shake of the head, “How does she do it?”  And I smiled, because I knew what he meant.  When I pressed him to explain, he got more specific.  She did hard things, he said.  And she did them surprisingly well.

Now Mr. Older is gone, off in another corner of the world, working hard himself and thinking, occasionally (his letters suggest as much), about the younger sibling he has come to value deeply.  Turns out that one of the things each treasures most about the other is the very particular brand of silliness that defines so many of their moments together.

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They did the work of getting acquainted as friends.  They get to have the fun. And I get to be reminded, as I sift through these photos of our European adventures of last summer, that I ought to relax more, secure in the fact that my own knowing had it right all along:  they laugh hardest when they’re together.

(In these photos:  The Two, embracing their inner nerds in Nuremberg, Germany.)

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