Monthly Archives: January 2010

Judging a Book

Imaging finding this as the entrance to your hotel room. What you can’t see is the fellow 3 meters down under the street, standing in water, attempting to install a huge water main pipe to upgrade the system.   What you can see is ours is not a very wide street.  The size of the path you walk between the wall of the building and the aforementioned 3 meter deep hole is about 10″ in some places.

This is Third World, with a capital 3.


Ring the bell on the unmarked door and voila, you enter one of the most heavenly spaces I’ve spent time in.  This is a riad, the Riad Noir D’Ivoire, a dwelling in the Medina, that has been turned into a luxury boutique hotel.  There are only 9 rooms here, 4 in one riad, and 5 in the other.  What you are looking at is the heart of one of the houses, a two-story open space that has a retractable roof for when the sun shines too  brightly, or the weather gets too cold or wet.

Christie, you would feel like you had died and gone to heaven here.


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Cous Cous the Donkey

As you all know, we have traveled quite a bit as a family over the past 11 years.

We’ve done planes, from jets down to 4 seaters.  We’ve done trains. We’ve walked tons. We’ve been on ferries, and water taxis, pleasure boats and sailboats.  We’ve ridden on Camels in Australia.  We’ve crammed ourselves into Maxi buses, that are really vans that act as taxis.  We’ve done Bequia taxis, which are open backed trucks with bench seats. We’ve biked and kyaked and rocked and rolled and moved in all ways to get from here to there.

But we have never, ever done a donkey cart.  And certainly never done it so stylishly in checkered black and white pants.

But when your hotel room is down one of the body-wide side streets in the Medina of Marrakesh, then a taxi won’t fit. So the beast of burden, who is very very popular around here for carrying all manner of things heavy, arrives on scene.

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Calling All Cops

It’s not a true adventure until you’ve been taken to the police station.

An explanation.   Ever since Anders told Hans that he could play his ukulele on the Ramblas in Barcelona and perhaps make some spending money, Hans has been incessant about asking when that could happen.  The conversation started way back in France, because the weather was so cold that gloves were mandatory, and that made playing outside impossible.  Driving down into the south of France, Hans starting practicing, but it was often rainy.  In Bilbao, he played a couple times for a few minutes if we popped into a store, but often it was on a side street with nobody around.

“Wait until you see the Ramblas,” Anders said.  We counseled Hans about the 4 P’s of marketing (Product, Price, Promotion, and Placement), and that for him, placement on this very busy street known as a spot for busking would be perfect.  We would find an outdoor café, get a coffee, and Hans could be nearby.

The Ramblas has sections.  At the top is the animal section, where cages filled with strawberry red canaries compete for attention with bunnys and the world’s smallest hampsters.  There is the flower section.  The postcard section.  The artist sketching section.   After having put Hans off of playing because of rain or cold or because we wanted to go and see the Picasso Museum or some other sight, we found a café right in the middle of the Ramblas and Hans set himself up across from us on the other side of the walkway.  Two cappuchinos were delivered to Ma and Pa, Hans started strumming his best “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, and all was right in the world.   One guy dropped in a euro into his open uke case, Hans looked up at me and smiled, and a group of African young men stopped to listen.

Then the cops came.

As Barcelona is known as a pick-pocket hotspot, the bright yellow vested walking police in Barcelona are a welcome sight.  They are everywhere, in pairs.  As with everyplace we’ve traveled, the sight of a lot of police does one of two things:  A) either you feel very protected, and at ease or B) you’re freaked out.

So there’s Hans.  Playing his little heart out, and I notice out of the corner of my eye that the police are talking to him.  He is pointing at us at our table, and the two offices (a man and a woman) look our direction.  Anders goes over to explain that we are just nearby, having a coffee, and that Hans isn’t alone.

Some conversation ensues.  One officer waves me over.  As I approach and Hans is packing up his uke, Anders says simply to me, “I have to go to the police station,” which of course reduces Hans to tears.  “I don’t want Daddy to go to jail,” he says, and so it goes.

Seems we have a few problems.  One, our allowing Hans to play for money is seen as exploiting a child.  This is a crime in Spain.  Two, Anders does not have his passport on him, only a credit card.   So he can’t prove who he is.  It takes some to figure all this out, because a lot of this talking is done while I am paying for our coffee.    When I realize this, I offer that I have my identification in the form of a driver’s license.   They like this, but we still have to go to the police station “to fill out some paperwork.”

Hans is convinced someone is going to jail, although both officers tell him nothing bad is going to happen.

In the end we sit for a few minutes in the station, the female officer brings Hans some hard candy and offers a smile, and we eventually go into an interior office where we sit before a non-uniformed surly man who speaks in English to us that Hans playing for money is exploiting a child, and that is not allowed in Spain.  He then says that we both need to have our passports on us at all times.  Anders mentions that he didn’t bring his wallet and instead left it in the safe in the hotel because Barcelona is known for pickpockets.    “You can put it inside your pants,” he is told.

So somewhere in a file in Barcelona is my California driver’s license and a report about Hans and the Ramblas.

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We drove from Bilbao to Barcelona in a day, stopping in Zarragosa after numerous hours of driving to stretch our legs.   The country changed from rolling green hills dotted with flocks of sheep in the northern Basque country to flatter and dryer land, dotted with wind turbines and solar panels.  It’s not very picturesque, including the wine country closer to Barcelona.  Perhaps that’s a reflection of the time of year, as the vineyards are all dormant and cut way back, and everything is brown.  The weather has warmed considerably, though, and our hotel in Barcelona is up near where the Barcelona Olympic Park is located.

We needed to return our car first thing, and thankful for the GPS unit that spoke to us in calming British tones, we managed to drive from the hotel, past the world’s smallest gas station (one pump by the side of the road with a tiny kiosk and a single attendant that you simply drive up to without leaving the roadway), and onto the National Car rental return place without a hitch.  (This is no small feat, as the streets are almost always one way.)

Set loose on the streets of Barcelona, Hans managed to find not one but two slot car stores within 2 blocks, one with an enormous track inside.

We walked down the Ramblas, the main pedestrian walkway in town, and into the Gothic Quarter where the streets are tiny and filled with, kinda sadly, too many shops selling soccer t-shirts and kitch and tacky clothing.   We had lunch at a tapas bar, where gorgeous tapas were laid out along a long L-shaped bar, and you could simply pluck what you wanted if it looked good.  Each tapa was 1.50 euro, counted simply by the long toothpick left behind.  Food ranged from a simple skewer of cherry tomato and anchovies with olive oil, to sausages, sliced cheese, to these amazing creations piled atop a slice of bread … grilled eggplant, slice of fish, olive tapanade, and a sprinkle of fish roe, for example.  There were olives and whipped concoctions piped onto bread, and then all matter of small bites of sweets.  Two bites of cake.  A tiny ramkin of custard.

Perfect portion control.

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Magic Cards

This is the lobby of our hotel in Bilbao.  There was a 7-story tall stone structure (ahem) in the middle, and the floors reminded us of the Guggenheim in New York City.

Hans has a thing for magic, and card tricks in particular.  In fact, the first thing that he purchased was a trick deck of cards at FAO Schwartz in New York City, after having seen them demonstrated by some fellow.

In Lyon, while strolling through the streets of the old town near our hotel, we came across a young backpacker, sitting cross-legged on the street, with a small carpet in front of him and a deck of cards sitting in the middle.   When Hans approached, he asked if Hans enjoyed card tricks.   Hans said he liked them, and so the man offered to show him a trick, but not for money.  It was a good one, involving a single card appearing and disappearing throughout the deck, the whole deck of cards changing.  When he was finished, he offered to show Hans how it was done.  Of course, at the end of showing it, there was another trick that we couldn’t figure out.  Slight of hand is amazing in that way.  Then he offered to give Hans that deck of cards as a gift, and he didn’t want to take any money for it.

Not fully grasping a memorable moment of receiving a trick deck of cards from a French man on a street corner in Lyon, I kept saying that Hans already had a deck of cards like that at home.   (To my defense, I was thinking that this man, who had his whole life in a backpack, didn’t needed to give away a deck of cards to a kid who already had something like that.)

We thanked him and walked down the street.   When Anders asked why I had put the kibosh on a sweet moment, and Hans fully understood that that man was going to GIVE him the deck of cards, Hans’ long face came out.   We suggested Hans could play a song for the man on his ukulele, which he was carrying in a pack on his back, and ask for the cards.   He returned to the guy, plopped down and learned a couple more ticks, and happily left with the deck of cards.

This same deck of cards helped introduce Mikel to Hans, the bellman at our hotel in Bilbao.  As we were checking in, Mikel noticed that Hans was sitting and practicing card tricks.  He asked if Hans enjoyed magic tricks, and offered to show him some later.

Well, of course, that was all it took for Hans.  Mikel offered to take his break with Hans, and they met in the 1st floor salon to practice card tricks.  Hans knew some of the tricks Mikel showed him, and he learned a few others.  When you see him next, ask for a demonstration.  When we checked out, Hans wrote a note, in Spanish with help from Anders, thanking Mikel for teaching him magic tricks and admitting to him that his mother still couldn’t figure out how some of them were done.

So Basque card tricks with a French deck of cards that fool this American mother.

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How often do you get to visit a place you sincerely thought you’d never see?

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain was one such place.  I had seen it in news clips, when it was first built.  But it is very out of the way in Spain, neither near Madrid nor Barcelona.  I can’t tell you how happy I am that we rented a car to drive here.

And then, how often does one get the chance to see BOTH Guggenheim Museums … in one trip?   And, in another strange “six degrees of separation” the main exhibit was Frank Lloyd Wright, the architect of the Guggenheim Museum in NYC and one of Anders’ favorite architects.  AND inside the exhibit, which took up numerous salons and included these amazing HUGE replicas of many of the buildings that he designed but were never built, one of the examples was the Marin County building off 101.    And finally, the exhibit was sponsored by Eberdrola, Anders’ former company.

The building itself is glorious.  There are no right angles, both inside and outside.  Frank Geary, the American architect, drew the original sketch on the back of a napkin (literally) and did it without lifting his pen off the page.  It is an amalgam of titanium panels, stone, and glass.  Standing inside in the lobby of the main part of the building, everything is moving – not physically of course – but because there are no right angles, the space flows from one view to another.  The elevator shaft is enclosed in a sexy glass swoosh, so even that doesn’t seem straight.  Columns are twisted and arched.  It is glorious.

Out front is this 30-foot-tall puppy topiary, planted with thousands of flowering violets.  It is the “awww cute” to the creepy 20-foot-tall brazz spider on the backside of the building.

Our first night in Bilbao we learned just how different the Spanish culture is to the French culture.   The Spanish people filled the inner spaces and spilled out of the tapas bars into the street, enjoying their glass of wine while chatting with friends on the sidewalk.  Their children often played with a ball beside them.  It felt like a grown up frat party.  It was 10 pm, and people were just getting warmed up.

Because I really wanted to sit down to eat dinner, we walked until we found a restaurant that could take us.  We enjoyed a lovely Spanish meal, and when we were paying the bill, at something like 11:30, a table next to us was just sitting down.   It is a perfect place to be when you like to stay up late, and sleep in late.

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Welcome to Spain

Forget the passports.  Or anything official.  We drove through tiny little French Basque towns until suddenly the signs were in Spanish, and in one town, every light post and street light had this welcoming motif — a headless body with a green shirt and grey pants.

Anybody?  Guesses?  Kathleen, can you ask Anna for any insight?

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