Archive for December, 2007

Paris, France

Karie on Dec 30th 2007 02:50 pm

Loosely following Frommer’s guide to “Paris in 2 days”, we started out with a bang.  Our first day began at the Louvre, the most visited art museum in the world.  It used to be a fortified royal palace, and it has been re-built and added to several times over the centuries, with parts of the existing building dating back to the 1500’s.  This place is massive.  You could run through the halls all day long and still not see everything.  Since Mr. Frommer had a huge list for us to accomplish that day, we prioritized.

We pretty much made a beeline for the Mona Lisa.  If you’ve never seen her, you might be surprised… some would even say disappointed.  It’s relatively small and unassuming.  I personally think that if they were to secretly move it into another area of the gallery without the plexiglas, ropes and guards, one might easily pass by and not give it a second look.  Nevertheless, it’s always cool to see a “masterpiece.”

We spent a couple hours hitting some of the other highlights, such as Venus de Milo, the crown jewels, etc., then we moved on.  We crossed Seine via the Pont Neuf, wandered through some parks, visited Notre Dame, walked the Champs-Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe, and ended the day at the Eiffel Tower.

We arrived around dusk, just as they illuminated the tower, giving an orange-colored hue to the clouds above, which hid the very top of the tower.  I’ve seen the Eiffel Tower before, but for some reason it seemed so much more magnificent this time.

We waited in line about an hour and a half to ride to the top, from which the view was… a cloud.   Dad is afraid of heights so I think he was actually grateful for the cloud, so he didn’t have to face the reality that the ants below were really humans.

We took loads of pictures of ourselves in the cloud before coming back down and stopping at level 2 (which was crystal clear with a beautiful view), then level 1… just because we really wanted to get our time and money’s worth.  Overall, we probably spent a good 3 hours in and around the tower.  It was one of the highlights of the trip for all of us.

Over the next couple of days we visited the Musée d’Orsay, which boasts the largest concentration of masterpieces, being stocked full of Monet’s, Manet’s, and Van Gogh’s in a renovated train station.  We also took a cruise along the Seine that was horribly boring.

Travelers Tip: do not follow Frommer’s advice to use the Bateaux Mouches company.  They repeated the same information in 7+ languages, so the boat moved sooo slow.  After a while you didn’t even bother to listen for your own language.  There are many other tour companies on the river that provide handheld devices allowing each person to listen in their preferred language, which would make the cruise much more engaging and enjoyable.

Magic in the City of Lights
Our final day in Paris was spent at none other than Disneyland Paris.  Since we had busted our tails with all the “must sees” in 2 days, we decided to take the opportunity to do something that we otherwise might never do again.

Disneyland Paris is about a 35 minute train ride outside of the city.  Despite getting off to a rough start after it’s opening in 1992, the happiest place on earth is now profitable, being one of the largest tourist attractions in Europe.

A few similarities between Disneyland Paris and Disneyland California: Main Street is almost identical, most things are in English, and the layout of the park is quite similar (except without a New Orleans Square, Bear Country and Toon Town).

A few differences: Space Mountain is 100x better in Paris, Indiana Jones is a completely different ride altogether, the Haunted Mansion is called Phantom Manor, and the Imagineers designed Sleeping Beauty’s castle to feel much more fair tale-ish, so as not to try to compete with the hundreds of “real” castles throughout Europe.

No matter what country you’re in or how old you are, Disneyland is magical… even if it’s damp outside and you discover that the soles of your tennis shoes are worn out and allow water seep in and soak your socks.

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t’was the day before christmas and all through the bus…

Karie on Dec 24th 2007 08:34 pm

Scott & I figured that Christmas Eve would be a nice day to take mom and dad to Parc Güell, for some of the most interesting architecture and scenery in Barcelona.  The park sits atop a hill, and there’s no easy way to get there (especially for our “Senior Citizen Tour Group”, as I lovingly refer to my parents).

Even the Metro doesn’t get you very close; however, we discovered that Bus 24 does!  Brilliant!  Mom and dad have not yet experienced this form of public transportation in Barcelona, so it will be like 2 adventures in 1.  What we didn’t count on was the bus being a bigger adventure than the day’s planned activities.

Come to find out, the buses were striking this day, so only about 25% were in operation.  This apparently makes for crowded buses, as determined citizens force their way onto a bus that you’re sure can’t hold one more person.

Mom and dad caught the bus near their hotel, and we later hopped on the same bus just outside our flat.  My parents situated themselves near the rear door, in an effort to gasp for fresh air at every stop, and Scott & I were at the front of the bus.

About ½-way through our cozy ride, a distinguished looking man in the middle of the bus started causing quite a stir.  He was yelling at another man in Spanish, and it took us a while to figure out that he was accusing that man of trying to pickpocket him.

Bad Guy plays dumb, while other incognito Bad Guys try to downplay the situation to take the heat off their buddy.  Distinguished Looking Man didn’t let up… So, the bus driver pulls the bus over and locks the doors.  This really starts to freak out the Bad Guys, who are now trapped until the Policia arrive.  They want to make a run for it, but mom and dad are blocking the locked door.  Hmm.

We didn’t know it at the time, but the same group had also tried to pickpocket my dad.  A few minutes before Distinguished Looking Man’s outburst, Dad noticed that the button on his back pocket was undone, so he buttoned it, then it was undone, so he buttoned it… It took him a couple times to catch on, but he eventually moved his cards and money to his front shirt pocket.

Now, the Bad Guy reaching over him to try to pry the door open was in prime position to snatch and run on his way out the door.  In his desperation, he was pushing my dad (who speaks no Spanish) a little too hard, so he looked at the man and firmly said “No!”  (much the way he speaks to Beagle Bailey when she’s not following his instructions).  Bad guy persisted, so dad repeats “No!”

This irritated Bad Guy, so he starts yelling all sorts of kind things in Spanish as he pokes my dad in the chest.  Dad stands up straight, now a full head taller than Bad Guy, pokes him back and says (loud enough for all to hear), “You push me again, and you’re going to have problems. Do you understand me?!”  (I think he did.)  Meanwhile mom is nervously muttering, “Darrell, hush.”

Keep in mind that Scott and I are at the front of the bus and can’t see everything that’s going on, so this comment was our first clue that anyone other than Distinguished Looking Man had been put at risk here.

A few moments later, Bad Guys were able to pry the door open (breaking it) and squeeze themselves out.  My dad’s new friend was the last one out, and he made sure to turn around and politely tell dad he was “#1” on his way out the door.

As all the passengers on the bus watch the Bad Guys escape down an alley, an elderly lady looks down and notices that my dad’s friend’s shoe had been caught in the door… “Un zapato!  Un zapato!  Hahaha!”

There was instantly camaraderie among the remaining passengers, and the bus was buzzing with conversation.  Distinguished Looking Man gave my dad a pat on the back and a nod of approval for heroically scaring the Bad Guy out of his shoe.  He is sure to get coal in his stocking.

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Road Trip: Nice, France and Monte Carlo, Monaco

Karie on Dec 20th 2007 08:27 pm

The road trip continues as we head for the French Riviera, stopping in Nice for a couple of nights. “Côte d’Azur” (the blue coast), as they call it, is exactly what you see in the movies. Sand, crystal blue waters, and luxury cars as far as the eye can see.

From Nice, you can catch a 20-minute train to Monaco, which is one of the most unique places I’ve ever seen.  With roughly 32,000 residents, Monaco is the world’s 2nd smallest independent nation (following Vatican City)… and definitely among the wealthiest.  Walking through the casino in Monte Carlo makes the high rollers in Vegas look like amateurs.

We spent the first half of the day browsing through a Christmas market along the harbor.  There were vendors selling specialty gifts and food.  And of course, no sidewalk market on the sunny blue coast would be complete without a man-made winter wonderland for children, including ice skating, snow showing, skiing, snowmobiling, and a Christmas train.  It was possibly better than actually going to the snow.

From there, we walked along the Mediterranean, with yachts to the right and designer boutiques to the left, as we approached the infamous casino.  The front was lined with Ferraris, Bentleys, and an occasional Smart Car for the “green” millionaires.  Even the taxis are Mercedes.

After gawking at the opulence from every angle of the outside, we sucked it up and paid the 10 Euros each to go inside.  Unfortunately no cameras were allowed.  The inside was as ornate as any palace or cathedral we’ve seen in Europe.

I expected it to feel a bit like Vegas, with the noise of slot machines, ringing bells, loud chatter… Nope.  It was very quiet and subdued.  Just extremely wealthy men (mostly), complete with a few bad comb-overs, playing table games I didn’t understand.

It was still early, so there weren’t many people there.  In fact, we were the only ones in the slot machine room when I decided to kiss 5 Euro goodbye and consider it the cost of my brief entertainment.  Imagine my bliss when I turned 5 Euro into 9.35!   My profits covered half my entry fee, so I was pleased.

Then dad decided to give it a go at the roulette table.  He laid 10 Euro down on the first bet, lost it, and walked away.  But now we can say we’ve done it!

Our evenings were spent wandering through Old Town Nice, enjoying the good food, shopping, and soaking up the Christmas spirit.

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Road Trip: Figueres & Cadaqués, Spain

Karie on Dec 18th 2007 08:12 pm

With my parents visiting for the holidays, we wanted to give them a little taste of Europe, but without running them into the ground (which we nearly did anyway).  So we opted for spending a few days in Barcelona, taking a road trip up the coast of Spain into the French Riviera, back to Barcelona, off to Paris, then back to Barcelona again.  Simple enough, right?

So we pile into our rental car and start driving.  We had heard that Catalonia gets the short end of the stick in Spain, in that it’s the only region that has to pay for their own roads.  Hence, we were expecting some tolls along the way… but when we saw signs that the next toll station accepted credit cards only, we realized that we were in for more than pocket change.

The final tab in a 4 day road trip (with no driving on one of the days) was 100 Euro in tolls.  That’s about $145.  Not to mention the gas, which is equivalent to about $6.50/gallon.  Anyhow, we were committed.

First stop: Figueres, Spain, a charming little town whose only real claim to fame is the Dalí Theatre and Museum (Teatre-Museu Dalí in Catalan).  We only had 1 day to spend here, but we figured that would be enough time to visit the museum and explore the small town.  Well, contrary to our “Europe for Dummies” book, it turns out the museum is closed on Mondays.  (Personally, I’m pretty sure the outside of the museum was just as interesting as the inside anyway.)

So, we got back in the car and drove to Cadaqués, a tiny fishing village nearby.  We had originally nixed Cadaqués from our agenda, as time was limited and the weather wasn’t ideal for a beach city.  However, I’m glad it worked out to go there anyway.

Cadaqués was actually the home of Dalí, so they share his fame with Figueres.  It’s easy to see how an artist could be inspired here.  Picturesque white washed homes with bright Mediterranean-blue shutters, ivy climbing the narrow alleyways, people chatting with friends in tiny cafes overlooking the cove…

The vividness of the town between the sea and mountainous terrain was reminiscent of Cinque Terre, Italy, for those of you who have been there (or read my blog about it), but possibly even a little less touched.

After meandering through the shops and, of course, stopping for fresh pastries and café’ con leche, we headed back to Figueres to finish off the delightful day with the worst meal ever.  It was so bad it was funny!

We were in the mood for something “familiar”, so we stopped at this British restaurant with a varied menu, and 3 of us ordered the pizzas.  You might be asking yourself, “What could possibly go wrong with ordering Italian food in a British restaurant in Spain?”  We even sent it back to the kitchen, and when it came out the 2nd time it was worse.  Lesson learned.  We thought through our food choices a little better from there on out!

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Catalan Christmas Traditions

Karie on Dec 17th 2007 03:16 pm

Every culture holds dear its own traditions, and this year we have the opportunity to experience those of Barcelona. For example…

  • Christmas is celebrated for all 12 days that we sing about, although I have yet to see any partridges or pear trees.
  • Young & old anxiously await the arrival of the 3 Kings on January 6th, while Santa (or Father Christmas) takes a back seat on December 25th.
  • Children beat logs wearing funny hats until presents fall out (more on this later).
  • Health, luck and prosperity are represented by the addition of a questionable gnome-like character hidden somewhere in the nativity scene (more on this later).
  • 310 streets throughout town are decorated with lights.
  • It’s not politically incorrect to wish someone a “Merry Christmas”, “Feliz Navidad”, or “Bon Nadal.”

Being a metropolitan city, where the most common forms of transportation are feet or subways, Christmas brings the streets to life. While there are a couple malls, the most popular way to shop is roaming up and down the store-lined streets, or the infamous Christmas market outside the Barcelona Cathedral.

At the Christmas market you can buy gifts such as hand-made jewelry or scarves, as well as anything needed to decorate your home for the holidays, i.e. Christmas trees, nativity scenes, and of course, pooping shepherds and logs… What, your Macy’s doesn’t carry those??

I think the last two Catalan traditions, being two of my personal favorites, deserve further explanation…

Who is this Pooping Sheppard?
He is called a Caganer, which translates as “the pooper”… actually, it translates to something even a little more crude, but I’ll let you use whatever version of the word you choose!

He has been around since the 17th or 18th century, and is a staple in Catalan nativity scenes. He is usually hidden somewhere amongst baby Jesus, the wise men and the animals. He “fertilizes” the earth, bringing good luck, health, renewal, and a bit of “rauxa” (a reminder to relax and have a little fun). Rumor has it that he was briefly outlawed in public nativity scenes, but the Catalan’s so fiercely fought for their tradition that the Caganer was reintroduced.

Yes, we now own one.

And the Pooping Log?
Caga Tió translates to “pooping log” (again, choose your own word). There is a bit of confusion on this one, as Tío (with the accent over the “i”) in Castilian Spanish, means Uncle. However, in Catalan (the native language of this region of Spain), Tió (with the accent over the “o”) means log.

You can either create your own Caga Tió with any log you choose, or purchase one at the Christmas market, complete with a cute face & hat. You cover the log with a cloth or blanket, and nurture it for the days approaching Christmas. On either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, children then beat the log with a stick until it “poops” presents. Seriously. There’s even a song they sing when they beat the log… I’ve heard a few versions of it, but they generally translate into something like…

Poop log!
Poop torrons, hazelnuts & cheese
Don’t poop sardines because their too salty
If you don’t poop well I’ll hit you with this stick
Poop log!

Then the children reach under the Caga Tió’s covering and pull out turróns (a traditional Christmas candy) and other treats. You know the Caga Tió is finished when it poops an onion or garlic.

Hey, anyone who has ever visited Graceland, trick-or-treated, or owned any type of inflatable Christmas decoration has no place to judge others’ cultural traditions! To quote Scott quoting someone from a small group video at CVCF, “it’s not wrong, it’s just different.” Ok, maybe a little weird, but it’s fun.

I think Christmas is a little slower here, in a good way. Maybe that’s because we’ve nixed the presents this year in lieu of traveling with friends & family who come to visit. My parents are here now, and we’re enjoying every minute!  We’re off to Paris tomorrow, but in the meantime we’re enjoying a lazy Christmas Day and lots of great food.

Merry Christmas!

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Back to the U.S.A. to get our Visas

Karie on Dec 15th 2007 10:19 pm

On our first morning back in the U.S. (after waking up at 3am thanks to the jet lag), we headed down to the Spanish Consulate in Los Angeles.  We are now the proud holders of Visados Residencias de Espana!  We still have one hoop to jump through to finalize it all, but it’s downhill from here.

Visas in hand, we headed for the second priority of the trip… Target!  Target is high on the list of things I’ve missed, among the ranks of Penny Lane, Mexican food and Cheez-Its.

We have been loving Barcelona and honestly try not to spend too much energy focusing on things we miss (ok, except maybe Penny), but when we found out we were coming back home, we realized how much we had to look forward to.

I thought we wouldn’t get to see any of Scott’s family for Christmas, I thought I wouldn’t see my niece again until she was two, and I thought I would have to live with the regret of leaving my red plaid heels in storage for a year.

I realize we’ve only been gone 3 months.  I mean, some people vacation longer than that, so it’s not like we experienced some huge culture shock upon returning to American soil.  Nonetheless, a lot has happened in the last 3 months…

  • We have accomplished a huge goal.  We’re not finished yet, but we’ve made the leap and we’re living it out.
  • Charlize (aka, Charlie, my niece) started walking & talking
  • My cousin (Carene) and friend (Nacia) had babies
  • I’ve reconnected with more friends through this blog than I did in years of living only a few minutes or a domestic phone call away
  • Friends in San Diego have lost their homes
  • The exchange rate continues to tank, which suddenly really matters to me
  • Matthew (Scott’s brother) lost part of his pinky (I thought that was worth mentioning!)
  • When we moved, my Grandpa was in the hospital and had nearly lost the will to live.  Last Sunday he came over after church, wearing a dapper suit and hat and ready to eat tacos.

…just to name a few.  Needless to say, our trip home was wonderful!  I’m always intentional to reflect & be grateful for all the blessings in my life, but I think we now have an even deeper appreciation for the big and the small.

After nearly 2 days of travel (ugh!), we are now back in Barcelona.  We arrived only 4 hours before my parents, who are here to celebrate Christmas/New Years with us.

Now we have an entirely different list of things to look forward to…  I love playing tour guide for family/friends (hint, hint), learning the culture & the language, making new friends, walking to almost anything we need, sidewalk cafes that easily trump Starbucks… I even like hanging my clothes outside to dry.

It’s so much fun, and for now, it’s home.

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