Breathe and Stretch

Last week felt like one long yoga session. The hot-sweaty yoga from the stress of tying up loose ends before a 3 week trip; the stretch-until-you-think-you-will-break yoga when you stack up several to-do’s in one day; and the breathe, release, and visualize form from looking up new places to visit in England and France which I haven’t seen before. Seems that this upcoming adventure of mine is causing my mind to race and wonder, “What is going to happen?” However, in the inner realms of my so-called “calm place”, I do realize I really would be better off focusing on the amazing places I will see, people I will meet, and the warmth of getting to know a new family who are my cousins. Since I come from a very small family, this is certainly something to get used to and relish.

On the flip side, my two grandchildren (shown below)are cousins and I hope they will grow up to know one another for the rest of their lives eventhough they live in separate U.S. states at this point. In the very least they will need to be photographed with me once a year to add to the collection of the “Grammie and Me” photos we already have framed.

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One evening recently, I attended a lecture about Spirituality in Travel at the European Travel Center, which I call Rick’s place, in Edmonds (Not a normal subject for Rick Steves’ speakers, but they have been broadening their subject matter, which, as a frequent audience member to the free lectures, I appreciate. I learned more about taking photos with my iPad a few weeks ago). The speaker, Morgan McKenna, spoke of the spiritual omnipresence we can tune into if we are really listening, being aware and quiet, when we travel instead of rushing to and fro all the sights we want to cram into a trip. Pay attention to the history of a place, the details, and the photos we can take to remind us of the WOW moments we have experienced.

A couple of “Wow Moments” I shared that evening were when I saw Michaelangelo’s “David” in Florence and how very TALL he was (I won’t say ‘big’ because that is an old joke) and felt the overwhelming experience of great beauty. I sat down on a stone bench behind him (oh, dear, that could be another bad joke), to be in awe of the work the artist put into this masterpiece. Another time I felt awed was walking into St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It was the largest cathedral I had been in thus far in my life (and it is named the largest). Last year I visited the Sevilla Cathedral (in the top 3 largest) and in a week I hope to see St. Paul’s (rounding off the top 3). How the architects built these monumental buildings to honor their idea of God is truly something to affirm as amazing. Then there is the artwork, which is so beautiful and rare and indicative of how much wealth the Catholic church has amassed, yet they still charge admission to many of their churches. I find this incomprehensible (I am a former practicing Catholic). But back to Wows…

In Granada, Spain, I was wowed for the hour I spent with my daughter-in-law and granddaughter (waiting for my son to figure out how he could replace the admission ticket he had inadvertently left in the house we were renting in the amazing Albayzin neighborhood ) on one of the fort rooftops in The Alhambra, as the sun was rising. Standing up there, I had this amazing bird’s eye view of watching Granada wake up just as it has done for hundreds and hundreds of years. Granada has the same couple of neighborhoods (one I mentioned previously where we stayed the 4 days we were there) which have been there for centuries, as well. The history of the kings, queens, and the bloodshed not only from ancient warmongers but even from more recent times when a dictator had so many Spanish citizens slaughtered (Franco was far from being “the benevolent dictator” my ex-mother-in-law thought he was because she lived a sheltered life in Madrid during the 50s, and was obviously so brainwashed not realizing her servants were too fearful to speak out against the madness of their so “NOT benevolent dictator.” But, I digress). So, as I stood on that fort’s roof wondered, was their sky bluer and clearer all those years ago compared to how it is now?

But, let me stop here, breathe and stretch my imagination to visualize I am back on that warm rooftop absorbing the magnificence of a beautiful city in Spain.

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Airport From Hell, 24+ Hour Travel Day, Family, and Ready To Do It Again

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To begin, i would like to reitterate, with great emphasis, that both arrivals to and departure from Heathrow was holy hell. Point made.

We left our Alfama apartment in Lisbon and caught a cab almost immediately. After the cab driver tried to convince us, unsuccessfully, that his fare to the airport would be less than the bus Christopher and Kelly had figured out for us, he dropped us off in another part of town I hadn’t seen yet. It didn’t take long before we boarded a comfortable bus, with luggage holders, to the airport.

The ride was interesting as I saw how large a city Lisbon is and how beautiful with magnificent statues, parks, boulevards, and a ritzy shopping district. Hard to fathom that all this acreage was leveled by earthquake, fire, and/or tsunami in 1755.

After getting to our gate, Christopher found us coffee somewhere (weird there were so very few places for any refreshments, but if you needed perfume, they had that covered), I had satiated Jordan with some sort of Bugle chip mix, we boarded BA bound for Heathrow. Jordan and I did ok on the 2 hour flight to Heathrow, but, of course she mentioned she was hungry. We landed, and luckily because of The Kids having Business Class seats, Jordan and I tagged along with them bypassing the humongous lines other travelers had to endure. It was awful to see the backlogs and I was so grateful not to be standing in them.

We had had to transfer from terminal 1 to terminal 5 and after sailing to the main floor (with Christopher held up in security because of a bottle of Portuguese hot sauce he had bought in Lisbon’s airport. We then parted ways as they were allowed in the elite lounge and we were not (I have experienced lounges so I was a tad remorseful we couldn’t tag along). We had about a two hour layover but by then, I am wagering that 45 minutes was already eaten alive.

Jordan and I ventured into the Giraffe Lounge and placed an order of yogurt and fruit, which was what Jordan asked for and barely ate. I drank a cappuccino. Fast. The service was sooo slow that before I knew it, it was time to make our way to the boarding gate. Not the server’s fault as he was going as fast as he could. The place was busy and understaffed.

We started heading to the boarding gate at about the same time as 600,000 other pushy, harried, rude, and overtired passengers. The lines for the trains and escalators were ridiculously overcrowded. I had never seen anything like it. In fact, I acted out of character when I grabbed the jacket arm of a young (maybe 12 years old) boy who was about to trample Jordan in order to get on the escalator ahead of us. I spoke to Jordan, as we were elevating, in a voice the boy could hear, that people needed better manners when traveling and that pushing and shoving was not only rude, but also dangerous with little 3 year olds walking in the same crowd. Then I wondered if he and his family were from New Delhi, or somewhere that it is so crowded, where this behavior is the only way to survive and get anywhere.

Walking to the boarding gate took forever. We actually stopped to rest (Jordan’s idea) on these nice chairs that had leg rests. Jordan took them to be full body rests.

We got to the gate with more “I’m hungry.” and “I have to go potty.” declarations and just in time for our boarding call. I didn’t see The Kids anywhere. Jordan and I started boarding and as we crossed the threshold into the plane, I asked the attendant if my son and daughter-in-law had boarded so after first grumbling how she wouldn’t know that, she saw I was concerned so she asked us to step into the galley so she could check the manifest. She saw they had checked in previously but not whether they had gotten on the plane. I had to just take my chances. I also hoped there would be no passenger next to us in our 3 seater space. (I later learned that an attendant The Kids had spoken to (after they barely made the flight) promised to tell me they had arrived and were on the plane. That never happened.)

Our 3 seats were looking good to hold the 2 of us until the last minute when a hip woman about my age came aboard and went to settle in. At first I was a little worried as she was pretty frazzled and also complained about Heathrow’s lack of good management.

But, Linda was very cool. She had just been to Africa to visit a friend who volunteers. Then she spent a week in London before now returning to her job as a psychiatric nurse at a VA hospital in Denver. She lived in there to be close to her kids and grandkids although she had a condo in a warmer climate which she rents out.

Our little Jordan had a rough ride. In turn, this meant our not-so-little Grammie also had an even rougher ride. Although our flight was in late afternoon, after dinner, playing on the iPad, eating, and reading, there was nothing to calm her from wanting her mom. Linda turned out to be a godsend. She cajoled the attendants to give up some milk and biscuits for Jordan, and was supportive to me with whatever I needed. We turned into the “Pacify Jordan Squad.” Jordan finally fell asleep for a little while but i made the big mistake of adjusting her body a bit so she was more comfy, while talking to Linda, which woke her. It was then a hell trip from about Greenland to Denver. That is a long way.

Of course we barely slept but when we landed, she happily reunited with her parents, we sailed through DIA’s Customs, and started the process of parting ways with kisses and hugs. Jordan then started crying and hanging onto me that she didn’t want me to go back to Seattle. I got teary, too. And it was from sadness, not tears of joy to be traveling solo the rest of the way, really!

I managed to wait the 2 1/2 hrs at the Denver International Airport for my next flight without nodding off, but on the way to Seattle it was becoming increasingly more difficult to keep my eyes open, so I didn’t. It had been over 24 hours of travel by the time I landed close to 11 p.m. and then there was a longer than usual wait for the airporter. Put toothpicks in my eyes for the hour ride home and had no problems getting to sleep once my head hit the pillow. Thinking back on it, the memory is a little like trying to remember labor before giving birth. They say if women were able to remember labor, they’d never have more children and civilization would cease to exist. I find there are time periods that have all but vanished. How did we survive and how did everyone else on the plane bear it? Must not have been as bad as I imagined since they didn’t land the plane in Greenland and dump us out on an ice floe.

Our 22 day European Odyssey, as one cousin rightly labeled it, was an amazing multi-generational trip with palaces, fortresses, ferias, bird and cat ladies, flamenco and fado, spectacular views, sunsets and sunrises, custard tarts and orange cake, hills and stairs, ferries, cable cars, boats, trains, buses, planes, and cars, bullfight, and the gift of sharing those experiences with my family. What more could a girl ask for?

I have been ruminating about how just last summer and fall, we lost 5 family members within 3 months, my dear mom included, and barely 3 months later, we gained over a dozen new family members whom we had been looking for all my life in one form or another. They had been looking, too, and only found us through my mother’s obituary. Unfortunately, mom wasn’t on earth to experience meeting her father’s side of the family, but I think she had an astral hand with orchestrating the connection. Wonderfully, I have already met my first cousin (my grandfather’s niece) when she came to visit us in spring, right before I left on this journey. I have emailed with her son, and Skyped with her brother. And, now, I have recently learned they have found the offspring of two other uncles and are now working on meeting them. The plan is that I return to England in April of 2013 to have a proper introduction to everyone who still lives in the UK. We are to take a Heritage Trail to see where my grandfather was raised before he moved to work in Shanghai in the 20’s, where my mom was born to he and my Russian grandmother. His life was tragically ended in 1941 in Shanghai, and when WWII broke out, my mom and grandmother were taken into custody by the Japanese and put into an internment camp for over 4 years not far from Shanghai. Those were my mom’s teenage years. It was after their release when the war ended that they moved to San Francisco, and through all that turmoil they had unfortunately lost track of my grandfather’s family in England. Then I was later born in San Francisco, first generation U.S. citizen.

I can hardly wait to meet everyone!

(And I can only hope Heathrow has straightened their “little” problems out by then! I do not envy those thousands of people arriving for the Olympics in August if they haven’t fixed the issues with their staffing and time management.)

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The Alhambra, Frozen Pizza, and Bathing the Arab Way

Traveling tends to blur the days together. Hard to believe a week has already passed since my family and I left the U.S. for Spain. Already Malaga is a distant memory and Granada is a fresh memory fading slowly.

The last couple of days in Granada were very full. The Alhambra was an amazing fortress which took 6 hours to get through, but no one ever seems to mention that when you ask. The start was a bit rocky as Christopher couldn’t find his ticket and couldn’t come in with us. Then, Kelly had trouble getting in as the scanner said her ticket wasn’t valid. Later, another entry point scanner claimed my ticket wasn’t valid and that I had already entered 5 minutes beforehand. We had duplicate numbers issued which only became more convoluted after Christopher managed to get reprints of his ticket. But, at least he got in. I wasn’t able to see the palace, but they saw it at night and vouched for its beauty. And what I did manage to see was impressive even without the palace. The artisans of this place were meticulous in the details, designs, and extraordinary workmanship in general.

But, it was much larger than I had anticipated so when I found out that the white structure on a neighboring hill wasn’t a monastery that other tourists were paying to visit, but was the other palace included in the tour we were on, I was already too exhausted and sore to really comprehend how much further I still had to walk. The look on my face as Kelly said’ “Ummm…I think that’s where we’re heading and is part of the tour.” probably was an all inclusive look of terror.

Jordan kept saying she and I were one “team” and her parents were the other “team.” Probably had something to do with how slow we were in comparison to them. The tortoise and the hare story comes to mind, for some reason.

We took a less traveled hill to get back to level ground in Granada-proper, which was an excursion in itself. It was steep, dry, with gravel and dust. There were a couple of times I had to sit on an old stone wall to take photos of flowers while I waited for strength to return. I’m a bit ticked off that the pedometer i bought from Groupon only seems to work if I’m doing jump ups, so, in effect, is worthless. I was looking forward to great rewards to myself for walking over 10,000 steps a day. (I rewarded myself anyway.) We stopped at a little cafe over a medieval bridge at the bottom, and talk about ticked off. Christopher was none too pleased that the pizza we ordered had to have been a frozen one from a supermarket with a couple of fresh sliced olives tossed on for show. No wonder they couldn’t deviate from the toppings listed! Jordan liked it just fine (although when prompted agreed her dad’s homemade pizza was much better, which is true.). The beer was great, nonetheless, after such a long 6 hours of walking. Pilgrimage, anyone?

Getting back to our terraces, and most importantly my bed for a little lie down, was a relief. And, although I would have paid top dollar for a day of rest, Kelly was good at talking me into going to the Arab bathhouse (Hammam Banos Arabes) for the next day and made reservations for 2 p.m. Sunday. Wow, such a beautiful place! It was lit with lanterns in niches, cavern-like walls, mosaic pools of hot, warm, and freezing cold water as well as a sauna and a sitting area to refresh oneself with warm sweet tea and interestingly tasting candies. Soft Arabic music floated throughout the facility and we thought the place was all ours, except for one young man, for about 15 minutes. Then the throngs of women, young, old, and in between, all chattering in Spanish and excited to be there. Our perspective was that these were local women fulfilling the tradition of Sunday baths and gossip. The baths were still absolutely worth the experience even with the clucking of all the hens.

Leaving the calle of the bathhouse relaxed, calm, happy, I tripped on one of those blasted little stone steps that jut up everywhere when least expected. Only this time, my flip flop slid on the one stone ramp and down I went right on my bum and the Arab baths were but a fleeting memory.

As we were on the way to the train station the next day in a taxi, having clopped down the cobblestone calles and stairs from the Albayzin with our wheelie luggage (except my son who is able to pack it all in a backpack), there in the same spot not far from where we saw him before, was the “baby-man” whom we are now thinking has a unique style to his panhandling method. As you can see from the photo, his grotesque clown-like features just burn an indelible imprint on the brain. Much better to think of the views of the Alhambra. Oh, and never accept sprigs of rosemary from the women milling about the churches in Spain. They will want compensation. Luckily I learned that from Rick Steves and not from experience. The other thing Rick was right about was that people not only let their dogs run loose, they don’t pick up after them, if you get my drift. Walk carefully to sidestep that and watch those little cobblestone steps. Other than those things and a certain man who dresses like a baby, it’s a beautiful town.

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