Spain - March 1999 Megamail

Spain - March 1999 Megamail

Well, I realize I haven't sent out a MEGAMAIL in about a year now, so I don't think it would be fair to you for me to recap everything that has been happening. Instead, I'll just give you the highlights. Sam and I moved in together, we got married in Vegas, had a kid a few weeks ago and now are going to Omen. Well... at least that first thing is true.

Sam and I *did* go to Spain last week though and so I will fill you in on that journey. I know you are all dying to hear about how much I liked or disliked Spain and are anxious to hear if we are moving there anytime soon. So, let's get the ball rolling, shall we?

The ball starts on Thursday, March 4. Sam and I have a full day of travel ahead of us. And I'm not kidding about the full day either. We have a 6AM flight out of Madison and are scheduled to arrive in Madrid at 1:30PM Friday. Given the seven hour time difference, that is 24.5 hours devoted to travel. Never mind that about half of this is sitting on our asses in airports...

All of the flights went smoothly enough, given how many there were. Madison/Detroit, Detroit/Washington, Washington/Amsterdam, Amsterdam/Madrid. We treated ourselves to an expensive yet shitty lunch in Washington at the Sam Adams Pub, home of the longest layover of the trip. The flight from Washington was interesting for a few reasons. One, it was my first international flight.... hell, it was the first time out of the country for me. Two, the stewardesses were pretty much pricks. Very rude to everybody, not just us. I hate Northwest! Finally, there was some important ambassador or other political/military figure on the plane with us which slowed boarding a bit as we had NSA or CIA or whatever the hell they were giving everybody the evil eye. The movie over was 'What Dreams May Come' which eventually put me to sleep, but not for long enough.

We were soon greeting by Sam's father at the airport and were driven to Sam's parent's flat. The terrain around Madrid reminds me a lot of Denver. Dry, hilly, not many trees and with mountains in the distance. The temperature reminded me a lot of Denver as well. However, that is where the comparison stops.

On the drive in, Sam indicated where the 'sprawl' was. This looked a lot like sprawl in the US, but with a lot more high rise apartment complexes and a lot fewer houses. The older part of Madrid (where Sam lives) looks more like a very large downtown region that stretches for miles in all directions. Tall buildings (four to five floors minimum) are crowded next to each other and are rather distinct looking from one another. These may be businesses or apartments and on the ground floor are the 'service' businesses like banks, restaurants, bars, stores, etc.

The streets are narrower and parking is an expression of creativity. For example, Sam's dad immediately double parked upon arrival to their apartment. But this is the norm for there were no fewer than 20 other cars doing the same on that block. Parking on sidewalks is also a frequent sight. Sometimes the streets are so narrow that only a car can fit though with a pedestrian along side. Leave your SUVs at home when coming here!

I did manage to see a SMART car while there. This car is advertised as two meters long. It is kind of tall too so basically it looks like a cube driving down the street. Look out for the Borg!!! Of course the only reason to have a car like this is for parking, which I can see the benefits of having after visiting Spain.

Oh, and gas is about the same over in Europe per liter as we pay per gallon. Ouch!!!

So we hauled up our luggage and met Sam's mother and sister and the puppy Bat (who was all excited and slipping all over the floor, until we gave him his new doggy shoes :). Soon, Sam began her unpacking while I took a short nap.... for about three or four hours. When I awoke, Sam's parents had left for the country house, a weekly event for them. Sam and I were going to eat with her sister Claris and her boyfriend Miguel for dinner.... we had 11:30 reservations, but that didn't come to pass. Instead we visited Sam's cousin and her new baby Lucia. On the way there, we bought a visitor's guide to Spain at El Cortes Ingles, which is *the* department chain in Spain. I'd heard all too much about this store before my arrival so my expectations were very high. I was certainly impressed by the size of the store and the number of employees working, but the claim to fame that they had *everything* went unfulfilled. I did not see any cars, boats or silly souvenir T-shirts.

While at Sam's cousin's we had some hamburgers for dinner... at about midnight. So, yes, it is true, Spanish people eat dinner at midnight. The hamburgers had a different type of meat however. It seemed drier to me, but were otherwise large and quite satisfying. Before too long I about passed out and we so we left and retired for the evening. But before we got home I suddenly woke up and so we stopped for a beer at a bar next to Sam's place.

On Saturday we awoke reasonably early and departed for the country house in Serranillos. I had the pleasure of riding in Sam's Alfa Romeo for the journey. Boy, was that a treat. I think I have permanent hearing loss after riding in that car. And holy shit, does it suck up the gas. I swear we stopped every hour to fill that thing up.

The country house is about an hour's drive west of Madrid. Highway speeds in Spain were 120 km/hour, or 150 when Sam drives so that puts us in the 95 MPH range. We made good time in other words. At first it seemed a little fast, but I soon got used to it.

The country house is quite wonderful. They have two lots which include a tennis court, swimming pool, pool house, three car carport, grill area and of course, the house itself. All are decorated quite nicely. The house includes a large wine cellar and sampling area and workshop. When we arrived, Sam's dad (Javi) was busy working on the water fountain and gardening chores. I got a tour of the 'estate' and immediately felt at ease. I think that anybody that would go there would have a great time.

Some friends came over to play Sam's parents for tennis while Sam and I soaked up some sunshine and explored her 'toy closet'. Wow, and I thought *I* had an active imagination when I was a child! After their tennis match they went down to the wine cellar to have some wine and tapas (appetizers). This included olives, asparagus and tuna. A debate raged about the hiring practices of women as I had the 'smile and nod' look on my face as I awaited for the translation from Sam.

After appetizers, I experienced my first Spanish lunch.... which, technically, includes the appetizers. The next course was... more appetizers. I forget what this all had, but there was this kind of spicy sausage with rice which was fried that I found quite good. Next came paella, complete with shrimp and clams and god knows what else. Next came some sort of meat which reminded me a little bit of venison in a gravy. Then came fruit and then finally the coffee, tea and dessert.

Soon after some different friends came over and we had coffee and champaign. Poor me!! I started to get tired so Sam showed me around the community telling me about this person or that person and when she was a kid growing up and showed my her parent's other chunk of land. Then she showed me the nearby pueblo which had extremely narrow streets and about three bars, a church and place called EATS... just like in the US.

I hit the wall not too long after that and so Sam and I went to watch a movie in the pool house and sleep a bit too. The movie was called Tesis and was rather interesting, even though I didn't understand a word of it. It is kind of like 8mm. After that we went back to the house where yet a different group of friends were there watching a soccer match. After the friends departed we had our dinner which was mostly leftovers, but still delicious and then Sam and I went out for a night in Talavera which was just up the road.

The bars or the 'copas' as they are called were crowded friendly places with loud music. Sound familiar? But first, I went to the ATM and got 10,000 pesetas... or about $75. Yujuju. Then we went to this place and that place and another place and some more places and oh my God do those people smoke. I lost more than a few years off my life while in Spain due to second-hand smoke. In fact, I'm still coughing it up.

The bars themselves are pretty much like here otherwise, except that they open late and stay open even later. In fact, there is no such thing as bar time. Also, I think the portions that you receive, whether it is a beer or mixed drink, are smaller. By about the fifth place I was confident enough that I could ask for two tap beers myself. I promptly went to the bar and said 'Dos cervezas por favor' to which the bartender said 'Heineken' Now, I wasn't expecting a response, and in fact he could of said 'You stink you American pig', but that didn't matter. I simply responded 'Si'. Thus, I got two Heinekens and no tapped beer. Oh well. But I got the beer so shut the hell up!

The next day we awoke early again and Sam and I departed for Toledo, which was a little bit south and east of the country house, but south and west of Madrid. We were going to visit the historic walled city and then meet one of her friends, Miguel (Miki), for lunch. Toledo was exactly what I *thought* all European cities were like. Very narrow streets that cut this way and that way, tallish buildings and a very old feeling. Never mind that my vision of Europe is about 500 years out of date.

Anyway we took in the sites and visited the mighty cathedral. Which may or may not have been impressive, but as it was the first that I would see on the trip, I had little to compare it to. But without a doubt it was impressive. Then we met her friend at 1:30 to start the lunch proceedings. First we went to a bar and got a beer and wine, then we went to another one and had more beer and wine and some tapas. This involved cheese and bread and some potatoes with a spicy sauce. Then we went to the restaurant, which happened to be owned by a brother of one of Sam's friends.

There we had more tapas including cheese, jamon (cured ham), olives, lomo (a type of meat), and some breaded things. Then... we had lunch, which was some sort of grilled seasoned pork chop for me. Quite good. It had some side stuff as well. Then we had a Apple schnapps-type drink for desert. All told, lunch took 3 1/2 hours. Egads!

Afterwards Sam and I continued to tour the city and then proceeded to get stuck in the weekend traffic back to Madrid. Once back we both took a nap until her parents got home, and then we chit chatted for a few hours until we went to bed.

The next day Sam had interviews and exams all day so I was the property of Claris. This is good because I got to sleep until noon while Claris herself had a job interview. I then took the subway to Sol, which is the center of the city, to meet Claris and Miguel for lunch and touring. Claris got the job so be sure to congratulate her if you ever see her, OK?

So first we did some touring around the Plaza Mayor, which is quite cool looking, but quite barren as it is still winter. In summer I am told that it is packed with artisans trying to pawn their goods off onto tourists. While there we went into one of the bars had some wine and a complimentary tapa. That is one of the things I noticed about Spain. You always get a complimentary appetizer of something good like potato salad, paella, fish, potatoes, etc. Really good.

Then we walked around the main Palace. Miguel was an extremely good guide as he spent awhile in the States and so most of the conversation was in English, even though I used Spanish whenever I could. I got all the stories about this building, that building, this person, that king, that idiot, etc. We then went to another bar for more beer and tapas. Soon afterwards Claris and I returned to Sam's place to meet her for lunch. This one did *not* last three and a half hours, but involved some sort of fried meat that was again quite good.

One thing that surprised me was the amount of meat that I ate during the trip. My impression was that a lot of seafood and fish was consumed (and I certainly had my share), but not as much meat. I think that is because Madrid is in the center of the country and thus has less access to the freshest seafood and more access to fresher beef and pork.

Afterwards I joined Claris while she 'worked' hunting down a costume for a short she was working on that weekend. While doing so I got a tour of yet more of Madrid and watched quite humorously as Claris knocked over a motorcycle as we were *walking* down the sidewalk. A man came immediately out to assist but was not the owner so we lucked out.

Sam and I then went to El Cortes Ingles again to hunt for a birthday present for Miki for later that night. Afterwards we stopped in a bar and had a canya, or tap beer. The bartender spoke perfect English after my feeble attempts at Spanish... the whole experience left me devastated.

For dinner we went to a place called The Fass, which was German. Miguel likes meat a lot so that was why that place was selected over more typical Spanish fare. Apparently all the people there that night spoke English, but I didn't hear any. Most of the night I was on the sidelines waiting for a translation from Sam and by the time I had anything interesting to say, the conversation had already moved on. Rather depressing night actually. I had some sort of meat for dinner, and it was OK, but not anything special.

Afterwards we hit a of couple bars. Not being a participant in the conversation, and being slowly killed by all the smoke, I found comfort by gently rubbing Sam's calf. Apparently that isn't taken to too kindly there for the host promptly turned down the lights until I stopped. I don't know what the problem is... they have topless beaches and revealing clothes all over the place, but I touch a leg and the lights go out. And they gave me a chipped glass to boot so I don't think the place could have been all too classy. All in all, probably the worst night I was there.

Tuesday I woke up a little bit earlier... 11:40. :) I had another fresh squeezed OJ and cookies for breakfast... yummie. In fact, that is something I noticed over there. All OJ is fresh squeezed. We really need to bring that back to the US. Anyway, soon Sam was home for lunch, along with a friend of hers and we had potatoes and eggs in green sauce and some pork chop thingies for lunch. The green sauce stuff is one of Sam's favorites. I've had it before when Sam made if for me and it is OK, but not one of my favorites.

I'm not sure exactly if it was before or after lunch, but Sam, her mom and myself went the market to buy stuff for lunch the next day. I really enjoyed going and wish we had something like this in the States. Well, I did see something like it in Seattle, but that isn't here. The farmers market isn't the same either. This fish, meats, cheeses, fruits, veggies, spices, jarred items, you name it. All of it was fresh and I imagine rather inexpensive.

I was tired and congested from the night before so I took a nap after lunch. Then I experienced the bus system as Sam and I explored around the Prado museum. Sam showed me a large park full of trees and open spaces. I found the fresh air of great comfort. There is a small lake which in the summer is crowded with thousands of people. Throughout the park were little concession stands which sell beer and food. So in the summer, the place is like a version of the Terrace. I imagine ours is better though ;)

We then walked through some other portions of town and the Gran Via and ended up at Sol again where we took the subway home for dinner. I forget what we had though. That night we went out and met one of Sam's friends, Fernando. It was rather pleasant. I found that speaking in small groups far more enjoyable than in large ones. The place we went to was called the Garaje Hermetica and is equivalent to The Pub for the Madison crew. I'm talking 'the usual place' and not the decor here.

On Wednesday I woke up at about 11:30 and had my usual OJ and cookie breakfast. I was responsible for lunch that day. I was making my world famous chili. Here is the recipe:

1 lb ground beef

1 onion, chopped coarsely

1 green pepper chopped coarsely

2 tablespoons chili powder

1 clove garlic, chopped

Put all this in a big pot, brown and drain

Add in the following:

1 can white kidney bean or garbonzo beans

1 can red kidney beans

2 cans chopped tomatoes (I prefer Mexican recipe)

Heat through

After lunch Sam and I went to the Prado museum. Most everything they had was classical paintings. It was OK, but got rather routine after awhile. Afterwards I bought some postcards and some souvenirs and did some other shopping related things. I think we had a beer here or there and ended up back in Sol for the now routine subway trip home.

Sam's dad treated Sam, Claris, Miguel and myself to a dinner out in celebration of Claris getting her new project that night. We went to a seafoodish place in the 'gay' part of town. We had angulas (baby eels) as one of our tapas. The texture was a little squeamish at first, but all in all, quite good. We had a number of seafoodish tapas and I had some sort of fish in green sauce for dinner. It was tasty, but I think I like 'dry' fish better... like fish on the grill.

Oh, and before I forget, all these dinners and most of the lunches include wine. Specifically rioja wine. Quite tasty and probably available at your local liquor store. Go out and get some.

Afterwards we went to a bar nearby where Miguel lived (again, I think in the 'gay' part of town) and had many beers. We called it a night earlier than we normally would have because we had to get up fairly early the next day for our trip to Bilbao.

Bilbao, where the new Guggenheim is located, is about a three hour drive north of Madrid along the northern coast of Spain. On the way there we stopped in Burgos to take a look at it's cathedral. I was most impressed with it's the craftmenship of the walls and sculptures. It was undergoing a much needed renovation so a lot of it was closed off, but it really was worth seeing. Really.

And then we went on to Bilbao and arrived at Sam's uncle's place a little too late for lunch. We went to the pizzeria downstairs instead. It was an amazing lunch. In fact, all the meals I had in Bilbao were spectacular. The lunch costed 1200 pesetas, so $7-8 and included a beer, a first course of tortellini pasta (amazingly good), a 2nd course of cannoloni (again, quite good, but Sam had the pizza for the 2nd course) and a dessert of cheese cake. Yummy!!!

Afterwards we went out with Sam's aunt and uncle for a quick tour of Bilbao. The views were impressive to say the least. Bilbao seemed a little more 'western' too in that it had more traffic problems and more typical sprawl issues. I saw a lot more houses than I saw in Madrid. During this trip we had a wine at one of the bars in the old seaport village. Again, in the summer I understood the place was packed.

Bilbao was (is) an industrial city, but is rapidly changing its image. It is really worth a visit if you are ever over there.

We returned home, but soon departed for Sam's other uncle to see another new baby and Sam's grandmother. Along the way we took a ride on the suspended bridge. This bridge is quite unique in that there is a cart that can carry six cars and numerous people. This cart is hanging over the water and moves from bank to bank whenever ship traffic allows (which is extensive). After disembarking from the bridge, Sam promptly got us lost as the route we were told to take was under construction.

After our visit, we returned to Alfonso's house for dinner. This had tapas of jamon, cheese, croquetas (tough to describe but oh so good) and cheese filled peppers. Then came some sort of cod dish. Yummy. Alfonso then gave us some hints for our travels for the next day.

The next day, Friday, was I think the best day of the whole trip. Sam and I promptly got lost again on our way out of Bilbao, but soon found our way after asking for some directions. Our destination was some of the towns along the coast to the east of Bilbao. I should mention that the terrain around here is quite different than around Madrid. It is very hilly, even mountainous, and the color is a lush green. Contrast that with a beautiful blue sky and ocean views and we had quite a gorgeous day.

On the way to our first destination we captured a few magnificent views of the first town from an elevated distance. It really has to be seen. At the town itself we had a beer and explored some of the other views it had to offer. Sam told me some wonderful stories of the times she spent with her grandfather.

The next town was even better I think. It wasn't quite the fishing place as the first and had more visible beaches. It would be an excellent place to settle down. While there we had some more beers and some tapas which pretty much consisted of our lunch. It was absolutely amazing scenery. Speaking of scenery, while there I saw a women take her top off (remember what I said about topless beaches being the norm). Well, I quickly diverted my eyes when I realized the woman was about 50. Ewww!

The next town we stopped in was famous for being bombed by the Germans before WWII as a demonstration by the then dictator of Spain to the people of the Basque region in the north of Spain. We didn't stay long and soon traveled back to Bilbao to see the Guggenheim.

The Guggenheim was impressive to say the least. The building I mean, the art inside pales in comparison, but is still quite good. Every angle that I saw the building I wanted to take a picture. Even inside I wanted to take a picture of the soaring ceilings and odd angles. If you get a chance, you really should see it.

Afterwards we walked to the old part of Bilbao and took in some of the sights. We had a beer at a bar which was unusually difficult to find in that part of town. Then we took the subway back to the car (that noisy Alfa Romeo if you remember) and went back to Sam's uncle's place. Soon, we departed for dinner at a seafood place.

I should say 'seafood' lightly for mostly it is just fish, grilled fish, amazingly good fish. We had sardines and something else and it was all fabulous. For desert we had one of the best cheesecakes I have ever tasted. Yum, yum, yum. After dinner we had a tea and coffee back at the house. And so concluded the best day of the trip, at least in my opinion.

On Saturday we traveled back to Madrid, but spent most of the day in Segovia (a bit northwest of Madrid), another walled city. Segovia is known for its Roman aqueduct which is still standing in good condition. It is an amazing piece of construction. In the city we also toured the Alcazar, which is like bit of a castle. Quite impressive. We also looked at the cathedral, but this was the least impressive of the bunch. Though the stained glass was better than at the others I thought. We have numerous photos of Segovia for you to see.

That night we had a dinner with some of Sam's friends from college. Amazingly, it was at The Fass again. This time I had some sort of Strogonoff and it was quite good. But again, as with the other large gatherings of people, I was pretty much out of the conversation. I had cheesecake again for dessert... OK, I'm addict, what can I tell you!

After dinner we went to the Garaje Hermetica again, big surprise. One of Sam's friends, Gonzalo, was most kind and spoke English to me for most of the time there. But I didn't talk too much to the other friends because they were having their 'weekly' discussions about who knows what.

As we were saying our goodbyes, I heard an interesting story, that I will repeat for you here because it is so damn funny. So, there is TV series in Spain, something like Candid Camera, but live. So the plan in this segment was to give a teenager something special on her 16th birthday. She really enjoyed this singer, Ricki Martin, and so it was arranged that he would jump out of box and surprise her when she was alone.

Well, everything is going fine and the girl comes home from school or something and goes to the fridge and takes off her clothes. Nudity is permitted on normal Spanish TV so this isn't cause for alarm... while I think of it, we really need to bring this to the US too! So, she is naked and goes into the fridge and pulls out some jelly and spreads it over herself in 'that area'. She then says 'come here Ricki'. Well, the dog's name is Ricki too and so the dog comes running along for a treat. It was at this time that the show cuts.

Now, as funny as that story is, it isn't true. This is a rumor only. No one can verify ever having seen this on TV and so it is conjectured that the show started the rumor in order to boost its ratings. But still, this rumor has spread throughout all of Europe and now I am spreading it here in the US so feel free to pass it on if you feel like it.

Sunday involved another trip to the country house. This time we had another huge lunch involved with another of Sam's cousins. I'm not sure, but I think this one clocked in at four hours and consisted of dish after dish after dish and wine and champaign and god knows what else. I was forced to tell of our exploits to Bilbao to the entire table... in Spanish. And I think it took the entire lunch because there were frequent interruptions as certain points were raised and debated.

Afterwards, I crashed, hard. Before too long it was time to go back to Madrid and see Lucia (the baby) one more time. And then the packing began for our return trip home.

Monday started early again. We had a 7AM flight out of Madrid to Amsterdam. Of course it was delayed. We arrived in Amsterdam, about 5 minutes after our flight to Washington was to supposed to have left so we made a mad dash to our gate. Upon arrival we realized the flight had been canceled and so began a long and painful four hour process to see what was our fate. Our fate was to stay overnight in Amsterdam and then take a flight to Detroit the next afternoon. We were not pleased.

But, as a twist of fate, this turned out to be a very pleasant day afterall. They, KLM airlines in this instance, put us in a hotel right smack downtown and two blocks away from the red light district. After getting settled we set out to quickly tour the city. Amsterdam is quite unique. There are canals all over the place, in fact from the airplane in I couldn't tell what were roads and were canals because they are so intertwined. Also, bicycles are a *very* popular form of transportation. However, the bicycles are rather old. I saw only two mountain bikes while there. The rest were these rusting hulks from the 50's or earlier.

Also, all the people seemed to be rather young and overly attractive. Quite strange. Oh, and one of our concerns about traveling there was that neither of us knew Dutch. Well, don't worry if you go because just about everybody speaks English, and in fact, I'd say half the conversations I heard were in English. Also if you go, whatever you see as the cost of something, just divide it by two and you have what it is cost in dollars. Not precise, but close enough.

For dinner we went to an Italian place after scouting out a number of restaurants in this plaza we discovered. They had Latin music playing, very odd. We had some seasoned mushrooms for an appetizer which were amazing. Everything else was ho hum, but not bad. After dinner we walked around a little bit longer before venturing into the red light district at about 10PM.

Well, everything you heard about this place is true. Coffee shops, yep, they sell marijuana. Prostitutes, yep, just pick out the one you want after doing your window shopping. I'm serious, they are all in glass booths wearing varying levels of undergarments attracting business. Live sex shows, oh yeah, and according to the many advertisements, they had shows for Sam and couples too.

Sex toys, yes, those too. Some of the favorite items we saw were videos titled 'Horsepower' and 'Young, Dumb and Full of Cum'. The best dildo we saw was about three feet long and thicker than a beer can. There were many other objects were just were afraid to think about further.

Walking through the area one gets lost easily because it all looks the same after awhile. We probably went down this one road three or four times but each time it seemed the same to me. And after awhile, the fence posts along the roads started to look like penises. I'm serious about that. Oh, and in the hotel, free porn!!! Well, 20 minutes per day anyway, which is about how long one of those thing lasts I think.

So we got about $25 from an ATM and had a few beers. Almost everything was Heineken. I also had a Vos which was quite good. Beers come in two sizes, big ones or little ones. Joints cost about $3 if you are interested. In fact, in one establishment, even though we did not partake, we definitely inhaled our fair share of second hand smoke. %)

The next day we didn't get our wakeup call and so missed our complementary breakfast. Bastards! Instead we had an OJ and coffee and some really, really good chocolate covered waffle type thing. We passed on the 'space pastries' however.

The trip home was long and painful. Each flight was delayed and we ended up in Madison an hour later than scheduled. The movie back was Enemy of the State. Seen it! The flight from Detroit in Madison was delayed and had like three gate changes before we actually got a plane.

But alas, we are back alive and well... which is more than I can say for you after reading all this. Take my advice and take a break now. You deserve it!


Plaza Real in Madrid.


Cliffs near Bilbao and Atlantic Ocean.


Beach at bottom of cliffs near Bilbao.


View of Bermeo from above.


Bermeo's colorful harbor.


The sun sets behind the magnificent Bilbao Guggenheim.


Aqueduct in Segovia.


Alcazar in Segovia.