Fight Natalie, FIGHT

Fight Natalie, FIGHT

Three words.

Hurled forcefully from the mouth of Günter, my Krav Maga instructor.
Hit my ears and propel my body to push
Push forward, searching for the edge
The edge beyond which I will

I push and push
The edge continues to move
The horizon is now beyond where I can see
The numbers continue to climb

A sucker punch to the liver stops me for a moment
I laugh
Catch my breathe
Charge back in

Moving in circles
Fast feet
Changing tactics
Moving in for a left
A right

Head shot
Body shot
Slip down
Move left
Then right

My breath speeds up
My brain slows down
I track my opponents every move

Effectively block two body blows
Moving in for a jab
Sideswiped by a punch that slipped by my defense

I pull back
Günter sees me pause
The command is barked again

“Fight Natalie,

And I do,
charging back in
deliver a rally of punches

The countdown commences: 10….8….5

The fight moves closer
Breath becomes labored
But we do not
We will

Tap gloves
“Good Fight”

Günter smiles

Tomorrow will be pain
This moment of pride is worth the price


Tenerife hiking – pick your climate

Tenerife hiking – pick your climate

As demanded…. umm… requested by my buddy Mike, here’s part 2 of our Tenerife island adventure. This installment will focus on the variety of hiking adventure we enjoyed.

Our last episode ended when we arrived at our apartment rental for the week and admired a gorgeous sunset. My memory gets a little hazy here, but I think we were pretty lazy for a good day, or so, as we got our bearings in our new town: Adeje. Conveniently located on the southwest coast of the island. We picked this town because it was near enough to the tourist areas to have (we thought) lots of restaurant options and such. But, far enough away from Los Americanos to be not so touristy. Apparently the tourism barrons have also located this town because directly across from our apartment a Hard Rock casino was under construction. At first I thought it would be loud and annoying, but actually it was pretty interesting since both my husband and I enjoy construction work. Besides, our apartment faced the sea and was in the direction away from the construction and overlooking a small black lava rock bay which we were told was sometimes visited by sea turtles! 

The first couple of days at the apartment the weather was stormy and this caused the water to be cloudy – not ideal for snorkeling. We followed natures lead and relaxed. Soon, the weather cycle broke and we were greeted by sunny days, perfect for hiking. In the morning and evening we often walked on the path shown in the picture above which was also popular for dog walkers and runners. One day we met a cute dog, and his owner, who happened to be German. I asked for recommendations on a good beach to visit, preferably with a fun beach bar and cafe. He said (in German -my translation skills were becoming increasingly more valuable every day) that the best secret beach was in nearby Puertito with a fabulous Bodegon called Pepe y Lola. 

We noted this down as a destination of choice and that evening I began to research securing a permit to go to the top of El Tiede. As it turns out these are not easy to come by. Something like 50 people are allowed to the top each day to decrease the environmental impact of all the tourists. Passes were booked up for at least a month. So, that was out. We figured, well, so, we can’t go to the top, but I bet we can have some spectacular hiking in the park, and that we did!

We drove slightly south and then headed east climbing up the mountain roads to the volcano. I noticed that on this side of the island appeared to have a dryer climate and in the place of banana plantations the roads were bordered by tiered vineyards.

 As we entered the strange landscape of the volcano another rainstorm rolled in revealing other-worldly landscapes shrouded in clouds. 

We stopped to take a picture at the viewing spot for Roques de Garcia. A friendly German tourist snapped a shot for us and unfortunately our heads are completely blocking the rocks… 🙂 We popped back into the car and headed toward the visitor center to grab a map and figure out a good hike for the afternoon. Along the way we saw some incredible green rocks!

The park ranger recommended that we hike a trail called “Arenas Negras” which looped around a small peak. As we started off I noticed a big cloud bank approaching from the south and I fully anticipated we might get socked in my the storm which could likely bring visibility to a minimum as it passed over. This gave some urgency to our hike and we completed the trail much quicker than anticipated. The scenery was spectacular and, expect for passing a couple other hikers, we had the entire trail to ourselves. Quite different than our experience in the touristy valley we had left behind. My kind of hiking! Here’s some of what we saw.

On our way back to the hotel, we looped up for a quick visit to the spectacular rock formation called Los Gigantes – the giants. And giants they are! The cliffs soar over the ocean forming a fierce and unforgiving fortress.

We went to bed craving more time at the volcano, but we clearly wanted to stay away from the crowds, so the next day we headed to a region called Samara. The scenery was incredible – like walking on the moon! It was super cold, probably in the thirties, but the sun shined above us and again we had the trails nearly exclusively to ourselves. A day I will never forget as we crossed the everchanging terrain of volcanic rocks. We saw no less than Six different types of formations. One thing I particular enjoyed was admiring the sharp contrast between the pine trees and the black rocks. As we hiked, El Tiede loomed above us showing off her snowy cap.

I’m off to the gym for my morning workout. Next installment will include our beach hikes and our quick adventure in the Anaga mountains cloud forest.

Here’s a preview…

The next morning we popped into the Dino market and bought a cooler backup, loaded it up with bier and hiked off to the secret beach. The path was surprisingly easy to follow and after about an hour we found ourselves at the beach. Along the way we passed through some small camps. Crumbling brick walls marked the perimeters of old plantations…

Belgian Bridge City

Belgian Bridge City

As I approach my last 6 months as an expat, I’ve started to plan my weekend trips more deliberately so as to have no regrets. I’ve struggled to balance between the places I want to go and the places I think everyone expects me to go. That might sound odd at first, but I think other expats might understand what I’m feeling. When a person has a chance to live in Europe the first thing they usually do is build a bucket list of the places they’ve heard of, or that a friend visited. As such, the list usually contains primarily typical tourist towns. Some of these are amazing, some are disappointing. Either way, they are often over-run by hoards of tourists. After a couple of trips where I found myself wondering what additional value I was bringing to my life by embarking upon yet another typical American tourists weekend, I started to assess my bucket list through local eyes.

As 2016 turned to 2017, I reflected upon the memeories I had made on my own and with my husband, my parents and fellow expat travelers. Which places were remarkable, which were slightly disappointing? Which places surprised me and which were predictable? Sometimes predictability is good, by the way. How did I want to spend my time in 2017? Did I want to be inside or outside? Did I want to return to places I knew or focus on new adventures? Did I (finally) want to see some good art? After this reflection I started to plan my year.

I decided to visit a different country every month – at first I wanted it to be a completely new country, but the trouble is I’ve visited most of the countries that border Germany. This means it requires more time to travel to a new country – more than I can spare in a weekend trip. Instead I compromised with myself and decided to see a different country every month. In January, I visited the Netherlands – you read about this in my art post. This past weekend I visited Belgium. Actually, I went to Belgium twice in one week. I chock this up to bad planning, but in the end it turned out to be all right. Turns out I really like Belgium!

When I moved to Germany I had planned to spend a weekend in Brussels. The weekend I planned to go fell right before a big work meeting, so I delayed my trip. Then the Paris attacks happened, followed by the attack on the Brussels airport and I did not go to Belgium. I focused my energy elsewhere. Last week I traveled to Gent for a work trip and was so delighted that I planned a weekend in Brügge and Neuiwpoort with my friend Tilghman. 

If you ask a random handful of tourists what the most popular city is for tourism in mainland Europe, I think Paris might be the answer (especially if they’re from America), but Brügge will certainly be coming up in the conversation very soon after. If they’re British, it might be first. Add on top of that visiting on Valentine’s weekend. And, as we discovered when we arrived, the city was hosting an “Urban Trails” night race through the city. Let’s just say there were plenty of people enjoying Brügge with us. 

In spite of the crowds, I can still say I found it to be one of the most charming places I have visited in Europe. What makes it so charming? Well preserved churches, old building in abundance, and the city layout is fascinating with all the buildings constructed continuously, making the entire place feel like a maze where you’re the mouse leisurely racing for the prize of (pick your poison) Trappist bier in a cellar, Belgian chocolate from one of a multitude of shops (seriously there were dozens in this tiny city), or, and this should not be neglected a warm Belgian waffle with cream. Because I’m an equal opportunity kind of a person, I tried out the Trappist bier, chocolate and waffles, and it did not disappoint. I was tempted to sign up for the urban trails race, but it was already fully-booked. Instead I took a morning run through the city, but I’ll get to that later.

As I planned my trip, many people told me it’s no trouble to see all of Brügge in a day, or a few hours, and this is certainly true. We left Dusseldorf at 8:30 – super-early for us – and arrived in town around 11:30, then the fun task of locating parking began. I usually prefer to drive in Europe in order to have flexibility with my travel plans, but parking, parking can sometimes take as long as another train connection! Alas, after about an hour, we finally located parking and could sniff out our first Belgian bier.

We stopped in a place called Cambrius cellars and sat down at a tiny round table next to a young British couple. I remarked at how it was such a mistake to come to Brügge on Valentine’s Day with the hordes of romantics in town. My friend Tilghman said I was being quite a cynic and that’s when I realized they were probably valentines romantics. Oops! Never fear – bier saved my mood. At one point I looked up and was delighted to find lights made out of bier glasses – very clever!

The bier is offered in a larger volume glass – not too much though these Belgian beers are high in alcohol – or a common offer was a paddle of 5 tasters: .15 ml each bier. We ordered a paddle to share. My favorite bier on this weekend adventure was the Timmermans Lambic Faro. Delicious! I also fell in love with sour biers on this trip. The biers were complimented with an assortment of meats, cheese and fruit. A great way to sink ourselves into the city.

Warmed up by our first biers we struck out to accomplish our priorities sight seeing friend Tilghman and I travel together often and one of the keys to our success is that on the way we decide which 3 to 5 things we must do. It’s impossible to see everything in these towns so it helps us to focus our time and leave time for leisurely photo snapping strolls. 

First stop was at the church of the holy blood. This church houses one of the most important relics held by the Catholic Church. A vial that is said to contain the blood of Christ. I’ll be honest here, I had never even heard of a relic until I started traveling with Tilghman. My first experience with a relic was to see the actual mummified foot of John the Baptist at a church in Budapest. Very strange and thrilling at the same time. Who decided it was important to preserve these bodily items, and then to protect them over the centuries with high levels of devotion? This is very intriguing to me. We were prepared to be disappointed on this Saturday afternoon because the tour book said the relic was on display only on Fridays. We entered the cathedral, admired the stained glass and art work and then noticed a priest standing up on a platform in chapel to the side and a line of people. We realized that the relic was on display. So, of course, we got in line. I will say that it really did look like some sort of coagulated fluids, maybe marrow. But, the most important thing that struck me was the devotion of the people kneeling before the alter and the priest standing there for the day with the sole purpose of protecting the relic.

 We left the church humbled and quiet as we began our walk to see one of the only Michael Angelo pieces outside of Italy: the Madonna and Child. The set up for the art is a bit odd. It’s housed in a cathedral behind what appear to be temporary white wooden walls. The closest you can get to the art piece is about 5 yards. It is protected by a thick piece of plastic. In spite of this, it was a remarkable piece of art and worth the price of admission. Again, it’s amazing that we have been able to preserve this art piece for more than 500 years!

Next stop was chocolate shopping. For this important mission, I had consulted some traveling buddies who always know the best places for things like chocolate, wine and bier. Her advice was to go to “The Chocolate Line“. We stepped in to this decadent den of chocolate, took it in for a bit, then I packed a box for my next trip home and bought a couple to enjoy on the spot. 

As the light began to fade in the city, it seemed like the perfect moment for a canal tour. Surprisingly, the lines were low, which struck me as a bit odd considering that the light was now perfect for reflections on the water. We paid the fare, a reasonable 8 euros, and boarded the boat. The boat driver appeared fluent in about every language he encountered. Since just about everyone on the boat spoke English he narrated our 30 minute tour through the city canal network in Flemish and English. Brügge is known as the Venice of the north due to the extensive canal network that weaves through the city. Definitely a big contributor to the romance and charm. It’s worth taking a canal boat tour.

The oldest bridge in the city dating back to the 14th century.

We left the boat in search of more bier and to scope out a place for dinner. As it turned out, we found them both on the same street: Kuipersstraat. We were warned it could be easy to walk by Le Trappiste – a bier cave serving a variety of Belgian biers. Luckily the sign was well-lit and we descended into the belly of the city. 

The architecture was fabulous, reminding me a bit of the vaulted ceilings of the city churches. And, of course, the bier was great! The bartenders were friendlyand the prices surosignky reasonable. We ordered a paddle of 5 bier tastings and paid 12 euros. Not bad, not bad at all. I’d definitely recommend taking a bit of time to visit this unique bar. 

As you recall the city was full of couples celebrating Valentine’s Day, so it was impossible to get a reservation for dinner. I had popped in to a restaurant on the way to Le Trappiste and booked a table, but I really had my heart set on going a place my friend Katie V recommended – she knows good food! Luckily, as we walked from Le Trappiste to the restaurant, I looked up and saw the sign for ‘t Zwart Huis. I popped in to see if we could get a table. The kind manager seated us at the bar and we enjoyed a delicious local meal of female codfish – apparently a regional specialty only available during the month of February. 

After the long day we headed back to our hotel and found the final groups of Urban Trail racers crossing the finish line. We roamed the streets a bit burning off dinner and snapping pictures of the beautiful nighttime scenery.

One habit I picked up years ago, is to always throw some running shoes and an outfit in my travel bag. I love to strike out on a tourist a run through a new city and take it in. I can cover more ground and I give myself the option to stop whenever I want to take a picture or just admire the scenery, or a bird, or whatever strikes my fancy. On Sunday morning, I woke up to my alarm at 7, pulled on my running clothes, and stumbled downstairs to find a cup of coffee. Fortunately, a pot had been brewed. I threw back a cup, started up map my run, and struck out in a circle around the city. I was thrilled to explore the city at sunrise. The streets were empty of people, giving me a chance to quietly absorb the architectural beauty of the buildings and canals and admire the ducks. Bonus: I burned off the bier and chocolate from the day before and could start with a blank slate.

My goal was to go as far as I could, creating a circle, without consulting a map. My sense of direction has drastically improved living in Europe and it mostly worked out today, until I consulted my map at the end and saw I’d overshot my turn by about a kilometer. Never mind, I retraced my steps and made it back in time to get ready for our next stop at the beach. 

We drove about 30 minutes to Nieuwpoort on the North Sea. Our goal was to find a big breakfast (I’m not sure why we were hungry after all the food the day before…), but it was before 11 am and so it could not be found. An early big breakfast is just not a thing in Europe! We settled for a quick bakery breakfast which turned out to be great because we discovered a delicious fish soup a few hours later for lunch.

I have this running bucket list of places where I’ve stood in the ocean in my bare feet on a new shoreline. Actually, now that I think of it, I haven’t tracked it very well. So, let’s see what I can remember: California, Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Hawaii, Oregon, Georgia, Virginia, Brazil, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, I feel like I’m missing some but that’s good for now. The weather was cold on Sunday, probably around 30 F on the beach. But, I knew, I just knew, that I couldn’t let myself down. So I pulled off my shoes and tights, awkwardly, fortunately I had a long coat on… (yes, I picked the wrong day to wear a dress and tights) and ran in to the ocean. Tilghman, of course had to follow my lead. We’re both ocean people. And we laughed as we froze our toes in the North Sea. Now I can add Belgium to my list.

After freezing our toes we rambled along the beach searching for shells en route to a pier. As we walked, the sun came and went, occasionally peeking between the clouds and lighting up the drifts of broken razor clam shells on the beach. A couple of guys were kite-skating (I guess that’s what it was) on the beach riding on modified skate boards. Wow that looked fun! 

As we walked along the pier we observed the gulls and shore birds below hunting for food and when I reached the end a gull visited me for a science lesson. He bounced along the railing and after a few minutes made a funny movement of his head, stretching out his neck before promptly regurgitating a pile of shells. So, that explained the strange clumps of broken shells along the railing. It appears that the birds would harvest shells off the rocks. Grind down the shells in their crop to harvest the meat and then regurgitate the remains. Pretty cool!

After the lovely science lesson my bird friend flew away, and we realized we were COLD! Time for soup and shopping. Then the drive back to Dusseldorf.

I returned home satisfied with the weekend and reflecting on the friendly people I met in Belgium during my two visits last week. A lovely country, worth a visit.

Land and Sea

Land and Sea

This post has been in progress for over a week. Apparently, I have a lot to say about our adventure in the Canary Islands. So this is part 1 of ???? Time will tell. It’s time to let this bird fly.

Crashing surf, banana plantations, volcanic rocks, hiking trails, flowing beer, fresh fish – layered over a soundtrack of Spanish, German and English language. This was our experience in Tenerife. We chose this particular Canary island because it is billed as an adventurers paradise and it didn’t disappoint. 
If you’re looking for a place where you can hike next to the sea at a temperature around 70 F and then later explore a deserted trail at the foot of a volcano at 30 F – then this is the place for you. 

Last October, I waited anxiously in Madrid airport at the gate for our connection to Tenerife. People lined up to board and my husband hadn’t yet arrived. I studied our itinerary and thought maybe the connection time had been too tight… boarding began and I searching the terminal awaiting his arrival. Finally, a fourth of the way through boarding, he ran up – Harley ball-cap on his head, unlaced hiking boots on his feet, wearing an old racing shirt from Louisiana and hiking shorts, a bit out of breathe, and I was so happy! We were together again after about 2 months apart. 

We boarded the flight for our island adventure. Our first views of the island were quite impressive as we approached from the north east corner. Tenerife is a Spanish Canary Island which contains the Tiede volcano – the highest elevation in Europe. It also contains miles and miles of hiking trails, rocky beaches and winding mountain roads. We love to hike, snorkel and take road trips which is why we chose this destination. 

When I started to plan our vacation I was often reminded of a trip we took to the big island of Hawaii about 8 years ago. In many ways the islands are similar. Tenerife is a bit smaller. Instead of the macadamia plantations, Tenerife has many banana plantations. Both have spactacular volcanoes and lots of rustic places to explore. Both have touristy areas that I deliberately avoided. Hawaii has Kona and Tenerife has Playa de Las Americas. Our trip to Hawaii included stays at many small hotels as we traveled counterclockwise around the island. On this trip we spent the first night in a small town of Tenerife on the north west coast called “San Vicente”. We stayed at the Hotel Rural Bentor, a place I would recommend. The hotel offered a modest modern room with spectacular views of a ravine and the ocean. But, the charm of this place was the old house and courtyard which included a breakfast area. Broad beams and typical Canary island decorations enhanced the charm. 

We checked in and then began to explore the town. I was happy that I had recently picked up the habit of spending a half hour on the stairclimber every day as we labored up steeply pitched roads. So steep that many of the sidewalks were steps! We found a cafe in the city center and enjoyed our first Dorada bier in the shadow of a towering church. Dorada quickly became our drink of choice. Fortified by bier, we continued our climb to the top of the city and found a beautiful Drago (dragon) tree. I snapped a few photos and around this time we noticed that the locals began to look at us suspiciously. This is the downside of not being in a tourist town. We didn’t feel particularly welcomed. That was ok, it was nearing sunset and we headed back toward the hotel for the evening. Along the way we stopped at a cafe and had our first, unfortunately disappointing, meal. I have to admit, I was not very impressed with the food, which was a bit sad, but on the other hand I didn’t gain any kilos on my waistline on this vacation!

That night we slept 12 hours! My husband was adjusting to the time change and I do believe I was wiped out from work. After a quick swim and a lovely breakfast on the terrace overlooking the sea we decided to take off for a hike on the coast. We decided to make it spontaneous. A quick check of google maps indicated that if we drove about 10 minutes to a nearby point surrounded by a banana plantation, we could strike out on a path in the sea cliffs. Driving through the banana plantations was very interesting. The design of the plantations was uniform across the island. The plantations were bordered by concrete brick walls or fencing and typically relatively small in size. I can only guess there might have been a threat of theft. 
We passed through a tunnel decorated with a crab motif and were greeted by a spectacular view of the ocean. 

Fisherman, standing tenuously on the rocks below, cast their lines. One cried with joy as he landed a fish. Another washed an altar with great deliberation and care. I wondered if he had lost a friend on this rough coastline. A small dog scurried about searching for scraps. The fishermens’ base camp was built up around a small cave with a rusty metal door. My curiosity beckoned me to enter the cave, but we respected their space and, after an exchange of friendly greetings, continued along the trail. 

As the elevation gently climbed, we re-entered the banana plantation. The plantation walls were made of volcanic rocks and we were delighted to discovery black and green lizards peaking out between the rocks. Later in the day we saw people feeding them bananas!

We continued along the trail and came across a view of an eerie old building, I believe it was called the Hamilton House. A local guy, originally from England, was also nearby snapping photos and he shared with us the story of the building. The building was a water pump built to pull water from the sea, desalinate it, and then pump it to the cities. The cost of desalinization was prohibitive and eventually abandoned. The water on the island is now rainwater collected in tanks, or drawn from underground aquifers filled by rain water and filtered through the volcanic rock. Droughts are a common threat and as we drove around the island we noticed elaborate pipe and covered canals criss-crossing the hillsides running water from aquifers to terraced- fields andwater tanks.
Another turn on the trail brought us on a brief stretch through town. We heard German words pouring out of a small bar and realized we were a bit hungry and thirsty. A bier and a snack, ordered in German, was just the cure to restore our strength for the return hike. This was the first time my German came in handy, and it continued to be for the rest of the trip. The common languages on the island are Spanish and German, and some people spoke English. 

The next day we checked out of our hotel and took a drive up into the mountains en route to our home-away apartment rental where we would spend the next week. Along the way, we paused to admire the statue of Bentor, the namesake of our hotel. Bentor was a local native who stood up in one of the last great fights against the Spanish invaders. I imagine that when he fought he wore clothing, but apparently the naked version of him is what people want to remember. His feet were huge! Seemed a bit like a Rodin sculpture style.

We hiked from the banana plantations and north along the coast.

We quickly entered the countryside and saw terraced fields, horses, cattle and many people walking alongside the road. 

It started to rain and we abandoned our plan to walk out to the Faro lighthouse on the northwest corner of the island. Instead we turned inland toward Masca for what would become a white-kuckled drive along a narrow road, dodging tour buses and occasionally socked in by clouds.
After surviving the road to Masca, we were happy to relax on the balcony of our rental apartment and soak up a spectacular sunset.
More to come in part 2 of our Tenerife island adventure…