10 countries in 10 weeks

10 countries in 10 weeks

As I sat in the cab, early on a Monday morning, traveling from Guarahlos airport to the center of São Paulo, I suddenly found myself very sleepy. I thought back on the past weeks and months, did a quick count, and realized I had visited 10 countries in 10 weeks. This was not my intention and the balance of the numbers made me smile a bit. I was sleepy after all…

I began to chat with the cab driver about my travels and I’ll share it with you now. 

To begin, my husband and I traveled to England (1) by car for a road trip through the countryside. What an amazing adventure! We took the eurotunnel from Calais, France (2) and on the way passed through Holland (3) and Belgium (4). But I couldn’t include this in the count because that made it 10 countries in 11 weeks and, frankly, that doesn’t have the same ring to it. Fortunately, I realized that we passed back through the same countries – although our route out of England was via car ferry from Dover. The Dover cliffs, by the way, you need to see them. Then we back-tracked through France (2), Belgium (3) and the Netherlands (4) – so they made it back into the count. 

Now, I know what you’re thinking – driving through a country doesn’t count! I agree!!! Lucky for me we actually made a pit stop at a McDonald’s in the Netherlands. In addition to suspiciously consistent french fries, they offer clean bathrooms in every corner of the world. Now to France – we did board the eurotunnel there, which was pretty epic, but I had a chance to return to this lovely country, and I say this with all honesty, on a quick business trip to the Cote de Azur. 

The first weekend of June, I decided to take advantage of one of our German bank holidays by popping up to Spain (5) to visit my college friend Christina, but you already know about that adventure.  

Hold up a minute here, what about Belgium? A drive through doesn’t count! Never fear, this count is legit! A couple of weeks after our trip to England, I rode the train over to Brussels for a quick visit to the EU parliament building. Quite an interesting place and got me to thinking about the fundamental roots of government that are different between America and the European Union. This explains a lot of our cultural differences.

Next I was off to Greece (6) to launch one of my new products – BioAct DC. We visited customers and held a workshop in Heraklion, the capital of Crete. I am in my happy place visiting with farmers and helping them solve crop pest problems! Of course the food and Raki after dinner was a bonus!

After all these euro-countries, it was time to head back to America (7) for a country music-induced reset. I flew in to North Carolina to visit my husband and join some business meetings at our North American headquarters. My husband flew back with me and we cheered on the racers at the Tour de France which, incredibly, departed from Düsseldorf, Germany (8) this year! But this experience deserves an entire post so that’s all on that subject for now.

On the 4th of July, we celebrated American Independence Day by heading to the airport and both flying west, but to different continents…hey, someday we’ll get this straight… my husband flew back to America and I headed to South America for business meetings in Buenos Aires, Argentina (9). Ironically, while I was in Argentina they celebrated their own Independence Day! Quite a bit more low-key then the way we blow off fireworks and barbeuqe in America. From Buenos Aires, I headed back north to São Paulo, Brazil (10). 

I wrote this post partly out of a selfish desire to not forget this coincidental travel run. When I planned all my trips, I had no idea they would roll up this way. Now, I think, it’s time for a break and I’ll settle in here in Germany for a few weeks. My whirlwind expat chapter is coming to a close, just about 60 days to go now. I found myself desiring to explore again all my favorite places in Germany before I leave my adopted city of Düsseldorf. 

About a year ago I was struggling living in Germany on my own and wondering about the choices that had led me here. I’m glad that I decided to “stop looking back because” as I saw on a tshirt recently “you’re not going that way”. Life is about moving forward, taking it as it comes and choosing happiness. 

My tour through 10 countries in 10 weeks reinforced my belief in the fundamental good of humanity. I enjoyed the kind hospitality of friends. I ran through quaint neighborhoods and parks and along beautiful beaches. I bicycled across London and Oxford and the island of Ilhabela. I dined on simple and elaborate foods while enjoying the company of smart and witty colleagues and friends. 

Everywhere I went I found beautiful things (some obvious and others tiny surprises) and met kind people who went out of their way to help me when I needed them. I was reminded that we are never alone. In every corner of the world you can find a quiet space, or a noisy environ. You can shape your experience because experiences are what you perceive. 

I was a bit amazed that I came through this marathon heathy and not (so) exhausted and I wondered how I managed in spite of the time zone changes. Here’s what I can say – sleep, eat healthy (ok 80:20 rule), exercise and be kind. Most importantly, BE KIND, it will make you (and the people around you) so much happier. I also realized that I paced myself along the way as I recently embraced the philosophy that life is a journey, not a destination, but I sure am curious to see what I will find at the next stop. Aren’t you?

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Tapas in the rain

Tapas in the rain

To celebrate the completion of my Bachelor’s degree at UC Davis, my husband gave me a mountain bike. Of course, he needed to have one as well so I would have company on my rides. We went to a local bike shop – Steve Larsen’s Wheelworks in Davis, California – and shopped for a good price at the end of the season. I picked out a black and white hardtail specialized stump jumper. Steve, who was a former competitive cyclist and at that time competed in Xterra off-road races, was super-friendly and gave us a warm welcome into the bicycling world. As I made my purchase he told me – this is a race bike, you’ll be racing in no time! 

The first time I rode clipless I fell over no less than 5 times! I recalled Steve’s remark with amusement – no way was I going to be racing. But, mile after mile, my balance ability grew, I got in the habit of clipping out when I stopped, and I grew stronger and faster. Finally, one day, maybe about a year later, we went to our first UC DAVIS collegiate cycling club meeting. 

We didn’t have to try out, we just needed to start training and racing, and there we were – members of the racing team. Wow, it was fun and the best part is that I made two very good friends that I still keep in touch with to this day : Nicky and Christina.

Last month – on a long weekend in Germany – I flew in to Bilbao to visit Christina and her husband Robert in their home in La Rioja, Spain. As I sat on the flight, I realized that we had not seen each other in person for at least 10 years! I became a bit nervous. How would it be? Would we have things to talk about? But, I wasn’t too worried, my memories of Christina were few but fond. I could recall long road rides in the countryside and mountain bike races in Reno.

Christina and I always got along well because she was authentically happy. She was strong, tenacious and an adventurer. She was curious about the world and it wasn’t a surprise when she headed off to Spain to earn her Ph.D. I watched from across the ocean on Facebook as she posted pictures of mountain biking, camping and hiking in a northern region of Spain. Occasionally, we exchanged messages, where I promised to visit someday. 

Then, I moved to Germany and, suddenly, the hurdles to a visit were much lower, I only needed to select the time. So, it came to pass that as I planned my last 6 months in Germany, I picked a date, bought a ticket and passed a wild and crazy weekend with my college racing buddy in La Rioja, Spain!

I landed at the Bilbao airport and waited eagerly at the curb for a black Subaru carrying my friend and her husband. When they pulled up, they hopped out of the car and gave me a warm embrace. From the first moment, I knew it was going to be an amazing weekend! As we made the one hour drive from Bilbao into the famous Spanish wine region called La Rioja, we excitedly began to share a bit about what had happened in our lives in the 12 years (we did the math) that had passed. 

As we drove through the Obarenes-Sierra de Cantabria mountain range, I tried to speak a bit of Spanish, as this is Roberts native language. Boy, it was hard because the Spanish hides behind a solid wall of German words now! Our first stop was at the Vivanco wine museum to quickly immerse me in the history of this place. A beautifully curated museum, I quickly learned about the land and the history, and the vines that weave the people together. 

The museum contained many large wooden structures used in wine production. I snapped some photos for my dad who is a lumber jack and can make anything out of a felled tree. He loves inspiration! The implement below is a giant press for extracting juice from the grapes.

The museum contained many educational displays like this one that explained the varieties of grapes grown in the region.

The layout of the displays was elegant.

We found a beautiful collection of grape harvesting baskets.

A lower level room contained a multimedia display explaining how barrels are made.

Another giant press! I was amazed at the size of the wood.

Things started to get real when we found casks made from pig skin, and they looked like a real pig!!!

At the end of the trip I stopped by a local shop in Logronia and bought my own pair of La boteria decorated with local symbols.

One room in the museum contained an incredible collection of art and items embellished with precious metals and stones.

A strong theme in one collection was the nymph. An odd character that I have to admit I’d only encountered in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” book series.

Our last stop was in the spacious wine cellar. It must contain thousands of barrels! Soft light illuminated columns and we paused for a group photo.The museum overlooks beautiful vineyards, but as the day was rainy, we piled in to the car and headed in to town for some tapas.

All of the wine region study had worked up quite a thirst so we headed in to Haro for my first experience with Saturday afternoon Tapas. This is something I was looking forward to from the moment I booked my flight! We arrived around noon which was a bit early for the Spanish crowd. We passed through a covered passageway that opened up into a large courtyard. People roamed the streets in cluster of three or four. Some gathered around tall tables outside Tapas bars. The windows and doors of the tapas bars were flung open and voices carried out into the streets. 

We stepped in to our first tapas bar and passed through the narrow entryway that opened up into a slightly larger gathering area bordering the central element – the tapas bar loaded down with dozens of types of tapas. People gathered in clusters near the bar that was crowded with small plates and glasses of wine. The top of the bar was loaded with platters piled high with beautiful works of art otherwise know as tiny bites of awesomeness!

Mushrooms appeared to be in season and they were a popular style – incredible flavors. Marinated in butter or olive oil. To wash down the tapas we shared a round of chilled Vermouth produced in La Rioja. This tipple was new to me and it nicely complimented the tapas which were indescribable combinations of meat, vegetables, cheese and spices often perched upon a toasted piece of bread all held together with a skewer. We popped in and out of three tapas bars – eating a small bite at each place.  Afterwards we roamed the town a bit to take in the architecture.

After lunch it was time to make our way back to the house but first we swung through Roberts’ hometown – Fuenmayor. A lovely place – we paused for a few moments next to the historical city spring.

The fountainheads looked like an interesting mythical creature.

Back at the house, I became fast friends with the resident cat Stinky Links (who for all the world looked just like a miniature Tony) and their german shepherd – Bear. We slipped into comfortable clothes and roamed the gardens – harvesting strawberries for a cake Robert intended to bake for breakfast. The tranquility was refreshing and restorative for my soul.

The clouds blew away and the rain cleared up for a bit as we struck out for a walk in the hills behind my friends countryside property. Bear ran ahead and Robert chased him. As the paved road gave way to gravel, I breathed a sigh of contentment. 

My friend, Christina, a naturalist and fellow ecologist by training, taught me the names of some of the plants and we even found a few interesting insects. The hillsides were dotted with wildflowers. We often stopped for a species identification and to learn how local people used the plants for cooking and healing.

After climbing down in to a ravine to check out the local creek, the sun sank lower on the horizon and we turned back toward the house. It was one of those moments when a cloudy sky enhances the contrast of the landscape. Someday I’ll learn to paint and immortalized these scenes on a canvas.

That evening we headed into an ancient fortress town for a traditional steak meal accompanied by fresh local cider. Our table was in the cellar with the cider cask filling the wall at one end. The way to pour yourself a glass was to pull open the spiquot with your left hand and hold out the glass as far as possible away in your right hand as the cider spewed out at high velocity. Then you pour just a bit because it needs to be drank quickly before the bubbles collapse and the flavor profile changes. It was quite an experience!
The next morning we woke up and drove in to Labraza for a rainy walk through the deserted city streets. The place was absolutely beautiful and there is something magical about walking slowly through an ancient place in a rain storm. 

I loved this wolf doorknocker!

The whole place had melded together over the centuries. Narrow pathways between the buildings where bordered above by leaning beams and slippery stone paths protected our feet from the earth below.

This little courtyard was one of my favorites!

We made one more left turn and suddenly my eyes were filled with the view of the vineyards tracing the surrounding hillsides.

We followed the narrow alley toward the vista. As I took in the old walls, I looked up and was amazed at the color of the ceiling!

It didn’t take long to walk every street in this tiny town and then we struck off down some gravel roads in search of, you guessed it, tapas!

A mist of rain clouds hung low above the vineyards obscuring the horizon.

Wheat fields provided a gorgeous contrast to the gray skies above.

We passed by gorgeous countryside villages that popped up in the middle of the fields. Every town was anchored by a large church.

We drove up a hill and parked the car outside a walled city. Then walked up a narrow lane toward the city square. I marveled at the contrast of bright red Christmas cactus blooms against the stone walls.

As we roamed the streets, Christina pointed out that most of the homes had the front door open giving passerbys a chance to admire the beautiful mosaic stone floors and sparsely decorated entryways.

Some of the entryways were paved with colorful tiles. It reminded me a bit of La Laguna in Tenerife.

Many homes had herbs hanging above the door, I could only guess it was a good luck bringing feature.

As we strolled toward the church, Robert recalled a time when they were running cows through the city for an annual festival and he hopped up and grabbed this ledge. Of course, we requested a re-enactment!

A huge church tower looms over the city and we decided to pay a euro to walk to the top and take in the views. It was worth the money!

When we were at the bottom, we noticed some people were exiting the church and dashed in for a few moments to marvel at the artwork.

By now we were hungry! So we popped in and out of a bakery and then had a lovely lunch at a series of Tapas bars.

We took off again for more countryside driving and paused at a winery that was designed by none other than Frank Gehry – the architect who designed the iconic buildings in the mediahafen in Düsseldorf.

I often asked us to pull over so I could snap a photo of the breathtaking scenery.

We headed to the house for a siesta and on the way passed through a town called Meano.

After a proper siesta we couldn’t resist the chance to take off on a hike on a mountain range that is locally called the Lions Head. Hiking into the mist was an intriguing experience – I never knew what would come next!

I found some cool yellow snails!

As we approached the top, the wind whipped and whistled around the edges.

At the top we celebrated with a snack of peanuts. Then beat a hasty retreat as sunset closed in upon us.

That night we headed in to Logrona for a traditional dinner of Jamon and cheese sandwiches.

Iberico Jamon is a regional speciality and it is incredible! 

The Jamon is cured for years before being served up in thin slices that just melt on your tongue. A salty treat that completely consumes your senses.

The next morning I packed up and flew back to Germany and I marveled at all the experiences of the weekend. I only described here what we saw and where we went, but what I didn’t mention is that we had a constant string of conversation going the entire time. I found myself wondering when our relationship had grown so deep and open. I only had flashes of memories from college. But then I remembered that our time was spent on long bike rides in the countryside. It is hard to top the depth of conversation in which I can indulge when I’m on a long bike ride or a hike. Doors in my mind open into rooms that I didn’t know existed! I suspect that Christina and I had those conversations on our long bike rides and this bonded us with a strong invisible thread – maybe it is spider silk? I know not, but what I do know is that the thread tying us together is as strong as ever and I look forward to our next weekend adventure, wherever it may be. 

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…

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…

Art or Adventure? Which shall I choose?

Art or Adventure? Which shall I choose?

Sometimes things don’t play out the way you imagine. Take, for instance, my life in Europe. Soon after I accepted my expat assignment in Germany, I started to think about how I would live in Europe, I assumed I would go to A LOT of museums. The Louvre was on the top of my list.

A few months later, I landed in Germany, got settled into my apartment and began to plan weekend trips. My first big trip was to Paris in November. I had all intentions to spend a day in the Louvre. But, the weather was lovely, the trees were a thousands shades of orange and yellow. The city itself was a work of art. How could I choose being inside looking at art on canvas when I was walking through a living canvas. The winter weather continued to be mild and thus began my pattern of choosing adventure over art. I began to feel like spending a beautiful day inside admiring art would be a shame.

Months passed in this way and soon I’d been in Europe for 9 months without ever entering a museum! One day I began to realize that my time in Europe would come to an end and I wondered if I would miss visiting museums. I decided that yes, I would look back and regret it if I never made it to the Louvre. So, I decided to go, and it was amazing.

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A few months before I entered the hallowed halls of the Louvre, crowded with tourists as they are, I made my first step into a museum in a place I never would have predicted… I hosted a US colleague who is originally from China. When we planned a trip to Trier he expressed strong interest to visit the home of Karl Marx. Fortunately, it was raining, so I decided to spend a few hours in the museum with no reservations. I found it to be extremely educational. In a few short hours I glimpsed the beginnings of his life, progressed through his first writings and ultimately observed the devastating impact of his ideologies being adopted in countries around the world. I left the museum a bit stunned by the power of a single individual to change the trajectory of millions of human lives.

My next stop was at the Picasso museum in Barcelona. I found this place tremendously interesting when I admired Picasso’s earliest works which were traditional and rendered with such skill at the tender age of 13! The museum progressed through his career and demonstrated the sudden shift into Impressionism and ultimately Cubanism. I also made some wonderful discoveries such as his love of pottery and a beautiful painting collection on the theme of a dove cove. A deep part of me was satisfied to know that a renowned artist could, and did, evolve through his career.every gallery held a new surprise. The pieces at the end of his life were decidedly different and disturbing. I walked away in awe at the breadth of his work.

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My next museum adventure was during a trip to Prague with my aunt and uncle. A friend recommended that we visit the Mucha museum. I’ll admit that although I’d admired Mucha’s art my entire life I had no idea who had created the beautiful Art Deco paintings of women. One rainy day, we made our way to the Mucha museum, a nice little place that walks you through the life of Mucha. I was enchanted to learn about his ability to balance the creation of art with making a living in advertising. Further, I was moved by his expression of patriotism when he dedicated the last part of his life to creating a series of huge masterpieces that share the story of the Czech people. Overall I liked the size of the museum and the way his life and interests were brought into intimate focus.

 

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After a few successful museum visits, I started to see that it could be time well-spent. I also notice me that a behavioral pattern had begun to emerge. Outside of the Louvre, nearly all my museum visits were to museums dedicated to a single artist: Picasso, Mucha, Rodin. In particular, if it was rainy outside I had discovered that a museum was a fantastic way to pass a few hours and learn about an artist. Further, in the beginning I thought a few hours in a museum was cheaper than popping into boutique shops, until I discovered the ubiquitous museum store! So much for that theory…

Now, I find that when I begin to plan a weekend adventure I like to identify one museum to visit. It definitely helps if the weather is forecasted to be crummy for a few hours. The “museum forecast”: rainy and cold (as I’ve now begun to think about it) was favorable for a trip to Amsterdam last weekend. I asked a friend from the Netherlands for a recommendation on a neighborhood in Amsterdam, booked a hotel in Ouid Pijp and started to plan the weekend.

The Van Gogh was a must do. Depending on the forecast, we also considered a visit to the Rijksmuseum which displays many of the Dutch masters. Van Gogh was incredible, but I found my head was frankly spinning after a few hours. As a counter-balancing contrast, the next day we walked through the Rijksmuseum and admired Vermeer and Rembrandt pieces. I felt transported into the scene as I gazed at “the milk maid”. After a few hours roaming the galleries, I was surprised to find myself calm and refreshed. A totally different feeling than after studying Van Gogh’s work. I pondered what caused this difference in reaction. Perhaps the brain power required to decipher what was happening in the Van Gogh paintings was a bit tiring? Who knows, it was an interesting to experience.

Our final stop was an exhibit I saw advertised as we strolled along a canal at sunrise. The Moco had a Banksy and Dali exhibit on display. How often would I have a chance to see that combination?! Fortunately, my travel buddy, Tilghman, was up for it and we went from admiring Vermeer to political street art and fantastical renderings of a self-diagnosed manic genius. The small museum, housed in a craftsman style house, was full of young people with a few token folks closer to our age roaming the rooms. I found the exhibit to be timely in the midst of the political unrest and protests in America. While I don’t agree with most of Banksy’s political sentiments (especially his opinion of police), I find his images to be startling, stark and fresh. The ability to render an emotion with a stenciled image in one, or, at most, two shades of color is a remarkable gift.

The basement level contained a collection of Dali images that were equal parts inspiring and disturbing. Although the best part of this exhibit was the incredible collection of Dali quotes on the wall. Such a big thinker and bold individual.

Now we return to the question of the day: art or adventure? I would say that in good weather, my inclination is to chose outdoor adventure. Although, if the museum forecast is favorable, I’ve come to realize that a peaceful few hours in a museum can be a refreshing and thoughtful (occasionally a bit exhausting) way to spend a weekend. As I begin to plan my next adventure, I find myself wishing, just a teensy little bit, for a few hours of rain. But, just a few hours ok, because more than that I cannot handle!

Of Stained Glass and Snails

 

 

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Parc Guell was my first glimpse into the genius of Gaudi and his remarkable ability to blend art, nature and engineering. I learned more about this when I explored Sagrada Familia. This building (to call it a building feels so inadequate) moved me in a way that has rarely happened in my life when I’m in a city. Usually these emotions of calm and peace only descend upon me in the countryside. Gaudis’ goal was to recreate the feeling of being in a forest, and this is how it felt to me. I can only imagine how incredible it would be to explore this place in solitude. As it was, I was surprisingly undisturbed by the crowds.

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I had bought my tickets in advance for a 16:45 entry into the basilica and then a climb up the passion side at 17:15. I thought this would provide ample time to explore the church, then go to the top and leave. I wound up spending more than two hours basically walking around in a dazzled amazement with my jaw often dropping in awe of what I was absorbing.

Every element of Sagrada Familia is an intentional design meant to evoke an emotion or a thought. The eastern portion is called the Nativity. This portion illustrates the beginning of Christ’s life with scenes of nature eliciting the feeling of abundance and hope. As my friend Jessica accurately described the pictures I sent her, the stone work looks a little like it was inspired by a mud dauber wasp. The work is highly textured and complex. Many portions are seemingly impossible to build – curvy dimensions coated in mosaic tiles.

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The western (Passion) side is a stark contrast with sharp, angular lines and dramatic shadows. This side depicts the Passion, or the death, of Christ. I found these carvings to be striking and bold with many faces completely blank.

I was nervous to miss my appointed entry time so I arrived about an hour before. This gave me time to try the famous churros and choco while admiring a view of the church. I found a cafe across the street and placed my order. I have enjoyed many fantastic foods in my travels and this ranks up there in the top 10, such a wonderful, simple food. Delicious and fulfilling is how I would describe this Barcelona speciality. Another friend named Jessica (yes I have a couple…) had recommended I must try this during my visit to the city.

I walked around a little while and still had some time to spare and spied one of my favorite beers on offer at another cafe near the church also with a great view, so I enjoyed a “Punk IPA”.

Hey – I had walked nearly 30 K already and I was a little calorie deficient… I shared a table with a lady who looked about 5 years younger than me. The habit of table-sharing is a wonderful tradition in Europe. It’s pretty common that if you only one or two chairs at a 2 or 4 person table that you’ll share the table with someone else, even, GASP, a stranger! Sometimes I don’t talk with the people at the table, but after walking around all day on my own and in silence, I was curious to meet this lady. She was from Wales. A former fashion designer in London who quit the corporate world and moved back to her home-town to become a baker. She was learning the trade from scratch. We had a flowing discussion about life, goals, career ambition and what truly brings happiness. I was impressed by her boldness in taking a completely different path in life. She had entered fashion for the passion of drawing and creating and when she began to work at a big fashion house all the work went to computer designs and, as she described it, selecting 20 different shades of color for a shirt design was not what she had imagined in school. When she described the act of baking, physically making something with her hands every day, she appeared supremely happy. I had the impression that baking was but one chapter in what would be a fulfilling life. We pleasantly parted ways when it was time for her to head off to watch a Eurocup game with some friends. It’s interesting the conversations that pop up when you meet someone for a bit and know you’ll probably never see them again. I find these can be the most instructive as I’m exposed to a whole new way of thinking and living.

Inside the church, my eyes were first drawn to tops of the columns and a netted area in the top of the northern corner of the church. The filtered light coming through the nets gave a smokey appearance. It reminded me of my visit to Notre Dame and the magic of a plume of incense wafting across the pews. I had a pass that included the audio tour, which was very nice by the way, informative and without too much detail. I learned that the columns were designed to recreate the form of tall trees, which they really did! The stained glass was also purposely designed to be more gentle in color on the sunrise side and more brilliant on the sunset side.

I was drawn, literally I felt magnetically pulled, to the stained glass on the southern edge of the western wall. It glowed like a fire. I have only ever seen such colors in the hot embers of a bonfire in our backyard in North Carolina. Within the stained-glass panels, the blocks of color were simple, filled with very little symbolism, drawing instead the focus to the pure element of light. After this I ascended to the top of passion tower.

The ride up is via elevator, there’s no option to walk, which made me a little sad. I really enjoy walking to the top of church towers in Europe. I learned we would have the chance to walk down the stairs, which turned out to be my favorite part. The views from the top were nice, although you’re not really very high above the city. The most interesting views came on the descent when I could get closer to the intricate towers topped with a bunch of strawberries or oranges, or whatever magical fancy was in Gaudis’ mind. Finally, we excited the main tower and began the final descendant to the bottom.

 

This section of stairway was the most incredible architecture I have experienced in all my travels. I felt that I was inside the swirl of a snail shell. Delightedly I learned that it was the intention of Gaudi to recreate the pattern of a snail she’ll in these stairs. He did it! As I stepped out of the stairs back into the main church I wandered back to the stained glass and watched the light glow on the walls for a few more moments before leaving the church to continue exploring the city. But before I left I stopped in to the gift store to select a souvenir. I was surprised to find a silver pendant that recreated the spiral of the snail staircase. This had to come home with me, and it did.

The spirals spoke to me in a unique way. Since I’ve moved to Germany I’ve taken up drawing again. A passion of mine when I was a child. My drawings often begin with a spiral and then are built into more elaborate patterns that I fill in with bold colors. Why the spiral? I can’t answer that question, but I have found that I continue to encounter these spiral patterns in my life now. The spiral staircase, a lovely pair of earrings, this meme I found on Paulo Coehlo’s Instagram… The spirals that I draw often go out, branching into interesting new patterns. Is this my life now, circular paths which slowly deviate and then come back to the same ultimate pattern? Time will tell as the pattern unfolds and I find myself again at the end which looks very similar to the beginning.

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Of Gaudi and Gothica

Of Gaudi and Gothica

My first glimpse of Gaudis’ influence on Barcelona came as I strolled down the Carerr Gran de Garcia – labeled with markers on the ground as the “Ruta Del Modernisme”. 

Quick travelers tip – you’ll notice I’m wearing Nike Flyknit shoes. I love these shoes! They pack small enough to take up the space of a pair of flip flops, provide good support and look nice with most outfits, frequent travelers who like long walks should check them out.

I noticed that the light gray tiles paving the broad pedestrian path was stamped with intricate patterns. The street lamps were supported by intriguing curvaceous poles with mosaic benches to rest and intricate wrought-iron held the lamps. 

I soon was standing in front of the Casa Amatlier. I snapped a photo with my iPhone (I left my digital camera behind on this trip so I could more easily blend in with the city) and considered paying the fee to go inside. Instead I decided to save my first real taste of Gaudi for Park Guell.


I continued to journey north and saw a fascinating curvaceous building to the right – the Casa Mila “La Pedrera” also designed by Gaudi.

Soon after this I was drawn toward an interesting building tucked behind the Palau Robert and I ventured down a narrow side street that ran parallel to the main road. I was pleasantly confined between 4 to 5 story buildings with charming doorways and shops with metal doors rolled down and every one decorated with interesting artwork. It was early in the morning and the city was slowly awakening.


As the sun creeped overhead the temperature began to climb and so did I as the elevation became steeper toward the park entry. A glorious thing happened – I began to sweat! It’s a funny thing, I rarely sweat in Germany and it feels very odd to me after having lived in so many warm and humid climates. Sweating gives me a feeling of being alive, accomplishing something, working hard. I was wearing a sleeveless dress I’d picked up at Desigual and became concerned my shoulders would burn, so I slipped in to a store to buy a blouse. The shop keeper was tucked in between shelves bursting with yarn, knitting an item. She rapidly spoke in Spanish and I spoke little as we selected a beautiful flowing blouse with embroidery features. My first souvenir. I love buying practical souvenirs. It’s less and less often that I buy a trinket that says the name of a city, but I will buy a towel, or a mouse pad, some jewelry, perhaps a pencil pouch. Basically whatever I might have bought at a store back home, as a remembrance of the adventure.

As I continued strolling through the neighborhood, I found a home brew store. I popped in to snap some photos for my dad who is a home brewer in Oregon. 

The streets became steeper and eventually I found a series of stairs with signage leading to the park. Also, suddenly I was in a crowd of people. I had reached my destination and I wasn’t sure how long I wanted to stay.


The main map of the park was painted over with spray paint asking the tourists to leave. It seems the local Barcelonians are not so fond of tourists. Of course, at this moment, I also was craving a quiet place, but that was not to be found until I discovered a tranquil man-made grotto. But before I found my haven I followed the crowds to the top of the peak when a beautiful cross is mounted. It was challenging to get a photo of the cross because all the other tourists were standing at the base of it to take pictures of the city. This vantage point was prime for photographing nearly all of Barcelona. I watched as one lady posing seductively for her husband nearly toppled backward over the edge of the hill.  A Darwin moment was narrowly avoided! There was no railing, for an American traveling abroad it’s interesting because you notice how risk averse our society is. Here in Europe you’ve got to watch out for yourself, the government ain’t gonna protect you! I waited a few minutes for the crowd to clear and finally gave up and carefully made my way down the hill. 


As I entered the heart of the park I noticed queues for tickets and discovered that the park had an entry fee. It seemed I could see enough from the outside, so I strolled about and snapped some photos of the interesting architecture encrusted in intricate tile mosaic patterns. 


I thought it might be nice to sit for a bit and saw a sign for a picnic area and headed in this direction. This is when I found the magic. I entered a sacred space and the notes of one of my favorite piano pieces (I don’t know the name but I recognized the melody) filled the air. Above me was a re-creation of a cave interior with rocks hanging in the pattern of stalagtites, arched openings lined the edges as I walked along a dirt floor in the direction of the music. This area was off the beaten path and blessedly empty of people with the exception of a talented musician playing this hauntingly beautiful music on an electric piano. I dropped some euros in his collection dish and propped myself up against a column to savor the moment. This is one I will never forget. The music rose and bounced off the walls providing incredible acoustics. When I felt like it, I pushed off and headed back in to the city, refreshed and excited for what the day would hold.


I began my quest for lunch…next installment – food, Sagrada Familia and Picasso which will finally bring us to the Gothic district.


Now I’m going to attempt to beat the rain for a bike ride on the Rhein.