Monday, July 26, 2010


I think my favorite Tucker quote from our trip was when he said, very seriously at the aquarium "I think one day I'm going to be a fish." It was like he was deciding that he would be a firefighter when he grew up... only instead, his chosen profession was being a fish.

The other most touching Tucker-ism from our trip was when he repeatedly asked to see Jesus in every cathedral we went into. The first time we went to one, Austin and I took turns going inside so that Tucker wouldn't disturb people. Tucker got really worked up and it turned out that he really really wanted to go in, too. He liked to sit and stare at Jesus on the cross once he found Him in each cathedral and several times didn't want to leave even when we were done looking around.

Tucker was not especially quiet on our trip, but Tucker is so delighted to be home that he has entered a state where he seems to be incapable of not talking. The first day we were home, he asked to do everything we do at home, all at once. He asked to feed the chickens and go to the garden before breakfast on Monday morning. But his most amusing request was when he asked to watch the weather at 11 am (note, watching the weather is a favorite Austin activity, not one that Tucker's ever really gotten into that I've noticed).

He also is on this streak where he likes to specify who he's talking to at the end of each sentence. So instead of saying "This is a popsicle" to us at dinner, he'll say "This is a popsicle, Mommy" and then he'll immediately turn to Austin and say "This is a popsicle, Daddy" and then he'll turn to Ben and say "This is a popsicle, Benny." Tonight at dinner he was narrating his observations to me and I counted him saying my name 7 times in one minute. If you multiply that by the number of minutes I'm around him in a day... let's just say I hear my name A LOT.

Avila and Hondarribia

Our last couple of days in Spain were pretty neat. After a lot of pretty mediocre cafe food, my standards got higher towards the end of the trip and we were a lot pickier about where we ate with much better results. In San Sebastian, we ate at the port twice and finally found some fabulous seafood. On a day trip to Hondarribia we found a little Basque cafe with no English on the menu where Austin was finally able to order fresh anchovies (that incidentally taste nothing like the anchovies that we think of). And in Avila for our last night we got to enjoy some amazing meat at a cook-to-order gourmet tapas bar (most tapas bars just put out sandwiches and other fried food for hours on the bar for quick food... I would definitely not dare to eat any of that stuff while pregnant). We also woke up in Avila to an amazing breakfast buffet with two kinds of Spanish omelettes, lots of chorizo and local cheeses and yogurts and surprisingly, even gluten free baked products (yay!).

But aside from the food, our last two days we visited a few really neat towns. The first was in the Basque country, Hondarribia, which is a little coastal town on the Spanish side of the coastal border between France and Spain. It felt truly Basque, and was just a delight to walk around in. The other big highlight was spending the night at a hotel in a renovated 16th century palace in Avila, the oldest and most complete walled city in Spain (the wall dates to 1100 or before). It was a real treat.

Why not to fly Iberia

We arrived back in the States last night, after quite the long trip home. Austin has been dreading flying with Tucker, and the trip back home fulfilled his (bad) expectations. It wasn't that Tucker was especially bad, it's more just that a lot of what could go wrong did go wrong. But at least we got on the plane.

I just want to say for the record that I never want to deal with the Madrid airport again. We arrived at the airport 3 and a half hours early, mostly because the drive to it was faster than expected. But the airport layout is confusing, the signage is awful, and you have to know what terminal you're flying out of before you can even return your rental car. Still, with some hassle we reached the terminal now three hours before departure to find the absolute longest airport check-in line I've ever seen. It took us more than an hour and forty-five minutes to check-in for our flight. Since our flight wasn't even listed on the monitor, we spent the first hour of that time standing in separate lines trying to figure out which line was the correct one to check-in at. By the time we got to the counter, we got issued boarding passes with no seat assignments and the instructions to check-in again at the boarding gate. I knew this was not a good sign, but given that no one spoke in English, there was nothing to do.

Thankfully, security went quickly, and we still had an hour before our flight. But after we got through security, we discovered signs saying it would take 25 minutes to get to our gate... apparently our gate was in a satellite terminal that required a long train ride, a visit through customs, a long walk, and then extra security procedures for flights departing to the US. (Keep in mind that we didn't have a stroller, and I sprained my ankle that morning and was limping pretty badly.)

So finally we reach the gate, only to find it mobbed with all the people they have overbooked, who haven't been assigned seats. In my printed itinerary, I have the seats that we had been assigned back when we bought our ticket in March, an assignment that they apparently revoked when they decided to select us as the overbooked "Standby passengers." The two agents at the gate spent the next forty minutes while the plane boarded ignoring the mob of people trying to get on the plane, and only spoke in Spanish so what little they said I couldn't understand anyway (but apparently, according to the people around me, even in Spanish they offered no explanation and no guide to what was happening to anybody).

There was a woman in the mob at the gate who needed to be back in DC for dialysis today, and whose life-or-death situation was being completely disregarded by the agents. She was sobbing uncontrollably for most of this time which added considerably to the stress and chaos.

Anyway, we ended up being allowed on the plane after boarding had closed, the last passengers to get on the plane (with our seats all split up)... but thankfully, the flight attendants on the plane were more capable than the ticket agents and had other passengers move around so that all three of us could be together.

It was the most stressful airport experience I've ever had, and the most helpless. We had planned on getting food at the airport before we left but by the time we got to our gate the only thing there was vending machines and the plane was boarding so we didn't feel like we could leave and get anything even then. So we began our 9 hour flight with no water, and only one little baggy of cheerios and a lollipop for Tucker, after missing lunch. Then things got worse when we discovered that the portable DVD player's battery has either lost its charge or was never fully charged in the first place and didn't work. Then things got worse when Tucker fought the Benadryl we gave him and was hyper and high maintenance for the first four and a half hours of the flight. He experimented with kicking the seat in front of us, demanding new surprises every five minutes, and generally acting his age. Thankfully, he ended up sleeping the last half of the flight so Austin and I could relax (but not move, because he was sprawled out on both of us).

The bookend to our trip was landing in Dulles to discover that our luggage, of course, hadn't arrived and there was another long (not moving) line/mob for another Spanish-only Iberia agent who was very limited in her helpfulness. Allegedly we're going to have our luggage delivered tomorrow, but I have to admit I'll believe it when I see the bags.

Surprise Party

Even though it wasn't my mom's actual birthday on the trip, it was close enough to celebrate... and we had the added advantage that she wasn't expecting it! It was a bit challenging to make 60 miniature cupcakes (you can guess why I picked the number 60...) without measuring cups or spoons, in a cheap celsius oven that didn't actual bake very well. But it was very easy to get everyone behind the idea of a surprise party, and we collected a lot of eclectic decorations. Poker, limbo and cake: what makes a better party?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

San Sebastian

We've spent the second week of our trip in San Sebastian, a resort town on the northwest coast of Spain in the Basque country. I think most of us agree that this week in San Sebastian is even a little bit better than the last one in Sitges; the temperature is not so hot (but still good beach weather, at least the first couple of days), we're in the center of a city so it's not a big walk to go places, and the beach out our door involves people with clothes on. San Sebastian is also just really beautiful with an old promenade stretching two miles along the beach, lush mountains all around and some of the old architecture that makes it all seem so romantic and distinguished. We've been having a lot of fun.

We've visited various "unremarkable" cathedrals according to our guides, which seem quite remarkable to us Americans. We had a couple great beach days (look at the pics--I've never seen a beach this crowded at low tide!). The beach even had rafts that you could swim to and diving boards and water slides off the rafts into the ocean. The promenade has a carousel on it that Tucker loves--his favorite is the spinning tea cup which he can spin so fast he made Austin feel really ill. On top of a hill overlooking town is a small castle that has a section as old as the 12th century.

Yesterday was a rainy day and we visited Tucker's first aquarium which was surprisingly good. At one point a worker got in one of the tanks to work and Tucker sat on my lap and watched her for ages. We haven't had tons of great restaurant food on our trip (a lot of cafes with okay to good food) but yesterday we had an amazing seafood lunch at the port. Mmmmmmm. Every night a different family has rotated cooking dinner for the whole group of 18 of us and I think our earliest night here has been leaving the family party at 11 pm (and remember, Austin and I are the boring ones--we never shut anything down). :)

Another big highlight was visiting my great-grandmother's village in the mountains north of Pamplona in a little Basque village named Linzoain. House is a big deal to the Basques, bigger even than genealogy or last name. What house you come from is essentially your heritage, so it was really neat to find her actual house (she lived in the house that has the name of the town on it!). People still live in the house and the village was really neat with a Basque pelota court and narrow streets and courtyards and lots of window boxes with bright red flowers. The uniformity of the architecture and the neatness of it makes a big impression. When my aunt and uncle and cousins went to look at the house in the early evening, the owner of the house was just arriving home from work and gave them a tour, telling them what was original and what was not and giving them cokes and beers--when I get the pics, I'll post them!

Of course, there have been some low lights to the vacation as well. The day we visited Linzoain we went to Pamplona, but Tucker had his first just disaster of a day. He had taken a late nap the day before and gone to sleep late and gotten up early and was just tired. We got to Pamplona just as he was about to fall asleep in the car, and he responded by throwing a tantrum that he basically didn't recover from the entire time we were in Pamplona. I think we were only able to walk about half a mile from the car, to a mediocre cafe with laughably bad service. (At least the cafe was strikingly beautiful--it was one of Hemmingway's hangouts.)

But that was actually the better of the lowlights of that day. The truly worst experience of the trip happened later, after Tucker was in bed for the night. He was (finally) asleep and we were hanging out after dinner at the adjoining apartment with all the family. The two apartments share a foyer and there's an exterior door past the foyer. We've been essentially using the two villas as one and not ever shutting the individual apartment doors, just shutting the main foyer door. That meant that when the wind whipped through our apartment (where Tucker was sleeping) and slammed our apartment door shut at 10:30 at night, all the keys to that door were safely inside the apartment. We were locked out at 10:30 pm, with Tucker inside. In Spain. Arghhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Thankfully, we were able to reach the person managing the apartment who sent over someone to unlock the door within 20 minutes, and Tucker slept through the whole thing. But I felt sick to my stomach for the rest of the night... given the pace of service in Spain it felt like it could easily have been 12-14 hours to find a key or a locksmith or to get someone to answer their phone and respond. Thank you, Lord!!!!

Friday, July 16, 2010


Yesterday, we went to Montserrat, a Benedictine monastery on a sacred mountain for the Catalan people (in the middle of a national park). It was an amazing mountain with incredibly jagged rocky peaks, and it was a lot cooler up there which was a nice break from the hot weather in Sitges. (The online weather for Sitges has had it in the low to mid 80's this whole week, but all I can say is that if that has been true, it has been the absolute hottest week of mid-80s temperatures that I've ever experienced.)

The monastery at Montserrat started in the 9th century, but even before it began there were already hermits living in the caves in the mountains around it. The monastery is still active, and is a popular tourist and pilgrimage site, though the hermitages were all abandoned in the early 1800s (I think during Napoleon's invasion).

One of the biggest attractions at Montserrat is "the black Virgin" a Romanesque statue dated to the 12th century that has been venerated by pilgrims for so long (and surrounded by candle smoke continuously) that its face has turned black. The line to get to the statue was so long that we were content to look at it from afar and skip a needless line. Other than that, Austin, Tucker and I went to a midday prayer service that must've been in four different languages, toured the basilica, heard a kids choir, and took a railcar up part of the way from the monastery to the true top of the mountain from where we walked to see some of the old hermitages in caves. It was pretty neat.

Here are a bunch more pics, including some from Sitges and Barcelona still. (Last entry I had trouble uploading pics, so hopefully they will upload better today.)