Barcelona

Confused by the sign at the station, I got off the train one stop too soon and was standing in the middle of what looked like nowhere. I was Cary Grant in North By Northwest but without the cornfields and of course I am not Cary Grant, but I had the same look on my face. My phone didn’t work in Spain, or Europe for that matter so I couldn’t call Sigrid who was waiting at another station to pick me up.

It was hot. Sun blazing, there was no station and no people except a couple construction workers who informed me that I was in the wrong town. They offered to make a call for me but I didn’t have the number. I needed to get to a computer to retrieve Sigrid’s number from my facebook page. I was totally unprepared for the inevitable “things go wrong while traveling.” After a week in Barcelona, I had become so comfortable that I forgot I really didn’t know where I was.

The first day in a new place is always the same. My eyes moving slowly, panning the scene, looking up to the tops of buildings, discreetly studying the movements of people, noting the pace and mood. It takes a while to begin to digest the initial tastes of life in a new place. Walking Barcelona is a feast for the curious mind and the observant eye.

The first thing to catch my eye were the flags hanging from buildings, balconies, windows, over doors, everywhere you see the flag of Catalonia. The message is clear: You are in Catalonia and we are proud of our country. Indeed Catalonia is a country within a country (Spain).

Next to stand out was the architecture, which is a combination of grand buildings from Spain’s colonial heyday and Gaudi or Gaudi inspired buildings that defy convention in a way tantamount to a visual declaration of war against the status quo. Barcelona embraces and normalizes the avant-garde creating an aesthetic singular to this place. Another clear message: “We see things differently here.”

I recently had a discussion with a friend from Barcelona who was pondering the reasons for the great affection so many outsiders have for Barcelona. I pontificated for a while about the culture, the weather, the beautiful people, food, wine, etc. – all good reasons to love Barcelona. Perhaps there is a simple explanation: people are attracted to freedom.

Barcelona epitomizes freedom of expression, choice and self-identification. Barcelona is  the antithesis of conformity. Individuality seeps from its pores. Even the graffiti ubiquitous across city has a style of its own.

We stayed in an apartment in the Gracia neighborhood. Guidebooks will tell you this is the “hippie” area. I have no idea what they are referring to. There is a bit of an artistic flavor but otherwise a vibrant neighborhood representing a cross-section of the city’s inhabitants. Our host was a charming lady named Maria. Like many in Spain today, Maria has taken a financial hit in the prolonged economic crisis. She makes ends meet teaching Spanish and renting a room to travelers in her beautiful little apartment. Maria’s spirit, kindness and sunrise-to-sundown exuberance defy the reality of her economic challenges. Her disposition was representative of the general mood in Barcelona. The pain is just beneath the surface, yet a general joy of living prevails. A couple times, while walking from one tapas restaurant or wine bar to another, I heard a voice from across the street calling my name. It was Maria making the rounds having dinner with friends or heading out for a date.

If you walk for a few minutes in any direction in Barcelona you will find yourself in a square and in that square you will find locals of all ages eating, drinking, chatting, playing, dancing, especially in the evenings. It’s like every neighborhood has a big outdoor living room.

I met Sigrid about a week after we moved to Leeds in England. I was standing in the middle of the room at my first Internations social event talking with another expat from Amsterdam when Sigrid walked over and introduced herself. Tall, beautiful with long curly hair and a big smile, Sigrid is a natural at breaking the ice. She spoke with a heavy accent and quickly got me up to speed on upcoming social events. Finding out that she is from Barcelona, I was proud to tell her my first trip from the UK would be to her hometown. Coincidentally, she would be there as well and invited me to a party she was planning at her parents house in a suburb of Barcelona.

Five days into the trip, my wife returned to Leeds for work while I followed Maria’s advice and up to the Costa Brava for a couple days.

I returned to Barcelona in time for Sigrid’s party. The plan was for her to pick me up the train station about 15 minutes from the party by car. When I got off the train at the wrong stop my first instinct was to contact Sigrid as quickly as possible so I walked up the nearest road and walked into a small hotel where no one spoke English or Spanish for that matter. They were speaking Catalan. They could not understand one word I was saying. After about 15 minutes, somehow, the manager understood my request to use their computer to access the Internet. They were familiar with the word facebook and this is what saved me.

Sigrid sent two of her friends to rescue me, Arturo and Alberto. The party was already going full steam but they insisted we stop at a local restaurant on the way to have a beer. We had a couple quick rounds and some tapas were served up the traditional way, as an accompaniment to our cervesas. The guys wasted no time bringing me into the fold and I dove right in. Arturo and Alberto were reminiscent of the two guys atop Sugar Loaf mountain in Brazil 8 years prior who I will forever remember as my welcoming committee to the world of travelers. We were like old friends sharing stories and laughing loud enough to alert passerby across the street, despite the fact Alberto spoke no English. As we left, Alberto stopped and had a few words with every other person in the restaurant. We were in a small town 40 minutes outside of Barcelona, a town where people either lived their entire lives or came back to stay close to their roots. I knew straight away, these were my kind of people.

We arrived at the party in good spirits. An outdoor barbeque was going full steam. Most of the guests were friends Sigrid grew up with and the families and significant others. It was a bit of a reunion for them. Within ten seconds a beautiful woman named Rebecca handed me a plate of grilled sausages and introduced herself. Her boyfriend Alex followed close behind with a big hello. Someone handed me a glass of wine. Then Alberto handed me an even bigger plate with more food on it. This was by far the most welcoming first 60 seconds I have ever spent among strangers without breaking the law.

I felt like I was at a reunion with my own friends back in Chicago, but I was somewhere in Catalonia looking out at rolling hills on a beautiful day. All the elements I had noticed in Barcelona individual style, freedom of expression, the joy of social interaction, pride an appreciation for the arts, good wine and good food all came together here. We talked for hours, ate, drank danced. One moment you’re lost and the next thing you know, you are right at home having the time of your life. I do not recall one moment while in Barcelona where I did not feel right at home.

Alberto, kept hugging me and speaking to me in Catalan and Spanish with a huge smile on his face. I did not understand a word, except when he said: “You … you, and patted his heart. I understood that and understand this; people love Barcelona because Barcelona has heart.

 

 

 

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Soul Traveler

IMG_0488There was this girl when I was thirteen. She was my first love. We had become friends. For the first time in my life, I really opened up to another person.  I was crazy about her and I somehow thought this new place I had discovered would remain. Yet my efforts to win her over were thwarted again and again.

It took me a little while to get over the pain of that first heartbreak. I was a kid and had no idea what I was doing. It took a while longer for me to understand that I had done one thing right: I was genuine and I gave the best I had to offer. As I made this revelation, an important step in my growth was made. I was becoming a man, a lover of life and one who lives to love.

As a child in the 1970’s, I was immersed in soulful times. Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and many others gained residency in my ears and in my soul.  Mohammed Ali claimed to “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” He had also given up his heavy weight boxing title and his livelihood in protest of what he believed was an unjust war. Reaching out, removing barriers, living beyond boundaries and doing it all with pride became the only way I could live in a world that was both beautiful and threatening.

“Power to the People” and “Keep Hope Alive” were not just slogans, they were the road forward. I had an afro, which typically was not much more than a patch of overgrown, unruly hair. How I miss that hair now. I used a pick with a black fist handle to signify black power. When placed in your pocket, the handle would extend out showing only the black power salute to the world. It was cool. I used my pick to form my thick tangled mound of hair into a grand perfectly shaped plume.

One time, I cut the bottoms of my flared jeans into strips, creating a fringe effect. I’ll admit it; watching Soul Train primarily influenced my fashion sense.  I did not wear platform shoes, ever.

At some point, I got a haircut and began to dress in a more “preppy” style. Over the years I became more conservative, yet the influences of those early days still remain. They are the only real currency I have. They go where I go. Recovering from that first painful event of my individual life, I realized that wherever I go, I will leave a piece of my soul behind. As long as I am willing to be open, authentic and giving. For there is no way to protect ones heart from sadness, humiliation, ridicule or loss.

About a month ago, my wife and I visited Berlin for the first time. You can read about it here:

Bigger and Better In Berlin, Part 1

https://seaniswanderingaroundagain.wordpress.com/2014/08/05/bigger-and-better-in-berlin-part-1/

We were emotionally overwhelmed most of our time there by our visits to the Holocaust Memorial and the Topography of Terror museum. There was no way we would have visited Berlin and not visited these sites. I consider it an important part of my life journey to gain a greater understanding of our world, where we have been and where we may be going, even if the result of this pursuit is a bit of pain. It was the most emotional and thought provoking museum experience I have had since visiting the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2006, my favorite museum of all.

At the Apartheid Museum, you enter choosing the white entrance or the non-white entrance and you are immediately separated from whomever you walked in with. It is immediately unnerving and if you take three or four hours to view the exhibitions in detail you will be moved mentally into the inhumanity of apartheid and yet before you exit, your sense of humanity will be restored. In essence, you are taken apart and put back together again just in time for lunch.

We were reeling and had to slowly put ourselves back together this time. Berlin had taken a piece of my soul and it will remain there, but before I left, I gained a bit of redemption and I wrote about it here:

Bigger and Better In Berlin, Part 2

https://seaniswanderingaroundagain.wordpress.com/2014/08/06/bigger-and-better-in-berlin-part-2/

Our UK and European adventure is rapidly coming to a close and with it come thoughts of the many people, places and things that have taken root in my being that will be missed.

We were sitting at a picnic table at the Manchester Jazz Festival when I noticed a tall, light-skinned black guy and his wife waiting to order food from one of the vendors grilling up the joint. The man was wearing white linen pants and shirt, a straw hat and two-toned, tan and white shoes. He looked like a guy that had just hopped off a cruise ship in the Caribbean. No one else in Manchester was dressed like this guy. It was summer, but they don’t have that kind of summer in Manchester. His wife was dressed similarly in light colors and fabrics. They were beaming. Think Pharell Williams song “Happy” as the soundtrack of these two walking by.

I remember thinking, “these two are Americans on vacation from California … they’re not from here.” They sat down directly in front of us. The man had a plate with a long sausage, piles of shredded beef and chili crammed into a French roll. He devoured the behemoth sandwich without spilling a drop on his sweet threads.

Andrew and his wife Gwineth were lifelong Manchester residents, I fact and as delightful a couple as I have met. The four of us hit it off immediately. They had just returned from Amsterdam and implored us to go, which we did a couple weeks later.

Andrew dedicated most of his life and career to facilitating diversity in society and in the workplace. He recently left a job of many years and started a Jazz show on an Internet radio station. We talked for hours about jazz and everything else. They took us to a club where we witnessed a New Orleans style marching band turn a neighborhood into a carnival. When it was time for us to depart, they walked us to the bus station.

After several rewarding visits to London, staying in hotels arrayed around the major tourist attractions, I booked a night staying in an apartment outside the city center in North London. The next day, I would meet up with my mother-in-law and her niece and take the Eurostar to Paris.

My host was a lady named Anna. She was born in Zimbabwe, lived in South Africa, spent years leading tours in Egypt and currently works as a civil servant specializing in cases of domestic abuse. Most of all, Anna is a poet. I read from her books some of the best reflections of travel I have ever read, constructed exquisitely in short poems. Anna challenged my perceptions of the reserved, hard-to-get-to-know Brit. We talked and debated for hours, at times seeming to verbally box as neither of us was inclined to offer or accept simple answers to important or complex questions. She opened her home, her mind and her heart. I was inspired by her poems to keep living and writing. In the morning, she fed me a light breakfast and sent me off to my next adventure.

Early in my stay in Leeds, I had the opportunity to participate in a radio show hosted by a dynamic duo of part-time volunteer djs Dom and Lorna. The show was a bit of chaos, songs being faded out before completion to bring in a news report or traffic update. Guests came in and out for interviews. Lorna asked who sang a particular song and I said, Engleburt Humperdinck. “Yes, yes, that’s it. We’ll play that. A paper was thrown my way and I was told to read it in 30 seconds. Jokes and colloquialisms where thrown around. I understood about half of what was said, leading my colleagues to conclude my relative silence was shyness instead of utter confusion. It was great fun.

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Subsequent to the radio visit, Lorna reached out with an offer to show me around Yorkshire. Lorna Kook (yes that’s her name) is an oddball, a funny looking woman if conventional terms mean anything, with long unruly curly hair, glasses and attire that is parts schoolgirl and school marm, that defies age or stylistic description. She paints beautiful scenes of nature, horses, dogs or just trees. She drives fast in a car she describes as slow which she bought to keep her from acquiring that final speeding ticket that will result in the revocation of her driver’s license. The layered oddities and contradictions are exactly what make Lorna an imminently attractive person.

When I first met Lorna she was in a bad mood and I said something that she said she didn’t like. Then I winked at her and used the word baby in a sentence, which she also didn’t like. I was not fazed and I dug in with Lorna. She knew something of what I was going through and whether she liked me or not she would make an impact on my stay in her country. Twenty years prior she left Yorkshire with her three babies to join her husband who had taken a job in Singapore. I was in Leeds with my wife who was working there while I was not. She took the initiative to take me to some idyllic Yorkshire towns. On one particularly beautiful day, we went deep into the countryside with her pony and dog Bilbo. She rode and I walked hills and pastures, intervening with cows and sheep with Bilbo by my side. I kept my composure as one Bull stared me down, convincing me that my ass was on his lunch menu. A waterfall, a lake, very few people, peace and quiet, green and blue as far as the eye could see, our day was like a painting.

There will be sadness when we leave, a true sign of what has been left behind. When you see the smile on my face, know that you are looking at the residue of what I have left behind and the pieces of soul that others have left with me.

I am a soul traveler. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Paris, The Art Of A City

 

Is that what I think it is? I quickly opened the window to find out. Sure enough, two men were walking down the street playing La Vie En Rose smack dab in the middle of Montmartre. I had been there less than five minutes, just enough time to acquaint myself with the apartment that would be home to my wife and I for the next several days and already my second trip to beloved Paris was turning into a movie.

I stepped out to find a snack as the men continued playing and slowly roaming nearby streets. This was Paris in springtime, a city pulsating with the grind of daily life and an ever-romantic backdrop. Paris is a different flavor, unpredictable, yet in a predictable way. When I saw the men playing their trumpets in the middle of the afternoon, my first thought was, “Of course.”

There was nowhere I would rather be at this particular moment in my life and the smile would not leave my face. A few steps down the block and I was staring at a patisserie. I drove the lane like Derrick Rose going for a dunk. The young man behind the counter did not speak English and my five years studying French in school a million years ago offered little help. Not to worry, everything looked delicious. I began pointing out selections when another customer, a lady standing next to me began translating. She introduced me the man behind the counter, engaged a short conversation and wished me a wonderful time in Paris.

I later found out the man behind the counter was the owner. He was fairly young, perhaps late 20’s. He recently opened the store and was up against stiff competition. Among the many patisseries in the area was an extremely popular shop about a block and a half away on busy street steps from the Metro station, with a seemingly never-ending line outside the door. He was working constantly to establish his business, often sleeping in the store. He was clearly pleased to serve a new customer and his croissants, tarts and sandwiches were as good as any others. I would do my best to help out by eating constantly while in Paris but I could only do so much.

The trip was off to a great start and now it was time to check out some jazz. There were and usually are a number of worthy musical offerings in Paris. I decided to stop in on a jam session that started early at a place called, Cave Du Riv. We arrived around the scheduled start time and were the only people there except for a few people who looked like they had just finished a rehearsal and were leaving. The place was quite small, below street level, with no windows. I wondered if anyone was coming. It was a beautiful day outside after all.

We grabbed some drinks and decided to wait a while. We had no plans to go anywhere else in particular anyway. Five minutes later a couple people came in, then a couple more and a few more after that. Then about twelve people streamed in. In no time, a standing room only crowd packed the club and the musicians took the stage.

A trio started out with some classic Be Bop tunes. An intense and energetic pianist led them. He was the kind of musician that constantly moves his mouth, grimaces his face and pulsates his body as he plays. He made playing the piano look like a sport. The audience was deep into the music from the first notes. The trio took off like a rocket. As he played, the pianist gazed at the piano like he was trying to tame it. The other two, a bassist and a young female drummer kept pace. I don’t recall the last time I saw a woman in her 20’s playing drums in a jazz band, certainly not at this level. She played mostly with her eyes closed. The repartee among the three was superb, every handoff taken and fulfilled.

With jazz, especially, Be Bop, its one thing to know the song, play the notes and add a little improv … It’s an entirely different animal when the musicians connect with the emotions underlying the music which is invariably the expression of a particular person’s experience years ago in urban America. Jazz is a medium of expressing the plight and experience of African Americans in the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s, not always, but very often.  Because their plight is that of humans, the music is universal. The young musicians I had the pleasure of seeing on this night were clearly well trained, but their performances came from a place well beyond training.

At the end of a particularly challenging piece, the pianist looked over at the drummer, his grimacing face and bobbing head evolving to a broad smile. She opened her eyes and smiled at him at the same moment, both nodding their heads. Her eyes were wide. You could see pure joy on her face. The musicians clearly felt they had done justice to the song, to its author. It was a special moment for them and it was clear to see it was what some refer to as magic.

I was happy for them. I was happy to be there to witness a moment when passion meets achievement. It was reminiscent of a night years ago when I witnessed, in another standing room only crowd, Michael Jordan hit six consecutive three point shots in game 1 of the NBA Finals and then Michael looked up and motioned his arms as if to say, even I don’t know where that came from. Granted the stage was much smaller in this tiny jazz club in Paris but for those musicians the feeling was just the same.

When you really love something, you want to do right by that thing. The musicians that night, led by the crazy piano player, took one look at the audience and decided to go for it and their passion carried the night.

Several other musicians took the stage and aimed high, keeping the audience enthralled in their performances. Eventually after a few hours, we became so hungry we had to leave. No one was leaving.

France, of course is a culinary juggernaut. When in Paris, there is nothing I would rather do than stop by the cheese guy who is typically next door to the meat guy and the bread guy and don’t forget about the wine guy. Un, deux, trios, quatre … we have a meal. This is exactly how I think about it. A plan for my typical day in Paris might be:

1 Get up

2 Thank the creator for all of this

3 Eat some of the goodies I bought yesterday from the meat guy, cheese guy and bread guy

4 Check out museum X

5 Find a meat guy, cheese guy, bread guy and, oh yeah, wine guy

6 Enjoy the goodies

7 Find some music

Paris was built for exploring.  No plan required.

One thing I didn’t do during my first trip to Paris, a few years ago when I fell in love with the city, was enjoy a meal and a bottle of wine along the banks of the Seine river like the locals. So we geared up, found some great markets, which was the easy part. The hard part was deciding whom not to buy from.  We made it to the river and were not alone in our revelry.

Yet it had not dawned on me exactly why I feel so strongly about Paris until I met Mel and Marcia, retired couple from the Hyde Park neighborhood in my hometown Chicago. Not long ago, I lived about a mile from the home the two have lived in for the last 40 years.

I was exiting another wonderful jazz performance at a club named Le Baiser Sale as Marcia stopped me to ask how was the music. We struck up a conversation, sharing our great love of Paris. We talked about the joys of wandering around and discovering new things. They shared an overview of their journey together from the San Francisco Bay area, to Paris where they lived for a couple years and to Chicago. We had quite a bit in common except for one thing; they described their current trip as their last to Paris. They were filled with joy, yet they were certain their days of adventure are nearing a close.

Marcia then introduced me to an unfamiliar French word flaneur, a person who strolls in an effort to understand the urban landscape and its intricacies or urban explorer. The flaneur is a 19th century archetype important in French literature and particularly associated with life in Paris. In that moment, I knew precisely why I love Paris so much: The artisans, the bread guy, the meat guy, the cheese guy, the musician, the painter …  There is an integrity, honesty and undeniable passion reflected in what they do, a way of life. When you love something, you want to do right by it. Paris does right by the artisans.

In Paris, I never have to wander far to find exactly what I’m looking for.

What You Really Need To Know About Amsterdam

I was mortified by what I saw. My excitement turned by a rush of confusion and anxiety. I had never faced anything like this and dreaded the encounter that was assured to happen. Everywhere in the world they look the same, except here. Of all I had read or been told about Amsterdam, no one warned me about this.

The Dutch have their own way of doing things. I realized that in all my travels, including some fairly exotic and remote places, rarely have I experienced culture shock as I did staring into a Dutch toilet for the first time. I didn’t know what to do. It made no sense whatsoever and would cause unspeakable problems. A “shelf” inside the bowl, right in the middle where things would normally drop safely into water, characterizes the Dutch toilet. The shelf is raised and a small “bowl” is pushed forward beyond where one might reasonably aim yesterday’s lunch. Why would they do this?

Hours passed and thoughts of how to deal with the toilet situation undermined the good vibes and good times emerging on our first night in Amsterdam. We arrived late but found a neighborhood bar around the corner from our apartment. The décor was very 70’s with lots of wood. A robustly shaped woman with a broad smile and a mane of curly golden hair stood behind the bar:

“Hallo.”

Hi.

Some very funky R&B and soul music from the 70’s and 80’s was playing. I sang along with the Brother’s Johnson as locals sitting around the bar looked inquisitively, not expecting tourists so far off the beaten track.

I complimented the bartender’s music selections and stated:

I’m from the 80’s.

(She smiled and winked at me) “So am I.”

A 50-something year old man, seemingly quite inebriated sat next to me. I greeted him:

Hello, how are you?

“Very good, thank you … (He smiled, gathering himself) I enjoy a conversation. Uh, oh, I think I’m being too eager.”

No, you’re okay. My wife and I just arrived and are getting to know the place.

“Oh, you brought your wife?”

Moments later, the curvy blond woman came from behind the bar, spoke to the man and he left.

After taking in a bit of the atmosphere, we left at the same time as another woman sitting at the bar. She had an adorable little dog, well behaved in the bar and bouncing with joy when his feet hit the sidewalk. We struck up a conversation and discovered she lived on the same street as our apartment. We told her the house number:

“Oh Kat’s place.”

Yes, that’s right.

“Well, why didn’t you stay with me?”

Are you on airbnb?

“Yes, you should have stayed at my apartment. You missed out.” Then she waved her arms in the air and did a little dance.

“I’m going to have to move, the police came and told me I don’t really live here.”

What!?

“I am an artist. They inspected my place and said I don’t have enough stuff so they don’t believe I live here.”

Why did the police come?

“This fucking neighbor … ‘Evil Hank’, everybody hates him. He’s bald and fat and he’s mad at me because I wouldn’t …. He poured hot water on my tourists.

What?

“Yeah, he tries to scare my tourists away. He hates tourists. We called the police and he was arrested.”

That’s terrible.

“That’s my place. Two apartments have tourists in them and this is my studio.”

Do you paint?

“Yeah.” As she waves her hands in the air and does a little dance.

There are bicycles everywhere in Amsterdam. This makes walking down the street potentially hazardous yet with fewer autos, the city has a certain calm. We had access to two bicycles, however, we were not keen on riding in the rain, unlike the locals who were unfazed. The other concern was not being able to find our bicycles after locking them up somewhere. Bicycles in Amsterdam are very basic and most look almost exactly the same. The Dutch are the opposite of show-offs.

We stayed in a quiet neighborhood outside the main tourist areas and opted for buses and trams as our primary mode of transportation. We boarded one bus and asked the driver for two 24-hour tickets.

We boarded a bus and asked the driver for two 24-hour tickets. My wife had the 15 euro ready in her hand. The driver said yes and snatched the money from her hand, pulling it toward his body and said, “ gimme the money.” He and we laughed loudly. He then held two tickets in his hand and said, “I will give you tomorrow.” He began speaking rapidly in Dutch. He laughed again. I told him we would stay at his place tonight. He replied, “That’s good,” as he pointed to the roof of the bus and gestured with his hand towards the seats as if to say here is my place.

He finally handed my wife a ticket. As I reached for the other, he pulled it back and said, “No, this is for you,” looking at my wife and pretended to write on the back …”my number.”

“Enjoy your time in Amsterdam.”

Thank you (laughing)

I heard about a place called Monkey Bar and was committed to going there. After some effort and with the help of the good people at another bar, we found the place. Monkey is quite small and is housed in the oldest building in the old part of Amsterdam, circa 1500. As the story goes, back in the glory days of Amsterdam’s global trading dominance, you could buy a beer at this location with a monkey. Sailors slept upstairs and enjoyed a little r&r in the air. The current establishment is 25 years old but immediately evokes a feeling like the embrace of an old friend.

Good drinks are served at surprisingly reasonable prices to a relaxed mix of long-time locals and savvy tourists. We met several people sitting at the bar who regaled their stories of Amsterdam and three things were made clear by consensus. 1) Despite a population of 800,000, Amsterdam is a village 2) The city is a magnet for open-minded and accepting people and 3) You are expected to have a good time in Amsterdam, in your own way, whatever that is …

IMG_0691We met several expats, each of whom came over to be with a love interest and years after the relationship ended, they are still living in Amsterdam. One such person was a 27-year transplant from Wisconsin named Kimberly a red-light district tour guide. Kim was very friendly and along with her friend Dan, an expat from Canada, engaged us in stories of life in the Village. Kim would occasionally interrupt one of her stories to proclaim, “You’re so cute” (to me) and “I’m not after your husband” (to my wife). After a couple more drinks, she insisted we go see the peep show and have a lap dance: “You must, you’re in Amsterdam … you have too.

We must honey (looking at my wife who looked at me with a blank stare)

Kim buys us a round of drinks and then says, “We have to go to a gay bar and dance.”

My Wife: “Yes, yes!” (Jumping out of her chair)

Me: Wait, wha … what happened to the other thing? Remember the other thing? We had a plan … an agreement, right … right?

Kim: “Let’s go, finish your drink. Don’t be scared.”

I’m not scared, I just feel like I just got ripped off. Can we make a deal?

About a minute later we walked up to a club blaring disco, a crowd of men cheering, but it was too packed. A few steps further we found another place an octave lower in energy but still festive.   The three of us ended up in a small room downstairs near the restroom and with windows in the middle looking out onto one of the canals.

The six or so men in the room chatting took an interest in the obvious tourists. There were a couple American travelers in the group including one who upon discovering that he and my wife are both Sagittarius while his partner of 32 years and I are Virgos, shared a moment of commiseration with my wife. I quickly advised him on how to recognize his Virgo’s expressions of appreciation. We quipped and laughed about how hard it can be for one to relate to the other.

Each person in the room engaged us in a range of conversations about Amsterdam, England, the world and “how I got here” exposes and like every other encounter we had, people really listened with interest and respect. We left the place with handshakes, waves and salutations. “Enjoy Amsterdam.”

We walked further into the night, crossing a bridge, turning a corner into a dense, slowly streaming crowd. Oh this is the red light district. Curiosity seekers caught glimpses of the beautiful young women in neon-framed windows wearing bikinis or lingerie, many of whom were staring into their smartphones bored by the lack of paying customers. I wondered aloud, how much rent are these places generating?

“Wives come see a big dick for a change,” said a man hawking a club featuring male dancers a few feet away from a fast food restaurant, next to a bar, next to a sex shop, next to a mobile phone dealer sharing a building with a small hotel.

There is no pretense in Amsterdam. Back at the Monkey Bar, I met a delightful man in his 60s . He was bald with a bit of a belly. He could have been “Evil Hank,” but he greeted me in a welcoming manner. Most of the night, he stood in a corner, smiling constantly, chatting with a group of bar regulars. Kimberly leaned over, this time not to hug me and tell me I’m cute but to whisper, “he’s a very important man. He watches the government. When they do something wrong, he goes after them and he wins. He’s the ombudsman.” In this village everyone rides a non-descript bicycle and you can’t tell the difference between the big shots and the tour guides.

With all the excitement, our long weekend was over in a flash. Thankfully, I mastered the art of the Dutch toilet finding a detailed explanation on the Internet, which included the following:

“The biggest problem with the shelf design? Once you’re ready to say ‘Tot ziensI’ to your latest triumph, it’s not always so quick to leave. If you do succeed in getting everything off the shelf and down the hole in one flush, odds are high that traces will be left behind. To avoid having to clean up after yourself with a toilet brush or, gods forbid, your bare hands, try making a soft bedding of toilet paper for your stool to land on. The toilet paper will act as a raft and carry everything away without a trace.”

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Now you know what you really need to know about Amsterdam.

We really enjoyed our stay and the rest of the story, as they say, stays in Amsterdam…

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The Edinburgh Fringe

Fringe:

An area of activity that is related to but not part of whatever is central or most widely accepted.

One of the best experiences I have had so far on this Anglo-European odyssey was a weekend trip to Edinburgh, Scotland, which is pronounced Edin-burrah. I am apparently the only person in the northern hemisphere that pronounces it Edin-berg. I rue the day I find myself in Pennsylvania and Pitts-burrah slips out of my mouth.

Edinburgh is immediately welcoming, cradled between the sea and lushly green hills. You will meet strangers and they will dive right in with you. The first man I met, an older gentleman, smartly dressed with a smart sport coat told me everything I needed to know about riding the bus in town. He also explained the Scottish Bank note I somehow had in my hand that I received as change without noticing. It was the first currency I had seen in the UK purporting to be British Pounds that was not adorned with the face of the Queen. I asked him about the money and he said it was fine and not to worry. Although, if I spent it in the south (England) some might think it “dodgy.” Later, as he was about to get off the bus, he stopped by my seat to make sure I knew where to get off.

I was headed to the one and only Edinburgh Festival Fringe. In 1947, eight independent theater troupes showed up uninvited to the Edinburgh International Festival and the “Fringe Festival” was born. Today, Fringe is the world’s largest performing arts festival with over delivering over 3,000 shows and more than 45,000 performances running each August for three weeks. The Fringe runs currently with the Edinburgh International Festival, which is much smaller but includes bigger name performers.

Pretty much everyone I have met in four months in the UK recommended both Edinburgh and the Fringe Festival, but like so many other things along the traveler’s road, words do not do it justice.

Everywhere you walk someone is performing on the street or handing you a flier asking you to come to his or her show. Performers come from all over the globe to showcase their talents as musicians, actors, comedians, dancers, circus acts, you name it … someone is doing it.

I enjoy the arts and particularly love the energy of artists on the rise, struggling to hone their skills and find in audience.  Many performances are free, while most others range in price from about $7 to $20 USD. To me this is the essence of the arts. And even now, with Fringe so big, it has taken over an entire city, artists come un-booked and find their way in front of an audience.

The first performances I saw where in a former church, a structure that was probably 300 years old. Kicked off by a folksy solo singer and guitarist who was quite Then I saw this kid walk by with a huge afro and I’m thinking:

Nice hair. I wonder how much this kid knows about the seventies. I remember when I had hair like that, but it never got that big.

Anyway, a band marches in and there’s the kid with the afro, of course. They were a jazz orchestra from a high school in Nottingham with about ten horns, a drummer and a guitarist. These kids were quite spirited, playing 100-year-old songs as though they were today’s pop hits. I was ready to expect the unexpected.

The next performance I took in was a play performed in the basement of a restaurant. Virtually every space in Edin-burrah is a potential performance space. The ceiling was so low, one of the actors almost knocked himself out when he jumped during the finally of an odd dance scene interlude in a story that takes place on a bus stop very late one Friday night in London.

There was some good acting in the story and good writing through the first scene, but then I spent most of the rest of the show thinking about how cute the woman dressed like a bee looked and wondering why a story about cultural differences focused on the misunderstandings of an extremely drunk individual. And I’m glad I saw the (free) show.

If you haven’t seen art that you don’t particularly like, you aren’t trying hard enough and Fringe is a grand opportunity to try something new.

There were so many performances; I picked up a book the size of a mid-market phone book (oh yeah, what’s a phone book?). My bad, it was a rather large book listing all the performances of the Fringe festival, and so I found myself getting sucked in by key words and funky titles. One was called “Nougat For Kings.” It was an odd and mildly amusing show.

The absolute highlight for me was a one-woman show entitled, “Black Is The Color of My Voice.” A story based loosely on the life of Nina Simone and performed exquisitely by Apphia Campbell. Well written and exquisitely performed by Ms. Campbell, I was moved unlike any theater performance I have seen in quite some time and even then, it was probably Viola Davis or James Earl Jones doing the moving.

My hope is that someone reading this is a theater producer or knows a producer who will bring the show to the US for an extended run. I spoke with both the lead and the director after the show and they have done two performances in New York and recognize that the audience for this show primarily resides in the US.

Somewhere in between watching a series of stand-up comics, good, not-so-good and in some cases most likely one-and-done, I got drenched in what is to be expected in Scotland, a downpour and ducking for a dry doorway as my feet swam like fish in my shoes, I almost got in a fight with a local guy probably ten years older than me.

He asked me where I was from, which I get a lot because of the accent. By the way, finally I’m the one whose accent people dig. I told him I’m from Chicago and he immediately said some rude things about President Obama and I was not having it. It took him about 45 seconds to reverse the first impression, dial back the vitriol, find common ground and engage in a pleasant and thoughtful exchange.

As the rain quieted we looked each other in the eye, smiled, shook hands and said goodbye.

In Edinburgh, always respect the fringe.

Bigger and Better In Berlin – Part 2

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As I walked along Jesse Owens Allee, the street leading to the Berlin Olympic stadium, I never would have imagined it would be such an emotional journey. I stood in front of the stadium looking up at the Olympic rings as a few other visitors passed by, I focused on the man who had been in my thoughts since I arrived in Berlin, Jesse Owens.

Thirty years before I was born, Jesse Owens saved my life. I am convinced of this. You see, there are many moments during a boy’s journey to manhood, especially an African American boy, that he is one step away from cracking, from losing his way, separating from his values, self-worth and hope, ultimately losing his future. Unfortunately, many such boys have no intervening forces to aid them in their moments of need. I had several and one of the first external influences of my consciousness of self-identity was Jesse Owens.

Three years before the Nazis invaded Poland, launching their effort to acquire “living space”, enslave the Polish people and round up and murder more Jews, Hitler was defeated at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin by Jesse Owens.

Jesse Owens was the grandson of slaves. The Nazis built their Olympic stadium and planned to use the 1936 Olympics to showcase their racist propaganda and supposed Aryan genetic superiority. Hitler publicly ridiculed the United States for allowing African American athletes on their team.

Jesse Owens dominated the Olympic games winning gold medals in four track and field events. The German fans cheered him on as he entered the stadium. He won them over with his excellence on the field, his grace and dignity. Hitler was humiliated, at one point walking out of the stadium in disgust, his theory of a master race exposed as fiction.

As a child, when I first learned of the Nazis, my faith in humanity was shattered. His grace, determination and focus in the face of the forces of human destruction made a lasting impression on me and is a pillar of who I am, or at least who I aspire to be. When faced with crossroads at various points in my young life, images of Jesse Owens in those Olympic games would flash in my brain along with voices of guardians like my mother and grandmother, guiding me towards the one step I needed to take at that moment to remain intact and move from darkness to light.

One such circumstance came about when I was eleven years old, my mom had moved us to a Chicago suburb, presumably for a better job, better home and a better life. I do not recall ever being directly confronted with racism before this and I did not realize that I was the only African American at my middle school until years later.

Early on, while riding my bicycle home from school, I was confronted by a mob of ten or twelve kids from the neighborhood including classmates. It was the first time since I started going to the new school that I wasn’t with my only two friends. Now isolated, I was a target. They called me every racial slur you could think of and threatened to beat me and run me out of town. Since I was from the city, I had been beaten up before, and could handle a beating, but not under these circumstances and not by an angry group.

The situation felt surreal and even though it was broad daylight there did not seem to be anyone coming to my aid. I wanted to fight each of them one by one but I knew instinctively if I provoked one it would provide an excuse for all. I visualized Jesse Owens right there in my mind. I saw his face, without fear, showing determination and dignity. I rode slowly, maintaining my composure, I looked each person in the eye as if to say, you cannot change who I am, nor will I. Every day, I saw these kids and faced their taunts, doing my best to avoid them. I heard the n-word many times on a daily basis at school. Yet like Jesse Owens, I was not touched once.

I have been blessed with family members who as a rule stand up for their individual rights and especially the rights of others. Thus, at an early age I formulated a clear point of view:

If you are not willing to stand up for your rights,
You are a coward

If you are not willing to stand up for the rights of others,
You are a coward and a fool

Jesse Owens moved to Chicago, hometown of his Olympic teammate Ralph Metcalfe in 1946. Metcalfe won a silver medal in the 100 meters sprint (Owens won Gold) and a gold medal with Owens in the 4 x 100 relay. Jesse Owens dedicated himself to uplifting the African American community through organizing youth programs and public speaking. Metcalfe, Owens lifelong friend was also dedicated to serving the community through politics. Metcalfe worked his way up through the Chicago Democratic machine and was elected alderman and later to the U.S. House Of Representatives. He broke with the machine in the 1960’s and over the years mentored scores of future African American politicos in Chicago.

In 1983, Harold Washington, a long-time protégé of Ralph Metcalfe ran for Mayor of Chicago. Chicago had historically been a racially polarized city whose politics where tightly controlled by a machine not inclusive of racial or ethnic minorities. Washington’s bid for Mayor was improbable.

At 17, I stood along with thousands of volunteers to get the vote out for Harold Washington. The opponent’s campaign slogan was “Vote For Epton, Before It’s Too Late.” We were campaigning for inclusive governance and fairness. Despite racist elements showing their faces during the campaign, Harold Washington won two terms as Chicago Mayor and died in office. He replaced machine politics with diversity representing the citizens of the city beginning a process of government reform. Most of all, Washington launched an ambitious urban development plan that has continued now for 30 years.

I remained active politically active and learned grassroots organizing and voter mobilization from people who had worked with Ralph Metcalfe. I remember being told, “I will teach you what Ralph Metcalfe taught me.” In 2008, I stood in Chicago’s Grant Park along with many other descendants of Ralph Metcalf and Harold Washington’s political family as Barack Obama, another Chicagoan became the first African American President of the United States.

When you visit my hometown, Chicago, you may enjoy the beautiful parks along the lakefront, museums, concerts in the park and you may say what many travelers I have met around the world say, “Chicago is a beautiful place.” Indeed it is. Chicago is bigger and better than ever today because of Harold Washington and Ralph Metcalfe and Jesse Owens.

In 1936 in Berlin, Adolf Hitler had a plan to destroy the humanity of mankind piece by piece, but other individuals were bigger and better. Even in the darkest of times and the darkest of places, one person can make a difference. Willy Brandt and Jesse Owens emerged victorious transforming darkness into light. They never stopped stepping in the right direction.

As I stood in front of the stadium aware of where I was and where I had come from, my pride swelled as an image passed through my mind of Jesse Owens passing a baton to Ralph Metcalfe who passed the baton on to others who passed it on to me.

The stadium, now a symbol of Jesse Owens legacy was intact, Berlin was intact and so was I.

Bigger and Better In Berlin – Part 1

Peaceful protest at Potsdamer Platz

Peaceful protest at Potsdamer Platz

Pieces of the Berlin Wall

Pieces of the Berlin Wall

Engulfed by the Holocaust Memorial

Engulfed by the Holocaust Memorial

Enjoying a rooftop bar in Berlin

Enjoying a rooftop bar in Berlin

This one's coming home with us

This one’s coming home with us

You can ride GDR style if you like

You can ride GDR style if you like

I looked forward to sampling the cool and hip bars, restaurants, galleries and shops that Berlin has become known for, considered by many to be the It city of Europe right now. Spending some much time in Leeds, UK, my coolness has been on the wane lately. Ok, my coolness has been non-existent, so perhaps I could get some element of my groovyness back … yeah baby (so what I mean). My time in Berlin would however become a much more personal journey than expected.

Emerging from the subway station, I first saw what appeared to be an organized protest. People carrying flags and signs surrounded dozens of small mock-coffins representing the dead in the recent violence in Gaza. The crowd was comprised mostly of Palestinians. Their signs called for peace and legal action against the occupation in Palestine, not violence. There was music playing. The atmosphere was that of an exhibition or even a festival. Curious onlookers studied the scene and engaged the participants. There were no angered voices, chants or confrontations. What I saw at Potsdamer Platz in the middle of Berlin was a dignified and serious call for peace and the prevalence of humanity over violence.

For many years, Germany was not a country I had any interest in visiting. I became a student of history at an early age and for me the very worst of humankind in recent history was exemplified by slavery and its subsequent and on-going de-humanization, oppression, exploitation of and discrimination against the African Diaspora and the madness of the holocaust perpetrated the Nazis and facilitated by countless accomplices, co-conspirators, enablers and onlookers. These two dark periods of history have informed and motivated me to consistently stand for human rights, without reservation whether it is my own facing adversity or others unlike me. Yes, I believe it can happen again, but each individual can make enough of a difference to change the course of history for the better. In my youthful imagination, the gates of hell were quite possibly located in Berlin, Germany, the seat of the regime from which Hitler unleashed a systematic program to murder all Jews and dismantle the souls of all of humanity.

Not long after the allies defeated the Nazis, destroying 70% of Berlin, the Cold War and the Berlin wall replaced Nazi surrealism. Berlin became the center of intrigue and tension between East and West. Finally in 1989, the wall came down and the process of German re-unification began. This, however, exposed the vast differences between the democratic, capitalist and the communist, socialist economic model. West Germany and West Berlin had rebuilt and become a highly educated, highly skilled, affluent society. East Berlin was poor. Needless to say, my long held perception was that Berlin was bad news, the end. Yet 20+ years after the fall of the Berlin wall, I heard nothing but good things about the city. Somehow it had become a progressive, fun and interesting place to visit. I knew I had to see it for myself.

The road taught me long ago that if you are interested in something go and see it, experience it first hand. This is my primary motivation for traveling. Reading, watching videos and hearing others talk about a place fails to convey what is to be gained from being there yourself. If you are uncertain about my claim, try this: Study photos and videos of the Grand Canyon for a while and then go there yourself. Then let me know what you think. The key reason why being there is incomparable to vicarious experience is you. Don’t get me wrong, I watch the videos, read the books and love other people’s travel stories. You, however, are the ingredient that makes a particular place and time unique, salient and special … the way you feel, react, interact and connect is what makes the Grand Canyon special and not just a giant hole in the ground.

When you visit Berlin you are likely to have a very different experience than mine, but I would like to share with you a bit more of my experience in Berlin. Berlin is geographically a quite large metropolis and yet easy-going. The post Cold War building boom continues. Construction cranes rise in the sky at seemingly every turn. Soviet-era buildings have been replaced by modern buildings to the point where you cannot distinguish the old East Berlin from West. The population is diverse as reflected in the shops, restaurants and public places, which have a thoroughly international, feel. It is fair to say the Berlin is an international city more so than a German city in the same sense that London and New York are international cities. Berlin however is characteristically calm, progressive not only in a political sense but in a visible social sense as well.  Freedom of expression is the order of the day, yet I saw no signs of excessive behavior. I felt welcome, free and respected.

Now granted, my time there was short but I saw nothing to contradict what my senses were telling me. My wife and I visited historical sites, dined in interesting places and caught a nice performance at a jazz club. We spent considerable time at the Holocaust Memorial and a museum called Topography of Terror, two well-executed venues which informed us of more than we ever wanted to know about the Nazis and the holocaust. The latter located on the former site of the headquarters of the Nazi secret police, the prime purveyors of Hitler’s orgy of murder.

Unexpectedly, many strands of my life began to connect with Berlin as we stumbled across a museum dedicated to a man named Willy Brandt. Willy Brandt was a political activist who opposed the Nazis as a teenager and was forced to live in exile in Norway and later Sweden. He became active in politics and organized resistance. When the war ended, Brandt returned to Germany in 1946, resumed his activism and was elected mayor of Berlin in 1957.

He fought tirelessly for individual rights, democracy and peace. Brandt initiated urban development programs, and despite the Berlin wall being erected by the Soviets in 1961, he initiated peace agreements with the Soviet Union, Poland and other Eastern Bloc nations. He was elected Chancellor of West Germany in 1966, the year I was born and continued to push urban development and social reform programs that expanded individual rights and women’s rights in particular as well as social welfare programs such as healthcare. Brandt’s efforts towards peace laid the groundwork for Glasnost, the fall of the Berlin wall, the SALT talks and subsequent disarmament treaties between the US and USSR and finally the re-unification of Germany. He won the noble peace prize in 1971.

Willy Brandt was a man who stood up for humanity his entire life and in the process not only helped to rebuild Germany’s infrastructure and government but its collective soul. When you visit Berlin today, you will enjoy its beautiful public spaces, modern design, museums, galleries and welcoming atmosphere. Berlin is bigger and better than ever today in part because Willy Brandt stood bigger and better than the forces around him. I am grateful that I was able to experience this place first hand. I had no idea how much it would mean to me and this was only the beginning.

There is more to the story in Part 2 …

Cadaques And Salvador Dali

Serendipity sometimes seems like destiny. I had stumbled into this idyllic town on a recommendation from a host from Airbnb and somehow capped off a perfect side trip with one of the best meals I have eaten in years in a place called Compartir.

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Maria, my host in Barcelona, recommended a trip to Figueres and the nearby seaside town Cadaques. My wife had already gone back to the UK so I was looking to extend my exploration further afield in Catalonia. A consensus of voices suggested a visit to the Costa Brava for its beautiful coastline and casual atmosphere and good Catalonian cuisine. The Teatro Museu Dali, founded by Salvador Dali himself and his former home in Cadaques, given my interest in the surrealist artist, made this was a perfect side trip.

Often, the best accommodations and deals are found in the spot, especially in smaller towns with locally run establishments. There is a risk of being shut out are forced to pay a very high rate, but it is low season in Spain so I took the risk.

When I arrived, I checked a map on the wall at the train station, which listed hotels and set off for one I previously researched on Tripadvisor. The hotel was away from the center of town. A couple, perhaps in their early 30’s, looking like seasoned budget travelers, stood beside me studying the map. The womanpointed and lept towards the map, “There it is. Plaza Inn.” It was one of only two hotels on the map given as many as three stars. Sometimes, the best course of action is to follow someone who has info you don’t have. They discussed their walking route, as I took their unintended advice and hopped in a cab to the Hotel Plaza Inn.

Beating them to the hotel, I was greeted by a lovely and cheerful young lady who offered a room for 45euro per night, which was about 15 euro less than the out-of-the-way place I couldn’t find. The room was attractive and clean with a comfortable queen sized bed, nice bathroom, a small fridge with complimentary water and a large balcony with a table seating and a hammock. The hotel also has a rooftop deck, where every Saturday night, guests are invited to a barbeque. I missed that but was quite pleased with my choice. Best of all, it was a two minute walk to the Dali Museum.

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After a wonderful and inexpensive Catalonian meal at a nearby restaurant, I got a good night sleep. The next morning, I arrived at the Teatro Museu Dali shortly after it opened. Dali has always been one of my favorite artists. To me, his work is surreal yet relatable, like someone sharing their dreams with you. Yes, weird things happen in dreams but we all have them and can relate to the odd relationships and juxtapositions that occur in them.

The museum was loaded with paintings, sculptures, jewelry and other oddities created by Dali and other artists inspired by him. There were numerous sketches and minimalist paintings, which provided insight into Dali beyond his more provocative surrealist work. His wife Gala appears prominently throughout his work as well.

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By the time the big crowd showed up I had finished my tour of the museum and was on a bus making hairpin turns across the mountains to Cadaques. My calm reflection interrupted the four or five times the driver slammed on the breaks angrily honking his horn as the road wasn’t wide enough for the bus to make the turns without encroaching oncoming traffic. Not in a million years would I drive this road myself.

Cadaques is a postcard set in a bay along the Mediterranean Sea with a mountain backdrop creating a natural barrier between it and hordes of traffic and development. The tiny town was quiet and breezy with a light stream of mostly French tourists gliding along narrow streets, the seaside and dotting small rocky patches of sand. It was warm enough as the sky was clear and the sun reflected off the white washed buildings to feel the mood of summer.

After a nice walk around the bay, I found another great deal at a wonderful hotel called Hotel Llane Petit. Overlooking the bay, I opted for a room without a view with a king sized bed. The room was modern, clean and minimalist. A full breakfast was provided for the low season discounted price of 58 euro.

I checked in, put on my flip-flops and ventured out for a more thorough investigation of the town.   You can’t walk for too long in a place like Cadaques without being tempted to stop for ice cream or tapas or a glass of wine. My eyes followed a sign that read “Enoteca,” anticipating Italian food, I found some intriguing Catalonia specials of the day.

A very enthusiastic and assuring young server named Julie recommended I try the cannelloni. One was filled with a mix of chicken, pork and beef and the other a mix of duck and foie gras. I had both and discovered the delights of the region bordering France and Spain. I inquired about the wine to which my server responded with glee, “You must try our own wine. We own a restaurant, hotel and only vineyard in Cadaques.” Julie’s boyfriend’s family owned the business and she told the story of the Martin Faixo Bodega.

Many years ago, Cadaques was flush with vineyards when suddenly a disease killed all the vines. Since then, olive orchards replaced vineyards. Until finally, the grandfather of the current owners replanted vines which today produce absolutely wonderful wine. I order a glass of white … and then another. It was one of those perfect moments in life the view, the food, the mood. Moments like these are almost always unexpected. The moment was sublime as I sat by the sea in tiny town trapped in time, the world perfectly calm, drinking what for me was an excellent glass of wine costing all of 2.80 euro. It got better.

I asked Julie if I needed a reservation to visit the home of Salvador Dali, the top attraction in Cadaques. I needed to go the following morning before heading back to Barcelona in the afternoon. She said yes and offered to call for me. After several minutes, she came back to my table and informed me that the Dali home was booked for the next five days… but she was able to get me in.

Now I was set, nothing to do but relax. I shared my very positive review of the food and wine with Julie. To which she replied, “Yes, there are very good restaurants in Cadaques. There is one that I think might be the best in the world the world.”

What? Say Again. Here in Cadaques?

“Yes, Compartir is the best. Do you know El Bulli?”

Yes. I do.

“You should go there.”

I read an article in the Easy Jet magazine on the flight to Barcelona about how El Bulli, formerly considered the best restaurant in the world, and now closed is currently the most influential restaurant on the planet as it is now an institute of gastronomy. Two chefs trained at El Bulli opened Compartir in Cadaques.

Suddenly, I had a new goal. Although, I was a bit apprehensive that such a restaurant would be way out of my price range. Julie gave directions. It was only a five-minute walk. I stopped by to scout it out. They weren’t open and the place didn’t look like it would be open anytime in the near future, but the menu posted outside reflected moderate prices.

After a very quiet and relaxing night, I ate everything at the at the hotel’s breakfast buffet. It was another postcard worthy day. I walked along the waterfront, through the narrow streets, up and down steep hills to the home of Salvador Dali.

Visitors are allowed into the home in small batches. The inside of the house is small relative to the outside spaces and is filled with a broad range of interesting artifacts owned by Dali and his beloved wife Gala.

There was nothing in the home that seemed strange as some might expect given Dali’s peculiar artwork, unless you consider a penis-shaped pool strange. There are dedicated areas for entertaining, work and private life. Comfort and simplicity prevail throughout the home. A disparate array of objects, some religious, some representing nature and others of sentimental value flavor the home. Salvador and Gala apparently lived a simple, comfortable and entertaining life together in Cadaques.

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The outdoor spaces cascade upward as the house runs up the side of a hill facing the bay. These spaces were built for entertaining to be sure, but as I sat down and looked toward the sea, I could see in my mind Dali paintings, the same sky I was viewing appearing prominently in his work. I sat on a long stone bench facing the bay, a spot Dali most certainly spent many hours, in a beautiful place bound by sea, sky and mountains facing the mysteries and randomness of life while reveling in the simplicity and joy of it all.

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Becoming A Traveler – Part 1

 

Image“Quit your job man and travel,” said the British guy. “Yeah don’t worry about it, quit your job” added the Austrian guy.   This was the precise moment my transition from tourist to traveler began.

We were atop Sugar Loaf Mountain, a prime spot for an idyllic view of Rio de Janeiro surrounded by fog. There was no view. The odd pair of European travelers was having a mild argument when I arrived. They leaned back in their chairs, determined to wait it out. “Wait … wait, you must be patient, it will break,” I heard one say. If anything, the fog got worse. The city below, in all its sensual glory quickly disappeared.

The sky was clear when I purchased my ticket for the bus tour, it’s sole highlight a visit to the top of Sugar Loaf Mountain. By the time the cable car ascended half way up the mountain, clouds began to close in. When we reached the top, you could see about twenty feet in front of you. There was no photo op. The concession stand had run out of food. There was no alcohol. There were no other tourists and the small group from the tour bus was disinterested. I had 30 minutes to kill on a wasted tour.

The two guys sitting near an overlook holding their cameras out in front of them, hoping to catch clear moment, became the only point of interest on the mountain. I took a position a few feet away from them with my camera in hand, looking for a crack in the fog and a glimmer of the beautiful city below.

I used their discourse regarding the fog as a segue to conversation. They asked the usual questions, Where you from? What brings you here?, etc.

“I recently ended a long relationship with my girlfriend. It was not my choice. I was devastated. After some soul-searching, I realized there were other things in my life that needed to change. I’m thinking of quitting my job and I’m not sure what I will do, but I know I want to travel around the world.   So I came to Brazil for two weeks as sort of a test run of solo travel. I have wanted to visit Brazil for many years. I finally made it here.” 

We were sitting somewhat above the clouds. We could see the sky, but nothing below. We could make out faint glimmers of the Christ The Redeemer statue in the distance, but nothing else. It was like an alternate version of heaven and these two characters, who initially reminded me of Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street, were my Peter and Paul. For the sake of good story telling, I will refer to the Brit as Paul and the Austrian as Peter. Upon my confession, Peter and Paul became my ambassadors opening the gates to the world of travelers. It was as though they had been waiting for me atop that mountain all along.

Paul was finishing a year around the world, crossing Europe, spending most of his time meandering through Asia and finishing with several weeks in South America before heading back to the UK to plot his next adventure. Paul was quite enthusiastic in his efforts to allay my fears of casting off into the unknown. He told a story of friend, who under circumstances similar to mine, decided to travel. He took a short trip. Came back home. Quit his job. Sold his possessions and went back on the road. Seventeen years later he was still traveling. His point was you can make it work.

Peter spoke with less dramatic flair. He was a slow traveler, patient. He was the type of traveler that will spend long stretches alone. On this trip he would circle South America climbing and hiking the continent’s major mountain ranges. His matter-of-fact style of encouragement was even more reassuring than Paul’s cheerleading.

They both seemed eager to share their travel knowledge, if for no other reason than to steer them off the path of appearing to bicker like an old couple. I asked a litany of questions, for which they gave detailed answers. Every problem had solutions. There were ways to make it work, unlimited sources of information, networks of travelers on every route you could imagine.

Traveling longer meant traveling on a budget. Staying at big resort hotels for long stretches was cost prohibitive. They schooled me on the virtues of the youth hostel and its central role in worldwide budget travel.  I imagined dingy dorm rooms filled with out of control young adults, a cesspool of infestation, fowl odors and annoying, semi-coconscious people. My guides assured me that clean, quiet and comfortable accommodations were available virtually everywhere and that older travelers like myself enjoyed the benefits of youth hostels. They were staying in one just below the mountain and paying $10 USD a night each for a double room.  I was paying about $100 USD per night for a decent hotel room one block from the beach.

My life had changed in less than 30 minutes. I left Peter and Paul where I found them but will never forget our chance meeting assuaged by fog. What I learned on Sugar Loaf Mountain would prove to be invaluable. They instructed me in the fundamental knowledge of independent travel and gave me the confidence to set sail for ports unknown. Most importantly, they welcomed me to a place where people only appear to be different from you and me. Those people walking around with backpacks and funny looking shoes, some looking like they haven’t showered in days, most often are just good people exploring the world.  I too would travel the world. It was as simple as having an open mind. I came down the mountain and began my journey as a traveler.

To be continued …