Close to Home? Visiting Spain

One of the main selling points that Stefan used in pitching his moving-to-Europe idea, was that once we settled on a base, we could easily travel around to other countries, introducing the kids to places we love and discovering new lands. Our Spring Break road trip last week gave us the opportunity to do a little bit of both. Our main destination, San Sebastian, Spain,(or Donostia in Basque, which is as prominent as Spanish since it’s one of the capitals of the autonomous community called the Basque Country) was new to all of us, and it ended up having something for everyone’s tastes – beaches and sunshine for me, an established food scene for Stefan, and a charming, if somewhat rickety, amusement park for the kids, all situated in a naturally and architecturally beautiful place.

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As a multicultural person, or more specifically a Cuban-American raised in Philly, married to a Frenchman, who’s lived in Spain and Italy, every trip to a new city automatically triggers a somewhat subconscious search for connection with its people, culture, and language. This eternal quest, which really filters down to trying to find the place in which you fit best in this big ol’ world, may or may not call to all exiles and immigrants and their children, but it definitely speaks to me. Do I look more like these people than the ones I grew up with? Do they speak my language? Do we think alike? Do they feel like family? Do they get me? Do I feel that undefinable, chemical-level connection with them? My intellect tells me that you can never have all of this with any one people, only with individuals, and at this point, I also know that I belong to an international tribe more than to any one nation, although I can feel fiercely American or Cuban, or even Latin American at times. But none of this stops my heart from trying to find a physical homeland, and envying just a bit those who were born into a people with a place of their own, that they love and feel is uniquely theirs.

In this endeavor, San Sebastian gave me a lot to mull over, but although my grandfather and most of my great grandparents were born in Spain, and Spanish is my family’s primary language, the international tribe member in me connected more with this city than any other part. It’s a wonderfully functional European city that, because of its status as a premier tourist beach destination for over 100 years, seems to be very culturally diverse, even if its resident population is mostly Spanish and Basque. It also has a vibrant art scene, beautiful historical areas, and as I mentioned above, a world class foodie culture.

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Located at the northeastern tip of Spain, just 12 miles from the French border, the natural landscape of the city, is dominated by rather dramatic hills and cliffs that face the Atlantic Ocean. The urban plan, architecture and landscaping of the town of just under 200,000 people, is striking in every neighborhood. The superb condition and upkeep of everything is shocking, maybe especially for us who live in an historical, but very poorly maintained city (Bologna.) The architecture of the city changes from building to building, a Paris-inspired Haussmann style structure sits between a baroque Spanish church and mid-century modern offices, German-like half-timbered apartments, are squeezed between 80s contemporary housing and a new brick and stone beach house.

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My Cuban side was tickled to be able to use Spanish instead of Italian as the main mode of communication, not because I dislike speaking Italian in any way, only because Spanish requires so much less effort. I’m noticing that listening and speaking in, day in and day out, a language that I’m just learning, requires an amount of energy that I don’t really realize until I don’t have to do it, then something in my brain relaxes and says aaahhhhhh! Although it’s not like the Spanish of Northern Spain, sometimes tinged with a Basque accent, is always easy to decipher with my Cuban ears, just as my rounded syllables and sing-songy Spanish sometimes leaves Spaniards looking confused.

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Likewise, the angular tanned faces and wide smiles of many residents reminded me of my “gente”. The palm trees in every shape and size, and the Spanish colonial architecture made it seem like so many Caribbean nations, and my name (Alvarez) on just about everything from buses to buildings also hinted of being at home. The kids noticed a level of kindness and warmth in the way people spoke to them that I thought was a great observation too. Zoel remarked that he may just feel that way because everyone reminded him of Nana and Abuelo (my parents), but I think they were on to something. Despite their reputation for being cold in the North of Spain, we found a wonderfully welcoming beach community in San Sebastian, and I’m sure the wind will blow us back there again some day.

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“Home is the nicest word there is.”

(Laura Ingalls Wilder)

 

Home. Is it a building? A town? A state of mind?

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Little House on the Prairie, or the house I grew up in. (Photo credit: my fantastical sister-in-law, Lara.)

I grew up in a house that my father built on the edge of a dying leather mill town in rural upstate New York. It is the only house I remember living in as a child, though I know that for a short time when I was very young, my family lived in an apartment building a few blocks away. I’ve always considered that particular house my ‘home’—the semantics of which drive my husband crazy when I refer to it as such. Like when I tell our son: ‘We’re going home for Thanksgiving’. “We’re going to your parents’ house,” he specifies, not a little exasperated.

I understand his annoyance. He wants me to think of our house as ‘home’—in the whole biblical sense of leaving our parents and joining our betrothed—which I do, too. At the end of a weekend with my parents, as my mother slips food for the return journey into my bag, I tell her: I’ll call you when I get home, and Cold Spring is what I mean. But there is a difference. Despite the fact that I haven’t lived in the place for two decades, I feel a distinct intimacy to the land, to the sky, to the very air that surrounds my home town when our car crests the hill on Route 29 and carries us into it.

When I am home—my old home, my parents home…whatever—I find that I am able to access a part of myself that is dormant most other times. It could simply be the acclimatization to country life that shakes things loose, but I suspect the transformation has to do with something more resolute than geography. The territory I roamed when I was young feels alive to me. Pungent mosses grow thick on the rocks and rotting logs, and in summertime the smell of manure from the horse farm up the road billows into the yard, riding deep on the hot, arid wind. My brother and I used to get lost for hours amidst the neck-high bulrush and sweet grasses that border the pond at the edge of the field. We’d sit for awhile amid the magic and then stuff our pockets with riches—tiny purple wildflowers, bits of fool’s gold, glossy pieces of shale—and then race back home where we’d ceremoniously lay everything out on the kitchen table. By the time we presented the trove to our mother, the leaves would be wilted and the rocks dry and no longer lustrous, but we didn’t care.

My parents have lived in the same place forever and, like hangers-on in many small towns, speak of the ‘old days’ with the tired nostalgia of surrender as they watch WalMart engulf acres of farmland that, during their childhoods, yielded corn and soybeans and potatoes. They sigh and vote ‘yes’ to allow zoning for a superstore and another distribution center, the low-wage jobs a necessary solution to the rising rate of unemployment, but a fix that will surely maintain the cycle of sadness and poverty that has caught hold there like a virus.

Sometimes after dinner my father drinks bourbon and tells us, again, about the spring when the city park was built—a garden and a band shell constructed on a block of land next to St. John’s Episcopal Church on Main Street. A shoe store and a bakery were razed to make way for wooden benches and fertilized grass and, once the wrecking balls and tractors were done, the topography, and his perception of the place, had changed forever. Improvement was how the mayor touted it. Inevitable development is what my father says. When he crosses the street to go to the bank, he still shivers in remembered shadows of buildings long gone.

I feel haunted in that town, too, despite the comfort I feel in being back home again. I understand the misery of the place, yet I also see the rolling foothills of the Adirondack Mountains in the distance. I know that, just a few miles down Route 30, majestic peaks and clean air fill the sky, and that once you get out far enough, the black smoke that seeps from chimneys in town—even in the hottest weeks of July—filters away and disappears.

Maybe I’m attached to those fields and streams because they hold the record of my darkest hours. Nights in high school when my father found me somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be, his disapproval heavy on the car ride home; awkward years of glasses and legwarmers and big, sprayed hair, clumsy friendships, fights with my mother, and the days when I prayed to be anywhere in the world but stuck there, in that, with all of them.

Still, the place is my home. Standing at the doorway to middle age I find myself questioning who I am (and why I am on this planet) with alarming regularity. As I seek explanations to those and other more esoteric concerns, I hunt around in the past for answers, soliciting people who knew me when I was a kid, searching the dusty corners of the place where the seeds of who I would become were planted and tended to. That town, that house…they will always be the place; my place. The geographic nucleus of the sense of self I carry with me no matter where I lay my head, no matter how many years I am away from it, no matter how lost I become.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Atlantic! San Sebastian, Spain

“At a certain point, you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world: Now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive. You empty yourself and wait, listening.”               –Annie Dillard

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Land-locked countryside dwellers marvel at the sight of the ocean.

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The seaside promenade along the La Concha Bay Beach.

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Monte Urgull Mendia with a giant statue of Christ and the Castillo de la Mota on top, seen from the beach promenade.

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San Sebastian’s city hall started out as a popular oceanside casino in the late 1800s.

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Homeless children or my kids hoping I’ll just forget them there by the beach.

 

Blossoms

“It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between.”
-Diane Ackerman

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Magnolia.

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Magnolia.

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Sycamore.

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Cherry tree.

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Forsythia.

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Crab apple.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Friday Night Dinner 12

What We’re Eating and Drinking: Pizza and Planeta La Segreta Bianco

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Pizza and Planeta

We’ve done some tweaking to our pizza-making since the last time I wrote about it for our inaugural Friday Night Dinner post. Tweaking mostly because we’ve been able to share pizza nights with Michele and Dan and Walker from time to time and Michele adds creativity and a vision to this classic food that I never do (changes that my grandmother, who taught me how to bake pizza–bless her conventions and simplicity– would be mortified by!). We make a couple of the classics, of course: simple pies covered with tomato sauce and mozzarella, topped with cured meats or eggplant or mushrooms and they are always delicious. The experiments in deviating from tradition, however, have led us to unique flavor combinations of toppings such as baked and pureed cauliflower, roasted potatoes and herbs (sometimes with harder, sharper cheese, sometimes with no cheese at all) that I’m surprised to say I love. The kids usually choose slices from the regular pies, but I’ve become partial to the combination of baked dough covered with the rich, meaty, tastiness of roasted cauliflower. Yum. To start the evening this week, we’ll open a bottle of Planeta in your honor–the bianco this time. (Yum, also!)

Gina:Ah Pizza! There’s been none of that this week either. The different combinations are reminding me of Sullivan Street bakery’s Soho, and their potato and zucchini pizzas with thin crispy crust. These were a staple of our house when we were in New York! The warmer weather and all the food tasting we’ve been doing this week has us thinking about summer guests and dinner menus… homemade pizza will definitely be on the list so I’m going to need some more details about this cauliflower pie!

What We’re Talking About: It’s Springtime and Noah is So Busy I Feel Like a Taxi Driver

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Zo and Noah, Philipstown METS. April, 2012.

This spring it seems like Noah has signed up to participate in everything and he has one hundred and thirteen things going on this week alone. As I’ve mentioned previously, he and I are headed to Knoxville, TN over Memorial Day weekend for the Destination Imagination Global Tournament. It’s going to be a blast (for the kids anyway) but fun comes at a price, of course, and the cost of travel and room and board to attend said tournament is not cheap. So, we the parents have been commissioned to organize a few fundraisers to help raise some dough to offset costs. First off is a raffle for which we have to sell at least fifty tickets. We’re also planning a bake sale (boy do I need your big kitchen at the old Garrison house in order to bake a dozen banana breads and pies), a car wash and some canvassing of local businesses for cold cash donations. Also, of course, the kids have to improve and rehearse their performance piece so they are meeting at least once week to do that. In addition, Noah auditioned for the middle school play (Midsummer/Jersey) and was cast in a small part but also as the understudy for one of the main characters which means pages of lines to memorize as well as rehearsal three times a week. Noah is also playing baseball. (Dontcha love the throwback photo of the two boys from a few years back?) I’m sure you remember the practices and ceremonies and multitudinous and endless weekend games that come with that sport. And this is all on top of regular school and the state tests that are still ongoing (requiring hours of review homework), and the wonderful reality that the weather here has warmed a bit, if inconsistently, and some days we don’t want to be driving to a baseball field or school but want to be outside, just hanging out. I know you have to cart kids around to stuff (times two!) and live further away from town that we do–I can’t imagine the time suck. It makes me even more excited for long, lazy days of summer with nothing going on. Sounds like heaven.

Gina: Oh my. I’m winded just reading this. I don’t think our Spring schedule is going to be anywhere near this hectic, but I’m in a vacation haze at the moment, with no concept of what’s going on next week, let alone the rest of the month, so I’ll get back to you on that one! But I do know that Zo is not playing a sport that requires weekend games and evening practices, so that makes a big difference. I love that Noah enjoys all of these things though, and is good at all of them too. At least it’s just a few months and then… summer. (And I love this photo of them in their baseball uniforms, probably the only part I miss about the little League season!)

Friday Night Dinner 12

What We’re Eating and Drinking – Pasta!

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No pasta in 6 days! For Stefan and I, this is pretty normal, but after all the varied and complex flavors that we’ve been treated to this week (see below), I am looking forward to a simple plate of home-cooked pasta. Stefan has a hankering for his fail safe, penne arrabbiata, but I’d like to go even more straightforward, lemon penne with parmigiano shavings and pepper. Leeloo is calling for pesto and Zoel for carbonara (Luckily his grandmother, Francoise, will be in town because he loves hers best!) Maybe everyone should make their own!

I’d also like to try to replicate a beautiful salad that I had in Nimes on Wednesday night.  Mixed greens were tossed in a light, simple dressing, and topped with speck (cured ham) and parmigiano reggiano, and accompanied by an artichoke, aioli and herb paste served atop a boiled artichoke heart. We’re guessing the dressing included olive oil, white wine vinegar (or cider vinegar), with maybe a touch of soy sauce and salt.

Since we’re back home, the wine will be a regular like a Planeta La Segreta (Red!) or a Tizzano Barbera!

Christine: Six days without pasta seems like a lifetime! Not that we eat it more often here, but it is definitely my comfort food–over chocolate or any other sweet. The salad sounds great, too. I’m so glad to be coming around to a time of year when salad is in season AND I like to eat it. Believe it or not, I’m no a huge fan of salad (or many veggies–see pasta love, above) but when it’s warm outside and the fresh local lettuces and cucumbers and shallots and radishes start rolling into the farmer’s market I am much more willing and able to devour a huge plate. 

 

What We’re Talking About – Spring Break Road Trip!

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Telling secrets at Bistrot Raoul.

Well, I’ve been a sucky blogging partner this week and I have to apologize. At least when we were in Switzerland, I had the foresight to know that after skiing all day, there was no way I was going to start putting together posts. But in this case I thought after dinner, I’d easily craft a brief summary and post pics of each day’s exploration, forgetting totally that Spanish dinner would start way after 9pm, and get us home after midnight. Unfortunately, with a belly full of deliciousness, a head happily buzzing, and very tired limbs, writing (or remembering to write) proved much more difficult than I had envisioned.

The good news is that we visited four cities that we’d never seen before (plus a lunch stop at a fifth), had some of the best meals we’ve ever eaten (including stops at the 3 Michelin star restaurant, Arzak, for a 8-course gastronomic adventure, and another at the unexpectedly amazing Bistrot Raoul), delighted in wandering through ancient and personal history, and enjoyed hours and hours and hours of quality family time (really!) I can’t wait to share more pictures of the road trip next week, and talk more about the quest for identity and connection that takes off when a multicultural kid like me is confronted with places and people that touch some piece of her ethnic puzzle. I see (read) here on the blog that you’ve been doing a different kind of searching, and I’m wondering how your battle with resistance is going and where it’s taking you. Where do the War of Art, and the inspiring poetry readings you’ve attended recently leave you? What are you left wanting to write about? What stories do you want to tell? Do they take the shape of poems, personal narratives, or something else? Also, let me take this opportunity to pitch a road trip as a way to connect with creativity. I hear there are some people in Philly who would love to see you!

Christine: A road trip to Philly sounds perfect! Ray and I were cleaning out our little shed the other day and we stumbled upon the spare tire from your old red jeep and a car seat that I believe arrived here when you guys visited in October. We will happily take a weekend and deliver them to Daisy & Abuelo (and invite ourselves over to Lorena’s new apartment)! I’m quite an emotional mess this week, too. It must be the moon. Or the shift in energy from the solstice (do you know that’s a thing? One of my writing ladies was explaining it the other day: feeling fatigued, sluggish & uninspired, which are exactly the features that have been plaguing me, too. Getting out of town, visiting foreign lands and eating amazing food seems like perfect antidotes to feeling down and blue–and what amazing fodder for good writing and blog posts they provide! Stef’s photos have been amazing! I am looking forward to living vicariously through your adventures and can’t wait to hear more about all of it in the coming days.

In the Battle Zone

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The War of Art is the title one of the books I’ve been reading this week. It’s a sort of how to unblock your creativity guide written by Steven Pressfield and I checked it out of the library on Monday hoping to, well, unblock my creativity–which sounds so highbrow and obnoxious when really all I really want to do is find a way to motivate myself to write more. Write more on this blog and for a few other projects that I’ve started and abandoned and, eventually, for the more formidable ones that are still just glimmers on my imaginary literary bucket list.

In his book, Pressfield’s theory is laid out this simply: that there is a force that gets in the way of us humans making art and its name is Resistance. Pressfield begins the book by saying, “Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.” Don’t I know it. My unlived life is filled with ideas for excellent poems, daydreams of hours spent at twinkling tables of brilliant food and discourse, travel to sunny, soul-infused lands and a closet full of red-soled shoes. The life I live confers none of those things.

According to Pressfield, Resistance is a self-generated force and its aim is to distract us and prevent us from doing our work. I’m unclear about what its motive might be (Do forces even have motives? I don’t think gravity does…it’s just always there, doing its thing) but I have certainly felt the power of opposition. Right now, queued up in the other tab I have open on my computer screen, is the IKEA website. As I was sitting here writing and looking at the river I remembered that I want to get a few new planters and candles and things for our gazebo and herb garden and since I have most of today free it would be a good day to head to IKEA. So I started googling the closest store and their hours and thinking about which color scheme might work best and planning out everything in my head only to, twenty minutes later, remember that I have this post to write. After just ten minutes of writing or “writing,” my attention had wandered from this blog post about not writing to me…NOT WRITING. Ugh.

So, something’s going on. Maybe I’m distracted by spring and the warm day (dontcha love the way I can’t let a post go by without mentioning the weather) or envious of Gina’s trips to all the fabulous places (see next door) or just plain indolent, but writing usually feels like chore instead of providing my soul the nourishment that I’d like it to be and I’m not sure that forcing myself to endure more time chained to my computer feeling bad that I’m not writing (even though I’m not writing…so confusing) is the most effective way to change things.

Pressfield’s theory about Resistance having to be wrestled to the ground is troubling to me. Also, his idea the creation of art has to be a trial; an ordeal. Do we, the artists, need to exert an enormous amount of negative force against ourselves in order to get anything done? Why is it necessary to suffer and struggle? Because then–and only then–will we experience success? Only after we’re laying bloody and bruised on the battlefield, can we expect the muses to come calling; can we expect to create?

I disagree with these principles for several reasons. One: what is up with the idea that we have to struggle in order to succeed? The axioms of success in our culture are consistently tinged with Protestant philosophies such as:

“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”
― Winston Churchill

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle.”
― Frederick Douglass

“The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”
― Thomas Paine

And of course:

“No pain no gain.” (A sentiment that Jane Fonda made famous in her 1980s aerobic workout videos but one that has come to be short hand for the modern American narrative of believing that the road to achievement runs inevitably through hardship.)

I mean, what gives? I’m all for hard work and picking ourselves up after we fall, but I’m not so sure about this idea: that if we want something favorable and constructive to happen in our lives then we have to suck it up, be patient, endure, suffer, work, toil, never give up and maybe MAYBE after many many many years we might (though possibly not) experience some kind of triumph. Isn’t that kind of behavior pretty close to Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. (Forget for a second that all of the truly terrible things that happen in our lives we deem the product of an instantaneous and effortless cruel, cruel fate.)

See the contradiction?

While I don’t want to rebut the brilliant minds I’ve quoted above, I’m also not blind to a possible by-product of all of this prodding and poking we’re to do to ourselves in order to become the artists we think we want to be. (i.e. guilt, regret, self-reproach) Here’s the thing: what if the fact that you have to constantly convince yourself to do your art (to write, to paint, to practice your oboe), then perhaps that said art is not your passion after all. I mean I have all kinds of fantasies playing out in that aforementioned internal life, but some of them are not simply possible. I’d like to win Wimbledon (but being 43 with a pretty weak forehand shot, that’s not going to happen). I’d also love to be a singer (but more than one musician has noted my tone-deaf-ness), so that’s out too.

I’m not trying to argue against hard work and struggle and I don’t necessarily think that life should be easy. I’m more than willing and able to hunker down when I need to–when I want to–but how do we know when our hunkering and struggling is necessary to overcome some kind of laziness in ourselves or when a decade of fumblings and failures are actually big giant road signs, warning us that we’re headed down the wrong path?

Allow me this comparison: Relationships are difficult–we can all agree on that, right? They, like art, require work and are sometimes very often beset with times of hardship and skirmish, but there are clearly limits to what kind of behavior we put up with from another person. There’s a line between accepting a person’s quirks and allowing their peculiarities to devolve into mistreatment or injury of us. The threshold is different for everybody of course, but the bottom line is not doing (nor allowing) harm.

When we wake each morning, dressed and ready to battle Resistance and we head out into our days to slay this dragon of sloth that is breathing fire at our feet, how do we know when to say ‘enough’? Because there is also the wisdom of this poem by Charles Bukowski.

Really. Go read it. I’ll be back with more tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

San Sebastián, España: Monte Igueldo’s Old Amusement Park

The second stop on our Spring Break road trip this week took us into northern Spain to the Basque Country, and one of its capital cities, San Sebastián (Donostia, in the Basque language.) We stayed a few blocks from the La Concha Bay beach and a beautifully landscaped park running alongside it. On a sunny morning with the smell of salt in the air, we took the funicular up Monte Igueldo, which juts up into the sky from the West side of the bay. At the top, we found a Coney Island-era park perched on the edge of the bluff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and the city. Besides getting a chipped tooth in the “Casa del Terror” when a freaked out child pushed me into a cement wall, it was the perfect introduction to an enchanting town that quickly charmed the four of us. Before we’d even made it down to the Parte Vieja (Old Part) neighborhood for lunch, Zoel and Stefan were already discussing if and how we might move here next!

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Easter Weekend at Grandma & Papa’s House

“It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between.”
-Diane Ackerman

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Cousins out for an Easter morning walk. Grandma and Papa live near the Adirondack Mountains in northern New York State where spring has yet to arrive but the weekend was beautifully sunny and bright.

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Rolling waves of wild grasses–finally free from the weight of snow.

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My mom (Grandma) started quilting a few years ago. We spent part of the day helping her lay out squares for her latest project.

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Evergreen.

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Boy cousins on a bench