Happy Friday everyone! During the last 10 days or so, we’ve been enjoying another road trip around Europe during the kids’ fall break from school. Although I have yet to evolve a stress- and anxiety-free way to enjoy these longish, multi-country excursions with Stefan and the kids, they will undoubtedly still go down as one of the best parts of our time living in Italy.
This journey ended up taking us to interesting places that aren’t only historically significant, but that intermingle with our own families’ histories as well. We found connections in Dachau, Prague, and Vienna, but it was our visit to Berlin and its infamous wall that once separated democratic West Germany from communist East Germany, that was especially meaningful for me, and not just because this weekend marks 25 years since it fell. My family emigrated to the US from communist Cuba, and it was both comforting and frustrating to uncover just how similar the German and Cuban experience has been. As in the case of East Germany, the communist government in Cuba has erected obstacles, much like the very long and winding Berlin wall, which have split families apart and isolated a population.
That’s probably why I was glued to my little TV set in my college dorm room in 1989, teary- eyed at the sight of East Germans insisting on passage through the wall. A still very young news network, CNN, was broadcasting all these jaw-dropping images, and I remember calling my mother to ask if she was seeing what I was seeing. We sat there in silence on the phone just flabbergasted by the moment. Most of the East Germans weren’t interested in staying in West Berlin, although some had surely been yearning for that freedom for decades. Instead, the majority just wanted to be able to go where they wanted to go, see who they wanted to see. Shop, eat, visit with family and friends, and then head back home.
Somewhere between the long silences, we decided that my mom should just come over to my dorm room, so we could watch the coverage together. She was there within the hour and we watched as the gates opened and hundreds of faces poured through. Some were crying, others yelling happily, yet others looking completely astonished, as if they couldn’t believe this was happening at all. We were overjoyed for these Germans, as we saw a sister run into the embrace of a brother waiting on the West side; a group of teens, in all their late-80s gear, dance on top of the wall; and an East German soldier smile widely and give a rose to a girl on the other side, as if no one in the whole wide world was more relieved than he was. It was quite emotional up in that university high rise apartment. In part, of course, because the parallels to our family, stranded behind the formidable waves of the Caribbean instead of a cement wall, were far too clear. We couldn’t help but wonder, what if…
(Click on photos to enlarge.)
The part of the wall that has been preserved with murals commissioned right after its fall, is part of the East Side Gallery. The neighborhood now feels like the Lower East Side of Manhattan, grittier and cooler than the rest of Berlin, but just as sophisticated and modern:
This one’s for you, Mami!
Leeloo’s come up with a very endearing new habit… listening to history through architecture. “Mom! It’s like I’m there and the soldier is giving the girl the flower!”
For my Italian peeps/ Per i miei amici italiani:
This image evokes a way of life with which I’m quite sure my relatives are painfully familiar:
How do you say “perestroika” in Spanish?
Somebody made sure that I didn’t get too romantic about the whole thing with this insightful graffiti, in Spanish nonetheless! (Sons of bitches. Stop lying. We haven’t learned anything.)
Yet, a girl can keep dreaming.
I like that Leeloo serendipitously added her face to the hundreds in this scene, re-playing what I saw on my TV in ’89. She’s got quite a few cousins that I can’t wait to see pass through their own wall someday. Hopefully, not another 25 years from this anniversary.
As I sit here trying to put this post together after the 2+ month hiatus Gina and I took from Living Here and There (well, not from living here and there, but recording our experiences of it), I’ve found that my wheels are requiring gallons of grease and I’m needing to bribe myself with more than a few Netflix breaks in order to get rolling again.
I’m disoriented here at the keyboard and navigating around WordPress seems like wandering through a familiar but patently foreign land. It turns out that not all learned skills are as easy to return to as that bicycle and this particular practice, for me anyway, requires recalibrating and re-tinkering and time. As for sharing my thoughts (and my writing) with an audience of greater than one again…well, let’s just say I’m going to be here editing for awhile tonight.
That said, I’ve missed the company of my friend and the peek into her world over There, that this blog provides. That I got to enjoy a birthday lunch in SoHo with the actual, not virtual, Gina–as well as share a few meals and chats with her and the kids around my kitchen table–was a certain gift. Now, however, so many weeks later, our time together seems like a dream and I’m ready for some tangible, printable contact again.
Before we get started on what’s going on now though, here’s a little recap of what’s been going on Here, on this side of the ocean, for the past many weeks.
* * * * *
August is my favorite month. Mostly because it was my favorite time of year growing up (my birthday falls during its first week) and while I don’t celebrate my birthday as whole-heartedly as I did when I was younger, Ray and Noah and I managed to do it up small this year and go on a birthday hike and out to dinner and eat cake. We also were able to see friends and family for various meals and cocktails during the beginning part of the month and soak up the still-strong sun and warm nights.
The Hudson Valley is bursting with green in August and though sometimes the nights get chilly, the bounty of the harvest and the still-later-than-wintertime sunsets create an internal heat that keeps me from lamenting the coming fall (too much). In August even the river is balmy–the water temperature can reach upwards of 70 degrees–so Luca spends lots of time swimming and Noah and I spend lots of time chasing him around trying to dry him off.
Of course the cherry on top of my birthday week was Gina and the kids visiting us for a few days. To have them in our house again was so much fun and made me so very grateful for things like airplanes and trains and fossil fuel. The boys took up again like not a minute had passed since they were cavorting around Bologna last fall and, though Gina, Michele and I had to work hard to keep the yarns of our many conversations from becoming one giant, verbal knot of crazy, we managed to swim and hike and lunch and shop and drink a few gallons of wine. It was, to be trite, a divine time.
Even though leave-taking is becoming one of the brightest, no-longer-worrisome stitches in our relationship, saying goodbye to our friends is never easy and this time it especially sucked because our time together was so short-lived. (Here’s counting the days to Christmas in Philly!) Lucky for us, however, we saved our vacation until the end of the summer so we had something to look forward to once the Bouvarez clan had taken flight.
Cape Cod, Massachusettes here we come!
Cape Cod is a tiny spit of land that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean just south of Boston. My parents spend a good part of the year there and I’ve been visiting the place for most of my life, so in many ways driving over that bridge feels like coming home.
Our time at the Cape is slow and easy. What with the long days at the beach, long bike rides along the rail trail, trips to Provincetown (one of my favorite places on earth), yummy seafood dinners and plenty of sand and salty air, the Unwinding and Relaxing are sure things. This year, in addition to my parents being with us, all three of my brothers and my sister-in law were there. Noah had a blast swimming and playing with his cousins, and I had the chance to catch up with my beloved family members–all of whom I don’t get to see often enough because they live all over the world–which made this year’s trip extra special. The lot of us crammed into the tiny kitchen of our Cape Cod cottage and talked and laughed and ate and were very, very loud. Just like when we were kids.
The minute we get to the Cape house we drag everything out of the car, put on our bathing suits and head TO THE BEACH!
Each year Ray and Noah and I take a day to ourselves and head to Provincetown–a village on the very tip of Cape Cod–and each year, after we’ve had some lunch and a beer or two at Governor Bradford’s and walked the length of Commercial Street, stopping into our favorite shops and bakery, we seek out the real estate listings and try to formulate a plan to move there someday. It truly is one of the most magical places I know–artists and writers roam the beaches for inspiration, tiny piping plovers–an endangered bird that conservation groups rope off miles of shoreline for–roam the dunes for food and mates, and human beings of every color and stripe dress in sequins and glitter and bows and dance in the streets, whooping and hollering and being wholly and fully themselves. There’s a nude beach, a festival week that rivals Mardi Gras and more natural beauty than seems fair for one tiny town.
And then September arrived with all of its natter and noise. It’s a month laced with beginnings and endings–as I suppose any month is–but September’s changes seem stern and definitive and cruel. School started for Noah. I got a job. Ray is interviewing again.
The gazebo is empty now. This past Sunday we wiped down the patio furniture and took away the candles and hauled everything into the shed where it sits, packed away for the long, cold season to come.
I’m trying to stay positive despite this morning that came upon us with no warning about a week ago…
As I was hiking with the dog the other day, , however, I (sternly) reminded myself to honor all of the beauty that autumn brings. The hills are on fire right now, bursting into a hundred shades of orange and red and gold. The sunsets are still stupefying. October will bring Halloween and Noah’s birthday and longer, darker, more restful nights.
And besides, homework isn’t so bad…
and neither is reading your favorite book about your favorite holiday to your friend…
nor September sunsets that look like this…
The other day there were four bald eagles circling over the river behind of our house. Google will tell you that the meaning in this sighting is that illumination awaits.
Welcome back to Living Here and There! Before we launch back into things, it seems fitting to re-cap just a bit of what’s been going on over the two months since Christine and I took our summer break from these pages. After a busy June and July, the kids and I were just about to take off for our first trip back to the States in almost a year, and Stefan was off to Brazil to visit his brother.
Upon arrival in the US, we were met with a monsoon of love and attention from our family and friends who had planned all sorts of togetherness for us. There were orchard visits and pool days, long catch up sessions and family dinners, a visit to the warship New Jersey and Washington DC for Zoel, obligatory trips to our favorite big box stores, Target and Michael’s, – oh, if the Europeans only knew – and just a wee bit of singing and dancing too. And thankfully, there were also three days of hanging out with the folks on the other side of this page.
Wine-enhanced, candlelit dinner in the gazebo, check.
Long lunch on Michele’s terrace, check.
Sunday dip in the pool with the whole bunch, check.
Hike with Noah, Zoel, Leeloo and Luca, check.
Inspiring writing chat with Christine, check.
Back in Philly, a Flower Tea Party celebration a la Cubana feted Leeloo’s 8th birthday, with her 20+ cousins and “cousins” taking over my parent’s house.
And before we knew it, it was time to say our goodbyes again – definitely the hardest part of this choice we’ve made to live abroad. Just 20 hours, two taxis and two planes later, we were pulling back into the vineyard in Casalecchio di Reno, greeted by flourishing fields of sunflowers, wheat, chick peas, plums, wildflowers, and of course, grapes. The feeling of having arrived home was definitely in the warm country air that day, not only because it was beautiful and because this is the place where the four of us have decided to hang our hats for the time being, but because papa (also known as Stefan) was there to welcome us after his trip to visit Uncle Sebastian (also known as tonton.) Three and half weeks was a long time to be without him and we were all happy to be back together again.
A little bit of Philly visited us at the very end of August in the form of my childhood friend, Andy and his lovely family, assuaging our leftover longing for the people back home. With them, we went back to visit Lucca, one of our favorite Tuscan towns, were we rode bikes atop its ancient wall and through the piazzas, chancing upon a vintage car show where we were able to get up close and inspect the beautifully detailed interiors and gorgeous exteriors.
Our friends were even here to send Zoel and Leeloo off to their second year of school in Bologna!
And what a difference a year makes! There were no morning jitters this time, unlike last year. Instead, we easily slipped back into our comfortable routine and were excited to rejoin our little international community after almost 3 months of not seeing anyone. The school yard was buzzing with parents and children just like the September before, but now instead of hearing booming noise, Italian words (and English, and Spanish, and French…) were discernible. The kids ran right over to their friends and launched into recaps of their escapades while Stefan and I were just as warmly greeting with Ciao’s and Bongiorno’s, Hola’s and Bonjour’s.
So far, the start of middle school for Zoel and third grade for Leeloo has been beautiful. Rarely have I been so pleased with the efforts made by their teachers to get them motivated and curious at the start of a new school year! As a result, both of them have dialed up their efforts, and it’s been amazing to watch their determination to get new concepts and improve were they can.
While they’re at school, Stefan and I continue to move our projects forward (some of which I hope to share with you here over the course of the year!), sometimes only inch by inch, but forward nonetheless. After drop off one sunny September morning, we got to participate in our second vendemmia (grape harvest.) With clippers and plastic buckets in hand, we hit the fields with our neighbors and happily freed giant succulent bunches of grapes from the overtaxed vines. Earlier in the month, the director of the vineyard had walk us through all the steps they take to process the grapes and store their various kinds of wine, making our small part in the journey that more meaningful, and the glass of pignoletto frizzante that we had with dinner that evening that much more special.
As we move into the heart of the Fall season, we’re planning some trips, projects and events that I look forward to chronicling here for you, along with the beautiful things that we find here in the country and on our charming Bologna streets. Thanks again for coming back to join us!
We’re sticking pretty close to home this summer but this past weekend we ventured out into the world for a few days–driving all the way to New London, New Hampshire–a little town in the central part of the state where my brother and his family live. It was one of those impromptu trips that you decide to take on a Tuesday night at 10pm after a phone conversation with a family member or a friend reminds you how much you miss spending time with someone. Despite Skype calls and text messages and Facebook posts, which allow me to see the faces of my family members who are scattered all over the globe, nothing can compare with the sweet nectar of face-to-face time, the sharing of a meal and just quietly sitting next to a loved one over morning coffee.
All sentiment aside, this particular brother (I have two others) also happens to be husband to my fantastically fun sister-in-law and father to my niece and three nephews (one of whom is Noah’s exact age and close ally) who provide tons of energy and an instant party, just by gathering in one room. All that camaraderie, our shared history and our eagerness to be together–combined with with the picturesque lake that they live on (and the plethora of kayaks, Sunfish boats, water skis and hiking trails that abound) added a perfect variation to our hitherto, extremely quiet summer.
New England (a region in the northeastern corner of the United States consisting of the six states of Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, and Connecticut) has a unique cultural and aesthetic flavor, distinct within in its borders and markedly different from the border state of New York, where we live. New England’s heritage and culture was shaped by waves of immigration and its earliest Puritan settlers came from eastern England, contributing to the distinctive accents, foods, customs, and social structures found there. It’s also ridiculously pretty and clean.
We’ve visited New London on many other occasions, but almost all of the trips have been during the winter months–the region is known for its skiing and snowsports much more so than its boating and sunbathing–and we thought it might be nice to see the mountains swathed in green instead of buried under ribbons of white snow. We also decided to avoid highways on the drive north and, instead, took old, winding roadways that meandered through small villages and towns and along miles of land that remains untouched by urban sprawl. It was so different than the undeveloped land where we live–which either needs to be incorporated and protected as part of a land preserve or is for sale to the highest bidder.
Along the way we enjoyed a delicious lunch at an organic deli in Vermont, we stopped for gas and snacks at a quirky little station in the middle of a field in rural upstate New York and when we arrived in New Hampshire, wine and pizza waiting for us–along with a weekend filled with swimming, s’mores and succulent fun.
Marrying a French guy has turned out to be a pretty good deal over these last 17 years. One of the perks has been getting to know the bits of France where Stefan’s family has roots like Paris, Marseilles, Cannes and Provence, but nothing had ever lured us toward the Southwest until this month, when a family reunion of sorts, for a special birthday, led us to the Bordeaux region. When Stefan mentioned where we were going, we had a laugh over vacationing in a wine region, because that’s exactly what we need… more wine. We didn’t think much more about it, knowing that we’d be flying into three days of scheduled festivities, and so wouldn’t have much say over where we visited or what we did.
We had no idea that Bordeaux also includes an area of small ocean towns surrounding the Bay of Arcachon, and Europe’s highest dune located in Pyla-sur-Mer, our final destination. We were surprised on the way from the airport to our hotel as the roadways became smaller and smaller, soil transitioned to sand alongside them, the smell of salty air swirled in through the windows and finally the sight of the dark blue water of the Atlantic Ocean started streaming past us. Where were the vineyards and the French country villages? We were staying at the beach?! Yippee! I was reminded of past arrivals in beach towns from Wildwood, New Jersey, that I mentioned last week, to the North Fork in New York, from South Beach in Miami to Cannes in the South of France, all very different, and yet, at some level, absolutely the same. It must be the rhythmic movement of the waves and salty breeze that immediately calms everyone down and slows life’s relentless (and maybe unnatural) pace for all who enter these coastal territories.
The car pulled up on a roundabout of La Co(o)rniche, a Philippe Starck designed hotel, beautifully ironic given the sentiments expressed on Stefan’s recently released I Used to Love You. Despite the song lyrics, even Stefan had to agree that Starck had created a comfortable yet modern, peaceful yet entertaining space that fit well within the rugged nature surrounding it. Over a 4-day weekend in this lovely part of the world, we climbed the dune to discover a giant forest that spanned out as far as the ocean on the other side of it, we road the waves on motor boats to visit pretty nearby villages like Cap Ferret, wherewe were treated to some of the freshest seafood we’ve ever had (the area is known for its oysters, which unfortunately none of us eat!), and got to spend time with a wonderfully eclectic group of family and friends. Sometimes traveling with no expectations is truly the best way to go!
After a very quick flight directly from Bologna, we’ve just arrived in Pyla -Sur-Mer on the Atlantic coast of France for a dear friend’s birthday. Here are some impressions from our first afternoon in this lovely place.
Here is a photo-journal of our trip to the Destination Imagination Global Finals in Knoxville, TN. Noah and I spend four glorious days on (and another two traveling to) the campus of the University of Tennessee where we spent days walking around campus, hours preparing and rehearsing for Noah’s two challenges and many late nights pin-trading under the party tents. The experience was over-the-top from beginning to end, and I’m just beginning to acclimate to real life to a degree in which I can discuss it all. To be at a place to be able to write about it will take a few more days.
Still, I want to share some moments with you all now (after all the hype of my previous posts it’s just the right thing to do). The trip to DI Globals truly was a once in a lifetime thing (for both me and Noah) and though I realize that I’ve been speaking in hyperbole, I will assure you that I’m not when I say that I’m thrilled that I got to share the excitement and the over–the-topness of it all with my favorite person in the world.
Back in January, I wrote “Oh! The Places You Will Go!” about the joy of watching our kids see the stuff they learn in books (whether school-related or self-chosen) come to life when we’re traveling. I’m tickled by the wide-eyed moments of realization when they connect the dots and see that so-and-so was an actual person or that real people played, ate, walked, loved, etc, in this actual place. As I wrote last week, our Spring Break road trip was another opportunity to make these magical connections. In particular, our last stop in Nîmes, France, gave us a unique chance to visit the most well-preserved Roman arena in the world.
At this point, both of our children have a heard or read their fair share about this ancient people, their architecture, their legions and of course, their gladiators, even getting to know the different categories of fighters, so it was a treat to visit a site that’s so beautifully preserved. The interior, although much smaller than the Colosseum in Rome, is that much more intact, and the facade is being refurbished back to a glimmering white stone over the next year. And the owners, culturespaces, have done a good job of intertwining historical characters and events into the venue with informative signs and a dramatic audio tour.
Originally, we had hoped to visit the arena during their annual reenactment of The Great Roman Games, which looks incredible. Check out the trailer announcing this year’s production, The Accession of Augustus. Thousands of people will be involved in meticulously acting out the historic battle that took place in Greece to bring Augustus to power after the assassination of Caesar, all within the historic arena, with present day spectators looking on from the same seats that the townspeople used to watch day-long events in 100 AD! It’s happening in just a few weeks, May 17-18 this year, if you’re on this side of the Atlantic.
Our tour last week probably can’t compare to witnessing someone’s rise to Emperor, but still, we managed to get a little transported back in time. For the kids, the best part was visiting the gladiators chambers on the ground floor where the combatants would have gotten ready for battle before walking out into the sand covered floor of the amphitheater. The gladiators’ wardrobe, metal and leather armor, swords, daggers, tritons, rope nets and the like, hang from wooden pegs on the walls as if they’ve just left a moment ago, carrying whatever was required to face wild animals, condemned criminals or each other.
After a few hours our learning about all the magnificent and terrible things that went down in Roman arenas, we stepped back out into the modern and very multicultural streets of Nîmes for a very civilized dinner at Bistrot Raoul. Our favorite breakfast of tartines and pain au chocolate the next morning were the perfect finale to our road trip. Can’t wait to hang a right at the top of the boot next time, and take our adventures into a whole other world and history.
Last week’s trip also took us to Bilbao, Spain, about an hour west of San Sebastian, to check out a structure that I’ve seen a thousand times in pictures, and that people universally seem to love or hate, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. I confess that I’ve mostly stood on the hate side of that argument, mostly because it’s always struck me as more architectural gimmick than refined or advanced artistry. But… lo and behold! it’s actually a joy-inducing sight when you first see Frank Gehry’s “silver fish” from across the Nervión River flanked by a modern pedestrian suspension bridge on one side, and another traditional cement walkway on the other, with a regular ol’ city just a few feet behind it. It’s all shimmery and reflective and undulating and what not, like a happy marine animal swim-dancing to its favorite tune. It’s hard not to smile at it, and feel good about the silly ideas that humans can conceive and later actually implement, for better or for worse. I still don’t feel it’s a miracle of architecture, but I’ll concede that it makes the world a shinier place. On the inside, however, the museum is strangely small given the volumes you experience outside, and awkwardly laid out, and the craftsmanship of the surfaces and their upkeep are surprisingly poor. The temporary exhibits, though, were so entertaining that we easily whiled away a whole day in there with only a short trip back outside for a delicious Thai/Chinese lunch! Here are a few pics of our excursion and a bit more information about our favorite bits.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.