A Trip To Spain

Bourdain claimed Barcelona was one of the best places for food anywhere.

So we should go?

 Rick Steves claimed that Dali’s home is one of the best artist’s studio he has ever visited. 

Yes, definitely we must go.

But then again, Barcelona has the reputation as the pick-pocket capitol of the world.

 Who needs that aggravation on a rare vacation?  New Zealand just has hordes of fat sheep to worry about.

Yet Madrid offers a chance to view great works by Velasquez, Zubaran, Bosch, Picasso and Goya!

Not to mention tapas, tapas and more tapas.  And Wine.

But what if Catalonia explodes with independent fervor? Mass marches and government draconian arrests could really put a damper on a visit.

Yet Gaudi’s extraordinary buildings exemplify modernism with a touch of whimsy and are truly wonders of the world.

If we add Granada, we can step into Alhambra and the room where Christopher Columbus sealed the deal in 1492 with Queen Isabella. 

We pushed Go…and started constructing a maze of travel books around our tiny house.  No one can claim we aren’t doing our bit to support independent bookstores. 

Though I offered to enlist a travel agent, we both knew from past experience that Michele wanted to own this itinerary and not rely on the questionable capabilities of unknown agents.  Michele, being a master of organizational planning and travel booking strategies, took on the task. I nodded consent with each new agenda on the itinerary.    I tried to keep up my reading on all the sites (Best of Spain– Rick Steves; Spain & Portugal’s Best Trips-32 Amazing Road Trips – Lonely Planet; Barcelona Walks-See the City like a Local – Moon; Top 10 Barcelona-Eyewitness Travel; Barcelona-The City, map by map – MapGuide; Walking Barcelona-The Best of the City – National Geographic).  It was overwhelming. I took the easy way out, gazed at all the glossy pictures and let Michele be my guide. 

Though we have traveled a great deal, and run into all variety of tricky situations, an unreasonable fear of losing gear, cards and/or money crept into my subconscious and I went on a buying spree.  I fortified myself by buying various items for security at REI and AAA: protective sleeves for passports and credit cards to prevent stealing of data, a day pack with metal foil sewn into the fabric and metal strands in the straps to prevent cutting by knives, and I upgraded my wallet with a heavier chain to attach to my belt.  Given my new foil outfit I was not exactlly invincible with extraordinary super powers, but I was ready to steel myself for street crime.   There were possible side effects of paranoia, and if assaulted on notorious La Rampla street, I just might end up chained to my assailant as he sprinted away with my wallet.

On the positive side, given the fair-weather forecast, we could travel light.  No need for our investment portfolio of ExOfficio mosquito repellent clothing. Eddie Bauer Waterproof hiking boots stayed in the closet.   I found a pair of Brunomagli black leather sneakers on sale at Nordstrom Rack that would have to do for casual and formal wear.  (I felt the need to trek in style while on the road in Europe.) We did invest in light-weight Eddie Bauer Ascent down jackets for cool evenings and/or frigid air-conditioned spaces. And I can’t be without thin Ibex wool underwear – a security blanket substitute.   Michele has doubts about my decision-making capabilities when I cling to the Ibex.  Hey, It clings to me very nicely Thank You, and each garment is even more precioussssss, now that the company folded.  

We pulled out our new REI plastic travel bags for clothing.  Fold the clothes, pack them, seal the top like a zip lock freezer bag, then roll it up, squeezing out the air and listen with satisfaction as the air escapes like a puncture in a tire.  Eureka! – we had more room than expected. Who cares about wrinkles if you gain the pleasure of squashing your stuff.  Good luck to airport security if they try to inspect the vacuum packed items.

Itinerary spreadsheet in the day pack, we headed for the Aer Lingus gate at SeaTac.  Unfortunately, Aer Lingus had not worked out an MOU with TSA so we could NOT take advantage of the Pre-Check line.  We had paid big bucks and handed over our fingerprints for the privilege.  This was not good news.   We had to move with the grumbling pack as we were herded into the chute like meat on the hoof.  Then the coup de grace, we get zapped with an X-ray.  Metal detectors are much more humane.

I used to protest the zapping and demand a pat down.  My rebellion against the State. I reframed the moment and thought of the pat down as a free massage.  The TSA agent was working for me as a masseuse. A nice calming interlude before a mad dash to the gate.  Oh sure, the hand gliding up to the crotch was a bit intrusive but no worse than being measured by a tailor.  I have had a couple of tailors get pretty familiar on the way to my inseam. Yet the glare from Michele after numerous delays told me I was wearing down her patience one too many times, and so I caved.

Having shed our inhibitions and having exposed our bodies to strangers, we were released into the airport marketplace.   SeaTac does a good job offering a taste of the Northwest in the safe zone.  We always head to Anthony’s.  

While waiting to board, we both realized that due to a time difference calculation screw-up, we would be missing our connecting flight from Dublin to Madrid.   Not to panic but…was this a sign of what was to come?  Bad omens lurked.

A few deep breaths to avoid a nervous breakdown and with Michele’s magic fingers on the iPhone, we booked Ryan Air – sparing no expense…and I mean that.  But at least we would not miss our first night in Madrid at a hotel off Plaza Santa Ana.

A little frazzled but no longer shaking with anxiety, we settled into our extra-leg room seats for which Michele had paid extra.  Also settling in were two families with babies in the same row, facing a bulkhead.   Screaming commenced immediately, and like a tag team, one child always seemed to pick up the battle cry where the other left off.  As soon as we had liftoff, our headphones went on and a movie marathon looked to be the best option for maintaining sanity.  Eventually the sweet bawling babies were strapped into flimsy sleeping boxes set on precarious drop-down shelves off the bulkhead…and they fought their way to sleep.  The Sand Man cometh but not soon enough.  

Tomb Raider was fine for mind-numbing entertainment. It cleared the mind of dreadful thoughts regarding the future prospects of the little ones. And who was I to question the cultural competence of the movie director when shooting scenes on sacred sites in Angkor Wat.

Thank God we had eaten at Anthony’s. The Aer Lingus meal was pathetic and the “breakfast” before landing was an American burrito.  After swallowing bits of that rubber chew toy,  I felt that I would regret it as it moved through my lower intestinal tract. 

On landing we calculated we had forty minutes to reach Ryan Air gate. Jockeying for the quickest custom line, we were up next when airport personnel cut us off and escorted a mom with a screaming baby to the next available agent.  Her child, strapped to her back, was wailing and twisting free of the lovely floral fabric as Mom struggled to find documents in the depths of her bags.   My compassion was quickly wearing thin (as was the baby wrap by this time) and the minutes passed.  And passed.  Finally, we found an opening, cleared customs and sprinted through the Dublin concourse.

At the Ryan Air counter, we were told we were too late, and there was nothing that could be done. FUCK. We had not downloaded boarding passes two hours prior – so “you lose”.  We explained that this was a bit difficult on an airplane.   Though we looked pathetic and desperate, given the price we had paid for this connecting flight we weren’t going down without a fight.  Finally, someone took pity on us and booked us on the next flight to Madrid. 

In our rush to book a connecting flight and without realizing it, we had paid for expedited security check-in so we took full advantage of our investment.

Except for another minor panic attack over a misplaced iPhone during an airport meal, things were looking up.   Losing a phone with all the reservation confirmations and contact information was not a pleasant prospect.  Luckily Michele always prints out a couple of hard copies of our itinerary so not all seemed lost.  And by digging one more time through the carry-on day pack, the iPhone showed up.

We were directed to the head of the boarding line…Apparently we had also paid for priority boarding.  Yet climbing up metal stairs to the Ryan Air jet door made me question my faith in this back-up flight plan. We had been through this routine in Cuba but in a European Union airport. Really?  Trudging across the tarmac to find your plane just seemed so 1950’s.  I was ushered to seat 1A right at the door with full leg room.  And we had paid extra for that too.   I became very familiar with our fellow passengers as they paraded by me trying to avoid tripping over my feet.   I felt like I was sitting at a haute couture fashion show, only I was assessing leisure suits and disheveled looks.  The flight attendant raised the tinker-toy steps and the staircase folded up into a gang plank that slipped under the floor.   Welcome to the marvels of the Jet Age.

Landing in Madrid, a taxi ride for a reasonable 30 euros got us to the Alicia Hotel.  (Being ripped off by taxi drivers when you first enter a country can skew your view of local humanity.)  On entering the hotel, an alluring art piece suitable for the Mustang Ranch in Nevada greeted us even before the desk clerk acknowledged our presence. The digital work brightly highlighted an outline of a nude female figure striding forward as if modeling bare attire on a runway, her bold steps repeated in 5 second intervals.  This was apparently the mark of a hip hotel.

After a shower restored our faith in modern plumbing, we headed into the nearby Plaza Santa Ana for dinner. It was our first chance to take a moment and absorb the activity in a Madrid plaza. Multiple tapas bars and restaurants ringed the plaza with several establishments spilling into the open space.  Table and chairs clustered under canopies. A wandering minstrel clarinetist played “I Did It My Way”.  Hucksters shot whirligigs into the air with rubber bands, mesmerizing children as the toys lit up a piercing blue and drifted back to earth like a spent firework.  (We had seen the same toy lighting up the night sky in Florence on our last trip.  Euro marketing dampening unique husking.)  And then there were the rose sellers.  During our meal we had dozens of roses waved beneath our noses by six wandering florists.   But only the inebriated street guy begging for money was waved off by the waiters.