Living in Other People’s Homes

It has occurred to me a number of times over the course of the past few weeks that for the past six months we have been living in other people’s homes. Because we’ve been renting on the short-term rental market (Airbnb, Homestay, VRBO) we’ve stayed in hotels maybe 10 nights out of the 180-odd nights that have passed since we left Denver. By the same token, for that same period of time, other people have been living in our home in Denver. We get updates every so often from our property managers, but for the most part, we don’t hear anything, so I can only assume that things are just fine.

Living like this prompts you to think about the nature our lives together and the domestic spaces we inhabit. Sipping coffee from other people’s mugs, eating dinner from other people’s plates, relaxing on other people’s sofas and sleeping in other people’s beds for a considerable period of time makes you wonder about things: Where is our home? How do the things we surround ourselves with hold our memories?  What holds us together? What pulls us apart?

A house is brick and mortar. It’s something you buy and sell and occupy or allow someone else to occupy for you. A house is defined by legal documents like the deed or mortgage that sits in a box in your basement, and it’s defined through space–there’s a foundation, walls and a roof and there’s a fence that separates your property from your neighbors’.

A home, on the other hand, gathers up the emotional current of family life; it holds our memories, conversations, arguments, joys and failures. A home is the box of Christmas ornaments in your storage closet, the creaky step on the stairs that you just can’t fix and aren’t really sure that you wish to. A home is the way your front door key slides into the lock and the window in your bedroom that you gaze from in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep.

A hotel room is an instrument–you use it for a night or two, maybe three, and it’s primarily a place to drop your bags and return to after a day of sightseeing. There’s a bed and a bathroom and there are some mass-produced cups and glasses and towels, but a hotel room isn’t populated with material objects that hold memories, that carry on traditions and that shine a light onto the interiors of our lives. A hotel room doesn’t leave anything behind. Once you leave, the cleaning crew comes through as sweeps, dusts and wipes away what you left behind.

I often wonder how living in other people’s homes has changed our experiences on the road, and while I’m sure staying in hotels would have been just fine, I also think that we would have missed some of the things we’ve gained. Beyond the costs and the inconvenience of staying in hotels, living in Airbnbs gives you access to a different kind of travel. It’s a travel of existence, as opposed to a travel of instrumentality.

Because you communicate directly with the Airbnb hosts, you learn things about their lives just through exchanging information and sorting out arrival and departure plans. My favorite Airbnb homes are the ones that are occupied by the owners. This situation was actually quite common among the places we stayed and it’s especially the case when you rent outside tourist regions and when you get off that tourist grid. In these homes, you can, in some ways, literally see and feel the imprint of other lives in the houses you are visiting. Generally, these properties are the primary residence of the owners, who clear out when renters arrive. I like these kinds of arrangements because you are actually living in someone’s house and you are sharing in a part of their lives. It’s a home that is populated with material items that have personal and family history.

The owner of the shotgun row home we rented in Sydney, Australia collected Asian art and had children’s drawings (his nephews and nieces, I presumed) taped to the refrigerator. The flat we rented in Phnom Penh, Cambodia was owned by a British national whose bookshelves were stuffed with French literature and Cambodian history and whose walls were lined with  portraits of family members. With their fine English suits and dresses and their knowing, confident gazes, they looked like they came from a long line of diplomats. The frayed edges of the blanket on the sofa of the young woman’s flat in Tokyo, the chips and stains in the tea cups of the Chinese couple’s hi-rise in Auckland, the weathered picnic table in the backyard of the farm house in Rotorua, New Zealand–all these things, all this stuff, makes up the history of other people’s lives that we, in some small way, participated and shared in. It causes me to wonder: what will our home in Denver feel like when return?  Will it feel, for a time, just like another short-term rental which we are passing through? Or will we immediately reconnect with the material world that we’d left behind?

Five years ago, the short-term rental market barely existed so we would have spent the better part of the last six months in hotels. There are some real benefits in renting off the short-term rental market. From a purely economic perspective, you save a lot of money. A three-star hotel room in any given European city would be a minimum of 150 euros a night, about twice what we generally spend on an Airbnb. So, thinking like an economist, this is great for everyone: we have more money in our pockets to spend in restaurants and shops and the local economy, in turn, the community benefits from our extra Euros floating around. By the same token, our house in Denver is nearly fully occupied, so are we bringing in revenue to pay off the mortgage and there are people in the house, making it less likely to be broken into or flooded from a broken pipe.

The short-term rental market also offers you a wider range of geographical places to stay in most cities. Most hotels, that is, are located in central tourist areas (city centers) or commercial areas (like near airports) so you can get caught in tourist traps and geographical spaces that are dominated by multinational commercial interests. The short-term rental market, though, is made up of properties in all kinds of neighborhoods throughout most major cities.  When we were in Sydney, for instance, we stayed in Surrey Hills, a neighborhood about three light rail stops from the main business district. We ate in locally owned restaurants, shopped in small markets and just sort of mixed in with the other residents of Surrey Hills. This was the case, as well, in our stays in Phnom Penh, Tokyo, Budapest, Rome and Seville.

But lest this starts to sound like free advertising for the short-term rental market, let me say that there’s also a dark side to this whole thing because while it’s easy for me to hail the cost and convenience of Airbnb rentals, the reality is that Airbnb rentals can do real damage in many places. Think about it: you own a two bedroom flat in downtown Barcelona and you start to realize that you can make more money renting your place through Airbnb. What are you going to do? Or, worse: you are an estate agent/real estate developer and you start buying up whole apartment complexes in downtown Barcelona, turning a majority of the units over to Airbnb rentals. That’s great for the developer and the landlord and for people like me, but if you live in one of these areas, how would you feel if swaths of the real estate market in your neighborhood started getting turned over to short-term rentals?

It took me way too long to come around to this understanding. In fact, I remember almost the exact moment that I snapped out of this optimistic haze and started thinking about the deeper and darker implications of short-term rental market: Sujata and I were out for a stroll in Barcelona on Christmas Eve. It was such a beautiful evening. There were loads of people out on the streets, there was music in the cafes and bars, folks were walking around with bags of groceries to make their Christmas meals and bags of presents to give to their loved ones. Everyone seemed happy and I just kept looking around in wonderment that I was here, in the middle of Barcelona, one of the world’s most beautiful cities, during the holiday season. Sujata broke my naive reverie by declaring, “You know, this is great and all, but what is this city going to look like in five years when this whole neighborhood is turned over to Airbnb rentals.”

Thud.

Most of us enjoy living where we live because we know and trust our neighbors. Strong communities and strong neighborhoods are made up of families and individuals who have a stake in the communities they live in and who watch out for each other. Back home in Denver, there have been countless times when I’m making something in the kitchen and realize that I’m short one ingredient so I just send the kids over to our neighbors to make up the difference. They go over to Wayne and Darlene’s for an egg or an onion or down to Matt and Malia’s for a fist full of basil (or more likely, two fingers of whiskey). And what we take is always paid back: homemade cookies for the eggs, a bowl of fresh pesto for the basil and, a beer or two for the whiskey. And it’s not just about borrowing household items. It’s quid pro quo; you take a little and you give a little and in the exchange you develop relationships with your neighbors. Sure, you get people watching your back, but you also get the richness of knowing the people who live on your block.

You can’t operate that way, though, in a community that’s dominated by short-term rentals. It’s not so much that people don’t trust each other; they just don’t know each other and ultimately not knowing breeds mistrust.

So, I get it that great cities like London, Barcelona and New York are wary of short-term rentals eating into their communities. This dynamic is a testament to the complexity of living in the globalized world we live in. The benefits abound, and an argument can be made that those benefits are shared, to some extent, across a diverse and wide range of participants. The deleterious aspects are there as well, although they are a bit more difficult to see (or easier to ignore). This, I suspect, is the nature of the economic world we live in.  Multinational corporations like Apple and Airbnb (I think it will be offered as an IPO this year) provide us with reasonably inexpensive goods and services that make our lives easier on many levels. So easy, in fact, that it benefits us to ignore what lies underneath. That said, I don’t expect that we will stop renting Airbnbs because of ethical considerations. But it does, I think, point to the fact that we need strong and ethically-minded public officials who know how to establish fair and thoughtful legislation that allows for the kind of freedom and adventure that a traveler experiences through Airbnb and, at the same time, protects and nourishes the integrity of community life.

 

 

 

 

Irish Music

We’re nearly two months into our stay in Ireland and I still haven’t heard any traditional Irish music.

Thank god.

I know this is an unpopular opinion, but I just don’t like traditional Irish music. I can listen to it for about ten minutes in a pub (or through half a pint of Guinness) before my head feels like a tin can being smacked with a spoon and I have to walk outside and listen to the tire wheels passing by on the surface streets to get that sound out of my head. My friend, Andy Auge, reminded me a few weeks ago, that last time we were both over here together, we were standing in a pub somewhere in Dublin and I (allegedly) turned to him and said, “I need to hear some bass,” and promptly left the pub. I gravitate toward music that blows your hair back and that you can feel from the inside out, so, it makes sense that I’m not, for the most part, taken with treble-governed traditional Irish music

There are, of course, many varieties of traditional Irish music and song. I don’t mind the ballads and the laments so much; in fact, I love “Raglan Road,” a Patrick Kavanagh poem that’s been put to music. It’s a haunting poem set to a simple and beautiful four-chord melody and when you hear it, it kind of pulls at you in the way an old photograph from the time when you were a child might do. “She Moved Through the Fair” is another good one, as is “My Lagan Love.”

As you’d expect much of traditional Irish music includes strong political themes. The republican/nationalists historically have had the corner on this market and since about the time of Wolfe Tone’s rebellion of 1798 they’ve been writing and singing nationalist/anti-British occupation songs in the pubs and at public meetings. My favorite of this genre of Irish music are the anti-war or protest songs. In one of my favorites, “Arthur McBride,” the narrator and his cousin, Arthur McBride, are walking “down by the seaside” on Christmas morning when they are approached by a sergeant for the British army who tries to trick them into joining up with the King’s army. The sergeant offers them 10 guineas apiece and paints a picture for them of a fine and comfortable life should they sign up. Arthur basically tells the sergeant to fuck off and then he and the narrator whack the sergeant over the head and throw his sword in the ocean. Fair enough.

On the other hand, I absolutely cannot stand the rebel songs. There’s a long tradition of rebel songs in Ireland and their function has been generally to inspire the populace to support armed resistance against the British occupation of the island. I’m no fan of occupation, but I’m less of a fan of political and communal violence which has, for the most part, resulted in little more than sorrow and heartache on this island.

This, too, is kind of an unpopular opinion, although, I have to say that yesterday in my American literature class, I made an offhand and subtly critical comment about the 1916 Easter Rising and one of the students raised his hand and sang out, “Oh, well, just so you know, most of us here thing that Padric Pearse was a total gobshite.” Pearse was the ‘mastermind’ of Easter Rising and he couched much of his rationale for armed resistance in images of blood sacrifice. I’m not sure why my student took a dim view of Pearse, but I suspect it had something to do with that.

And, after 30 years of communal violence (the period known as the Troubles, 1968-1998) waged by the IRA, the island is still partitioned between the Republic and Northern Ireland. So, what did those 3,000-odd people die for?

I don’t like the Irish rebel songs because I’m basically opposed to any kind of music that attempts to raise nationalist goosebumps on my neck. So, in regards to classical music that leaves out Wagner, some Mozart and, sometimes, Copland. Nationalism in popular music is more problematic, though, than it is in classical music because whenever you put nationalistic or pro violence lyrics up against three chords and a guitar, bass and drum, watch your back. Before you know it, there are fists pumping in the air and half-crazed people yelling about making American great again. No thanks.

When it comes to Irish music, then, I prefer the Pogues and Bob Geldof. Geldof has been a hero of mine since I was in grade school. I loved his first band, The Boomtown Rats, and then, of course Geldof was the mastermind of the 1985 Live Aid concert to benefit people starving in Africa (“Feed the World”). He’s spent the better part of the past 30 years speaking out against genocide and encouraging western governments to provide aid to developing countries. Beyond that, Geldof (Bono followed him in this regard) had no truck with the IRA and the senseless political violence that was happening here during the Troubles and, more recently, he has spoken up of England staying in the EU. Good on you, Bob Geldof.

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Bob Geldof (photo taken from Pinterest)

The Pogues are basically two bands: there’s a rock and roll outfit made up of electric and bass guitars and a drum kit and then there’s a traditional Irish ensemble that plays instruments associated with traditional Irish music: acoustic guitars, tin whistles, accordions and banjos. The rock and roll side of the Pogues is decidedly punk–that’s the part of the band that makes you want to pogo stick across the living room. The traditional Irish side of the band sounds like a ceili band and that’s the part of the band that makes you want to tap your toes, lift a pint of Guinness to your lips and feel a bit of sentiment. So, bringing those two (quite contradictory) musical traditions together on one stage was, well, exciting.

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And early iteration of The Pogues (Pinterest)

The Pogues enjoyed their heyday in the late 80s/early 90s and even if you think you’ve never heard of them, you have. Their Christmas song, “Christmas in New York,” is played incessantly over the loudspeakers in any given mall across the world from early November to Christmas Day. Around the holidays, you can’t get away from that song anymore than you can hide from “Hotel California” if you listen still listen to FM radio.

Beyond the music, the Pogues, especially their troubled and brilliant lead singer and songwriter, Shane McGown, were fucking crazy and it was that part of the band (the excessive use of alcohol and drugs) that truncated their career. That said, I like the Pogues and I think they are still relevant because of the way they embraced and sloughed off parts of their Irishness (and it needs to be said: not all of the members were Irish, but McGowan is and he was basically the heart/heat center of the group). While McGowan has always taken pro-republican stances his songs never tip over into a kind of hard-headed, hot-blooded, pro-nationalist cauldron.

In fact, perhaps the Pogues’ most political song “Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six” sounds more like a cry for justice and a critique of the British legal system than it does a call to arms. It’s a brilliant song about a terrible event. In November of 1974, the Provisional IRA set off a bomb in a pub in Birmingham, England that left 21 people dead and over 180 injured. The British police went looking for the culprits and when they couldn’t find them, they did what they were wont to do: they rounded up six Irishmen, accused them of the crime and threw them in jail where all six of them sat until March of 1991 when they were released because they hadn’t actually committed the crime. The Pogues song “Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six” is about the six men who were falsely accused of the pub bombing and appears on their 1988 album If I Should Fall from the Grace of God. The same year the album was released, the Pogues performed the song on BBC Chanel 4 and halfway through the song, someone behind the controls shut off the audio and sent the show to commercial. Shortly after that, the song was banned in Britain because of it’s criticism of the British justice system. Three years later, the Birmingham Six were released from prison.  Here’s the song.

Give it a listen.

Cycling in Maynooth

I haven’t written a blog post in some time because I’ve been spending much of my free time calling my senators and encouraging them to vote against the extreme policies and executive orders of the new regime. I hope you are doing the same.

That said, today marks exactly one month into our six-month stay in Ireland and, so far, it’s been wonderful. The children are nearly fully assimilated into Irish life: they are learning Irish (it’s hard!) and immersing themselves in Irish history and mythology. It’s not unusual for them to argue over the pronunciation of an Irish word or to tell us about an Irish mythological hero they read about in school. Atticus is learning to play Gaelic football and he’s also playing on the Maynooth community basketball team. He is as inept at Gaelic football as his Irish friends are at basketball. Eleanor is singing in a local choir. Both have made a handful of friends. Honestly, I’m not sure how we’ll ever get them off this island. Sujata, too, is taking up Irish ways. She’s taking a class on Irish mythology and haunting the pubs although she has yet to acquire a taste for the black stuff. All of us, especially the children, are developing a soft lilt in our voices.

There are so many things happening on so many levels, but in this post, I’m going to focus on cycling in Maynooth. Here in Ireland, we don’t have a car. Our house is a little under a mile from the center of the town and while that’s not too far to walk occasionally, walking back and forth two or three times and day (sometimes with full grocery bags) is a bit much. So I bought a bike. In the four weeks I’ve had the bike I’ve probably logged 70 miles and saved myself hours of walking back and forth from our house to the town and the University so I’d say it’s already been a good investment.

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Back in Denver I ride my bike as often as possible. I ride to work, to the grocery store, to the fitness center and swimming pool and sometimes I just get on my bike and cycle around the city for fun. The rest of my family enjoys riding as well. Sujata was reluctant at first but she has, over the years, become an enthusiastic rider. I taught the children to ride when they were very young and now they can tear around Colorado’s single tracks with the best of them.

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Every Easter weekend, we load up the car and drive to western Colorado where we camp and ride single tracks with our dear friends, the Shea-Davis family. (How I am going to miss that trip this year!) And some of my best friendships in Colorado have been forged over long rides in the mountains. I’ve spent many an early summer morning riding the Boulder trails with my pal, Tim Trenary, and I have fond memories of sitting around the campfire after a long day of riding with Matt Shea. Here are some photos of Tim and me on one of our Boulder rides:

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Tim single trackin’ in Boulder

Traveling hasn’t diminished our time on cycles. In fact, some of our best traveling days have been on bikes. On the north island of New Zealand we spent a day riding through redwood forests. We cycled through the countryside in Cambodia and Vietnam, around Naoshima Island in Japan and through the cobble-stoned streets of Milan.

Riding in Milan (left) and Siem Reap (right)

Cycling in Ireland, at least in Maynooth, is very different from cycling in Denver, or probably most other American cities, and much of that is simply a function of history. Denver was founded in 1858, so the city is laid out on a twentieth-century grid plan. Maynooth, on the other hand is, at a minimum, 600 years older than Denver. There’s a castle in the middle of the town that was built in the twelfth century–quite a long time before Denver got its (white American) name. Over the years, Maynooth has acquired a high street, cow and foot paths have been straightened out and widened and there are new estates popping up on the outskirts (we live in one of them) with modern roads that provide access to the town centre. But, Maynooth is still connected to Dublin only by a two-lane road, and when you walk or ride the streets and look out across the fields on the outskirts of town you can get a strong sense that the very roads you are following have been tracked by others for a very, very long time.

Denver’s grid (left) and map of Maynooth (right)

That said, compared to riding in the States, cycling in Maynooth is a bit tricky. Until I got here and started riding around I don’t think I ever really though much about cycling etiquette and safety:  calling out my position when I’m passing pedestrians, coming to a full stop at lights, and using hand signals is just something I (and most Coloradoans) do as a habit. For instance, in the States (or at least in Colorado) it’s protocol to call out your position if you are passing a pedestrian or another cyclist. So, if I’m riding down the Cherry Creek path in Denver and I’m getting ready to pass a pedestrian, it’s expected from both parties that I (the cyclist) will call out “On your left” before I pass. This, I have to say, is a very sensible practice and I’m sure that it’s saved me from at least a couple of accidents. In Ireland, though, this practice of calling out your position is absolutely unheard of. The first few weeks I was here, out of habit, I’d call out my position when I was passing a pedestrian and people would just wheel around in fright, wondering why some crazy American was yelling at them. Now, I just slow down and go way around the pedestrians.

Maynooth’s bike lanes are narrow and treacherous and they provide almost no separation from automobile traffic. Oddly, the city planners decided to place drainage gates straight in the middle of the bike lane and the gates are not flush with the road so you either have to scoot around them (thereby increasing the possibility or colliding with traffic) or get up off your seat and pop over the gate (also not very safe).  I ride up on the sidewalks as much as I can.  There are bike lanes on the high street, although they are up on the sidewalk and pedestrians, for the most part, don’t pay much attention to lanes, so the whole thing is really kind of hurly burly.

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“Bike lane” with drainage gate

 

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An intrepid rider heading north on Moyglare Road

Oh and when you finally get to your destination, good luck finding a place to lock up your bike. There are several bike racks on the high street and a few around the shopping mall just north of the centre but there aren’t enough racks or they are in inconvenient locations, so cyclists end up chaining their bikes to trees and lampposts. The university campus has a surprising dearth of bike racks and today when I was looking for a place to lock up my bike before class, I had to ride around the perimeter of two separate buildings before I found a place and even then, I had to settle for a fence post.

The Royal Canal runs right through the center of Maynooth and you can catch the canal path and ride it all the way into Dublin. I’m going to try to do that one weekend when the weather is a little warmer.

We attend an Inauguration protest in Dublin

I collected the kids at school today and we walked to the Maynooth train station where we hopped on a train to Dublin. We met up with my dear friend, Andy Auge, and his student Alex and headed over to an Inauguration Day protest that was being held in city centre.

The kids have been talking about and looking forward to this this all week. They are unnerved and anxious by the ascendency of #45 and sorrowful to see Obama exit the public stage. Atticus was up until nearly midnight earlier this week, composing a thank you letter that, among other things, informed President Obama that everyone Atticus has talked to in his travels over the past six months has supported Obama and that he shouldn’t worry about the people who don’t like him in the States. Attending the protest was a way for the kids to see that there are other people who are worried and angry about what’s ahead for our country and for the world. They were uplifted and excited by the collective action and I think, all in all, it was good for them. They held up signs, talked with other protesters, listened attentively to the speakers and even got an Irish Times reporter to interview them.

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Their first, and hopefully last, encounter with the media

I, on the other hand, have been dreading this moment all week. As I stood there listening to the speakers I just kept looking at the kids and thinking about the dangerous and uncertain world they were inheriting. I was angry to be standing out there in the cold, listening to people shout over loudspeakers, and I was distressed that my country was at that moment being turned over to a band of thieves and charlatans. Money changers in the temple of democracy.  I didn’t feel joyful or hopeful standing about with the 300 or so other folks gathered in the plaza. I didn’t feel connected to something larger than myself, and I didn’t feel at all that things were going to be okay.  As all this was running through my mind, I looked at my phone and read a  New York Times feed: the new regime had taken down all government websites related to climate change and LGBTQ issues.

I remembered a photo of  Obama and Andy’s son, Thomas, taken sometime in 2008. They live in Iowa and on one of Obama’s visits to their town Thomas had a chance to ask Obama a question at a town hall meeting. The shot was taken over Obama’s right shoulder so he’s in the foreground and he takes up nearly half of the frame. You can’t see his face, but you know it’s him because he has probably the most famous ears in the world. And given the aperture setting, what you see of Obama–the back of him from the waist up–is blurred. This in and of itself is unusual–usually the boken (the blurred or out-of-focus part of a photo) is in the background. To see the out-of-focus subject in the foreground and taking up a full half of the frame is part of the drama of the photo.  Thomas occupies the other half of the frame. The camera is trained on him so you see a smiling, clear-eyed and delighted boy  wearing an oversized Packers t-shirt and regarding Obama with a sense of wonder. Thomas’ right hand is in the air with his palm facing Obama and it looks like he’s taking an oath until you notice that Obama, too, has his left hand in the air, palm facing Thomas. They are just about to hi-five.

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Hi-Five.                                                                               (Thanks, Thomas, for permission to use this photo.)

I love that photo because it captures the idealism and the hope that many of us felt in 2008 and because it captures Thomas in what I suspect he’d refer to as a political coming-of-age moment.  I am pleased that Thomas and his generation had a chance to come of age under a strong and compassionate leader who carried our country forward, and I hope that his influence will inspire many of them to become public servants and defenders of democracy. God knows we’ll need them after today.

And I’m also furious that my children and their generation will come of age under an arrogant, bullying and hateful regime that is, as I write, trampling on the things we hold dear.

 

 

Some New Year’s thoughts on European populism and the EU

It’s New Year’s Day 2017 and we are, again, in transit. We’ve just left Seville, Spain and in less than an hour we’ll cross into Portugal and make our way up to Lisbon until we fly to Ireland on Friday for the last leg of our journey.

For a Cold War kid like me, it’s hard not to walk and travel around Europe in 2016 without thinking about the politically-fractured Europe of my youth. Had we visited Europe prior to 1989 we couldn’t have done half of the things that we’ve done over the course of the last five months. Romania was in the throes of a 40-year dictatorship, and while the Fulbright program was open for much of that time, I doubt I would have taken my family to live under a totalitarian regime. Karoli Gaspar University, the university in Budapest where I visited and taught a few classes in early November, was closed in the 1960s by the communist government on account of its faith-based mission. It wasn’t reopened again until 1993. Even visiting my friend, Todd Waller, and Regis student, Adleigh O’Neill, at Spring Hill College’s Bologna program wouldn’t have happened in that few universities in the 1980s were offering full-service, single-institution run programs like what Spring Hill is doing. We may have made it to Bratislava to visit Eva and here parents, but it would have been under very different circumstances as, then, Czechoslovakia was under a communist regime as well.

When the Berlin Wall was dismantled in 1989 and the Cold War effectively came to an end, Europe was on the cusp of an era that twentieth-century Europeans like the Stefan Zweig could only have dreamed of. With the fall of communism and the gradual expansion of the EU, borders and markets opened and the dream of a secular, unified Europe became a reality, at least for a time.

We benefitted economically from being in post-1989 Europe and most of those benefits are directly related to the EU.  The free trade and non-tariff barriers that EU countries enjoy keep prices of goods and services affordable. Yesterday, for example, we bought 22 Euros worth of groceries in Seville, Spain for our New Year’s Eve dinner. In the States, that would have cost double that. Of course some of that has to do with the relative strength of the US dollar. EU trade policies also allowed us to buy Italian clothes in Romania, Spanish wine in Slovakia and Italian and Spanish oranges in Austria. Beyond that, though, the collapse of communism and the benefits of EU membership have, from what I could see, made the Europeans nations we visited vibrant, open, interesting and very safe places to visit.

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Waiting on a train in Milan

Underneath the ostensible laid-back optimism, safety and good will on the streets of any given major or minor European city, though, is a deep undercurrent of anxiety and frustration. Romanians told me about their frustrations with a corrupt political and economic system that is weighted against ordinary people and looks to many of them like the old Communist Party members in new suits. I talked with many Italians who expressed frustration and anger that there were no opportunities for the to succeed–many young, educated and ambitious Italians seek employment in other EU countries. And while Spain is a wonderful country to relax and enjoy the Spanish sunshine, it suffers from 23% unemployment.

I know that a majority of Americans who voted on 8 November in the States are still reeling from what happened on 9 November and are bracing themselves for what’s to come in 2017, and beyond. Europeans, on the other hand, have been dealing with far-right, populist movements for some time and in many ways, the new American populism looks a lot like European populism: both are soundly anti-pluralist, both fear immigrants, both use the term “the people” in an exclusionary manner and both are dangers to democracy.

European populists rail against the EU in the same way that American populists fume against Washington, DC and I wouldn’t be surprised if #45 was stealing his tweets from his kindred spirits in Europe. In early 2016, for instance, Poland’s Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski condemned the previous Polish government (pro EU) for governing “as if the world . . .  were destined to evolve only in one direction—towards a new mix of cultures and races, a world of bicyclists and vegetarians.” (Hey! That’s us!) Actually Waszczkowski’s anti-EU comment is probably too sophisticated for #45.

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Watch out! A vegetarian cyclist in Milan. Very dangerous.

The US immigration issue looks like small potatoes compared to what Europe is struggling with right now. Some 60 million people are on the move in the world right now and a good chunk of them are moving north into Europe from war-torn, climate-ravaged African and Middle Eastern countries. European populist sentiments are, of course, directly related to these mass migrations and the anxieties they produce among many Europeans.

Already, the European immigration problem is affecting changes at many borders of EU member states. As I write, France, Germany, Hungary, Sweden, Norway and Austria have instituted ‘temporary’ border controls. Hungary’s populist, anti-EU prime minister, Viktor Orban, erected a fence on the southern Hungarian border with EU money. All of these countries are Schengen members, meaning they have agreed to eliminate border controls between other EU member nations, except in extenuating circumstances and the the current immigration crisis is certainly a set of extenuating circumstances.

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The Dacia Duster we drove across the Hungarian, Slovakian and Austrian borders without ever stopping at border control 

Given the outcome of the Brexit vote in the UK and the rise of populist movements and governments across Europe, I wonder how much longer this post-1989/EU-governed Europe will last or what Europe will look like in 30 years when, hopefully, my children have a chance to bring their children here.

 

Cycling, running, walking to school

Back home in Denver, my kids went to a neighborhood school about five blocks from our house. They could have walked to school on their own, but I enjoyed walking with them so, barring an early morning meeting at the University, I’d usually walk them to their school and then hop on my bike and then ride in to work. In the afternoon, I’d hop back on my bike at 3:15 and arrive just as the school bell rang.

Things are a bit different in Ireland, though. The Girl gets picked up by a bus every morning because her school is on the other side of town and with the Irish weather, walking that far everyday could result in a soaking wet child before the school day begins.

The first few days, Sujata walked to the bus stop with her but today she walked out on her own proclaiming, “I have to get used to doing this myself.” It doesn’t matter to her that we just stick our heads out the door and watch until the bus picks her up.

The Boy’s school is well within walking distance, so I walk with him in the morning and pick him up in the afternoon. We started a little practice that I hope continues for the rest of our time here: He walks out of the school at the end of the day, gives me a hug and says, “Let’s go get a cup of tea and talk about our day.”  There’s nothing one could say to that except, “Okay! Let’s go!”

Today was a kind of special day because I got a new bike with a rack over the back wheel so rather than walking home, he hopped on the back of the bike and we rode all the way home.

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We got home around 5 pm. He trundled into the kitchen where he spilled the contents of his backpack all over the floor and the table and started a spirited conversation with Lu and Sujata about his school day.

I had one of those typical “settling in” days that was mostly comprised of standing in lines, buying stuff for the house, opening a bank account and trying to figure out how to order a garbage bin for the house. Fun stuff. Oh, and of course, at the bank, during my greatest point of frustration, they’re playing The Eagles’ “Greatest Hits” over the loudspeakers. Thank god I got out of there before “Hotel California” came on. Who knows what I would have done, although it did make me think that the line from the song, “We are all just prisoners here/Of our own device,” stupid as it is, would basically sum up how I’d feel about being in the States right now, if I were there. And, as bad as The Eagles are, they are at least good Lefties so I won’t be able to make fun of them about playing at #45’s inauguration.

By the time I got home I was frustrated and anxious so I laced up my running shoes, popped my earbuds in and went for a run. The Irish call apartment complexes ‘estates’ and in the middle of the estate where we live is a very large Gaelic football and hurling pitch with a gravel running track around the perimeter of the pitch. It takes me about 5:40 to do one loop so I suspect that track is something like three quarters of a mile.  It was cold and sunny in Maynooth today and by the time I got to the track, there was a brisk wind kicking up.

After spending most of the day under fluorescent lights and breathing recycled air, it felt good, to be out in the elements and to feel the hard ground underfoot  and the cold wind in my face. As I turned east on my second lap, I looked up to the sky and there was a full moon hanging over the pitch.  I wondered what the moon looked like over the Irish Sea, just 15 miles from where I was. I looked down and the reflection of the moon illuminated the gravel path. Nick Cave was singing something about a lime tree arbor and there was a moment where everything just felt right.

Ireland will do that to you if you let it.

 

 

We arrive to Ireland and are greeted, again, with kindness

Traveling is, in many ways, a set of humbling experiences. You have so much less control over your day to day life and while that’s exciting in many ways, it can also be disconcerting and tiring. As you move from one place to the next you realize how much we all depend on each other and how we need each other’s help, in small and in large ways. Over the course of our travels, I’ve realized this on an almost daily occasions. From Oceania to Bali to southeast Asia, Japan and all throughout central and eastern Europe, friends and strangers have helped us make our way.

This largess of kindness was given to us, once again, upon our arrival to Ireland through the generosity of our friend, Alena.

Our plan was to take an early flight out of Lisbon and arrive to Maynooth in the early afternoon. We knew that our house in Maynooth was not fully furnished so we wanted to get there early to set up the house.

We hadn’t, though, planned on the chaos that awaited us at the Lisbon airport. Here’s a travel warning: The Lisbon airport is a bit of a mess. We arrived to the airport a full two hours before the flight. Nearly three hours and seven lines later, we boarded the flight, exhausted, hungry and tired of standing in lines. Here is a list of the (long) lines that we waited in before we boarded the plane:

  • Visa check
  • Baggage Check
  • Passport Check
  • Security Check
  • Passport Check (again!)
  • Boarding line 1
  • Boarding line 2
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Grumpy end of holiday travelers in Lisbon airport, terminal 2
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Decamped

When we finally boarded the plane and buckled our seat belts the captain announced that a heavy fog had descended across the Lisbon airport, advised us to sit tight for 20 minutes and assured us we’d be on our way shortly. Nearly 90 minutes later, we took off and began the three-hour flight to Dublin. At that point, none of had eaten all day and the vegetarian fare on Ryan Air is pretty much limited to cheese, crackers and chocolate bars.

It was late afternoon by the time we arrived to Maynooth, our new home for the next six months. We plopped down our bags, made a quick (and long!) list of the things we’d need just to sleep that night and then headed out on foot in search of the nearest Dunnes Store.

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Outside our new home in Maynooth

At this point, we were all starving and tired and more than a little irritable. We located the Dunnes Store, but realized we need to eat first so we headed over to one of the more popular pubs in Maynooth, The Roost, where we ate dinner and I had my first Guinness on Irish soil.

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A spirited discussion over Irish tea and Guinness

We left the Roost and started heading back to the Dunnes Store, a bit overwhelmed by all the things we needed to purchase and wondering how we were ever going to walk it all back to our place.

I’m only going into great detail about our day to impress upon you the joy I felt when I heard a familiar voice calling my name from across the High Street. It was Alena, my friend from the International Studies department at Maynooth. She knew we were in town but we didn’t have an Irish SIM card; she couldn’t, therefore, get ahold of us so she drove out to our house looking for us and then drove back into town thinking she might run into us there.

That’s a good friend.

Alena collected us up, took us to Dunnes, then to Tesco. You know, I’m sure, how disorienting it can be to find yourself in a large box store that you are not familiar with. Where’s the butter? What about the soap? Oh, we forgot the pillow cases and the paper towels . . . where are those? Alena patiently walked us through the stores, giving us advice on the best brands, telling us what aisle the milk was in and just being the kind, funny person that she is.

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Check out time

Alena dropped us off at our house at around eight pm and then the next day she came by our house with a trunk full household goods (towels, an espresso maker, bike helmets, kitchen utensils and other things) that she had scrounged up for us. Then, she and Sujata and Eleanor went off to Cellbridge and throughout Maynooth in search of dishes, trash bins and sundry other things we needed to put our house together.

As we continue our travels, I am repeatedly grateful for the kindness we have received from friends like Alena and strangers whose names I never knew.

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Back at the Roost with Alena and Andy Uncle

In which we walk, shop and eat our way through Lisbon

It was raining and cold when we arrived in Lisbon yesterday. When we woke up this morning, though, the skies had cleared and we walked out into a balmy, sun-spotted morning.

Here’s a photo essay of our day:

Lisbon has a vintage tram system that shuttles commuters around the city’s surface streets. It’s called the #28 tram and we picked it up just steps from our flat near the Alfalma neighborhood. Our tram got stuck in traffic and took way longer than we expected.

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The #28 Tram

We were going to be late for the walking tour, so we jumped out of the tram about a half mile from the meet up place and ran like hell. Lisbon, I should note, is not a flat city–the physical geography of the place looks a lot like San Francisco. So, of course, we had to run up a long hill. The kids, who are in pretty good shape from all the walking we’ve been doing, chugged along and we made it to the meeting point just as the tour was beginning.

We have found these walking tours to be excellent ways to learn about the history and architecture of the European cities that we have visited. The guides are always very knowledgable and they generally show you things that would be easy to miss.

Our tour began at Chiado Square. Chiado means “squeaky” in Portuguese and the square is named after Antonio Ribeiro, a street philosopher who hung out in this square in the mid sixteenth century and who had a high-pitched voice. Locals and passersby started jettisoning his Christian name, referring to him simply as “Chiado.” He must have been quite a presence here because, gradually, the square became associated with the man and then, oddly, it got named after his voice. What a strange metonymy.

 

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Our guide, Jamie, holding court in front of the statute commemorating the square’s namesake, Ribiero/Chiado

As we left Chiado Square, we walked by the Bertrand Bookstore–it bills itself as the oldest bookstore in the world, and that may be true.

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From Chiado Square, we made our way down to the flats of Lisbon.

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The view as we descended the high ground in Lisbon. That’s St. George’s Castle at the top of the hill in the background

Our first stop after Chiado Square was Rossio Square. We stopped in the middle of the square and Jamie asked our group, “What sinister events do you think happened here?” Both our kids, in unison, shouted, “Executions!” I don’t know where they got that information, but they were correct. Even Jamie was a little taken aback.  Rossio means commons in Portuguese and it was here, for a good part of the sixteenth century, that the Catholic Church did away with Christians who didn’t hew close enough to church orthodoxy.

It wasn’t all blood and guts and chasing after heretics here, though. Jamie told us that the Portuguese were the first to open up trade routes to Japan and, in fact, the Portuguese were early founders of Nagasaki. This created a good deal of interest among our family as we spent three weeks in Japan and simply fell in love with the people, the food and the culture. In the short time we were in Japan we tried to soak up as much as we could and much of that involved learning Japanese phrases like konnichiwa (hello), ohayo (good morning), oishi (delicious!) and, our favorite, arigatogozaimashita (thank you). To make his point about Japanese/Portuguese cultural exchanges, Jamie noted that the Portuguese word for thank you is obligato  and he asked our group if any of us knew the Japanese word for thank you. I was looking at the kids as this was happening and I could tell they were anticipating the question so before he could even finish the question they both, again in unison, shouted with startling enthusiasm, “Arigatogozaimashita!”

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Rossio Square

 

 

From Rossio Square we walked toward the port of Lisbon where we found ourselves in the Praco do Comercio, or Commerce Square. Commerce Square was built following the historic and terrible Lisbon earthquake of 1755. I had read bits and pieces about the Lisbon earthquake, but until stood here and heard stories about the horror of that, and subsequent days, I never really realized how awful it was. In the past, Commerce Square served an administrative function where the State flexed its muscles.  It was also the sight of the assassination of Carlos I and the 1974 Carnation Revolution that toppled the last Portuguese dictator, Marcelo Caetano, and ushered in the current democracy.  Now, it’s mostly a bunch of tourists walking around.

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Commerce Square

By that time, it was time for a break. I had my usual late morning pick up and Lu had hers.

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One of my favorite European habits: espresso and sparkling water

 

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And Lu’s favorite European habit, Nestea
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A competitive game of chess at lunch

Lisbon is unique for its tile work. Many of the buildings downtown are decorated with beautiful and intricate tiles.

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Those of you who know me know that I love hats. I left most of my hats in the States so Sujata knitted me a nice merino wool winter hat when we were in Romania, but it’s too hot for wool in Lisbon and I have been missing my flat brimmed hats. Sujata found a millinery on Tripadvisor and as we were close, we stopped in. The place is called A Fabrica dos Chapeus (The Hat Factory) and it’s run by a family that designs and manufactures all fitted hats in the store. Shortly after I walked into the story, I met Gi, one of the owners. Gi is a true connoisseur of hats and a super nice guy. He knows how to fit hats to your head, he knows which hats will look good on you and he gives good advice about sizing and style. I bought two hats–a flat brimmed and a beanie and I think I might try to go back before we leave Lisbon and get one more.

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Me and Gi in A Fabrica dos Chapeus

All the sightseeing and shopping was making us hungry, so we stopped for pastel de nata, a signature Portuguese postre. They were so good that we brought half a dozen home with us.

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Sujata enjoying a pastel de nata
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A pastel de nata fabrica
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Cobblestone sidewalks in our neighborhood

At the end of the day, we took the Metro back to our flat. This is the view of Lisbon from our neighborhood:

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We have two more full days here in the great city before we head to Ireland.

 

Madrid, Day 1

We just boarded the Ave Express from Madrid to Seville and I have three hours to reflect on the two days we spent in Spain’s capital city. We had planned on taking the train from Barcelona straight to Seville but we waited too long to get our train tickets, so we ended up having to go to Seville via Madrid.

Arriving to Madrid late afternoon, we left the Atocha Estacion, walked down Atocha Boulevard for about 10 minutes and found our place on a little side street in the Lavapies barrio. I wondered about the prevalence of things called “Atocha,” so I looked it up when we got to our flat. Atocha, it turns out is a Catholic image of Christ as a Child that is associated with Spanish and Latin American cultures.

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Image of the Holy Infant of Atocha

The Lavapies neighborhood is an up and coming, soon to be gentrified section of the city that is currently a nice mix of old-timers, hipsters and recent immigrants. I suspect that if we revisit Madrid in five years (or less) it will be almost entirely turned over the hipsters, but, for now, there’s a nice heterogeneity to the place.

Our Airbnb flat was a shotgun arrangement; nice and clean enough, but it had a very small living room space, so we just dropped our bags and went back outside, looking for a place to eat dinner. The plethora of good vegetarian food across Europe remains a pleasant surprise and our first night in Madrid proved no different. We found a little tapas bar called El Sur where we had patas bravas, tortilla de patas and espinicas con garbanzos.  The waiter asked us if we wanted a Spanish or English menu. We cried out “Ambos!” and he, sensing our desire to communicate in Spanish replied, “Okay, I will speak in English and you will speak in Spanish.” Fair enough. He was a super nice guy and toward the end of dinner, he came by and dropped off two shots of Spanish ron. Five minutes later, he came by with two more shots. Whoa.

Afterwards, we went home to our flat and had an unremarkable evening except for the fact that Sujata broke my phone. We both found this funny (I also found it annoying) in that one of our cab drivers in Timisoara went on and on about how the IPhone 5 was basically indestructible. He wasn’t aware of the extent of Sujata’s torpeza.

The next day was our only full day in Madrid so we decided to spend the bulk of it at the Prado, the national art museum of Spain. When I was a sophomore in college I took an art history class from a professor named Ted Prescott. We read Robert Hughes’ great book on twentieth-century art, The Shock of the New, and we even took a field trip to the Smithsonian National Art Gallery. This was my first exposure to serious art and art criticism and, after all these years, the things I learned and learned to appreciate in Dr. Prescott’s class stay with me. It was with great joy, then, that I walked through the Prado’s galleries with my family. Our kids, happily, enjoy art museums as much as Sujata and I; they especially love listening to the audio guides and giving us their analyses and interpretations of what they are seeing.

The first section of the Prado is full of paintings by the Italian Renaissance painter, Titan. Some of his work examines the break between Greco-Roman and Renaissance cultures so there are a fair number of paintings that deal with mythological figures like Hephaestus, Venus and Adonis, to name a few. Here a few images of Titan’s work at the Prado that deal with Greek mythology:

Our kids love Greek mythology so it’s not uncommon when we are in any given museum to hear one of them shout, “Dad, look! There’s a Hephaestus over here” or for one of them to casually remark, “Oh, hey, Dad, did you see the painting of Atlanta?” When I was 11 I spent most of my time memorizing the batting averages of the Cincinnati Reds. I know I wasn’t running through the positive and negative attributes of the mortals and the gods of the Greeks.

We spent the bulk of our time at the Prado gazing at the large and impressive collection of paintings by the great Spanish artists, Velasquez and Goya. Velasquez’ style and technique is exquisite, but I can’t really get beyond his fawning over royalty.  It’s one of the reasons, too, that I didn’t love Gaudi’s architecture–it grabs you and it calls attention to itself, but ultimately, both Velasquez and Gaudi were working for The Man and from what I could see, failed to express much overt criticism of Establishment thinking and practices.

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Velasquez’ masterpiece “La Meninas”

That’s precisely why I was most interested and taken by Goya’s work, especially the pinturas negras that he did toward the end of his life. The pinturas negras are especially interesting in that he painted them as murals on the walls of his home. Can you imagine coming home and finding this on the dining room wall?

The pinturas negras hang in a dimly-lit, long and narrow room and as you walk through the room the paintings themselves seem to stare at you from many different angles. Eleanor, whose favorite painting in the Prado was Reuben’s’ “The Three Graces,” was, you can imagine, horrified by all this and walked around with her eyes covered most of the time. After Goya’s death, they transferred the murals to canvas and now they hang in their own room as a permanent exhibit at the Prado.

The Prado also has a nice collection of Flemish painters with an entire room turned over to a few pieces by the fantastical late-medieval artist, Hieronymus Bosch or, El Bosco, as they call him at the Prado. We all stood in wonder in front of “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” a triptych that illustrates the wages of sin in an unvarnished and startling manner.

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At lunch later that day we talked at great length about the parts of the painting that amused and startled us: Lu loved the representation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Atticus loved the little Totoro figure to the right of Eve (it’s a rabbit), Sujata liked the blue monster that was eating humans and popping them into a pit (yup) and I loved the images of the oversized birds gazing of the shoulders of the diminutive humans.

I am not attracted to excessive moralizing in art and as I regarded “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” I found myself wondering why, given Bosch’s unfiltered recriminations against the pursuit of human pleasure, I was so delighted by his work. Part of it, I think, is that Bosch’s world is just so damn weird and surprising and that in and of itself makes it interesting to see and to talk about.

After we left the Prado we found a little restaurant where I continued my European habit of taking an espresso and a sparkling water in the middle of the day. Emil introduced me to this practice at Viniloteca early on in our stay in Romania so now, besides the fact that I enjoy the combination, it also reminds me of Emil.

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After lunch we walked across Madrid, through the central tourist district and over to the Palacio Real. The line to get into the Palace was ridiculously long and we were all a bit cashed out from the morning in the Prado, so we decided to walk back across town to a churros and chocolate shop.

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The line outside the Palacio Real

This walk was about my least favorite thing about Madrid, maybe about our entire time in Spain. The streets were clogged with people, mostly tourists.

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The dreaded walk across the Plaza Major

Moreover, kids were running around throwing those caps that making a loud popping noise when they hit the ground. I hate those things and I hate those kinds of intense crowds and, happily, Sujata sensed my discomfort and quickly led us to the churros y chocolate place. I always thought that churros were Mexican and I never thought I’d have churros that were better than the ones we get at Pinche Tacos in our neighborhood back in Denver. I was wrong on both counts: churros are from Europe, probably Spain, and the churros we had at Chocolateria San Gines were the best I’ve ever had.

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We made our way back to our flat and continued our tradition of propping the exhausted children in front of their screens where they get lost in Minecraft for an hour as we traipse to the nearest drinking establishment, sample the local beer, wine or cocktail, take in the local culture, reflect on our day and plan for the next.

We’ve spent quite a lot of time on trains this autumn and early winter and the Spanish train system–it’s called Renfe–has been, by far, the most pleasant rail experience. The Renfe trains run on time, the bathrooms are clean, the staff is exceedingly nice and helpful, the stations are efficient and interesting and the seats are comfortable. I’ve spent many pleasant hours on these trains reading, writing, playing chess with the kids and just staring out the window. One of my favorite things to do on these long trips is to order an espresso and agua con gas and stand in the cocina coche looking out across the beautiful Spanish countryside.

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Sujata and Lu chilling on the Ave Express to Seville

This trip from Madrid to Seville is our last trip on Renfe, at least until we return to Spain.

Barcelona es Bonita!

It’s Christmas Day, and I’m sitting at the top of Park Güell, a public park in the Gracia district of Barcelona that was designed by the famous Catalan architect, Antoni Gaudi.

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We walked up here after opening our presents and now we are relaxing and enjoying the view and taking a break from the long walk. Eleanor is on the swing at the playground, making friends with Spanish girls. Atticus and Sujata are reading and I’m thinking about the five days we’ve enjoyed here in Barcelona.

This is our fifth and final day in this city, and I’ll be sorry to leave. As we prepare to leave every major European city that we have visited this autumn, I always comment, “[The city we are in] is my favorite city so far.” Sujata teases me–you can’t have that many favorite cities, she says. I am happy, though, to accumulate a long list of favorite European cities.

The Barcelona I’ve seen is a city of parks, small neighborhood public squares, wide boulevards that transect the city, long winding beaches and tree-covered mountains. The people we have met have been overwhelmingly friendly, often complimenting us on our Spanish, which I find funny because our Spanish, while not terrible, probably isn’t much more advanced than the speech of a five-year old. Still, I’ll take the compliment and chalk it up to the graciousness of the people in this city.

Barcelona hosts a curious and refreshing diversity of tight, dark medieval streets and neighborhoods with wide, open boulevards and public spaces that we associate more with late nineteenth-century city planning. In the space of a few minutes, you could find yourself navigating a darkened, cobble-stoned street which tumbles you out onto a sunlit boulevard that provides panoramic views across the city.

Among other things, Barcelona is remarkable for its architecture and the way the city has been laid out. After the medieval city walls were demolished in the mid nineteenth century, the city began expanding west, toward the mountains. The modern city planners clearly imagined a city of wide open public, private and commercial spaces and they achieved this vision through the implementation of a number of planning techniques that have had a lasting and positive effect on the city.

Here’s an image I took from Pinterest to illustrate my point:

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One of the first things you notice when you visit Barcelona is the way the buildings of many of the major squares and intersections are chamfered, or cut at a diagonal. You can see an example of this in the middle of the image above. Most commercial buildings in any given major city end in a 90-degree angle. From a commercial aspect this makes a lot of sense in that continuing the building to the right angle provides more square footage. So in that regard, Barcelona’s chamfered commercial spaces are economically inefficient. But what is taken away in commercial space is made up in civic space because when you cut the building on a diagonal, you open up the intersection to a wider range of public space. As you can see in the image above, the octagonal plaza is full of trees and green space.At the same time, the diagonals, open up more of the built environment, letting more light into the city streets.

Barcelona is also unique for its lack of alleyways across city blocks. The alley is a staple of nearly every American city, large and small, and in many ways, the back alley is a part of the American mythology–it’s where undercover and untoward deals are made, it’s where car chases end and it’s where dead bodies are found, unceremoniously stuffed in trash bins. Plus, how many Springsteen songs take place in alleys and backstreets?

I don’t know where Catalan artists go to for those dark metaphors because there aren’t any alleys, at least that I saw, in Barcelona. It’s true that Barcelona has its fair share of narrow streets that could be mistaken for alleys, but the kind of alleys that bisect entire city blocks don’t exist in the heart of Barcelona. Instead, the nineteenth-century city planners designed city blocks with inner courtyards where people could gather and relax away from the hustle and bustle of the city streets.

Look back at the above image and notice how the blocks are organized: there are buildings around the perimeter of the blocks and then, in many cases, green spaces in the middle. This, I have to say, is genius city planning. Real estate developers, I suspect, chafe at the ‘wasted’ space, but, again, I think the tenor and the tone of this great city is set in these quiet spaces. The flat where we are staying hosts an inner courtyard and the effect that has on the living space is really quite amazing. This is a view out our window on Christmas morning:

When we sit in the living room that overlooks the inner courtyard, we are flooded in light. Moreover, it’s quiet back there. You don’t hear cars, delivery trucks or people creeping by at all hours of the day or night. It’s worth noting, too, that many of the inner courtyards in Barcelona were ‘filled in’ during the Franco years and many of them have since been recovered.

More recently, Barcelona city planners have been expanding on the vision of the early city planners by creating “super blocks”–long swaths of city streets and plazas with limited or zero car access and that will be largely turned over to pedestrians. The venerable (or ‘failing’ if you are #45) New York Times did an interesting piece on Barcelona’s ‘super blocks’ in September of 2016.

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A spirited discussion on the streets of Barcelona