Moments: Portugal and Spain in Six Tiny Vignettes

1. Lisbon: First day in Portugal, Marcia and I leave our hotel, heavily jet-lagged, for our first walk together in Iberia. Time to kill before we meet our new travel companions for dinner. Down the hill toward the historic central waterfront market, aimless, following gravity’s pull at each intersection. Turn a corner, and hear a sonic blast warm front of the most extraordinary pulsing rhythmic racket from somewhere unseen, ahead. Follow the noise: primal, pounding, pummeling rhythms of metal and hide, bestial, wild, attractive, audible id. Glimpse a parade line one block away, push through the crowd, turn another corner to confront a movable carnival feast of color and light and noise, winding its way to places unknown, primitive masks evoking ancient gods, rites, passions, dances, magic. We are suddenly part of something. We don’t know what. Mysteries make everything better.

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2. Rural Andalucia (I): Long bus ride into the country from Seville ends with a 30-minute jumble along a bumpy, twisted, dusty dirt road, winding between prickly pear cacti and olive trees, signs telling us this a private hunting preserve for the region’s richest residents. Arrive at a ranch where prize toros are raised for their final moments of public pain and posthumous glory in Spain’s finest bull fighting arenas. Greeted by Matias, an impossibly handsome young matador in training, dressed in traditional chaps, hat, coat, boots, his rock star dreams of arena triumph balanced by his efforts as a law student; he will succeed, one way or another. Pile into a wagon pulled by a tractor, Matias riding alongside on a fine grey horse, carrying a long spear, into the fields where eight choice bulls await their final journey in blissful, aggressive ignorance. Matias runs the bulls. He shows us the field where the cows and calves live, food atop a hill, water miles away in the valley, the long daily trips between the points of comfort keeping the animals healthy and lean. Matias demonstrates the matador’s moves in the ranch’s central show arena, manipulating the cape, frozen in handsome snapshots of equipoise, muscles clinched, a beautiful dancer in all but name. As he poses, Marcia whispers: I can has matador?

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3. Ronda: Ancient Roman mountaintop city atop a vast gorge, overlooking fields, groves, green, lush, history palpable in layers. Whitewashed walls protected long-ago citizens from plague, modern police cars protect today’s residents from parking violations, creating traffic jams as they tow vehicular offenders. Heat as a layer of clothing, worn atop shirts, hung from hats, sun haze and sweat. Leave a euro in a tiny church’s till as we pay our respects to the Holy Mother, and are rewarded with a carry-out prayer in the language of our choosing. Enter the bullfight arena at city center, wind through the shadowy concrete paths that the enraged beasts themselves follow to their final conflicts, past paintings and scrims explaining the rich cultural history of this most savage form of communal entertainment. Emerge from the dark tunnel into the ring itself, the paint of the walls mirroring the sun-yellow color of the sand. At the center, a lone figure stands with the distinctive long instrument of his trade, mere meters from his eternal foe. This is the place! Centuries of heritage unfold before us, as the mighty Caterpillador faces down the terrible Bobcat in all of its fury. Shivers. Heat haze. Herculito’s Final Task.

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4. Rural Andalucia (II): Another long bus ride into the country, Luis the driver navigating us safely through impossible straits and passes, no scrapes, no sweat: El Jefe del Autobus! Arrive at a beautiful family-owned vineyard overlooking a lush valley, ancient Ronda on the horizon’s hilltop. Greeted by Moises, one of the brothers who cares for the grapes and olives with which the family makes fine, organic wines and oils. Moises gestures down into the rows of grape vines, pointing out the fragrant lines of rosemary, thyme, tarragon nested within, designed to draw desirable bees and birds to combat the family’s greatest nemesis: the terrible tiny spiders. A palpable tremble as Moises utters that phrase. Shadows cross the sun. Dark birds take flight, croaking in horror. The Terrible Tiny Spiders! Terrible! Tiny! Spiders!!! We cannot see them, but we know they are there, waiting, patient, poised, eternal. Everywhere. Unseen. Always. This is the history of Spain: Ferdinand and Isabella unite their kingdoms to protect their people from Terrible Tiny Spiders; Franco died screaming amidst dreams of Terrible Tiny Spiders; the sultans of the Alhambra trembled within the embraces of their concubines as the Terrible Tiny Spiders swept through their gardens like poisonous smoke; there they are, there, there, crawling beneath the hooves of Guernica’s horses, battling the ants that infest Dali’s paintings, parachuting like Jesus from the spires of La Sagrada Familia, lurking in the corners of La Casa Del Bacalao. Terrible. Tiny. Spiders. We now understand Spain.

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5. Figueres: On the bus again, en route to the Theater Museum that the great Salvador Dali built to preserve his own legacy, in his own way. The skies are grey, mountains on the horizon evoke deja vu, Dali’s landscapes embedded in brain matter, known but not, silent but sensed. A palpable sense of personal pull, approaching the home and tomb of one of the greatest figures in my personal creative landscape, a man, a force, a presence who shaped the way I understand and process the world, how I see beauty, how I admire the muse, how my dream life invades my waking world, how I ask how, and why. Headphones are over my ears as we exit the highway, my iPod set to random play mode. “The Wheel” by Coil begins to play as we approach the museum, another very important touch point for me. Coil, like Dali, have long shaped the way I hear beauty, how I admire the creator, how my waking world invades my dream world, why I ask why, and how. The song begins with a tape recording of a ghost’s voice, a faint vocalization from the great beyond whispers to us from deep within tape hiss, then the drums, then the haunted, haunting lost voice of beautiful John Balance explains the world and all the things in it, and Sleazy is there, too, also calling from the places and spaces we who live have yet to experience, except in dreams. As the bus stops, these words linger: Oh, I was dragged here by an angel. Thank you.

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6. Barcelona: Last night in Spain, rain falling in torrents. Two people, one umbrella, in search of arroz negro, the traditional paella made with squid ink and langustinos. On Gaudi’s Avenue, Sagrada Familia at one end, Hospital of Saint Paul at the other. Slip into a small restaurant, take a table in the corner, order anchovy-stuffed olives, albondigas, arroz negro. A baby at a nearby table cries and can’t be comforted by an attentive mother. Somewhere behind, above, beyond us a strange noise arises, a series of shuffling clicks, or clicking shuffles, disconcerting, like something from a Japanese horror film, or one of the Alien movies. The mother continues to soothe the baby, but it is disconsolate. A large woman with a nearly-shaved head leaves the table near us and goes to the restroom, and she does not return. The clicks shuffle, perhaps in the heating ducts, or maybe just around the corner, where we cannot see the source? Wait! Perhaps the shuffles click from within the restroom! The large woman still does not return. Another man enters the restroom. He, too, is gone for the evening. The arroz negro arrives. We scrape it from its pan, and crack the little arachnids atop it with our teeth, sucking the sweet meat from within the hard carapaces, leaving little piles of claws and legs and tails on a plate between us. The clicks shuffle. The shuffles click. Now near. Now far. The baby weeps as the mother rocks her gently, trying to eat her own paella with one hand. We finish our meal and request la cuenta, the check. The waiter nods knowingly and walks away. We wait. The clicks shuffle. The shuffles click. No one emerges from the restroom. The check never comes. We wait. We do not dare use the restroom. What happened to the people inside it? Something scuttles across the room at periphery, just out of sight. Click. Shuffle. Click. Marcia leans across the table and says: The alien should eat the baby first.

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On Returning

Marcia and I returned home yesterday after two weeks spent in Fort Lauderdale. We rented a great house there, so we could cook at home for most meals, and also have extra rooms for visitors. Katelin, my mother, and two of Marcia’s sisters joined us there at various times throughout our vacation. Marcia was actually working for a good chunk of our time away, so I did a lot of day trips (Miami, Cape Canaveral, the Everglades), and she and I walked a lot and had a some wonderful meals together. Click the image of me making my Space Nerd Pilgrimage to Kennedy Space Center below for the full photo gallery, if you’re so inclined. We will resume our regular pace of piffle and tripe here on the blog soon, after I dig out from being away for so long!

Me and the business end of a Saturn V rocket.

Me and the business end of a Saturn V rocket.

Lauding Lauderdale

Marcia and I spent a wonderful long Memorial Day weekend in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, piggybacking a little getaway adjacent to a work conference in which she was participating down there.

The weather was delightfully warm and dry, so we golfed a couple of rounds and walked a lot, both around downtown Lauderdale and out on the beach. We spent part of Saturday afternoon watching the Great American Beach Party with friends from a high balcony table at a conveniently-located Hooters, where we ate peel and eat shrimp, and kept our eyes above shoulder level at all times. Ahem.

As fun as all of our various outings were, the very best parts of the trip was generally when we retired to our rented digs for the weekend, at the utterly wonderful Villa Amarosa. We have rented a lot of vacation properties in a lot of locations over the years, and I would be hard pressed to name one that was more appealing — especially for a romantic weekend away for two — than this one.

The Villa’s private yard and pool were magical and gorgeously gardened, and the interior features, decor, amenities and furnishings were exquisite. Every detail was just right, and of exceptionally high quality, including some unusual aspects that pleased me to no end, e.g. as a political science and government geek, I was delighted to find complimentary copies of Foreign Policy and The Economist on the Villa’s reading table, rather than the usual summer vacation celebrity tripe fare. It’s nice to get stupider when you go on vacation, right?

Our hosts, Campbell and Dan, were gracious, hospitable and generous, and they went above and beyond the call of duty to make sure that we felt welcome and comfortable. The booking process and all communications thereafter were smooth, complete and timely, as we like it. Campbell and Dan also offered great dining recommendations, and we were thankful for their insights after having a delicious birthday dinner at Cafe Vico on their advice.

We also had very nice meals at Grille 66 (excellent seafood and wine list, lovely waterfront view) and Cafe Seville (bustling Spanish restaurant with a lot of character and great, authentic menu), along with a tasty breakfast (grits and fried fish for me, yum) at the old school diner/counter-styled Floridian, an easy amble from the Villa.

I cannot recommend Villa Amarosa highly enough for your own travels to Fort Lauderdale or environs. If you know me personally or read my work online, then you know I’m kind of cranky and hard to please most of the time, so take this as the extremely strong endorsement that I mean it to be!

Click on the image of Marcia relaxing to book your own vacation at Villa Amarosa.

Click on the image of Marcia relaxing to book your own vacation at Villa Amarosa.

37 Down, 62 to Go

During the campaign cycle before the Iowa GOP Caucuses, Senator Rick Santorum and Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann both completed “The Full Grassley,” visiting all 99 of Iowa’s counties. (The feat takes its name from Senator Chuck Grassley, who allegedly has visited all 99 counties in each of his 30+ years in elected office). Senator Santorum did his Full Grassley the smart way: he basically lived here for a year, took his time working his way around the state, got to see its sights and know its people, and reaped the benefit of his retail policking with a neck-and-neck finish with the better-financed favorite, Governor Mitt Romney. Representative Bachmann, on the other hand, tried to pull it off as a 10-day stunt, which was disastrous for her, as her chronic late appearances, visible fatigue, and lightly-attended campaign events made her and her team look inept, not connected at a grassroots level.

As a new Iowan, and given my penchant for punishing endeavors, I really like the idea of completing my own Full Grassley, and have already made several day and overnight trips around the state toward that end. I’m doing it all on the road (I suspect Senator Grassley flies in to some key cities around the state when he’s making his rounds), and trying to find a balance between the Santorum and Bachmann approaches: taking time between trips, but making every trip count. Sometimes Marcia and I travel together, and sometimes I venture solo. Here’s a graphic of the counties I have visited to date (we live in Polk County, fourth row from the bottom, sixth from the left):

I have visited the 37 shaded counties as of January 26.

While it would obviously be easy (or at least easier) in some cases to just drive over a county line, or walk a circle around the many “four (county) corners” in the state, then drive on to the next destination, I am making a fairly serious effort to experience the counties in more meaningful ways: either by spending a sizable amount of time in them by fully transecting them from side-to-side or top-to-bottom, or by visiting signature county landmarks, or by having meals in great local restaurants. The breadth and depth of variety around the state is wonderful, and I appreciate seeing it up close and personal.

Monday and Tuesday this week, I will be doing this, with an overnight stop near Donnellson, from where I also plan to visit Keokuk, in the far southeast corner of the state. That region is known for Bald Eagles, fossils, and geodes, so it fits in well with many of my geeky interests and pursuits. When I get back Tuesday night, I will have shaded the entire southeastern corner in the map above, bringing my county total to 54. I will dispatch a good chunk of northeast Iowa over the next month or so, too, via trips to and from Clinton and Dubuque (in Iowa) and Chicago.

My goal is to complete the Full Grassley before I start working again full time, which (hopefully) will be sooner rather than later. So I may end up doing a mad Bachmann dash at some point if one of several employment prospects pans out soon, though for now, I’m savoring the luxury of getting to spend quality time all around my new state. It’s doing wonders in terms of making me feel like Iowa and Des Moines really are home.