A kind of translation

Google's handy little app, Word Lens, explains to us why the front door lock on our apartment building was removed and why there are no lights on the stairs, kind of..


Layers of time

I just want to say again that I'm amazed by the number of archaeological and historical treasures found here on the Iberian Peninsula. Don't worry. I'm not going to launch into something complicated. It's just that I've been reading Wikipedia again and writing about it helps me sort things out.

Roman ruins below glass floor at Lisbon H & M store

Okay. It's a wee bit complicated. But, if I got it right, most scientists agree that the million-year-old skeleton found in Spain is the remains of one of our first ancestors (genus homo) to appear on the new hominid branch (clade) of the evolutionary tree. This, of course, was after the the PanHomo split when we hominids broke off from the bonobos and chimpanzees who were, by that time, living on their own separate Panina clade (branch) of the tree. Feel free to correct me.

You know how breakups go. When sex and/or love is involved, it can be slow, messy business. Think your first high school heartbreak was bad? This one took millions of years. The number of millions varies wildly, depending on who you consult, but we do know this. To this day, 94% of our DNA here on the hominina clade is the same as that of our cousins on the bonobo/chimpanzee panina clade. Hard telling what branches we'll all find ourselves on if/when google ever gets those glasses right or humanoid robots start cloning themselves.

Dancers with Gaudi's Sagrada Familia in distance.

But for now, I can say we are pretty settled in Barcelona. We've walked miles through the city, seen it from one hill and another and explored ruins above and below ground. We also walked through one of the last remaining entrances to the ancient, long gone, Roman city of Barcino. That especially felt like time travel. We passed below arches that have stood a millennia in a changing world while remaining rooted in their own. Talk about roots, we inherited our alphabet from the Romans.

Remnant of city of Barcino upon
and around which the Barcelona, Spain of today is built.

Anyway... we also walked the beach. And yes, the beach in Barcelona is one of those delightful European beaches that everyone's heard about, the kind that scandalize puritanical busybodies everywhere. Women go topless wherever they feel like and, if they so chose, and men and women shower the sand off their nude bodies at any of the handy outdoor shower spots along the boardwalk.

And hey! Speaking of freedom, congratulations to the US Supreme Court for striking down gay marriage bans nationwide! The 5-4 decision was just announced this hour, thus bringing America one step closer to the freedom and equality everyone deserves. Well done!


Terrible Twos

Frank and Baby Chance
Frank is currently smack dab in the middle of the Terrible Twos. Yes, he's darling, charming and wonderful but at two years old proving his independence and prowess is a top priority. Anything can turn into a challenge. As nearly five-year-old Leo told me on the phone yesterday, "Frank couldn't come to the park with us today because he had a meltdown". This photo of Frank with Baby Chance says it all. You talkin' to me? Trust me. You do not want to mess with me!


Happy Father's Day and Summer Solstice

Me and a few of the gkids
Happy Father's Day to all you dads and Happy Summer Solstice as well. It's a great combination for a day. Definitely, indulge yourselves today. May you live long and always bask in the love of your family and children.

My own dear dad is long gone. Unfortunately, he didn't live long enough to see me pull out of the tailspin of my early years, though he predicted one day I would. Thank you for that. Neither did he live long enough to meet any of his own wonderful grandchildren. I attribute that to his meat, cigarettes and booze heavy diet and lack of exercise. It was the curse of his times and still is for a great many  people. He was otherwise a bull of man and a great dad.

And, as it's summer solstice for everyone in the northern hemisphere, Happy Summer Solstice to all. Also, Happy Winter Solstice to everyone in the southern hemisphere. The sun is just now making it's turn back your way.

Madrid to Barcelona

Madrid train station
Took the high speed train from Madrid to Barcelona yesterday. It topped out at 185 mph or, as this is Europe, 298 km an hour. Counting two stops, the trip took three hours. We're here for a month, staying in a professor's airbnb apartment in the El Raval neighborhood. Wikipedia tells me El Raval is also known as Chinatown and is "historically infamous for its nightlife and cabarets, as well as prostitution and crime". The entry also mentions some notable past residents of El Raval, which includes three writers and a serial killer known as "the vampyre of Barcelona".

View from the patio
While we love local color, it further notes that,  "El Raval has changed significantly in recent years and due to its central location has become a minor attraction of Barcelona"  and I'm okay with that. Even if the neighborhood has lost a bit of its edge, it's still interesting. Last evening the fellow next door was practicing an opera solo and someone else played a lovely cello over the courtyard for about a half an hour. And, en route to the grocery store yesterday, we walked through a swarm of  20 to 40 something hipsters  in various degrees of outrageousness. Of course, for all it's liveliness, El Raval in no way compares to the outdoor cafe party scene of the neighborhood where we stayed in Madrid. There even the children played in the nearby park till midnight, as evidenced by their screams of excitement and delight, and the street parties went until 3, that's AM. But I can live with that. As usual, google images has plenty of photos of El Raval if you want an overview.
The neighbor birds

Our apartment, though most likely a million dollar place, is basically a long narrow hall partitioned into rooms with no windows in the middle and doors on both ends, giving it the feel of an open ended cave. Well, there is a window in the middle that opens onto an air shaft in the middle of the building but that's it. I'm not complaining. I just report. But, as I am always the one who flings open windows for more light and fresh air, it is a bit of an adjustment. M. Lee assures me that, after we see a few of Gaudi's famous Barcelona structures, this place will make more sense. I'm sure he's right. Anyway, I love walking narrow, winding medieval streets so what's not to love about this lovely place?

I'm writing this from the patio, a godsend located outside the kitchen at the back of the apartment. We are, as they say say in this part of the world, on the first floor. In the US it would be called the second floor. Anyway, someone, we are guess the professor, added the kitchen and patio. Metaphorically, you could say I am sitting in the canyon outside the backdoor of our cave. To my everlasting gratitude, there is blue sky above and many swallows nesting in the holes of the canyon walls, so I have the company of wildlife. An essential for my occasionally somewhat fragile state of mind.


The ruins of Spain

Early two-legged Earthling
National Archaeological
Museum of Spain

We spent the last two days at the National Archaeological Museum of Spain located here in Madrid. The minute you walk in the door they hit you with the fact that all of Spain is a huge archaeological treasure trove. We saw artifacts dating back 1.3 million years.

Because Spain is a stones throw from Africa and an inevitable destination along the Mediterranean trade routes from the middle east and Asia people, and prehistoric versions of people, have been mucking it up in Spain for a million years and, like people always do, they built and torn down, lost and left shit all over the place.
Gargoyle and me

In America, we marvel at how old something is our grandparents left behind. In Spain, loosen the dirt with a teaspoon, and you find something that someone dropped three thousand years ago. This doesn't mean that I now love Madrid but I do have an increased respect and curiosity about Spain itself. We're hoping to get to a few nearby historical sites before we leave the area but today it's back to Reina Sofia to see a bit more art.

Cloudy day in Madrid


Madrid museum crawl

Our window westward
Madrid. Hemingway loved the place, but I can't say it does much for me. Then again, if I lived in the golden haze of alcohol poisoning perhaps I'd see things differently. M. Lee has taken it to the next level and actually made it personal, even when it rains. In any case, it's clear that Madrid rewards those who start their day late. Even the church bells down the alley do not sound until 11 am. But we are here for the art and, so far, we've been to Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía once and the Museo Nacional Del Prado twice.

Our window eastward

Our day at Reina Sofia did not start well. The walk there was ok but we needed to find an ATM along the way and, especially in the morning, that is something of a false hope. Maybe it isn't fair to Madrid, but these days Istanbul is the gold standard and in Istanbul ATMs are everywhere, along with public bathrooms. Not so in Madrid. Both are extremely hard to come by. Well, actually it seems there are no public bathrooms in Madrid. You are, as they say, shit out of luck. As for the ATM, we circled the streets for I don't know how long before finding one, of all places, near the museum entrance. Like I said, it's personal.

El Greco, Fábula
Fable by El Greco
photo by Frans Vandewalle
Of course, both museums house the work of world class artists. If you like, take a quick peak here: The Prado and here: Reina Sofia. One painting in particular stood out at the Prado, El Greco's "Fable".  It is perhaps my personal favorite among all that I have seen this week. Yes, there are more important works at both museums, including the Prado's outstanding collection of royal portraits commissioned by the very kings and princes they portray. They are not only masterfully executed, but are meant to impress upon the viewer the authority and stability of monarchy but to me they seem repetitious and vain. Anyway, of the two museums, I prefer the more contemporary Reina Sofia.

So, today we are off to the archeological museum to see who and what lived here before it was Spain. Must remember to watch out for the pickpockets.


Hemingway was here

Viewing the Mona Lisa at the Louvre
- source unknown -
Sorry. Couldn't resist doing a graffiti title. We're in Madrid and Hemingway spent a lot of time here. He loved the place, called it the "most Spanish of all cities" so "Hemingway was here" is in the air. His writing is one thing but, as I'm not into bullfighting or booze, machismo or meat, I am not that enamored by the lore of “Don Ernesto" as he was called here. If it's not too much out of our way, we may walk by his favorite bar. It's still here, still the same and the same family still runs it. But I have no interest in making a pilgrimage to his favorite restaurant even if it is, according to the Guinness Book of Records, the oldest restaurant in the world. Remember, we are the people who spent many hours over many days in the Louvre and never made it by to see the Mona Lisa.

But, if we do find ourselves on the Hemingway trail, I will photograph the highlights and post them here because that is what I do, make notes along the way, whether they are about the birds in the Bird Park or the bar where Hemingway drank. But, speaking of birds, it was cool this morning watching the river of swallows swirling above the dome of the old cathedral down the alley and rushing through the narrow corridors of buildings in our neighborhood in search of breakfast. We are on the fifth (top) floor and the windows are always open. It is very hot and the apartment has no air conditioning, or screens for that matter. But today we are headed out to the museum. We are in Madrid for the museums, especially the Prado. Not only did Hemingway frequent the place, Picasso was the head curator for some time. This was before the museum realized what shitty administrators artists make.


Castles and their spiders

Walking in Sintra
One of the coolest things about Lisbon is all the medieval castles, palaces and other historic sites open to the public for a minimal fee. Each is fascinating in its own right but our favorites were in Sintra, part of the greater Lisbon area. Sintra has such a rich history that the town itself is a World Heritage Site. We got there twice, one day exploring the Pena National Palace and Castelo dos Mouros (Castle of the Moors) and the next Quinta da Regaleira and the Sintra National Palace.

The inverted tower
Of those, it's hard to pick which is my favorite. OK. Quinta de Regaleira, otherwise known as "The Palace of Monteiro the Millionaire". Monteiro was a true eccentric, a lover of esoterica, the occult, science and nature all brought together with incredible theatrical detail at his estate which is also a World Heritage Site.

Duck pond from a cavern passageway
For us, wonderful as it is, the palace was second to the grounds surrounding it. It's full of exotic trees and plants, paths and ponds, wonderful stone carvings, statues, grottoes, caverns and towers, even strange inverted towers and underground passageways all a collaboration between Monteiro and the great Italian set designer and architect Luigi Manini. After traipsing around the tunnels, we decided they were part of a structure built to look like a mountain rather than tunnels actually dug into one, i.e. a theatre set. All the better.

Minerva at Quinta da Regaleira
We had great fun discovering a few of the more obscure, darker, wetter places between the inverted towers. As for the towers themselves, built into the ground rather that rising above it,  whatever they symbolize, the nine levels of hell, purgatory and/or rebirth, Monteiro's day in they were the scene of secretive Tarot initiation rites and other esoteric ceremonies, and probably augmented with a selection of the world's then finest psychedelics. We did, of course, walk the nine levels and grope our way through as many secret passageways and subterranean grottoes as we could find. I'm not sure we achieved esoteric rebirth but, for my part, I'll settle for none of the resident big black spiders coming away with me in my hair.

Swami on the balcony
The Secret Buddha
of Castelo dos Mouros
In the last two weeks, we also visited museums, the best being the Musea Berardo in Belem, walked through several medieval cathedrals and ate far too many pastéis de nata, Portuguese egg tarts. Decidedly, the best are in Belém but I will say no more. I think it best you come here to decided for yourself. Also we just walked, as is our custom. The narrow, winding, slippery cobblestone streets definitely fit my medieval fantasy. And, as Lisbon is built on seven hills, we walked up and down a helluva lot of narrow, winding slippery cobblestone stairs, including the four flights of narrow, steep, potentially slippery stairs in our charming centuries old apartment building in the Alfama. And after a long day, we also climbed the final fifth flight to our bedroom where we crashed each night like felled trees. My legs are decidedly stronger. Of course, there are more photos at flickr and more to come. It's just that it all takes time. Now we leave for Madrid where, among other things, we must visit the Museo del Prado.


Hilarious complaints to Thomas Cook Vacations

This list of complaints sent to "Thomas Cook Vacations" is making the rounds these days. I didn't take the time to hunt down the source link but they certainly match my neighbor's tone when he returned from his month long cruise around South America. He complained bitterly how offended he was that the people there spoke Spanish.

1. "On my holiday to Goa in India, I was disgusted to find that almost every restaurant served curry. I don't like spicy food."
2. "They should not allow topless sunbathing on the beach. It was very distracting for my husband who just wanted to relax."

3. "We went on holiday to Spain and had a problem with the taxi drivers as they were all Spanish."

4. "We booked an excursion to a water park but no-one told us we had to bring our own swimsuits and towels. We assumed it would be included in the price."

5. "The beach was too sandy. We had to clean everything when we returned to our room."

6. "We found the sand was not like the sand in the brochure. Your brochure shows the sand as white but it was more yellow."

7. "It's lazy of the local shopkeepers in Puerto Vallartato close in the afternoons. I often needed to buy things during 'siesta' time -- this should be banned."

8. "No-one told us there would be fish in the water. The children were scared."

9. "Although the brochure said that there was a fully equipped kitchen, there was no egg-slicer in the drawers."

10. "I think it should be explained in the brochure that the local convenience store does not sell proper biscuits like custard creams or ginger nuts."

11. "The roads were uneven and bumpy, so we could not read the local guide book during the bus ride to the resort. Because of this, we were unaware of many things that would have made our holiday more fun."

12. "It took us nine hours to fly home from Jamaica to England. It took the Americans only three hours to get home. This seems unfair."

13. "I compared the size of our one-bedroom suite to our friends' three-bedroom and ours was significantly smaller."

14. "The brochure stated: 'No hairdressers at the resort.' We're trainee hairdressers and we think they knew and made us wait longer for service."

15. "When we were in Spain, there were too many Spanish people there. The receptionist spoke Spanish, the food was Spanish. No one told us that there would be so many foreigners."

16. "We had to line up outside to catch the boat and there was no air-conditioning."

17. "It is your duty as a tour operator to advise us of noisy or unruly guests before we travel."

18. "I was bitten by a mosquito. The brochure did not mention mosquitoes."

19. "My fiancée and I requested twin-beds when we booked, but instead we were placed in a room with a king bed. We now hold you responsible and want to be re-reimbursed for the fact that I became pregnant. This would not have happened if you had put us in the room that we booked."

More here from the UK's Telegraph