With frequent travels in Europe and the U.K., we've learned plenty about communication and not without a few mishaps along the way.
“Lunch is it? You’ll have to speak to me dad. He’s eaten in every shop along here. He’s a real foodie.” We were speaking with the younger half of the window-cleaning team that had just washed the outside windows of Chapel House Penzance, Cornwall, UK, where we were staying. “Dad” soon appeared, with window-washing hose coiled over his shoulder. “Now, Ben Tunnicliffe at the Tolcarne Inn in Newlyn has a Michelin Star, but if you want to eat now, they might be booked. And then there’s the Shore, up at the end of Morrab Road. Might be booked. If it’s lunch now you’re looking for, better try The Old Lifeboat House just down there by the harbor bridge—just over there.” (He pointed toward the shore.) "They’re ranked #1 on Trip Advisor.”
He wrote this information down on the back of his “business card”—a small piece of paper with “Pure Window Cleaning” printed on one side—and handed it to us. Then he loaded up his hoses and drove on to his next job.
That we were given expert culinary advice by a window washer is par for the course in Penzance, Cornwall, UK, a town filled with quirky charm and friendly people.
We had escaped the nearly 100° temperatures of Girona and headed for southwest England. After a few days in Wells, Somerset, where we greeted our favorite cathedral, we participated in a heart-opening Deep Awakening workshop with Tim Freke in Glastonbury. Then we took the train to Penzance, partly to enjoy the cooler climate and partly to base ourselves in a city we enjoy, from which we could visit numerous powerful places and interesting sites in southwest Cornwall.
Unfortunately, too many other people had the same idea, and it was nearly impossible for us to book accommodations for more than a few days at a time. Then our friend Emily, who concocts Pure Nuff Stuff (CLICK) cosmetics in the Egyptian House in Penzance, put us on to Chapel House—she knows the owner, who stocks Pure Nuff Stuff toiletries in the bathrooms. This luxe boutique hotel just opened a few months ago and isn’t listed on any of the standard booking sites.
Chapel House (CLICK) is an historic building dating back to 1790, when Penzance was an important naval base for the Napoleonic wars and the principal port for shipments of tin and copper from the mines that made Cornwall famous. Susan Stuart, the proprietor, has completely refurbished the place while maintaining its historic charm. She showed us the different guestrooms, of which there are only 6. We chose Room One, which has a stunning view of St. Michael’s Mount across the bay. Every room is different and furnished in excellent taste—and has an iPad loaded with local information. Along with our room, we would have use of the gorgeous house—library, reception, gardens, kitchen, and dining room. Not bad, what?
Susan provides more than a B&B—she also offers room service snacks and weekend “kitchen dinners,” with a choice of locally sourced seafood and vegetables. We had landed in something close to heaven. We negotiated a long enough stay to avoid the worst of the heat in Spain and long enough to rest and regroup after our whirlwind trip to the USA, during which we had disposed of the contents of our storage unit, put our Santa Fe house on the market, and visited kids and grandkids.
So here we were, standing in front of Chapel House, looking for lunch. Following the window washer’s directions, we walked down a set of steep stairs to the harbor to the Old Lifeboat House Bistro. The small stone building is, indeed, the “Oldest lifeboat house in Cornwall.” Although it looks like a snack bar, it offers such delicacies as Tart au Citron and a Cornish Cheeseboard, as well as the expected Sticky Toffee Pudding.
It is a local hangout and appears to be frequented by elderly women who are regulars. Our waitress sat down with one lady and had a short conversation about her new haircut before asking if she wanted her usual steak and fries. When a couple sat down outside with their dog, the waitress brought out a dog bowl and a jug of water for the dog before taking their order. “Wouldn’t want the dog to be uncomfortable, would we?” she said, when I asked.
We looked at the chalkboard with the daily specials and chose the Newlyn Crab salad (caught near Newlyn—an arts colony/fishing town next to Penzance). It was delicious, complete with fresh salad and a grapefruit dressing. I spied a high-class Italian espresso machine behind the counter and a sign proudly announcing Carraro Fine Italian Coffee (since 1927), so we ordered macchiatos (espressos with a bit of foamed milk), which were nearly as good as the ones we get in Girona.
Delightfully filled, we walked back to Chapel House to luxuriate in our swimming-pool-size tub for two, enhanced with some of Emily’s luscious Pure Nuff Stuff Squeaky Clean bath gel.
It was just another day in Penzance—and the only pirates in sight were in the windows of the curio shops along the strand. Maybe that’s because they’ve been scared off by the prone plaster statue of Admiral Benbow with a rifle, poised on the rooftop of the pub with that same name on Chapel Street.
words + photos by Elyn Aviva “I can’t believe we live here!” I said to Gary as I stared in fascination at the multicolored reflections dancing over the rippling surface of the Onyar River.
He squeezed my hand and leaned over the railing of the stone bridge. Ducks floated by, luminous in the evening light. “I know just what you mean,” he replied. “Who’d have thought that what started off as a whim would end up being such an adventure?”
I nodded, admiring how the brightly lit cathedral spires were silhouetted against the velvet black sky. I sighed, contentedly. Then, hand in hand, Gary and I strolled across the medieval bridge that divides one part of Girona from the other. We walked down the Rambla and sat down at a sidewalk café. We ordered a cortado, a fragrant cup of espresso laced with a touch of milk, and an artisan beer. We looked at each other and grinned. Ah, what a life.
Just two years earlier Gary and I had been pondering what to do next with our lives. We knew we enjoyed traveling in Europe and wanted to do more of it with less hassle. Why not move to Europe for a few years, I suggested. We weren’t getting any younger. We had good health, enough money, a love of adventure, and much to be grateful for. If not now, when? Gary agreed, and we began making plans to move to Spain, a country we had lived in briefly once before.
Five months later we returned to Sahagún, a small town (population 2500) in north-central Spain. It was easy to establish ourselves there since we had friends and “family” from our previous stay. It was convenient (on the train lines to everywhere, so we didn’t need a car) and inexpensive. Easy, convenient, and boring. After a year of spending more time traveling than in Sahagún, we realized it was time to find somewhere else to live.
We made a list of what we wanted in a place: organic grocery stores, convenient computer repair and service, a good farmers’ market, bookstores, easy access by train to places we want to visit, lively folkloric events, museums, diverse cultural activities (some in English), some English-speaking resources—and a certain “je ne sais quoi”—an indescribable attractiveness.
Girona, a medieval city in Catalonia, immediately came to mind. We’d stayed there once briefly and we’d been charmed. Five bridges (one designed by M. Eiffel) cross from the Barri Vell (Old Town) to the barely newer new town on the other side of the river. Narrow winding streets, arcaded passageways, stunning churches, numerous museums, a Roman road running through the center of what remains of the medieval Jewish neighborhood, a city of 90,000 people, including some who speak English—definitely, our kind of town.
I went on-line and found an apartment for short-term rental in the Barri Vell, just across from the Museum of the Jews in Catalonia. After several phone conversations (in English, more or less) with the proprietor, we arrived in Girona for a one-month trial sojourn. I checked out several local blogs and made contact with Jack, an American-Englishman who offered to show us around. The “Your Life Is A Trip” adventure gods were smiling on us.
Our apartment, we discovered, wasn’t just any apartment: it was a newly renovated apartment in a sixteenth-century building constructed over a medieval building built over a still-older building on the Calle de la Força, the original Roman road that led from France through Girona and further south into Catalonia. We entered through a large stone arch into an interior atrium, complete with the original well that had provided water for the building’s inhabitants throughout the centuries. Our apartment had twin arched windows left over from the previous (sixteenth-century) reconstruction and an equally old interior stone wall. We were literally inhaling history.
Within days of arriving in Girona, we knew we were going to move there. The Old Town was saturated with atmosphere—and not just from 1000 years ago. One morning while shopping at the outdoors market we heard a loud, rhythmic thump-thump-thump approaching from the far end of the street. A dozen young people in identical costumes were marching down the street striking large drums and playing a haunting instrument that sounded like a distant cousin of the oboe. Following behind were eight dancing folkloric peasants with huge paper-mâche heads on their shoulders (cabezudos). And behind them, four giant royal figures over twelve feet tall—gigantes—in embroidered velvet robes swayed majestically down the street. What was the occasion, we asked bystanders. They shrugged. Some local celebration. There are too many to remember.
Kiosks fluttered with flyers describing upcoming music and theater events, some in English. Gary checked out the local Apple store and approved. We went with Jack for a hike in the nearby foothills—a short walk out of town. Soon we were sharing the trails with native Gironines who were on the look-out for wild asparagus. Later, Jack told us, they’d be hunting for mushrooms and we’d be able to buy them in the market. We checked out the local medical system (Gary tripped and needed emergency care) and found it excellent. We went on day trips to medieval towns in the Pyrenees, to Greek and Roman ruins, to charming seaside villages. We found favorite restaurants that offered affordable lunch-time specials and became friendly with shopkeepers. We made Catalan acquaintances—a neighbor even invited us in for tea.
We’d found our new home. Well, almost. We still needed to find an apartment for the long term—which meant at least a year. Through a series of fortuitous events, we met a wonderful realtor, and she and her husband not only found us an apartment but also soon become good friends.
We returned to Sahagún, packed up our few belongings, put them in a rental van, and moved to Girona.
A year has passed. We continue to be enthralled with Girona. Living in a foreign country is not for the meek or timid—nor is it for the impatient and inflexible. We’ve learned to watch where we step to avoid the ubiquitous dog-poo (they do not have laws about picking the stuff up). We’ve learned that if we accomplish one or two tasks in a day we consider ourselves fortunate (a shop may or may not be open; the person in charge may or may not be available; the equipment might or might not be working). We’ve learned that we can’t buy everything we’re used to and that there are many fewer choices—but that that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s a good thing.
And we’ve learned that speaking a foreign language and negotiating a foreign culture are both more challenging and more rewarding than we could ever have imagined. They say that the best way to keep an aging mind agile is to challenge it with new tasks. Well, we do that every day. It’s unavoidable.
Do we plan to return “home”? We are home. At least, for the near future.
Sorry—I have to go now. I just got a text-message from our Catalan friends to meet them at the local Irish bar and have a Guinness….
First published in Your Life is a Trip CLICK HERE
by Elyn Aviva
When we went for an early morning stroll in Girona, Catalonia, my husband, Gary, and I saw a group of well-dressed people standing impatiently outside a shop. We took a closer look and saw a storefront with impressive, fluted grey stone columns, large display windows, and imposing glass double doors. The merchandise on display was unusual: small metallic capsules in coordinated colors arranged in geometric designs. Emblazoned in glowing white letters over the doors was “Nespresso.” Nespresso? The coffee capsule brand?
The crowd grew increasingly noisy and impatient. We decided it was time to leave before they became even more restive.
I was puzzled. Who would want to purchase pre-made coffee capsules? It seemed neither cost-efficient nor ecologically sound. And besides, when you ran out, there was nothing you could do—except wait desperately for the Nespresso shop to open.
Returning from our stroll, we paused again at the shop. Nespresso was its name and luxury was its selling point. From our vantage point we could see inside. Slim young women in classy matte-black uniforms stood near the open door, gatekeepers into this exclusive club. People entered, sometimes showed a membership card, chatted for a moment discreetly, and then were ushered into this high temple of gustatory excess.
We started to enter but then thought better of it. Clearly this was not a place for browsing. Besides, we weren’t sure we would be admitted. We weren’t members of the club.
Several weeks later we were walking with a friend of ours, an elegant and sophisticated resident of Girona. When we passed the Nespresso store, she stopped abruptly.
“I need to buy more Nespresso capsules,” she explained. She rummaged in her purse, then found her card.
“We’ve never been inside,” I admitted.
“You haven’t? Well, now’s your chance—and we can drink some coffee after I make my purchase.”
We tagged behind her as she waved her tasteful matte-black and metallic card at the eager-to-assist assistant. A brief exchange in rapid-fire Spanish ensued. First purchase, then free coffee, she explained.
I looked around. Matte-black walls were set off against a creamy background, resembling the crema on top of fresh espresso. One matte-black wall included a built-in storage unit, filled with multi-colored arrangements of coffee-capsule boxes. On other walls, backlit China-red lacquered niches showcased glass Nespresso glasses and coffee capsules, presented as objets d’art. A nearby wall was a feast for the eyes, the 16 different “Grand Cru” coffees displayed like bonbons, each variety hermetically sealed in its own color-coded metallic capsule.
Attentive clerks waited behind matte-black counters to assist customers. I suppose I should call them “members,” not “customers,” since “customers” sounds so commercial. The clerks (or should I call them “personal shoppers”?) eagerly helped club members decide amongst the numerous options of coffee and accoutrements: elegant, color-coded cartons of coffee capsules; gleaming chrome and black Nespresso machines of various sizes and complexities; dark wood cases and Plexiglass stands for Nespresso capsules; metal espresso cups that were a playful riff on Nespresso capsules; and specialty sugars and cookies. Each type of product was tastefully displayed in its own area.
After our friend completed her purchases, which were carefully placed in the distinctive matte black, silver, and gold Nespresso bag, “our” assistant led us to the back of the shop to the coffee bar. She invited us to sample the newest AAA Sustainable Nespresso café. A video played silently on a large TV screen, showing the process of growing and harvesting the AAA Sustainable Nespresso coffee we were about to imbibe. We sat on padded stools whose upholstery colors coordinated with the colors of the coffee capsules. The circular table in front of us displayed open bins of coffee beans, presumably so you could sniff the different varieties.
The assistant deftly popped capsules into the Nespresso machines, and within moments we were presented with small white cups of steaming, crema-topped café. She explained briefly the particular characteristics of this exclusive coffee (a Limited Edition, only available for a short time): caramel overtones, creamy, #8 on the intensity scale. I realized this was the first I’d heard any mention of aroma and taste—presumably the reasons you buy coffee.
Across the table from us, two elegant Spanish ladies engaged in intense conversation about their latest Purificación García handbag purchases. Next to them was an electrodoméstico (household electronics) repairman. Although membership in the Nespresso club seemed exclusive, it actually wasn’t. Anyone, including ourselves, could join if we were willing to pay the price.
The coffee tasted good. But was this a club we wanted to join?
We expressed our doubts to our friend. Wasn’t this just an über-successful marketing ploy?
She disagreed. “The coffee really tastes good, and it’s so easy to make. It’s foolproof. All you have to do is push a button or two. You don’t have to clean up anything—just dump out the capsules when they fill the built-in storage container. It’s perfect. No mess, no waste. And it costs less per capsule than having an espresso at a café.”
What a concept: an espresso machine that is easy to use, requires no clean up, and produces uniformly good coffee. And you get a choice of flavors—16 choices in fact, plus special editions. In addition to the convenience, you get to make your purchases in a jewel-box-like store—I mean boutique—that reeks of exclusivity, of luxury that is surprisingly affordable. In this time of financial crisis, it’s a brilliant concept.
Nonetheless—or perhaps because of the success of the marketing concept—I had a few qualms. The coffee packaging, for example, hardly seemed ecological. And the concept definitely felt elitist. I picked up a few tastefully designed brochures and started reading. One encouraged capsule recycling and explained in detail the advantages of the aluminum capsules; another described the AAA Sustainability program; another emphasized the energy-efficiency of the various espresso (oops, Nespresso) machines. Fitted into one matte-black wall was a recycling center, a discreet reminder to remember the environment.
Almost against my will—and probably against my better judgment—I was convinced—or rather converted—to the Nespresso concept. Hesitantly, I reminded Gary I had a birthday coming up. Not surprisingly, there was a special offer.
Soon we, too, were Nespresso Club members and the proud possessors of a shiny new Nespresso machine. It came with a sample of the 16 different coffees and a booklet describing in detail the varied aromas and flavors so that we, too, could learn to be coffee (make that Nespresso) connoisseurs. Although I say we were the proud possessors of the machine, I am not sure who actually was possessing whom.
That evening I went online and discovered that Nespresso has opened a “Star Boutique” in Paris, a “two-story edifice only a few steps from the Arc de Triomphe” on the Champs Élysées. Paris. The Champs Élysées.
Suddenly I realized that I had stumbled on a new kind of travel: Nespresso tourism. We could travel around Europe visiting Nespresso boutiques. After all, we were card-carrying members! We could enter these temples of luxury, make a purchase, and sit with others “like us” to drink the coffee of the day. We might even run into George Clooney.
The future spread out before me. We would usher in a new kind of pilgrimage. Instead of traveling to sacred places, we would travel to shrines to conspicuous consumption.
First published on Your Life is a Trip (CLICK HERE)
words and photos by Elyn Aviva He was a good-looking guy, even though he had blood on his hands and his jacket was spattered with red stains. His eyes were intense, his smile tight, his long fingers graceful as he sharpened his knife, the thin blade scraping rhythmically against the long steel rod.
The carnicería was packed with customers, patiently impatient, enjoying Julio’s ongoing spiel, willing to wait (for wait we would) while he cut each piece of meat to order. There were five butcher shops (not counting two supermarkets) in Sahagún, the small town in northern Spain where we were living in 2009, but this was the best. I had it on good authority.
“He’s an artist,” my late friend Paca had explained. “He can slice a piece of meat so thin you can see Barcelona through it.” No small task, given that Barcelona is 500 miles to the east.
Inside the entrance to the small shop was a red ticket machine. Take a number and you will know where you stand. Or so I thought at first. But I was quickly disabused. The flashing number on the bright-lit sign above Julio’s head never changed.
“Who’s last in line?” I asked, my limited Spanish having expanded to cover such necessities. A man leaning on a cane pointed to the elderly, burgundy-haired woman beside him; she nodded. I knew my place and sat down to wait. And wait. An hour would be fast, I realized, for it was just before the holidays, and everyone was stocking up to feed the hoards of friends and relatives returning home.
Homemade chorizo sausage, marinated pork loin, pork tongues, skinned rabbits, quarters of young and slightly older lamb, whole chickens, duck pâte, smoked pork chops, soup bones, bacon, tiny quails packed close together, pig ears, beef steaks, stew meat, chunks of beef to slice into fillets—and more—were tightly packed inside the glass-fronted case that separated Julio from his customers. Another case was crammed with rounds of cheeses and heaps of packaged pork products, its flat top covered with jars of leeks and asparagus and tuna, and bottles of local fruit conserves. On the wall behind, assorted Iberian hams hung from ropes tied around their shanks.
Time passed. Voices rose. Julio was in animated conversation with the elderly burgundy-haired señora. He waved his glistening knife for emphasis, then disappeared into the walk-in freezer and soon returned, hauling a haunch of beef. He dumped it on a wooden table worn down in the center from years of use.
Frowning intently, he carefully slipped his knife into the flesh, separating meat from bone. He tossed a hunk onto the scale, then slid it onto butcher’s wrap, folding and twisting the paper into a tidy package. It joined others in a plastic bag. With a flourish, he summed up the woman’s purchases on the scale, a machine that functioned both to weigh and keep a running tally.
“Who’s next?” He asked. People began to murmur and look around.
I raised my hand and stepped up to the glass display case. The crowd parted, but not much, since the ladies were curious what I would buy.
“What do you want today? Beef steak? Lamb?” He pointed at a slab of bones and meat. “This is delicious. Exquisite. Don’t miss it.”
I nodded, trusting that Julio wouldn’t steer me wrong. His knew his meat—and his customers. He really knew his meat. Once I had asked him if the lamb was organic. Offended, he replied, “It’s better than that—it’s natural!” and went on to explain that that particular lamb had grazed in the fields 30 miles to the north of our small town. He knew its owners, what it had been fed—I think he knew its pedigree, but I wasn’t interested. I want to eat it, not trace its family tree. The beef came from another nearby farm, where it had ranged in open pastures until Julio had chosen it to take to the slaughter house.
“Ground beef,” I requested.
“A pound or two.”
He nodded, looked thoughtful for a moment, then chose a chunk of beef. “Beef only or do you want to add some pork?”
“Whatever you think best.”
The woman next to me said, “It’s better with some pork. More flavor.”
“She’s right,” said Julio.
“You know what’s best,” I replied, watching him place the pieces in the grinder.
I pointed at a quarter of young lamb, complete with ribs and leg. He nodded in approval. “To roast?”
“I’d like to, but I don’t know how.”
His face lit up and he began to explain, relishing the details. A woman disagreed with his instructions, insisting that a little olive oil was necessary. An argument ensued and members of the crowd joined in. Julio grinned and cut a slab of pork fat to drape on top of the meat, then added a few handfuls of his homemade mix of parsley, salt, and garlic.
“You’ll see,” he said, bringing his bloody fingers to his lips as if to kiss them. “It will be the most delicious lamb you’ve ever tasted.”
I thought a moment, wondering if I needed anything else.
“Leave some for us!” another elderly, burgundy-haired woman said with a smile. (Burgundy is the dye color of choice for older women in this part of Spain.)
I smiled back, paid a miniscule amount for so much meat, gathered up my plastic bags, and started out the door. I heard a rhythmic sound and glanced back. Julio was sharpening his knife again.
This article first appeared on Your Life is a Trip. (CLICK HERE)
- Don’t expect to have a checkbook for your bank account. Checkbooks are a rarity in Spain. Most transactions are made in cash or using the debit card on your bank account. In other cases, such as repeated monthly payments, magazine subscriptions, etc., there are direct bank transfers.
- Don’t expect to be able to use your credit and debit cards at every store and restaurant. I recently pulled out my credit card in a local restaurant only to be told that their machine wasn’t working. Luckily, I had cash to pay the bill.
- Don’t expect restaurants and shops to have the same opening and closing hours as in your home country. Also, don’t expect them to have the same hours. And don't expect them to be open every day of the week. Small shops in Girona, for example, are often closed on Monday morning because they are open on Saturday. Fish markets are closed on Mondays because the fishermen don’t fish on Sunday. Generally, in Spain, all shops except bars and bread stores are closed on Sundays. Other countries have different opening and closing times.
- Don’t expect quick service in shops. No matter how many people are waiting, the clerks are likely to give the customer their full attention until they are satisfied. Talk about mindfulness practice in action!
- Don’t expect to find products in the same kinds of stores where you find them in your home country. In Spain, for example, pharmacies may or may not carry cosmetics, infant formula,and the like. There are special shops called “parapharmacies” and “perfumerias” that carry such items, along with a range of household products.
- Don’t expect apartment hall lights and lights in public restrooms to stay on. Most are on energy-saving timers. So take note of the light switch location before you settle in. They are usually, but not always, illuminated by a faint light identified with a light bulb symbol.
- Don’t expect to need a doctor for minor medical advice. You can get very good medical advice and even cursory examinations at a pharmacy. Pharmacists can often prescribe simple remedies for simple complaints. They may even refill your prescriptions without a doctor’s prescription form in an emergency. I take the box from the prescription in as proof. But it is always better to bring your prescription from home.
- Don’t expect the same standard of hygiene in Spanish food shops that sell food as you might find in your home country. Butchers, for example, often use their bare hands in preparing and cutting the meat you order. If you think you are going to contract some dread disease, just consider that the locals around you seem quite healthy in spite of a lifetime of "unhygienic" exposure. (NB: the European Union has very strict food safety requirements.)
- Don’t expect to find the same brands of food, vitamins, and other supplements as in your home country. When you do find them they may be very expensive. I will have a post in the near future about how to get such items shipped to you .
- Don’t expect waiters in restaurants to be as “cordial” as in your home country. A young American friend referred to them as "brusk." We would call them "business-like." Waiters in Spain are paid a living wage and they are professionals. They do their job very well, but they don’t “chat up" the customer to get a higher tip.
- Don't expect the same open hours at rental car agencies as in your home country. If you are renting and returning to an airport you may find nearly the usual hours, but anywhere else you are likely to find much shorter hours, including lunch breaks. We rented a car last Saturday for one day here in Girona and found that the agency (Hertz) was going to close at 1 PM and not open again until Monday. There would be no one on duty in the parking garage to take our car back and check it for damage. They had only a secure box for us to leave our keys and paperwork.