Friday, May 29, 2009

May in Córdoba

May is party month in Córdoba. Once the renewal was confirmed, we could relax and enjoy ourselves a bit. The parties come one after another; first Las Cruces, then the patios, then the feria. In between are the horse shows featuring the pure-blooded Andalucíans. Of course, Tonya and I managed to get ourselves a little bit sick, so we haven’t been able to take full advantage of the festivities. Also, the weather is beginning to warm up, so we’re not quite so active as we’ve been. Still, after all, it’s been a fun month.

Las Cruces is still another excuse to get together and drink and dance and eat snails. At various locations in the city, large crosses are set up in the street, decorated with carnations. They’re pretty, I guess, but nothing particularly spectacular. People have hastened to tell us that there’s nothing particularly religious about Las Cruces, and they’re right. To really enjoy the crosses, you need to go see them with a group of friends after dark. There are awning-covered bars with all manner of eatables and drinkables, and usually music playing (either live or recorded). With sufficient alcohol, you get right into the spirit of the street party.

The Patio Festival is a uniquely Córdoban event. Many Spanish houses are built around a central patio. I’d always thought of this as a Mexican style for houses, but it makes sense that they were following a Spanish tradition. With the climate here (and in Mexico, if you think about it), an open central area allows more airflow through the house. I’d always thought that the patio houses were for rich people, and it’s true that many elegant homes are built with that floorplan. However, the more common case is the “casa vecina”, or the neighbor house. A number of itty-bitty family apartments are built around a central courtyard with a shared well, kitchen, bathrooms, and washtubs for laundry. It was a housing style for very poor people who couldn’t afford their own homes. According to our friends, this was still a very common living situation as recently as twenty years ago. In a situation like that, I can see how you’d come to really love or really hate your neighbors. Anyway, it’s a point of pride in Córdoba for people to dress up their patios for the annual competition. Take a look at the pictures at:

The month culminates with La Feria, which developed from the old livestock fairs, like the county fairs in America. So far, I have to say that La Feria hasn’t seemed like much. There are the normal carnival rides, complete with American cartoon characters (although here, Tom and Jerry are known as El Ratón Vacilón y El Gato Comilón). Of course, there’s a Spanish twist on it; many of the women are in traditional flamenca outfits, and you see riders here and there on their Andalucían horses. The real attraction of La Feria is the casetas, little awning-covered displays set up by many different groups: the cofradías (religious brotherhoods), the political parties (including the Socialists and the Communists….yes, there are quite prominent displays promoting solidarity with Cuba, complete with the inevitable portraits of Che Guevara), and local businesses. Again inevitably, they include bars with eatables and drinkables and music. We went out with a group of teachers from my school on Wednesday afternoon. It was fun, but way too hot. Some of the casetas have ceiling fans, but they’re not adequate when the temperatures get up to 100⁰F (and yes, the temperature got that high….summer is going to be interesting here). We had a better time the next evening; we went out much later with some other friends. Once the sun gets lower, it’s not so bad. And after the sun goes down, it’s positively comfortable.

We had an interesting experience last week. One of our friends here had some American guests (his brother had spent some time in America on an exchange program many years ago, and they still have a cordial relationship with the host family). We all got together for a Córdoban cena. Our friend only speaks a bit of English, and the Americans spoke almost no Spanish, so I was doing some translating. What struck me is how much we’ve acclimated over the last year. Things which seemed delightfully foreign to the visitors seem commonplace to us now. We have to be careful not to stop seeing the wonderful things around us! I took a look back at some of the pictures we’d taken when we first arrived last September, and found myself thinking, “Now, why did we take a picture of that? It’s just a street!”

So that’s May in Córdoba. And now, we’re off for the great summer vacation!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Planning for a Wild & Crazy Adventure

As we head into the second year of this Wild & Crazy Adventure, friends question how we can manage such a lifestyle. So let me take a couple of minutes and explain how we planned for this incredible experience. Anyone can do this. Really…

When Scott first brought up the idea, my first response was not “No”, but rather “How will we pay for it?” Being the consummate accountant, I set to calculating how much we would need. We settled on a 6 month adventure. This meant that we needed enough money to live on for 1 year, a 6 month adventure and 6 months living expenses for when we return. We hoped to be able to take a leaves of absences from our respective jobs, but knew we could not count on that. So we would need something to live on when we returned, while we looked for work. Scott wanted to go to a Spanish speaking country, so I researched the cost of living in different countries. Be prepared for the initial gasp, because the amount will seem impossibly large and unreachable. So we set to saving money… Where did we find the money to save? First off, we cancelled our 401K contributions, that meant a tax hit every year, and also a willingness to postpone retirement, but we felt it was worth it. Given how the market has performed in the past year, I don’t think it was a bad choice. The next step was to rein in the unnecessary spending. It is amazing how much money one can spend without really thinking about it. It took us about 2½ years to save the required amount. It should have taken us longer, but Scott’s bonuses were larger than anticipated.

Above all, when you calculate the amount that you think you will need, be conservative. You never know what the future holds. We saved for a 6 month adventure, but it turned out that Scott was offered a 9 month position. Still, our expenses have been far less than anticipated, so we are stretching 6 months into 2 years (not bad!). The additional time requires renting the house. (Something that is quite emotional for me. Cross your fingers that the renters don’t destroy my home.) The budget will be pretty austere next year, travel will be curtailed quite a bit, but all and all it is manageable. The experience, I am sure, will be worth the sacrifices.

Believe it or not, the hard part is not saving the money to fund the adventure, but rather being able to take that final deep breath, join hands, and jump. You have to be willing, at least in spirit, to let go of everything that you are accustomed to and leave your old life behind. That final jump will open your horizons and challenge your perspectives and ideas that you have always held to be true. Understand, that no matter how willing you are to make that jump, and no matter how much you prepare yourself for the experience, the jolt of culture shock will punch you in the gut at least once in the first couple of months, an even occasionally afterward. Recall my earlier blog entry, last November I sent home for chocolate chips, brown sugar and measuring cups. They were required.

Before we left, I spoke with someone who had been sent to live in Germany for 6 years. She told me that she recommended the experience to everyone. She also said that I would learn things about myself, my husband and my marriage that I would never expect. After 9 months in Spain, I can attest to the truth of this statement. I have learned that under the stress of “all things foreign”, I am quite emotional. I have learned that I am still quite the rebel, especially when I feel that I am being forced into something. And that my dear husband, although he no longer “walks on water”, will stand patiently by my side in my temperamental moods. As I am the consummate accountant, Scott is “the eternal manager”, and in the absence of something to manage, he will create something to manage. I think that the stress, (and it is stressful living in a foreign country where everything that you know, believe and are used to may no longer be true), has been more of a challenge to our relationship than anything that we have ever dealt with before. Even more stressful than teenagers. But I would not hesitate to do it again. The benefits far outweigh the inconveniences.

We are staying a second year…

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Another Year in Spain

Believe it or not, we're going to be in Spain for another year! When it came down to returning to the USA, Tonya and I agreed that we weren't ready for the Spanish adventure to end just yet. And living expenses in Spain have been pleasingly lower than what we'd budgeted. I just received word that the Junta de Andalucía has renewed my teaching contract for the coming school year. This has caused some nail-biting over the last few weeks; I sent in my application at the beginning of March (almost 3 months before my contract was to run out), but didn’t get a reply until this week (less than 3 weeks before). That’s cutting things a bit close.

So here we are. We miss all of you back there, but the call of faraway places has continued.
With regard to practical matters, we have the house rented out, so with luck that will cover our mortgage payments while we're out of the country. All of our belongings are in storage awaiting our return in June 2010. We'd have been OK going back to the USA, but it would have caused some inconveniences; since there are renters in our house, we'd have had to rent another apartment!

So the adventure continues. We have a real expedition planned for June. After the school year ends, we're going to take a night train to Barcelona, and then another train on to Perpignan, France. There we'll rent a car and head north, stopping in Carcassone and Dordogne. In Paris we'll hook up with some college friends. After a week there, we'll take a train down to Nice. We'll rent another car to drive through Monaco and into Italy, on down to Florence. After a couple of days there, we'll drop off our friends at the Milan airport, and continue north into the Swiss Alps. We'll cross back into the Italian Tirol, on across the western end of Austria, and into Bavaria. We'll visit the medieval city of Rothenburg, and then on to the Rhine and Mosel valleys. For the last leg, we'll drive down through the Black Forest, across Switzerland, and back to Milan. We'll catch a plane to Madrid and take the train back to Córdoba, where we'll probably need to sleep for a week.

Actually, it shouldn't be so bad. We're spreading this across five weeks, so we don't really have any unbearably long drives. We’re crossing through lots of countries, but keep in mind that the countries are a lot smaller here. In terms of actual kilometers driven, our road trip will be about equivalent to driving from Los Angeles to Portland and back. A long drive, but really not bad over five weeks. And we'll have many relaxing days at our various stops. As we tell all of our friends here, we'll be poor when we return to the USA, so we have to take advantage of our travel opportunities now.

I've been being quiet about this on the blog, because I didn't want to start spreading news like this until we knew that it was going to happen. We'll continue documenting our experiences.

Friday, May 8, 2009


It would have been a shame to spend nearly a year so close to Portugal without ever visiting. Last weekend, we continued our “no fear” policy by renting a car and driving across Portugal. Now, to see the cultural sites in Portugal, you need to go up to Lisboa (Lisbon), the capital. However, we decided that what we really needed was a beach weekend. It was about four hours’ drive to our hotel in Lagos, and another half hour beyond that to Cabo Sâo Vicente. This is at the far southwestern extreme of Portugal, where Europe dips a cautious toe into the Atlantic. For many centuries, it was the end of the known lands; beyond it was nothing until the edge of the world. Take a look at our pictures at:

I had always thought of Portugal as almost a province of Spain, but it is definitely a distinct country with its own language and culture. It is true that Portugal’s history has been largely determined by its relations with it more powerful neighbor to the east. When Fernando married Ysabel to create the modern kingdom of Spain, Portugal was independent. They were a colonial power during most of the 1400’s and 1500’s, and it could be argued that they actually made more geographical discoveries than Spain. However, during a crisis of succession in the late 1500’s, Spain annexed Portugal and held the country until it won its independence back in 1640. Unfortunately, Portugal never seemed to completely recover from that traumatic event. Further blows included a catostrophic earthquake which leveled Lisboa in 1755, and the Napoleonic occupation from 1807 to 1812. During most of the 1900’s, Portugal was a dreary military dictatorship, and finally moved to a democratic government in the 1970’s.

Crossing the border from Spain to Portugal, I at least expected some kind of passport check. We didn’t even have to slow down. There was nothing, not even a kiosk with a guard. It’s more trouble to cross from Oregon into California; here, they don’t even bother with an agricultural inspection station. One of the first towns across the border is Tavira, recommended as a scenic stop. It was charming, but not worth much more than a short stroll. Lagos is a lovely beachside community, which seems to mostly cater to British tourists. We enjoyed the views of the coast, but the water was really too cold and the surf was too rough to do any swimming. I’m told that it’s the difference between an Atlantic and a Mediterranean beach.

Some comments on driving in Spain and Portugal:

- There seems to be a standard EU license plate, with the circle of yellow stars on a dark blue field. Below is a letter: E for Spain (España), P for Portugal, F for France. The license plate number is on a white field with black numbers. Our rental car plate had the letters GBR, so naturally we named it Goober for the weekend.

- In Spain and Portugal, it seems more feasible to navigate by highway numbers than in France. Of course, that may just be because we largely stuck to major highways this time.

- Traffic circles (called roundabouts by English speakers here, and glorietas by Spanish speakers) are very popular. Under medium-to-heavy traffic conditions, they do keep things moving better. In very heavy traffic, of course, everything stops. The main downside with traffic circles is that you can lose your sense of direction really quickly.