Monday, May 24, 2010


Alas, the time has come to bid a reluctant farewell to Córdoba.  Our Wild & Crazy Adventure has been an incredible life experience.  It is difficult to put into words the extraordinary things that you experience and learn about yourself when you leave everything that you know behind and plunge yourself into another culture.  You find yourself re-examining perspectives.  Different may not be wrong, it’s just different.  We will miss the people that welcomed us into their homes and hearts becoming our friends and extended family, sharing their culture and teaching us not only how to be “Spanish”, but also, how to be “Andalus.”  We will miss the narrow Old-World cobbled streets that have become all but common place in these past 21 months.  We will miss the “Wow” that we feel every time we wander down the silence passages of a church steeped in art or walk past the Roman Temple excavations.  “Old” can no longer be quantified and you realize that 200 years is a mere scratch in surface of history.  We will miss the tranquil rhythm of life that beckons you to tarry in a quiet plaza and enjoy a cup a something in the shadow of a church.  We hope to bring some of Spain back with us, not only as memories, but in lifestyle.  And so reluctantly, on Wednesday, we will gather these memories and bid farewell to this town that has become a home to us.  Returning to Portland is both exciting and daunting.   A lot has changed in our absence, including us.  But it will be nice to be surrounded by the familiar again and to see family and friends.  The next chapter in our lives, whatever that may be, awaits.  So as we go, to paraphrase Dr. Seuss, we will try not to be sad that our adventure is over, but rather, be happy that it happened at all.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Priego de Córdoba

For our final weekend in Córdoba (sob!), we decided it was time to go visit the pueblo of Priego de Córdoba. This is the home town of José, one of my fellow teachers at Gran Capitán. He had told us about it so many times that I’d have been disappointed if we never saw it. The bus trips coming and going were longer than I’d have liked, but gave us the opportunity to enjoy lots of beautiful Andalucían landscapes. The old town area of Priego is on a hilltop, and enjoys nice views of the surrounding hills. It has a number of pretty Baroque churches, and an elegant fountain dating to the 1500’s. Take a look at the pictures at:

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Écija and Carmona

We’re approaching the end of our time in Spain, but we’re trying not to let the sadness get in the way of enjoying our remaining days. This last weekend, our friends Lola and Eduardo took us to visit Écija and Carmona, two pretty pueblos along the highway to Sevilla. We’d passed by both these pueblos before, since they’re right along the main highway, but hadn’t taken the time to explore. We thoroughly enjoyed them, but it makes me wonder how many other treasures there are that we haven’t been able to see. A human life just isn’t long enough to see everything. See the pictures at:

Écija is one of the ancient pueblos of Córdoba. It was founded in the eighth century B.C. by the Tartessos, a pre-Roman tribe. It came under the control of the Carthaginians, and passed to the Romans following the Second Punic War (that was the one where Hannibal took his elephants across the Pyrenees). In 14 B.C., it was re-named Astigi by the emperor Caesar Augustus. It enjoyed a few centuries of prosperity due to the production of olive oil, exported down the Río Genil to the Río Guadalquivir to the Mediterranean Sea and then to Rome. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the pueblo was under Visigothic rule until the Islam conquest of the Iberian peninsula in the eighth century A.D. The Muslims changed the name to Istiya, and made it a provincial capital under the Córdoban caliphate. It was taken by the Christians during the Reconquista in 1240. Much of the city was destroyed in the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Afterward, Écija became the base of operations for a powerful group of landowners, who built palacios that make the city a joy to wander through today. Still, my favorite part was the archaeological museum.

We drove on to La Luisiana (I find that name funny) for lunch. It’s the pueblo where Lola works as a special education teacher. La Luisiana is one of the new pueblos built during the 1700’s to guard the Sevilla highway from robbers. It’s interesting to live in an area where the new places were built in the 1700’s.

The next destination was Carmona, a hilltop pueblo almost all the way to Sevilla. It is quite pretty, with well-preserved Roman walls. The owner of an ice cream shop was proudly showing us how they had built around some ancient Roman arches to construct the shop. We went up to the Parador (a nationally-owned luxury hotel chain) to drink tea on the terrace and enjoy the view of the Río Genil valley. What a very pleasant way to wrap up the day!

Sunday, May 16, 2010


Colored pencils as a rebellion against pessimism.
Colored pencils as a symbol of creativity.
Colored pencils as tools for intervention.
Colored pencils as instruments of participation.
Colored pencils as a song of diversity.
Colored pencils as…

Because we understand that the crisis that invades our lives cannot trap us in pessimism, we present our proposal in images of colors as a symbol of creativity, intervention, participation and diversity. All elements mixed in the painter´s pallet which will help us rise above these moments of so much “grey” news.

In times of crisis, in times of grey… colors, colors, colors…

This is the message from residents of Calle de Imágenes. Each year this neighborhood participates in Córdoba’s May Patio and Balcony Festival in their own special way, decorating not only their balconies but their entire neighborhood. It has been fun watching this year´s display evolve and I find their message particularly uplifting, especially in a country that is currently experiencing an almost 30% rate of unemployment. Definitely food for thought.

In times of crisis… colors.

You can see pictures at:

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Cost of Living in Spain

When Scott and I were researching Spain, I looked everywhere for cost of living comparisons between Córdoba, Spain and Portland, Oregon. I found very little information. So I thought that it might be helpful to someone else if I wrote down my observations. It is difficult to quantify some prices as many prices fluctuate depending on the time of day, volume of business, or whether the proprietor feels he can get away with a “tourist” surcharge. I will try to provide an outline as of April 2010.

We are renting a small furnished apartment, approximately 450 sq. ft. in central Córdoba. The apartment is centrally located, just outside the fashionable older sections of the town. For us it is a great location as almost every bus route stops at Plaza Cólon just across the street. Our rent is 570€ a month and includes water. A note on apartments: An unfurnished apartment in Spain may mean that it is completely unfurnished, no kitchen cabinets, appliances… no sink! Beware! Luckily, we found a place that was furnished adequately and even included standard Spanish kitchen necessities (paella pan, deep fat fryer, basic implements and dishes). The apartment is air-conditioned, but does not have heating. This is not uncommon in Andalusía, winters are generally mild, similar to Los Angeles without the smog. If I annualized the electricity bill over the 18 months that we have rented the apartment, electricity is about 90€ a month. I haven´t noticed any drastic rate increases in the past year.

Telephone & Internet
Basic monthly telephone service costs 14€ which includes local calls. Long distance and calls placed to cell phones are an additional charge. Our phone bill generally runs about 30€ a month. Like in the states, there are lots of different cell phone plans. We have a pay-as-you-go service that averages about 12€ monthly. We have a bundled service for cable television and internet which runs about 55€ a month. As in the USA, you can buy packages of bundled services at better rates but most of these require that you sign a long term contract.

Health Insurance
Medical care is socialized in Spain and far cheaper than in the states. My medical insurance costs just under 70€ a month. Scott’s insurance is furnished by the school, so figure a total insurance cost of 140€ a month. (Compare that to the $1,100/month that we paid in the USA.) The insurance pretty much covers everything, except prescriptions. At the end of the year, we receive a bill for any co-pays that we might have incurred. In 2009, this amounted to 18€ for the year. I have been surprised to find that the care that we have received has been as good, and in many times better, than what we have received in the states. I have struggled with a minor medical problem for over 15 years. My PPO doctor in the USA, and then Kaiser, were repeatedly unable to diagnose the problem correctly. Why? Because on these plans it costs the doctor money if he sends you to a specialist, so many doctors won’t do it unless they have no alternative. My Spanish doctor sent me to a specialist, and the condition was correctly diagnosed and treated… after 15 years. Wait times are about the same, if not shorter. Scott broke his arm and had to avail himself of the emergency room care. They were efficient and again, he received excellent care.

Prescription medications are cheaper, however the selection of available medications is limited. There is a master list of medications that you can purchase. If what you want/need isn’t on the list, it is simply not available. Tylenol is among the drugs unavailable in Spain.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that medical care is a hot button in the United States right now. I am only saying that socialized medicine may not always be bad. Of course, I have been told that in Spain, if you have a major medical problem, you want to purchase a premium policy. I expect that these policies are more expensive. I have also been advised that it is wise to know people that work in the hospitals as this improves the quality of your hospital care, should you need it. (I don’t know how much of this statement is Spanish Culture. In Spain, everything is done through personal connections.) And yes, I have heard it mentioned that sometimes doctors will decide not to authorize medical care in cases where the prognosis is poor (I find this completely unacceptable.) However on the whole, the medical care that we have received in Spain has been excellent. Do I think the Spanish system could be duplicated in the United States? Not a chance. We have too many issues that complicate our medical care in America.

Dental insurance is fairly worthless in Spain. The policies that we have reviewed do not really cover anything. From looking at people’s smiles, dental care is largely regarded as unnecessary.

Basic Cost Rule for other necessities of life: groceries, clothes, appliances, etc.
Most items cost in euros about what you would pay in US dollars. Another words, if you would pay $2.00 for it in America, you should expect to pay 2.00€ for it in Spain. The exchange rate over the past 2 years has fluctuated from $1.30 to $1.50 to 1.00€. At the time of this posting, a euro is hovering around $1.35, so I have used this valuation when I quote exact prices.

Fresh daily, except on Sunday, and cheap. A 30” long loaf of French bread costs 38 centimos or 52 cents (USD).

Fresh Produce
Fresh produce is generally higher quality. It seems fresher, but that may just be that I frequent the smaller Fruterías instead of the larger supermarkets. Fresh fruits and vegetables are seasonable. When something is out of season, you are not going to find it for any price. Produce, if imported at all, comes mainly from the Canary Islands and Western Europe. In winter, you won’t see summer fruits imported from the southern hemisphere. When it is out of season, you are out of luck. This was a source of great frustration to me recently as I searched for fresh basil in late March and April. Pricing generally follows the basic rule stated above, but applied to the prices for organic produce in the USA. Although in many cases, you will not be getting organic produce at this price point.

Meat, Pork, Poultry and Fish
For meat, pork, poultry and fish, it is easier to provide a table for price comparisons. Of course, often times you buy what is available. Generally with enough notice, you can order what you need, but sometimes even that does not work. I ordered 5 kg of salmon from Antonio for the Salmon Feast, but when I went to pick it up, he told me that he had been unable to find any salmon, even after going to 3 different distributors. He suggested that I go to the local supermarket. Luckily, the supermarket had it, but it was more expensive. Be prepared to know where (on the animal) the cut of meat is taken from and what it looks like, often you are ordering from a large slab on meat.
Item                            Price (€/kg)        Price ($/lb)
Ground Beef                   5.79 €                 $3.55
Chuck Roast                   7.99 €                 $4.90
Steak (Rib Eye)             12.99 €                $7.97
Chicken (whole)              3.59 €                $2.20
Chicken Breasts              4.49 €                $2.76
Pork Loin                        3.59 €                $2.20
Anchovies/Sardines      2.90 €                $1.78
Filet of Sole                     6.80 €               $4.17
White Fish Filet               5.60 €                $3.44
Shark Filets                     7.20 €                $4.42
Salmon or Tuna               9.20 €                $5.65

Clothes and Small Appliances
The basic rule generally applies to these items with a caveat: many times there isn’t a mid-range quality. With clothing, expect to pay Nordstrom prices for J.C Penny quality. Alternatively, you can dress very cheaply buying clothing from Chinos or the open air markets, but pay attention to what you are buying. This is like going to a huge garage sale, quality is questionable. Small appliances (this applies to anything small and electrical), if you can find it, prices start at what the high-end price would be in the states, but the quality will be similar to low or mid-ranged priced appliances.

Chinos satisfy the low-end market. These, on a very small scale, are the Wal-marts and K-marts of Spain. They are referred to Chinos as they are run exclusively by Chinese merchants and feature a wide eclectic range of cheap Chinese imports. Think Pic-N-Save, now think cheaper. The items found in a Chino are the equivalent of “third” and “fourth” rate quality goods. However, sometimes the Chino is the only place where you can find what you need. Quality is poor and merchandise is not returnable, but then again, it is very cheap.

Large Appliances and Electronics
We haven’t purchased any of these items, but I have made a point to check pricing as I walk by and they seem to follow the rule. Remember that European CD’s and DVD’s will not play on American equipment. However we have not had any difficulty getting small European computer peripherals (mice, flash drives, etc.) to work with our American laptop. Large household appliances are smaller in general as most people simply do not have the space. Washing machines, dryers and dishwashers start at 350€ (on sale), refrigerators are about 700€.

Automobile Expenses
We do not own a car, but from advertisements and talking with locals, this is what I understand. Cars will follow the basic cost rule with the following note: Cars made in Europe: Fiat, Cleo, Volkswagen will be more economical, followed by Japanese and American imports. Expect most cars to have a manual transmission. Auto insurance for the first year on a basic car runs about 300€ annually. I have been told that insurance premiums decrease over time if you are not in any accidents. The price for a liter of gasoline has fluctuated between 1.00€ and 1.40€ a liter or between $5.20 and $7.28 per gallon. Now before anyone has a heart attack, remember that in most European cities, most people do not need to use their cars like we do in America. We have lived in Córdoba for almost two years, and not owning a car has only occasionally been inconvenient.

Restaurants and Movies
Prices, like everywhere else, vary widely. How much to you want to spend? Where do you want to eat? The first rule for a reasonably priced meal is stay out of “tourist land”. An average cena (dinner) out for four to six people (you simply do not go out alone in Spain) will cost between 50€ to 60€. A quick lunch at a taverna will run about 3.50€ to 5€ a person. Tapas (hors d'oeuvres) hover between 6€ to 12€ per ration which will easily feed 2-4 people. A coffee in a nice plaza is 1.20€, a glass of wine 2€, soda 1.35€. Beware of the tourist surcharge, prices are rarely posted and vary with the time of day. If the server feels that he can charge more, he will. The Spanish do not tip.

The admission price for a first run movie is 7€. In the summer, the late night “Cines de Verano” admission price is 3.50€. You bring your dinner, sit under the stars and watch a movie projected onto the side of a building. Quite the Spanish experience.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Salmon Feast

As a “thank you” for making us feel so welcome in Córdoba, I wanted to prepare an American dinner for our Córdoban friends.  Many have already experienced a Thanksgiving, so this time, I wanted to prepare an everyday meal.  At first, I had thought to make a pot roast as that goes straight back to my southern roots.  But finding a pot and oven large enough to accommodate a roast for 26 proved problematic, so I decided to focus on the Pacific Northwest and prepare a Salmon Pesto.   (I know, many of you will tell me that “pesto” is Italian and I do not dispute that fact.  But Scott and I have traveled over a good portion of Italy and I have never seen Salmon Pesto prepared anywhere other than at McCormick’s in Portland.   As you simply cannot get more “Northwest” than McCormick’s, I felt that this recipe fit my requirement.)

Of course, this is Spain and I did not realize the difficulty that I would have finding fresh basil in April.  It is spring after all.  But this year has been cold and rainy.  We have actually been experiencing weather closer to that of Portland.  There was no basil… anywhere.  I think that my Spanish friends have a good laugh when I go off on one of my food quests.  But after weeks of searching, I finally found some very small basil plants.  I bought 14, and proceeded to pamper them.  Luckily, basil grows very quickly.  The plants doubled in size in two weeks, even though it was quite grey and cloudy and after 3½ hours of plucking leaves late Saturday night (I do not recommend this method…) I am happy to announce that there was sufficient basil to make the pesto.  

Preparing this meal also underlined some basic differences in belief about food storage.  In America, we refrigerate many dairy products that are normally left out in Spain.  I am aware of this.  So when my friend stopped to pick up the food Saturday afternoon, I pointed out the creamed spinach, the cheeses, the homemade Ranch Dip packaged (and labeled “Ranch Dip”) in an old butter container and a few other items, and asked that she put them in her refrigerator.  Unfortunately, there was a miscommunication.   She refrigerated the spinach, but looked at the rest and decided that it was more important that we have cold beer.  Cheese will survive a night on the counter, but mayonnaise and yogurt (the main ingredients in Ranch Dressing) spoil.  It was an honest mistake, the Ranch Dressing was in a butter container.  Even though she speaks very good English she didn’t see my label.  Who refrigerates butter in Spain?  Luckily, I had brought most of the ingredients with me to make some fresh dressing and had had the foresight not to send my 3 dozen refrigerated eggs the day before.  Cultural differences are an adventure to navigate.

So the meal began with basic party hors d'oeuvres, Veges & Ranch Dip, and Potato Skins and some other favorites.  The Spanish reaction to the food was interesting.  They looked at the raw vegetables, taken aback and said:  “You eat the vegetables raw?”  I explained that the vegetables were meant to be eaten with the Ranch Dip.  I had prepared more than 2 cups of Ranch Dip (fresh that morning).  It was gone in less than 15 minutes.  Likewise, the Potato Skins disappeared.  When asked for the recipe, I explained that you start by baking the potatoes, which baffled my friends.  “You just put them in the oven… nothing else?”  It is always fun to share food.  

Needless to say, the meal was an enormous success and a good time was had by all.  This may actually have been the first Spanish event that we have attended without Iberian ham, goat cheese and olives. 

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


Translation of an actual article from a newpaper in Andalucía:

A resident of the village of San Roque has solicited compensation for the death of a cow, while it fled the sexual harassment of a burro owned by the municipal government. The owner of the cow alleges that the donkey entered his property chasing his animal with dishonest intentions. The cow, trying to escape, fell down an embankment, and subsequently died.

The story began when the village of San Roque decided to acquire a burro for a live Nativity scene that is staged every year at Christmastime. The burro spends the rest of the year on a local farm, which borders on that of the owner of the deceased cow, who dedicates himself to the production of milk.

The farmer’s lawsuit states that it was the burro that entered his property sexually stalking the cow, while the Ayuntamiento (local government) considers that the cow provoked the donkey. Jose Lara, councilor for the Ayuntamiento of San Roque, explains his version of the deeds: “This is about a strong young burro, and of course, when the cow came out completely naked, with her udders exposed, the animal exceeded himself and attacked.” (Note: the word ‘tetas’ can be translated into English as ‘udders’ or ‘tits’, which may add to your enjoyment of the story)

Now it will be the legal services of the Ayuntamiento that will have to decide if it was sexual harassment on the part of the burro.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Fuente Obejuna

Yesterday was the last hike I’ll do with Llega Como Puedas before returning to the USA. And what an excursion it was! I can’t recall a wetter, muddier, yuckier day. Sorry, there are no photos this time; it never stopped raining long enough for me to pull the camera out. It was a shame to finish the hiking season on such a sour note.

It’s been raining a lot during the last week, but they’ve generally been brief rainfalls with sun in between. The forecast was for more rain today, but I can deal with a brief rainfall. I made sure to pack my poncho and an umbrella and my polainas. I saw that other people had done some clever things with plastic bags, but I really think that if you have to go that far to keep your feet dry, maybe it’s better to just stay at home.

The bus left at 8:00 from our normal meeting point. There were a few drops of rain as I walked to the stop, the proverbial Cordoban “cuatro gotas” (four drops). It continued to rain as we drove into the sierra, through Peñarroya, and on into Fuente Obejuna. This pueblo is famous as the site of the play Fuenteovejuna by the famous Spanish playwright Lope de Vega, a contemporary of Shakespeare. It was based on events during the reign of the Reyes Católicos, Ferdinand and Isabella, in 1476. The villagers of Fuenteovejuna (as it was called then) rose against the tyrannical Commander Guzmán and killed him. To avoid having the penalty fall on any one villager, the people would only confess to the royal inquisitors, “Fuenteovejuna did it.” They were all eventually pardoned by King Ferdinand. I’m told that the people of the pueblo put on a performance of the play every year.

It was still raining when we stopped for breakfast, and also when we went on to the starting point of the hike. We had seen the sun break through briefly along the way, so we were hopeful that it might clear up. It didn’t. I put on my poncho that I’d bought in Switzerland, the one with the cool white cross. For the first part of the hike, my feet stayed relatively dry. We got to the first stream, which was pretty high because of all the rain. We found a place to cross, and everyone made it across without getting their feet wet. All, that is, except for two that fell into the water, which was a good three feet deep at that point. We continued on to the Guadiato River, which was too deep to cross. My feet were getting fairly wet by this time. We struck out across the riverside meadows, which were filled with puddles concealed by the grass. By the time we got to the highway, my feet were squishing in my shoes.

I had thought that the bus was going to pick us up at the highway, but Paco the rutero said, “It’s only five or six more kilometers (3 to 3½ miles), and we’re past the worst part.” And it’s true that the remainder of the walk was along dirt roads. However, with the continuing rain, the roads were waterways. Some of the muddy areas were pretty slippery. I was being careful, because I wasn’t particularly interested in taking a fall and breaking another wrist. On the other hand, having your feet soaking wet gives you a certain freedom; I didn’t have to worry much about stepping in the water. I had snagged my poncho a few times, and the wind was beginning to shred it into tatters. By the time we got to the aldea (a village smaller than a pueblo) of La Coronada, I just wadded it up and threw it into a recycling bin.

The original plan had been to eat lunch in La Coronada and continue on for a couple more hours. With the water conditions, however, even the indefatigable Paco realized that it was time to call in the bus. I enjoyed a glass of fino (Córdoba’s signature white wine) and a shot of anise with lunch; that warmed me up nicely. You just don’t expect this sort of weather in Andalucía. A month ago, people were telling me that it was the wettest rainy season Andalucía had seen in forty years. By now, they’re saying it’s the wettest in sixty years. It’s a shame, because the landscape was really pretty, although it was a bit difficult to enjoy it under the circumstances. What a way to finish the hiking season!

Monday, April 5, 2010

South Italy

The clock is ticking down on the European adventure. For our last big trip before returning to the USA, we spent Semana Santa in Italy. Depending on how you count the border crossings, this was either the fifth, sixth, or seventh time we’ve been to Italy. On all the other trips, we’ve explored the northern part of the country, which is where most of the tour guides will send you. This time, we decided that we needed to explore the south. It doesn’t have the blockbuster attractions of the north (Firenze, Venezia, Leonardo paintings, and so on), but it has a lot of beautiful views. We didn’t get down to the toe of the boot, but we did make it to the arch. We had a wonderful time. Pictures are at:

It was another driving vacation…we’re far past the point of being nervous about driving in Europe. On the first day, we bombed straight south on a wide freeway that could have been anywhere in the USA (except for the toll booths). The views got prettier after we bypassed Napoli on the far side of Mt. Vesuvius, and began to head down to the coast.

Our first destination was Scalea, a beach town on the Tyrrhenian Sea. This is definitely not the Italy that most American tourists see; I think this is where Italians go on their beach vacations. In the north, you can count on finding people who speak English. Not in the south! The second day, we continued down the coast as far as the town of San Lucido. We ate lunch at a small restaurant which was probably as far out of tourist-land as we’ve ever been. Communication was a real adventure, but Spanish is close enough to Italian that we were able to get along. Scalea is a rather nondescript beach town, comparable to Cannon Beach or Seaside, but probably not as scenic. The beaches were nice, but it was chilly enough that we didn’t consider going into the water. There are advantages to traveling outside of the high season (lower prices, less people), as well as disadvantages (colder weather). The more ancient part of town was old, but really not terribly pretty. Parts of it were falling into rather unromantic ruin. It takes a little bit longer for “old” to turn into “historical.”

We headed north from Scalea along the coast, and had to make a rather long backtrack when we found the road closed before Sapri. If we were locals, we might have known how to bypass it, but our Italian wasn’t sufficient for asking directions. We finally made it onto the road to Salerno, although the road numbers didn’t match those on our map. As we’ve learned, in Europe you have to navigate by destinations, and not get too hung up on being on a specific road. You’ll get where you’re going… eventually.

Before we got to Salerno, we stopped for a few hours to visit Paestum, an ancient site with some of the finest Greek temples outside of Greece. Before the Roman Empire, the Phoenicians and Greeks created far-flung trade colonies throughout the Mediterranean Sea. The most famous Greek colony was Syracuse on the island of Sicily. Paestum was built around 600 B.C. as an outpost to trade with the Lucanian barbarians (at this time, Rome was still a small town under the rule of the Etruscans). It had a strong surrounding wall, and several beautiful temples. We can only speculate what the relations were with the Lucanians, but I have a picture of the elegant, cultured Greeks dealing with the fur-clad barbarians. The Lucanians conquered the city around 500 B.C., and tried to emulate the Greek style of living. This lasted until around 300 B.C., when the Lucanians were conquered by the Romans. The Romans kept the temples, but built one of their characteristically well-laid-out cities alongside. With the fall of the Empire, the site was abandoned due to encroaching swamps, and left to itself for the next thousand years. Today, the site is nearly as well preserved as Pompeii. For me, Paestum was the high point of the trip.

For the next few days, we were on the Amalfi coast for some of the most hair-raising driving I’ve done in Europe. And trust me, we’ve done some hair-raising drives over here. Thin, twisty roads with no center divider, hanging on the edge of the bluffs down to the ocean, with insane local drivers barreling around the hairpin turns. To drive this area right, you’d need to be James Bond driving a red Ferrari convertible, with the henchmen of Dr. No chasing you. The views are beautiful, but you can’t enjoy the view after you’ve had a heart attack.

Tonya timed things out so that we had an afternoon in Rome before flying out the next morning. Of all the cities we’ve visited in the last year and a half, I have to say that Rome is the most pleasant for random wandering. Every time you turn a corner, you see some new wonder. And we made it back to Córdoba in time for the last few processions of Semana Santa. All in all, a perfectly delightful week.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

La Virgen de la Cabeza

Last Sunday’s hike was a little dull; normal Andalucían landscape, gray skies and a bit of drizzle. Dull, that is, until we had put about 20km (13 miles) behind us. At that point, it turned from a natural outing to a cultural outing, enjoying the church and the war monument at La Virgen de la Cabeza. That made the day worthwhile, in my opinion. At Spanish historical sites, it’s interesting to see the layers of history. For instance, the site was a center of Republican resistance during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Before that, it was a pilgrimage site, where a church had been built in the early 1200’s. Before that….who knows? Andalucía has been continuously inhabited since Stone Age times. See the photos at
Here is my translation of the inscription on the war monument: “When all of the province of Jaen had succumbed to the enemy, the shout of rebellion was heard in these crags. The heroic Captain Cortes, leading 200 civil guards in the sanctuary and 60 in Lugar Nuevo, were responsible for 1,200 women, children, and seniors in the first and 300 in the second. Some fellow countrymen, able to bear arms, had joined with the defenders. The siege began on August 17, 1936, and in the first days of October, the National Air Force began to supply the defenders. From December 31, Captain Haya is another hero, daily defying death as he carries his precious cargo by air again and again to the sanctuary. The days pass. Hunger, sickness, and enemy attacks continue to thin the ranks of the defenders, but their confidence in the protection of the Holy Virgin is not extinguished, and again and again the offers of surrender are rejected. On April 12, 1937, the heroic Lieutenant Ruano happily leads the evacuation of Lugar Nuevo, reduced by enemy artillery to a mountain of rubble. On the 25th, a touching message is released from the sanctuary: ‘Goodbye. Hail Spain.’ On May 1st, Cortes falls wounded for the second time, this time mortally. The munitions run out, the resistance is extinguished, and at 5:00 in the afternoon when the horde erupted into the sanctuary, there were less than 30 men still bearing a weapon. The rest had died or were out of commission, gravely wounded. Walker or pilgrim that visits these places, stop and raise to the Highest an emotional prayer for the soul of those who in these crags honored their homeland making the generous offering of their lives…” This affects me all the more when you realize that “the enemy” they’re talking about were other Spaniards!

Here is my translation of the inscription on the statue of Juan de Rivas, the shepherd whose vision of the Virgin on this hill inspired the construction of the first church: “To Juan de Rivas, shepherd of Colomera, to whom the Virgin showed herself on the 12th of August, 1227, to be the consolation, the glory, the joy, and the honor of our people, this was erected in 1974.”

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

La Cimbarra

We may finally be past the worst of the rain, so I’m out hiking again. The hike entered the Parque Natural de la Cascada de la Cimbarra (natural parks are not to be confused with national parks, although I haven’t quite figured out the legal distinction). During the hike, we got a little bit of everything: sun, rain, and even a little bit of snow (yes, snow!). I’d thought we were past that. Since there’s been so much rain this winter, the rivers were higher than normal. At one point this meant having to ford a stream which got to mid-calf….not bad, but a bit inconvenient. The high water also led to one unfortunate accident; Monsalud, the rutera, took a bad fall while crossing another stream. We’d all crossed the stream on rocks, but she just had bad luck. We were nearly back to the parking area at that point, so she didn’t have to walk far before we found someone to drive her back into the pueblo. The next day, I heard from her that she’d broken her wrist. It brings up an interesting philosophical question: would you rather have wet feet and a healthy wrist, or dry feet and a broken wrist?

Take a look at the pictures at:

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


In theory, Andalucía has a fairly dry climate. In theory. We have been lucky enough to be here for the wettest recorded winter in Córdoba's history. According to the newspaper, the measured rainfall since September (about 4 ½ months) has been 25% higher than what Córdoba normally sees in an entire year. Now, this is still nothing like a Portland winter. But…but….but….here you notice it more. There’s a lot more street life, and nothing puts a damper on street life like a heavy rain. And when you have to walk or take a bus to all of your destinations, you find yourself taking careful note of the weather. I even passed on a hike near Granada last weekend, because I wasn’t interested in braving the rain and snow.

I have made an interesting observation regarding rainfall measurement. In the USA, of course, we measure rainfall in inches. In Spain (and probably in all of Europe), rainfall is measured in l/m2 (liters per square meter...sorry, the blog doesn't seem to support superscripts). Now, if you think about it, the European measurement of volume of rain per unit area makes a lot of sense. Using units of inches for rain is dependent on the measurement method (the depth of water in a vertical-sided container), but volume of rain per unit area is independent of how you measure it.

But, how do you compare l/m2 with inches? Here is where the glory of the metric system becomes obvious. There is a straightforward relationship between units of length, area, volume, and weight that just doesn’t exist in the English system. For instance, one liter of volume is a cube with sides of 10cm (or 0.1 meters). Therefore, one liter per square meter is

(0.1m)3/(1m)2 = .001m

which is simply one millimeter. Therefore, a measurement in l/m2 can be thought of simply as millimeters of rain (comparable to inches of rain).

Sadly, this simple relationship doesn’t exist in the English system. How many inches of rain would correspond to one gallon of rain per square foot? Of course you can calculate it, but it would be a bit ugly.

So why does America continue to struggle against the metric system?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

La lluvia amarilla

One of my fun activities in Spain has been participation in a book club at the instituto. During the school year, we’ve read quite a variety of things. Some of the books have been translated from English, and others were written originally in Spanish. The other members like it when we’re reading the translated books, because I can often offer insights that would not be obvious to someone not familiar with American or English culture. However, I like it better when we read novels written originally in Spanish, because it gives me those same insights into Spanish culture.

Our last book (“La lluvia amarilla”, by Julio Llamazares) provided a good example of this. This is a book which would never be a best-seller in America, because the characters are too….well….too Spanish. Their actions would simply be incomprehensible to an American reader. I see that the book was translated into English back in 2004 (“The Yellow Rain”), but it never achieved much success. (The title in English is unfortunate; it makes me think of someone urinating.) In Spain, however, it is considered a modern classic. My companions in the book club told me that certainly the protagonist of the novel is an extreme case, but that they could understand how he felt. I’m not sure that I can.

It is certainly not a cheerful story. It charts the death of a small pueblo in the Pyrenees. The population had been diminishing over the years as the hard economic times forced people to seek work in the big cities. Finally, there is only one man living in the ruins of the pueblo, completely alone for ten years. He never considers leaving the pueblo where his family has lived for hundreds, or maybe thousands, of years. He is so obsessed with death that I found it difficult to read the book.

It is a phenomenon that happens in America as well, small rural towns shrinking or even disappearing as people move to the cities. Still, in America, I think that we see it differently. Certainly people like their home towns, but we simply are too young a country to have the same kind of attachment to a place that many of the rural Spanish do. Although the story is completely different, the American classic “The Grapes of Wrath” touches on some of the same themes. It’s a depressing novel as well, but it ends on a hopeful note. The idea of moving toward something new, as opposed to lamenting what is lost, is something that I consider very American.

A Spanish person’s attachment to his pueblo is understandable, even if I can’t quite understand the depth of the feeling. It reminds me of a Spanish movie I saw some years ago (in the original Spanish, of course!), in which a man had to flee his pueblo after killing someone in a complex love triangle. He finally returned, saying, “I would rather die in my pueblo than live somewhere else.” I think that says it all.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Sierra de Albayate

This week’s hike was considerably more pleasant than the last one…and I think that the views were better as well. No mud, reasonable grades, no injuries, and we were back in Córdoba by 7:00pm. Very nice. The Sierra de Albayate is near the pueblo of Priego, about halfway between Córdoba and Granada. It’s a lovely area; many people told me that it’s their favorite part of the province of Córdoba. One of my colleagues is from Priego, and has said many times that he wants to take us out there one weekend. We saw it briefly from the bus on the way, and I’d like to get back there for a closer look.

The hike ended in the pueblo of Almedinilla. The word “charming” is over-used in the description of European villages, but Almedinilla is…well…charming. I wouldn’t mind exploring there some more as well. Enjoy the pictures of the hike at:

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Pico Huma Hike

We’re well into the new year, the $%&@#!! cast is off my arm, and all is right with the world. I still don’t have full mobility in my left wrist, but it’s getting better day by day. I decided it was time to go on one of the famous Llega Como Puedas hikes. Last Sunday we went down to Pico Huma, in Malaga province. The forecast was 80% probability of rain…or, if you’re optimistic, 20% probability of no rain. We got lucky. There wasn’t a drop of rain all day, but it was obvious that it had been raining heavily not long before. I’d slog up the soggy hillsides until the weight of the mud threatened to pull my shoes off, then scrape it off against a convenient rock or tree. It got a bit tricky to clamber over the rocks with only one good hand, but I managed not to break any more bones. The views were lovely; take a look at the pictures:

It ended up being a much longer than expected day; I started walking to the bus just after 7:00 in the morning, and didn’t get home until 11:30 that night. This was directly caused by the number of new members that we had on the trip. A lot of the new members are youngsters (OK, in their 20’s). This ended up being a good news / bad news situation. Good, in that we get new blood for the club. Bad, in that some of them were over-confident in their abilities. One of them managed to twist her knee as we were approaching the peak, at a point where it would be no easier to turn back than to just continue on to the end. Short of calling in the Guardia Civil, there was nothing she could do but tough it out. And she did. These things happen; it’s nobody’s fault; but it meant that the whole group was moving much slower. A number of us were getting nervous as the day wore on. Nobody wanted to be caught on the mountainside after dark. We made it down about 7:00, just as it was getting truly dark.

That’s when we were caught with the second dilemma. Some of the other 20-somethings had given up on the initial ascent, and returned to the starting point in the Valle de Abdalajís. This meant that the bus had to return there to pick them up. There had been a landslide at some point, and the normal road back was closed. As far as I can tell, the bus driver got lost taking the alternate route. It took us an hour and a half to get there….the straight-line distance was only 15km. And after that was the two-hour ride to Córdoba. And after that was the mile walk from the bus stop back home. Quite a day.

Whenever you get a group of “n” Spanish people together, and a decision must be made, you’ll get “n” different opinions….each of them being shouted loudly. Since the hikes are generally cross-country, there are decision points for the route. This bothered me on the first excursion or two, but I soon reached the conclusion that you just wait for the ruteros (the route leaders) to reach a decision, and then the group would continue on. Of course, I often wondered what would happen if they couldn’t reach an agreement. Would the group split? Surely such a thing would never happen. Well….this time, it happened. I was faced with the nasty decision of which group to follow. There had been no rain during the day, but there was a danger that it could start at any time. I think that parts of the route would have simply been impossible with rain falling. I finally followed the group with more people, figuring that if we were going to have to be rescued by emergency crews, that was the better place to be. It all came out fine; the groups re-joined at the bottom of the mountain after an hour. That was the sort of adventure that I’d happily do without.

As I look back over what I’ve written, it sounds as if I am complaining. I’m really not. It was a good, strenuous hike with beautiful views. I had a really good time….seasoned with a few more adventures than I’d expected. Just another Spanish experience.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

In the Quest for a Simpler Life

There were a number of reasons that influenced our decision to take an extended sabbatical. Among them was the desire to simplify and escape the “Hurry, Hurry, Ding, Ding” that permeated our lives. So after a little over a year, I find myself reflecting on this grand adventure.

In many ways, moving to Spain was like stepping back into the 1950’s. This came with its own set of joys, frustrations, and some interesting insights. So let’s suppose for a moment that you have a basic home (running water, basic kitchen appliances, and basic climate control, circa 1950 USA), food and medical insurance. What else do you require to be happy? What are you willing to live without in order to have a quieter life? Or perhaps, the better question is: What is really important to you?

Of course, what is important is different for everyone. For Scott, it is his piano. For me, the list is a little longer… the availability of entertainment (books and an occasional movie) in my native language, a washing machine and a clothes dryer. I would add that this adventure would be almost impossible without a computer and DSL connection – only because I use them manage our finances while we are abroad and to stay connected to friends and family back home. In the states, I am sure that I would find the lack of a computer liberating on many levels. I miss my glass studio, but faced with the choice between “playing with glass” or a vacation, the vacation wins without a second thought. So add vacations to my list as well. My response left me stunned. I had expected to miss having a car. But I find that I enjoy the walking, and the weight loss that comes with it. The missing dishwasher doesn’t faze me at all… Scott does the dishes!

Last February, my brother and sister-in law kindly drove to Portland and packed up all our household belongings and put everything into storage. This event gave our sabbatical in Spain a finality that it had not had before. Suddenly, we were completely cut off from the majority of our stuff. But at the same time, this was strangely liberating. Things are nice, but often owning them steals your time, money and in many ways, your life. You end up working longer hours, not to support your family, but to support your stuff. It is really kind of sad.

After 15 months without our things, and not really missing them, intelligent people would toss the boxes without even opening them… Yeah… Easier said than done.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy 2010

I apologize to everyone for going so long without any blog entries. I blame it on the broken wrist; this one-handed typing is deucedly awkward. With luck, the cast will be coming off on January 11.

The new year finds us still in Spain, mentally preparing for a return to the USA in June. I find myself reflecting on the risks we take in life; what is acceptable, and what is not? What is important to you? Tonya and I have taken a huge risk by coming to Europe. Some would call it crazy…and yes, more than one person has said that to my face. What is important enough to you that you’d be willing to turn your life upside-down to do it?

Being an engineer, I was very methodical as we weighed life choices a few years ago. Unfortunately, a conventional cost-versus-benefit analysis doesn’t work well in this situation. There are hundreds of good, solid, sober reasons not to do something like this, and the benefit is a nebulous “because I really want to do it.” No, you can’t look for a left-brain solution here.

That’s not to say that I recommend abandoning reason altogether. You just have to be careful not to make life decisions based on fear. Let’s face it; most fears are imaginary. For instance, there’s the fear of not being able to find work when we return. I’d call that an imaginary fear, because I simply don’t know what will happen. Staying in a job doesn’t guarantee safety either; any one of us could be laid off tomorrow. The price of playing it “safe” would have been that we never got this grand adventure.

Be careful also about waiting for “the right moment.” I’ve talked to several older people who tell me that they’d worked hard all their lives with some dream in mind (whatever it might be). By the time that they retired, or were financially comfortable, they no longer had the energy or the health to make their dream a reality. Tragic? It makes me want to cry.

I hope that all of your dreams become realities in 2010.