We have had time for reflection on our week in Spain before recording our thoughts here. It is tough to know what to say. The week was, without a doubt, the best time away from Ukraine we’ve had. This was a function many things…Madrid’s amazing cultural and culinary offerings; Michelle and Mario’s fabulous hospitality; Christine’s lovely apartment; our raised physical and emotional exhaustion levels as we near the end of our 27 months of service; and recent stresses in both Ukraine and the United States that strongly warranted a week of relaxation combined with culinary and viniferous stimulation.
Do we feel guilty for our one week love-affair with sunshine and blue skies, Goya and Velasquez, Picasso and Dali, Jamon Iberico and Manchego cheese, Rioja and Ribera del Duero, suckling pig and lamb, Roman Aqueducts and Medieval castles, tapas and paella, Christmas celebrations and old friends? No way! We had an amazing time and wouldn’t have changed a thing. And most importantly, we returned renewed and ready to focus on our last four months of Peace Corps service.
A few highlights:
Michelle and Mario met us at the airport despite our late night arrival (a rare treat in our travels). A taxi-tour through Madrid brought us to Christine’s apartment, our home for the week. We knew we were in Spain when our hosts offered a delicious plate of cured hams and sheep’s milk cheeses and a glass of Rioja. Despite an 18 hour journey from Vinnytsia to Madrid, we stayed up talking for several hours.
On Christmas Eve, we walked through Madrid’s older neighborhoods to get a feel for the city (Sandy to get re-acquainted and Eric to get his bearings.) We stopped into a standing room only bar for a traditional snack of fried calamari and blood sausage sandwiches near the Plaza Mayor. Not a typical holiday snack for us, but oh-so-delicious! Booth vendors in the plaza sold manger scene pieces (historical) and colorful wigs (more recent addition). Both would follow us throughout our trip – manger scenes are the typical outdoor displays in Spain (rather than Christmas trees), and every once in awhile we’d round a corner and spot an older gentleman sitting on a park bench talking to a friend with a straight face and a long purple and silvery wig. Strange but interesting.
The big dinner in Spain is the evening of the 24th. Eric cooked a beautiful roast beef (compliments of Michelle and Mario) wrapped in fat and served with yummy gravy. Michelle made mashed potatoes, artichoke dip and green beans. And of course there were olives, ham, cheese and fish pate to start. Our holiday group was a perfect – size of 7 – when Mario’s aunt and two of Michelle’s friends joined us. We ate, drank, sang a few Christmas songs, and opened presents until well after midnight. And because several of our family and friends found a way to send presents home with Michelle at Thanksgiving, Eric and I had lots of fun presents under the tree – a real surprise!
Sandy felt jumpy on Christmas morning – something was missing. So she decided to make a breakfast quiche, and immediately felt better. Quiche on Christmas morning is a long-standing tradition started by Eric’s mom, and both of us felt a family connection as it came piping hot out of the oven. Afterwards, we headed to the sauna and swimming pool while Michelle, feeling the same need for family continuity, cooked up a delicious pot of chicken noodle soup (a Dallet family tradition). This was not our average Monday in Ukraine, and we felt our stress melt away.
The next two days were filled with art and culture. We visited The Prado, Reina Sofia and Thyssen Museums, with such treasures as Las Meninas, The Garden of Earthly Delights, Guernica, a room full of El Greco's haunting work, and a whole host of others that each deserve their own blog entry. It is tough to decide which museum has the better collection, as they each have their own strengths and masterpieces. Each of them was a welcome reminder of the art and culture that can be tough to find in Vinnytsia.
On Wednesday evening we stopped into visit Michelle’s favorite wine shop. She’s been going for years, and the owners have a small bar at the back where they serve homemade pates and cheeses. They were happy to see her, and we were sad when it was time to go. Luckily, we were headed to see Sara Baras – a modern flamenco performer with her own company of talented dancers (our Christmas present from Michelle and Mario). It was our first glimpse into the world of flamenco, and a memorable experience. Afterwards, we stopped in to see the end of a gospel group singing concert that has a few of Michelle’s friends as members. I was a total switch in musical styles, but also interesting.
We tried to go to Toledo for the day on the new super-bullet train, but other holiday travelers beat us to the ticket purchases. So we comforted ourselves with hot chocolate and churros – a fried pastry dipped into the rich, creamy chocolate. The café is open 24 hours, and this is apparently a popular hangout around 5am when the discos start to calm down. Afterwards, we had a blast wandering around El Corte Ingles supermarket. If there was one thing we could do in any new city, this would be it. It is so fun to check out all the local food products, and we made a few purchases to get us through the rest of the Ukrainian winter (if it ever arrives).
That night we went out for tapas with a few of Michelle’s friends. Starting at the ‘caves’ near Plaza Mayor (on the tourist route but a requirement for all first time visitors), we progressed to several other tapas bars – each with their own specialty and all delicious. We opted out of the “proceed to disco” portion of the evening, electing instead for a better night sleep before our big adventure the next day.
If we had to pick, Friday’s visit to Segovia was the highlight of the week. We drove up to the small, medieval town in a rented VW (not a Lada – yea!). Upon arrival, the first thing you see is a giant, fully intact Roman Aqueduct. Although it was built in the 1st century AD, it was the main water source for the city until a few years ago. T’was pretty cool! After visiting the city’s cathedral (the last gothic one built in Spain and quite striking rising up over the rooftops of town), we headed for our main destination of the day: Jose Maria’s restaurant. Yes, we went to Segovia not to enjoy the medieval history, see the fairy-tale like castle where Queen Isabel was crowned or wander the narrow streets (although all of that was great), but rather to eat a poor baby pig and lamb cooked to perfection. It was our first experience with suckling pig and lamb, but they were truly incredible. There are pictures of the pigs in the restaurant bar, both alive being cuddly with the chef, and roasted to perfection in the oven. It is definitely a different relationship to meat than we are used to in America. Luckily, our recent relationship with Indy the Turkey helped us accept the fate of the cute little animals for our culinary enjoyment. “The man” himself brought our pig – Jose Maria. He portioned them tableside using the side of a plate rather than a knife. This demonstrates how golden brown crusty the exterior of the pig is and how tender the interior meat is. Sandy was lucky enough to get a hoof, although she shared with Eric. Everything that day was amazing, right down to the Segovia-style desserts (all three of them!).
Our hosts heeded our pleas for a quiet last morning, and we enjoyed a few lazy hours at the apartment. In the afternoon we met up with a large group at a local Valencia-style restaurant for our ‘last supper’. Because there were 9 of us, Michelle ordered three different kinds of paella, including a unique ‘fiduau’ which used small pasta noodles instead of rice. All three were bright yellow from generous usage of saffron, as well as moist and oh-so-tasty. The seafood in the paellas was a welcome treat, as was a unique dessert made from Cava and lemon sorbet.
Finally, it was time to pack. We squeezed our American and Spanish delicacies into overstuffed bags and set our alarms for 4am. The ETA bombing of Terminal 4 at Madrid’s airport on Saturday made us a bit nervous at first, but everyone said not to worry so we didn’t. Driving through the city in the pre-dawn hours in our taxi to the airport, people were out walking, talking, and lining up at ATMs to refresh their cash supplies. The volume was humorous to us, as there were more people out in Madrid at 4am than in most parts of Ukraine at 6pm. And there were more streetlights on. No wonder the Spaniards sleep with special daylight-blocking shutters.
As the plane took off, Eric said “Once more, into the breach!” But we laughed, and looked forward towards Ukraine. It is tough being away from family so much, and thus we will always remember Christmas 2006 with Michelle. Our families have celebrated the holidays together as long as we’ve been alive, and thus we found our family again in Madrid. And of course, had a much needed rest.
Paka for now,