Thursday, November 13, 2008

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Notes from Balaguer

Our sixth and final HelpX edition - Balaguer, Spain. Staying with Jordi, Anita, Dennis, Anni and Villia in the first floor apartment that could have been mistaken as a youth hostel. Anita was a HelpXer from Manchester, England. Dennis and Anni were HelpXers travelling around Europe in search of their new home who only a month before had left Finland with their 2 year old daughter, Villia.

It´s the story. . . of a single teacher. . . who was hosting more and more each day. . . the youngest one in curls.

According the Jordi, the best way to clear the table was by forming a line and passing the dishes to and from the kitchen along said line of people. This, he said, prevented backup and congestion in the kitchen area. So picture it. Every meal we, mature adults, would pass dishes and plate along the line. The two year old would watch in wonder as her parents assumed the position. It brought her uncontrolable joy watching us all pass her used plate and cup from hand to hand. Villia, so overwhelemed with excitement, would run back and forth down the line like a quarterback butting helmets with the rest of the team before the big game. Only, she wasn´t that tall so really she was butting us in the crotch.

What I also loved about the line was watching certain items go back and forth at every meal (see "Waste Not"). My favorite were these two little bottles of beer that were sent out to the table every lunch and dinner and, every lunch and dinner, would return down the line back to the fridge. Because Jordi told us that he didn´t drink and because even if you drank both of the beers, it would hardly constitute a full glass, nobody wanted to drink them. Nobody wanted to be that guy who drank the two midget beers at dinner. So back and forth they went. All week.

Jordi never wasted anything. Anything! If something wasn´t eaten at a meal, he would continue to bring it out at every subsequent meal until it was finished. Fine. But come on, that dried up develed egg didn´t get eaten on the 2nd, 3rd or 4th meal - it ain´t gonna get ate.

Speaking of meals, once for breakfast he put out Kit Kat bars. I loved his breakfasts.

Jordi did not believe in trash. We noticed that he had no apparent trash cans on our first night after he told us that we could "recycle everything." Are my Q-tips a paper? Do my old work boots go into the paper or plastic pile? The muffin cup/wrapper I put into the compost. It just felt right.

Kelly and Anita bonded one night over a discussion about how they had to smuggle certain products out to the street trash cans because, come on, some things just don´t go in recycle bins.

Jordi volunteered us to go to the high school to speak to the english class. Teenagers are frightening. They asked us if Americans are rude and if all English people have a drinking problem. To impress them, I told them that Kelly and I have been in some movies in NYC (passersby, but still). They stared blankly and then asked Anita about the Manchester football (soccer) team. I should have told them that Kanye West was our neighbor and that sometimes we shared sugar. Teenagers like the hippity-hoppity.

One thing that I love about Kelly is that she never quits. We ran into some kids from our english class when we were walking around Balaguer one night. They were selling roasted chestnuts. Kelly wanted to know if the chestnuts were from their family´s tree. They didn´t understand what she was saying. I was ready to start talking about the slightly racist plush toy that I had won at the carnival claw game but she just kept on. Basically just repeating the same words. Only slower. This goes on for some time and I start daydreaming. Eventually she starts grunting and miming and suddenly they understand, using words that sound just like the ones Kelly had just been using. I could tell Kelly wanted to know more about the business: supply chains and cost/benefit analysis and what not but by that point it was getting pretty late and time for us to go home to bed.

To test whether or not a couple is compatible, they should have to ride a Vespa together. This should be a requirement before a marriage license is issued. Have you ever ridden on the back of a Vespa? It´s scary shite. Having no control, every turn, lean or brake feels like the brink of death. Driving is great.

The Finnish couple let us take their Vespa out for a spin (or 3) around town. We were chased by a little and, most likely, rabid dog. People stared at us, most likely because we were two huge (fat) people squeezed on a little Vespa and my helmet was way too small for my huge cabeza.

At one point, Kelly pulled over and got off the bike complaining that I was a backseat driver. She insisted I drive and then, not two seconds later, yelled "f·ck" and squeezed my breasts because she thought I was going to crash us into a wall. Talk about a backseat driver. Another time, when I swerved to avoid hitting an older couple walking on the side of the road and nearly drove into an on-coming car, Kelly actually reached forward and pushed the handle bars.

Eventually we had to stop and have a discussion about criticism and feelings. But I know our relationship is stronger for it. Thank you, Vespa.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Christopher fights the wind on the deck.


We took the ferry from Rome to Barcelona. It was the closest thing
I've experienced to a cruise.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Today Is the Day

We jumped from our beds like kids on Christmas morning. We couldn´t sleep any longer. Frightened that we would find only lumps of coal. But hopeful to find a new future.

We stood side by side. Breathless before the glowing television. And there was Barack. But we couldn´t tell. Had he won? Had he lost? The coverage was in rapid-fire Spanish. Breathless.

But then. . .

El primer Presidente negro de los Estados Unidos.


Llamadas de McCain a conceder.

We realize.

Victoria para Obama.

We watch the world celebrate. France. Spain. Kenya. We jump up and down. We embrace. And we say, Thank God.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Punked Again

I am a dreamer. An endless optimist. My mind soars with the eagles.

I see it there and I know. I just know that it is right. That it will be mind blowing. A must. Have to. Can't miss. Once in a lifetime chance.

And, without fail, it fails. It punches me in the face. Always. It happened at the Bronx Zoo when I thought that the little airborne carriage on a wire (is there a name for that thing?) would take us on a glorious tour above the entire zoo. Did we see lions? Tigers? Bears? No, we saw the tops of 7 trees and then were back on the ground. Ahhh.

But I conveniently forgot our history of the sky carriages (isn't that always the way of the dreamer?) today when I made Kelly and I wait in line for over two hours for the Barcelona sky carriage.

From the ground it looked glorious! Awesome. We would see everything. And on top of that, it looked like it would take us up to the highest point in the city. We would have it all!

So we waited. And waited. And waited. The sign on the little ticket booth at the front said 3o minutes. Uh, either that was written by a pre-schooler who had not yet learned the clock or someone was having a laugh. We continued to wait. Yes, I thought about leaving the line. Enjoy the day by walking about. But every time I would start to inch out of the crowd, a carriage would move gently overhead and I would be lost in its wonder. We waited. The line never seemed to move. And behind us was the family from hell. You know the one. I don't even have to explain.

Finally, finally we get to the front of the line! And the guy closes the ticket window. He turns in his little booth and jams to music that I am not sure is actually there. We wait some more. After about 20 minutes he turns back around and opens the window. Hello!

The luster is fading but, wait, our moment has come! We are heading up in the elevator. (I close the door before the family behind us can get in.) We are up. Up and here it is. . . . another line! We have watched the day slip by us and here we get to watch it from the top of the tower.

Our turn in the carriage! Except, though we leave the Addams family behind us, we are the last to get in. So, of course, everyone has crowded around the windows. Kelly and I are stuck in the middle of the magical air carriage.

I catch little glimpses of the sprawling Barcelona. It must be beautiful out there. However, just as I am squeezing next to a window we are headed back down! WHAT! Hours of wait for fifteen frickin' minutes of ride!?!?! It seems that it is another air carriage somewhere else in the city taking people to the top of the mountain. All we got for 18 euros and 3 hours of our lives is a teaser.

I want my money back! My dreams. My hopes of a world view like no other are dashed.


He Had Your Grandmother

No, really, he did. And, sadly, that's all that he had. But when Claudio said "he only had your grandmother," what he meant was: he only had his grandmother. The boy's parents had died in Belarus.

Staying with our first foreign language family in Italy provided an interesting communication challenge, as neither Kelly or I speak Italian and English was not a second language to them. Third, maybe, but not second. As you can imagine, the pronoun jumbles (always you/your instead of his/her/he/she) provided endless entertainment.

Your husband is an engineer
. I look at Kelly with eyebrows raised.

You had many women

Philippo likes your friends
. He does?

Classic. My favorite being when Claudio, talking about the poor boy affected by Chernobyl, said: he only had your grandmother and brother. I know, a sad, sad situation. Not funny at all. But, really, my brother too!?!?!

And who was I to correct them? I spit out a nasty concoction of English and Spanish with occasional Italian and Portuguese that must have sounded like gibberish to them. By the end, Kelly and were communicating with each other that way - broken English with grunts and charades. Watching Kelly try to act out "sneaky" for Philippo was brilliant.

The Italian-English dictionary was kept close at hand. At one point, Philippo got a phone call from a friend and I quickly found ragazza (girl/girlfriend) and used it mercilessly. We all laughed. And by "we all" I mean everyone but Philippo. I blame the wine.

Claudio, Tiziana and Philippo are a fantastic family. Delicious food, homemade wine with every meal and enough olives picked that it took two of us to lift the resulting olive oil. Between olive harvestings, they showed us around Velletri, let us help bottle wine (Kelly cried when Claudio poured a bad batch onto the ground) and sang us traditional Italian songs.

They were a great bunch. Claudio used to run a theater troupe, is a farmer and teacher and showed us a book of poetry he wrote poking fun at President Bellisconi. Tiziana is an archaeologist working at a museum in Rome. One day she gave us a guided tour of the museum and I laughed every time she skipped over something saying that it was "too difficult" to try explaining in English. We skipped a lot. Philippo, the 12 year old, acted as translator between us and his parents.

Philippo and I would play football (soccer) on his PlayStation. Because he had only one controller, we would switch off at the half and, inevitably, he would get frustrated with me for not listening to his instructions. I couldn't help it. I just loved shooting goals but, apparently, half way down the field is way too far to shoot from. And over and over he would yell: WHY!?! I would have explained that I just get overly excited and shoot too soon. But I didn't know how to say that in Italian. So I just grunted and yelled GOAL!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Saturday night in Velletri

Everyone goes into the town center to walk the main drag... Back and
forth. I thought it was cute that in one area all the old men gathered
and watched the young people walk by.

More cultural differences

Italian stores have the funniest names.

Just Our Luck

They say that Rome was not built in a day. Now, I don't know about all that but I do know that Rome is taking a helluva lot longer than that to fall apart. This is not our day in Roma.

We arrive at a hostel with paint pealing from the walls, a sink lower than my knees and hairs all over the floor. Nasty. (This is the same place that the owner will burst into the room with "breakfast" at 8am the next morning.) But, hey, we're not here to sleep. We're here to experience Rome. We set off to see the sights and, by God, they're all ruined! Falling to bits of rubble. The Coliseum: a shell. The Aqueducts: barely standing. And what's more, they are charging people to see them! Highway robbery. I can appreciate now the birthplace of the mafia. Hell, I have seen double wides in Ohio kept together solely by one 2x4, a roll of duct tape and three cinder blocks. That, friends, is a miracle worth paying admission to see (and for free you can sit in the rusted out Buick in the front yard). The marble pillar that (miracle of miracles!) has been able to lie in a field for centuries. . . hardly worth twelve euros. In London: Big Ben, Parliament. In Paris: the Eiffel Tower. In Rome: broke-ass bricks. Part of me cannot help but wonder if the ancient Romans would laugh to see touristas paying to walk through their old outhouses and pig stys. I smile to myself.

Still, because it's what we do, we continue to meander our way through the hot streets - enjoying the statues and fountains and avoiding entrance fees. Kelly's new shoes are hurting her when we stop for a beer. This is when the email comes.

Oops, you didn't remind me you were coming and I forgot. I already have some HelpXers who want to stay a while longer. And I like them. I won't be able to host you. Best of Luck, Simone in Spain.

Uhhhhhh. As you can imagine, this comes as an unwelcome surprise. What do we do now? We had planned for two weeks of helping in Spain. Just bought our plane ticket from Madrid to London. We are f**ked.

We order another round.

Perplexed, we do what we do best: walk. Ah, another dried-up fountain and more rocks (or is that a ancient Roman bath house?). Our map does a poor job of delineating the gems of the city from what could easily be mistaken as a condemned tenement. We choose a route to the Vatican. Surely the Pope (or at least a bishop) will know what to do. And even if Pope Benedict is not available, there is nothing like the sight of apostles to brighten the day.

Straight away we stumble across a cybercafe. A sign. We go in and do some HelpX searching. This makes us feel better. Not completely helpless. We are back on the road when. . . what's this? Pints of Peroni for 2.50! A steal. This is too good to pass up. We step inside and pull up a stool. We don't end up making it to the Vatican that night but our luck is improving.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Where Brooklyn at?

In the drugstore gum section all over Italy.


Cultural differences are funny.


what could possibly be better than stumbling upon a street carnival in italy and having them fire up a ride just for me?

...eating the falling scraps from a 4 foot cube chunk of chocolate being sculpted into art in an ancient italian village.

i love perugia!!!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

We're screwed!

Christopher's reaction to our Spanish host backing out last minute.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Bring Out the Pigs

I have found my calling in life and it goes: oink. As you may have noticed from the photo, our HelpX France Edition took place on a pig farm. What a hoot. Every day Kelly and I would help with the feeding and watering of the pigs. What a great job - food/water twice a day and then just sit back and watch them walk around, oink and dig in the dirt. Much better than a camel farm, where I believe spitting is involved. Gross.

But do not underestimate the pig. One of the first things we heard from Marlene (and then Gary) is that they are a great way to get rid of your dead bodies and that the mob has used pigs to make people "disappear." They eat everything but the hair and teeth. "Do not cross a pig farmer," our hosts warned us. I chose to hear this as: "welcome to France!"

Marlene and Gary (former pub owners in England) were great. Kept us well fed and watered. We tried foie gras (tuna), duck, chicken, their homemade sausage and cracklin. Never had cracklin? It's the pig skin (and fat) crisped into a hard, crunchier bacon. Can also be used to chisel marble. Well worth an artry-clogging taste except that my piece (and I found out later, Kelly's as well) still had hairs from the pig in it. Yes, this being the very same pig that I fed at the beginning of the week and then helped load onto the trailer bound for the Bergerac slaughterhouse. He sure was tasty, though.

While with them, I also learned how to mix cement and build a wall (the cinder block hauling I already knew how to do). Kelly spent a day in a tree cutting branches and riding the lawn mower throgh the grass. I tell ya, she looks cute riding a mower.

We also watched some TV from London with Marlene and Gary. They like Friends and reality TV. Yes, reality TV is everywhere. Simon Cowell on both sides of the Atlantic. Here it's called the X-Factor, though. So maybe that makes a difference. They also have a dancing show on, like, four times a week, a remodeling show and Sex in the City.

In Paris, we tried to watch a little TV but couldn't make out any of it - though one show was definitely another version of American Idol. There was also CNN, which is everywhere and in English, but all they ever talked about was the election and the fincial crisis. Over and over and over again. Eventually we gave up and watched a black and white French movie where a lady looked heartbroken and a good looking man stared contemplitevly off into the distance. Obviously very heavy stuff.

Also in Paris, we wandered into a brassiere (bar/grill?) for drinks only to find that it also doubled as a gambling house. Horses. The ever-inquisitive Kelly A. ventured into the gambling side of the bar. Immediately the men swarmed to encourage her gambling and show her the ropes. I'm pretty sure she is the only female to have crossed into that part of the bar. Ever.

I love the bread they eat in France, the fact that everyone drives a scooter and has an attitude. I would recommend France. Except, more than that, I would recommend the unconditional love of a pig when you're the one carrying the slop bucket.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Big Pigs!

Her name is Lucy. I'm not sure who was the bigger pig during our stay
in France, her or I. We got to try many local foods, and I am ashamed
to say Christopher and I both thought the homemade fois gras with
truffle tasted like canned tuna. We quite enjoyed the shoulder of pork
straight from the, it wasn't Lucy.

Ode to the public toilette

Oh, Squatty Potty
I came out clean, but you win.
I almost fell in.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

It Must Just Be Me

World travel is like a beautiful flower - a blossoming of international experience and a deeper understanding of the human condition. A magnificent thing, really. Sadly, these travels have also had a stark, cruel edge to them. No, it is not the language barrier or cultural differences. Nor the general disregard for our beloved Commander in Chief. No, I have had to face the hard, painful truth that my sense of humor is not a globally shared one. Never have I felt so comically alone.

Liz, in England, would stare blankly as I joked wise about bodily functions. Barbara, in Ireland, was too busy to take notice. Had the yucks of Mel Brooks, Chris Farley and Jack Black not captured the laughs of the entire world? My faith was rattled.

Just like the story line of a Greek tragedy, my plight ever-worsened when I realized that the only one who shared my sense of humor was a 2 year old - Rowan, the son of our Portugal HelpX hosts. Oh, the shame of it all!

Though his vocabulary was (very) limited, in sick potty humor we found a common language.

He would squat down while standing and I would make a bellowing fart sound. Pbbbbbbt. Scuttle around, squat. Scuttle around squat. Sometimes he laughed so hard that he almost fell over. In his animal picture books, he would kiss the rumps of the zebras and elephants and, again, I would make the necessary sound effects. Pbbbbbbt. Like this we would laugh together for hours, others passing by with a sort of half-smile. In fact, we played with his older brother's whoopee cushion so much that it broke! Stretched to death.

Head dizzy from the constant cushion blow ups and eyes blurry with tears of laughter, I sat back in my chair and felt a moment of pride for bridging the American-Portuguese divide.

Even if it was with a two year old.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

First travel glitch

Yesterday we got stuck in Agen, France. We couldn't make it to the
station in time to catch our train to Le Buisson. It turned out quite
well: French cheesy pizza, wine, and presidential race updates ok CNN
in a hotel that cost is only a few more Euros than our hostels so far.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Pasteries pasteries

Pasteries every day. We stopped for a day in Coimbra on our way back
to Lisbon. It was a very lively small town. We stored our luggage for
the day on the cafe across the street from the train station. My
Portuguese is pretty rusty so when they told me to take my bags to the
cafe I asn't sure we were communicating clearly.

The Aradas Canal

We did a lot of pretty hard labor in Portugal. Here is a canal we dug
across the farm. We also carried cement up to the roof across wobbly
scaffolding, cleared out a blocked irrigation canal, weeded, moved
rocks, and babysat a 2 year old with a mop-head.

Manly work

Christopher enjoyed using the pick-axe to impress me.

Monday, October 6, 2008

A stop along the way

On the way out to Pampilhosa da Serra each bus stop became less and
less of a bus stop. The one we stopped at for a break was totally shut
down. Four old men sat with beers and cards in front of castle ruins....

Saturday, September 27, 2008

A shout out to the Abreus

I found your people! I'll tell them you said hi.


Is beautiful!!


We found "the oldest Ginginha seller" in Lisbon, served from a spigot from some unknown vat within a huge concrete slab. And that stuff was potent. Even better than a sharp punch of brandy-cherry-cinnamon is the fact that we could do it standing outside in the bustling square.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Bar St.

No one hangs out inside the barS even though they are really cute.
They all stand on the street and there is hashish offered at every

Love Triangle of the Emerald Isle - Me, Guinness & Diggers

Nothing like using a backhoe to feel like a man. Sure, I did a lot of dishes and child minding, as well. But, by God, I learned to move dirt with a huge(ish) digger. Grunt. I also chainsawed the hell out of a good many branches (no limbs missing, mom!). Grunt. Grunt. Grunt.

HelpX Ireland Edition was a good deal of manual labor - moving logs, mulching trees and putting up a polytunnel. My muscles are bulging. Although, in all fairness, Barbara (our HelpX Host) was a working machine. She put me to shame as she pick-axed rocks (boulders) and single-handedly lifted railroad ties, all while I stood by watching (with Guinness in hand, of course). Picture it: Barbara sitting in the digger, tape measure on the belt, cigarette dangling from the corner of her lip, a beer in hand and a dog on her lap. Priceless.

We should also give credit to Will, who was the other HelpXer (from the States) there during our stay. He kept us informed about the goings-on and guided our activities. For teaching me the testosterone-pumping manuevers of the backhoe, he will always have a special place in my heart muscle. He also basically kept us fed the whole time. Delicious stuff. Tired of feeling like a slacker, I did offer to make a tasty dinner of PB&J with potato crisps. I was rebuked with barely a word. I was left standing idly by (with Guinness in hand, of course) while Will went off to make a delectable quiche. Bollocks. Instead, I went off and chainsawed some mean looking twigs.

Walked along some cliffs and many, many roads with no names. In fact, I´m not sure any of the roads were named in all of West Cork. Saw the Milky Way almost every night (thanks for pointing it out to me for the first time, dad). Minded Reuben, a 7 year old bursting at the seams with energy and curiosity (and he had a bloody cute accent). This is the same dear, dear child who Kelly shocked on the bottom by not lifting him high enough over the electric chicken fence. Collected chicken eggs and saw a lot of cows. Played Rummy by candlelight (with Guinness in hand, of course).

We will certainly miss Barbara, Will and Reuben. We will even miss Granpa, who we didn´t get to know as well. He generally kept to himself and only talked about the weather in his thick Irish accent. Thankfully, it was always "lovely."

Not that we didn´t enjoy our time in Penzance. Liz was lovely. She was the sole owner of her B&B and would make lovely meals, full of Cornish specialties for Kelly and I. Sometimes she would take us around to the sites and we met some of her friends (a fiesty 89 year old lady served us hard alcohol at 2pm when we stopped in for tea). She was well-travelled and had great stories. It wasn't all roses out at Club Chy an Gof, though. Liz was very welcoming to us but she did have the tendency to watch over every element of our work. We (Kelly) would clean rooms and I would do yard work. Plus, we were never right. About anything. By the end of our time there we would laugh to ourselves about constantly being wrong. No, that's not a town, that's a village. No, people don't have bananas for breakfast. No, you can't load the dishwasher because you won't do it right. No, you don't like chocolate, you like peanut butter. No No No. Sometimes, you just have to laugh. And, hey, if it meant I didn't have to load the dishwasher, all the better.

We had a fun stay in Dublin - drank a lot of. . . well, you can guess. However, the greatest of all tragedies occured there. We were locked out of the mecca of stout and the icon of the Emerald Isle! NOOOOOOOOOO. Why dost thine gods punish us so? Fifteen minutes too late. The only time I have cried in recent memory - being locked out of Arthur Guinness´joy-giver. Well, okay, that and the time that the Buckeyes lost the big game (that was actually twice). And the time I saw a small girl selling Chiclets in Tijuana. And the time that I got that card with the puppy on it. And the. . . okay. The point is, it was hearbreaking. A single tear fell down my face and, sadly, I did´t have my complimentary collector´s Guinness pint glass to catch it. It fell to the ground and was gone.

Just like that.

Fun Fact: Ireland has no snakes (thank you, Saint Patrick). Whatsoever (which is hard to believe given all of the gambling, "bookmaking," locations around). Kelly and I did not know this (about the snakes) when we were walking along a particularly overgrown/grassy/bushy cliffside. As we walked we clapped our hands, whistled, made up jingles and called out a warning so as to prepare any snakes hiding in the brush that we were coming. I can't imagine what we must have looked (sounded) like to the locals out for a stroll along the paths.

Portugese food part dois

And my meal. "sausage" like meat (tasted like a corn dog) covered with

Portugese food

Is very similar to Brasilian food: lots of meat, fish, French fries,
and things with egg on top. Christopher was more adventuresome than I.

The underground

The first thing we saw on the streets of Lisbon: a looong line of
people walking down into a manhole in the street. Turns out it was a


This is the view from our hostel. The streets have the same tile work
as in Rio de Janiero.