Tuesday, May 25, 2010

First Report from Spain 2010

 We immediately loved Madrid, a very modern town with lots of history. One of the biggest surprises was this train station, with a tropical garden in the center. We wish we could say that it was as efficient as it was beautiful. Well, actually it is, in one respect, because the trains arrive and leave on the dot. But our experience trying to get a Eurorail pass here was right out of Kafka. It's too long to tell here, but here are a few details.  We stood in line marked "International" as instructed, only to find when we got to the front that we had to draw a ticket first. So we drew our ticket and came back to the line. It moved fairly fast until it got to the number just before ours, which was 822. Then the number above the ticket window switched to 472.  We protested to the agent at the window, who informed us that we were supposed to have gone to another window, as directed on a screen that we hadn't noticed. Since our number had already come and gone, we had to draw another ticket. Finally we made it to the right window, only to be told that we had to go to another station (by train) to get the pass. The whole thing took us a half a day, but we finally got our pass.

The good news is that you can travel all over Spain by train and by bus. And the trains between some of the major cities travel at 180 miles an hour, so that you can get to where you're going a lot faster than by car. We feel that we've really missed the boat, so to speak, for not developing a system like this if the U.S.

This is the high speed train in the Madrid station.  It gets to Barcelona in 4 1/2 hours.

The charm of Madrid comes from both the old and the new. Just off the Plaza Mayor is the newly decked out and reopened Mercado of San Miguel. It contains 33 booths selling seafood, cheese, wine . . .and you can shop to go or do as the young hip crowd in Madrid do and enjoy your copa de vino and tapas standing or sitting, if you're lucky, at a table.

We were glad we'd decided to spend three nights in Madrid, because it gave us time to just wander around as well as visiting some of the obligatory sights (like the great museum El Prado, where we got to see works by Spain's great painters like Velasquez (Angie's favorite), Goya, El Greco, as well as some great Rubens and Rembrandts.

Naturally we loved wandering the crowded streets of the old section of town, with its colorful shops, but it was a restful relief to stroll through El Parque de Buen Retiro (something like "the park of good retreat"), full of grass, trees and shade, and lovers taking advantage of it all.

There was something magical about the place, and we even think that some of the trees harbored forest spirits, if not elves.

Between Madrid and Barcelona we got off the train at a little town call Catalayud and took a taxi twenty miles up into the hills to the Monasterio de Piedras (Monastery of Stone). It has been converted into a national park and a lodge where we felt like royalty while we enjoyed some of the region's great food and wine.
Trails around the Monastery went through part of the preserve, a land of canyons, streams, and waterfalls. A tip from our friend Jay had sent us to this place that revealed a side of Spain we wouldn't have experienced otherwise.

One of the highlights at the Monasterio was the aviary with the "vuelo de los rapaces" or the flight of the falcons. We were amazed at the control the falconers (two intrepid women) had over these birds, helped by generous handouts, of course, and a little frightened when the birds grazed us with their powerful wings as they came in for a landing. 

From the Monasterio, we caught the high speed train on to Barcelona, which turned out NOT to be our favorite city in Spain, for many reasons, one big one which we'll explain later.  The center of the city is attractive and modern, although a few blocks from the main thoroughfares, the streets are dirty and the buildings covered with graffiti (not that a little dirt and litter bother us a whole lot--we've traveled in places that are worse--but Spain is a modern European country, and Madrid led us to expect better.)

What saves Barcelona, of course, is the beautiful modern archictecture, especially the Gaudi masterpieces that are scattered around the city.

It was no novelty to see women in high heels riding motorbikes in Barcelona.  In fact, although this photo doesn't show it, motorbikes outnumber cars on the streets downtown.  When the light changes to green you have to watch out for the barrage of them crossing the intersection.

OK, here's the story about our experience in Barcelona, as Jim tells it:

Barcelona 2010: The Magician's Assistant

You'll see this coming before I did.  That's because I never thought it would happen to me.  I was ready for the woman with the sick baby.  When she tried to hand it to me, I would turn around and let her drop it on the ground, if that was what she wanted to do.  I would ignore the crowd of urchins trying to attack me, hold my possessions securely and yell “Ladron! Me robaron! Me robaron!”  I would fend off the street vendors offering watches, sunglasses, and the like.  I would decline advice from the overly helpful young man on the corner.  My camera strap was over one shoulder and under an arm so that the camera could not be snatched away by someone riding by on a motor scooter.  My wallet was in a zippered and velcroed pocket which I could hardly get into myself. The crowd in the Gaudi Catedral de la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona was not particularly heavy. Boy was I naïve!

But let me make a little digression. We find that traveling in Spain is a lot different than traveling in Mexico.  For one thing, there is such a mix of people here that we can't tell where anyone is from until we hear them speak. There are tourists from all over Europe (we've run into very few Americans) and such a mix of cultures and appearances! We've been especially impressed by the number of really tall, very slender women, always fashionably dressed, that we've seen on the streets of Madrid and Barcelona. One thing we haven't seen in any numbers are the begging Gypsy women that I remember pestering us on my first trip to Barcelona (that was almost 40 years ago—Generalissimo Franco was still in power.) OK, now back to the Gaudi Cathedral.

It's really hard to get a good original shot inside or outside the cathedral.  For one thing, it is still under construction, although building began in the 19th century.  Then the portions are so sweeping and the light so varied, that it is hard to decide where to point your camera. I was changing lenses from a wide angle to a longer lens when I noticed my back pack was open. That's funny, I thought, I must have forgot to zip it shut the last time I changed lenses.  I checked, and nothing was missing. No problem, but I've got to be more careful. I zipped it shut, and aimed my camera toward a detail in the vaulted dome of the cathedral.

One of those very tall, slender, well dressed woman with a tiny pocket camera pushed up against me, aiming her camera at the same thing I was looking it. Irritated, I moved aside to let her get her shot.  It never fails, I thought.  Someone sees you with a professional looking camera and they think they should be getting a picture of whatever you're shooting. I mentioned that to Angie, then aimed my camera again. There she was, pushing into me again. I left the spot in disgust, and within a few minutes we exited the cathedral. I sensed something different, felt for my wallet, and of course found the pocket where it had been unzipped and empty.

From now on, a warning to any photographers near me. If you get too close, you're likely to feel a sharp elbow in your ribs or worse, even if you're a tall, good looking woman!

I got lots of sympathy from these guys at the Sagrada Familia!

Kind of interesting that the woman in the information booth where I made my complaint gave me a preprinted map to the nearest police station and the telephone number to report my Visa card stolen.  Visa delivered us a new card by FedEx the next day!

A note about language.  One of our problems in Barcelona was that all the signs are in Catalan rather than Spanish. And while we could figure most of them out, some of them left us totally perplexed. We asked one of our cabbies how many Barcelonans spoke Catalan, and he said 10 per cent. But the government wants to preserve the language, so everything official is written in Catalan, and it's taught to all of the school kids.  So the parents don't speak it, but the kids do--a situation every teenager would love! We wouldn't have recognized the police station if we hadn't asked some guy in a truck for directions and he invited us to hop in and took us there.

And then service people in Spain don't believe that Americans (or Brits for that matter) can speak Spanish.  While we speak enough Spanish to get around, understand directions, order food, and even carry on conversations with our patient friends, we don't consider ourselves fluent in all situations. That is made worse by the fact that there are dialects and accents in Spain that don't in anyway resemble what we are used to hearing in Mexico. We can understand people who speak standard Castellano pretty well, but that seems to be a minority when you get out of Madrid.  And what's worse, when we are recognized as American tourists (which isn't very hard), people just assume we are speaking English, even when we are using Spanish (admittedly with an American accent). When we got to the police station, Jim asked the officer in charge if he spoke English, thinking it would be easier to conduct official business in our first language. But the officer said not at all, and we went ahead and handled our report in Spanish without difficulty.  He even complimented Jim on his Spanish.  But another officer who knew a little English, who was giving us directions back to our hotel, insisted on talking to us in English.  Our Spanish was much better than his English, which we could barely understand, but he thought he had to talk to us in English anyway. Later we stopped in a little pizzeria for a bite to eat, and Jim offered the coupon books which we hadn't used after our aborted trip to the Cathedral of the Sagrada Familia to our waitress, she said "I'm sorry, but I don't speak English."  Jim said, "But I'm speaking Spanish!" and she replied, "Now you are, but not before."  She had no trouble understanding him once she realized he was speaking Spanish and not English as she expected him to.  Most people in Spain who deal with the public do speak English, since it is the universal language for all the Europeans who travel (except maybe the French). The exception seems to be people in official positions. Like the person at the train station who dealt with international reservations.  He spoke only Spanish. Go figure.

From Barcelona we trained down to Alicante, a resort town on the Mediterranean south of Valencia. It's a beautiful town with a wide Esplanade along the waterfront.  In the summer it's jammed with European tourists, but at this time of year it was lively, but not overcrowded.  It was a great place to relax after our Barcelona experience.

                                                                             We were sitting at an outdoor cafe on the Esplanade having a drink, when Angie noticed a photo shoot going on. This bevy of beautiful young women in traditional dress were being photographed, and neither they nor the photographer doing the shoot seemed to mind us getting into act.  (We weren't the only ones, by a long shot, but we were probably the most persistent.) They even posed and smiled for us in between their official photos.

One thing we loved about Alicante besides the beautiful women was the great food.  We found a little Italian restaurant (owned and staffed by real Italians) which served some of the best seafood and pasta that we've ever eaten. Every meal, of course, accompanied by a bottle of very good wine, all at about a third of what it would cost us in Ann Arbor for something not nearly as good. and every meal was followed by a free serving of lemoncello, a very tasty Italian aperitif. The name of the restaurant is La Pecatta di Gola (the sin of gluttony). Viva la temtacion!

That's all for now.  Look forward to seeing you all soon.

With love from the Fotogypsies.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"For all in tents . . ." a poem

I've been carrying the first one and a half lines of this poem in my head for decades!  Then, when Angie and I were on our sailboat Escapade in the mid Eighties, we had an experience that began to add life to them. We were motoring down the intra-coastal waterway past Marine World when we saw two porpoises making a streak in the water past us.  We fantasized that they were making their break for freedom.  The idea continued to percolate and finally came together as a poem while we were traveling in Newfoundland a couple of summers ago.

For all in tents
and porpoises and whales
kept captive for our delight
I apologize.
Nor do I think it right
to discriminate
against beasts of the field,
although there may be some debate
about the food we eat--
I love my meat.
But it makes me sad
to see hogs and cattle
stuffed into pens like sausages.
I would rather we take
just what we need
from all the gods have given--
that would be heaven!
We have grown too many,
but at the least
I will take my pleasure
from seeing the beasts
where they freely roam
in their native home--
or not at all.

Jim George

Friday, March 5, 2010

New Orleans: Update and Epilogue

 Last night we met our friend Walter Craft, who has most recently been living in Wisconsin, and who for the last 50 years or so has been touring the country as a singer/guitar player.  Walter, who started his musical career while living in New Orleans and is now in the  process of moving back, introduced us to parts of New Orleans we might not have seen otherwise.  When people not from this area think New Orleans, they usually think the French Quarter, and perhaps the Superdrome, and not much beyond that (well, since Katrina, probably the 9th ward, too).  Walter directed us to the area around Frenchman Street, just across Esplanade from The French Quarter, where the artists and alternative types have been hanging out since rents in the Quarter became prohibitive.  We ate and listened to some acoustic country, blues, and rock-a-billy music at a bar way out in the Plantation district, and ended up in this little co-op coffee shop, The Neutral Ground, in the Garden District.  Thanks, Walter, for showing us that there is more to New Orleans than meets the eye of the tourist.

Epilogue:  When Jim was in New Orleans as a teenager, he was going to stay there, and he had a job lined up as a short order cook. But as he was sitting in the Paddock Lounge listening to music, he met someone from his hometown who had just driven a moving van load of furniture down. (The name on the furniture van happened to be B. F. George--no relation).  He offered Jim a ride back to Muskegon if Jim would help him on the van.  Jim accepted, went home to finish high school, and so the story went on.  It's interesting to think what seem like little decisions at the time can affect the course of a life, and to imagine what the alternatives might have been like.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Back to New Orleans

We both love New Orleans.  Jim's fascination with the city started when he hitchhiked down here in the summer before his senior year in high school.  (That was 57 years ago!)  The adventure started when he'd lie in bed at night in Muskegon, Michigan, listening to to the clear channel broadcast of a traditional jazz show. (For those of you too young to remember clear channel radio--and I'd guess that's just about all of you--before FM radio, only a few AM channels were authorized to broadcast at night.  These channels could be heard all across the country when atmospheric conditions were right.) The program host was a man named Richard Allen, who must have been in his twenties at the time. Richard was a jazz aficionado who later became a musicologist at Tulane University, famous enough to have his obituary in the New York Times when he died at the age of 80 a year or so ago.  Anyway, Jim wrote Richard and asked him if they were still playing music like that in New Orleans. Richard wrote back saying they were, and invited Jim to look him up if he ever got to New Orleans.

That was enough for Jim, whose first record album had been Louis Armstrong and the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens from the 1920's.  As soon as summer vacation came, he packed a heavy trunk (this was in the days before backpacking around the world became popular) and  with seventy bucks in his pocket  hit the highway with his thumb out.  After some delays, which included a stint as a short order cook in Henderson, Kentucky, where his older brother Bob was stationed doing his basic training, he finally arrived in New Orleans.  He found a room in the old Warehouse district across Canal Street from the French Quarter for a buck a night.  This was about a block over from La Quinta where we are staying now. In that day, there really were warehouses here. To reach the room he stayed in, Jim had to climb a rickety stairway and go along a boardwalk outside one building to another warehouse that had been divided into 10 x 10 rooms without windows, fans, or locks on the doors, where he stayed while he was in the Crescent City.  I hate to think what would have happened to Jim if there'd been a fire in the building.

As soon as he could, Jim went to find Richard, who lived in the corner apartment on the top floor of this building on the corner of Royal and St. Peter Street in the quarter, right down the street from where Preservation Hall is today.  Richard's apartment was filled with piles of old 78 rpm records, so many that you had to make your way through narrow paths to the only furniture in the room not covered with records, an old iron bed.  Richard knew all of the jazz musicians in town and told Jim where he could hear them. These included Johnny St. Cyr and Paul Barbarin, both of whom had recorded with Armstrong in the 20's and 30's, plus a bunch of other great old timers like Billy and DeDe Pierce, Armand Hug, George Lewis, Jim Robinson, Sharkey Bonano, and a slew of others whose names he has forgotten. He saw his first New Orleans Street parade put on by the Jolly Bunch Social and Pleasure Club and led by Oscar "Papa" Celestin's Olympic Jazz Band. Louis Armstrong was said to have played in that band with "Papa" Celestin before he left New Orleans.

Today the generations following in the footsteps of these great musicians carry on the tradition in Preservation Hall, but in the 50's there were several clubs along Bourbon Street where you could hear really fine traditional music.  333 Bourbon Street, The Famous Door, and especially the Paddock Lounge all featured great bands.  Jim remembers sitting at the bar in the Paddock, shaped like a horseshoe with the band sitting on a stage in the middle of the shoe, listening to  "Just a Closer Walk with Thee,"  an attractive woman who Jim is pretty sure was a prostitute standing behind him listening to the music with rapt attention. We heard  the same music last night at Preservation Hall, with a band that included Charlie Gabriel, lately of Detroit but the fourth generation in a family of New Orleans musicians.

Today the bars on Bourbon Street are pretty much bad blues, rock, and karaoke. (The biggest change in the French Quarter that Jim sees is the degeneration of Bourbon Street.  Otherwise, the Vieux Carré still has pretty much the same flavor as it did 57 years ago.) But you can still hear some pretty good, very spirited music on the streets, like this group playing near Jackson Square in front of the Cathedral.
These guys, laid back as they look, were so good that even other musicians stopped to listen.
In front of the Cafe du Monde, an outdoor Cafe down by the riverfront that dates back to the 18th century, we got to talking to Nick Molina, another street musician. Forty-nine years old, Nick is a native of New Orleans. We enjoyed his style of guitar playing, which included stride piano type arrangements of Beatles tunes and other popular music of the 60's and 70's. When we complimented him, he was glad to take a break and talk, and we enjoyed the conversation as much for the chance to listen to his thick New Orleans accent, which to us sounded a little like a mix of Southern and New England, as for his delightful comments on the traditions of the city. Nick is a big sports fan, and he had plenty to say about the Saints' recent win in the Superbowl. The parades and celebrations had begun a week before the big game.  It seems that an announcer for the Saints (a former football star whose name I'm sure you would recognize if we could remember it) had said that if the Saints ever made it into the playoffs, something they hadn't been able to do in 43 years, he would march through the quarter in a dress. He died before they made it, but in his honor, Nick said it seemed like the whole town turned out in dresses for a big parade that was bigger than Mardi Gras.
The whole town still seems pretty excited about the win, but Nick was a little nostalgic about it all.  "It'll never be the same, now that they've done it," he said. "We all hoped for so long, but once you've made it to the top, there's nowhere else to go." I guess there's a caution there about getting what you long for.
The big attraction at Cafe du Monde, aside from just being there, is the café au lait accompanied by beignets, the French holeless donuts smothered in powdered sugar. Jim remembers sitting in the cafe as a teenager, drinking his chicory enhanced coffee on a sweltering August day with the overhead fans offering a little relief, wondering what the white stuff was that he had to keep brushing off his clothes.  Then he realized that he was getting snowed on every time a waiter walked by with his tray held high, delivering beignets to some customer.

The St. Louis Cemetery I

Of course, New Orleans is famous for it's above ground cemeteries, like this one, where part of the movie Easy Rider was filmed, and where Marie Leveau, the voodoo queen is believed to be buried.

The rules are strict about defacing the graves in any way, but somehow someone connected with this one manages to decorate it to his or her taste. An attendant told us that the management often whitewashes this tomb, but it's not long before it returns to this state.  Jim says that Angie can manage to find art just about anywhere, and thinks that this photo proves it.
                                                                                                                                                                                                             These are gifts for Marie Leveau left at what is believed to be her tomb.

Jim liked this detail on one of the grave markers.

A final street scene.

That's all for now from the fotogypsies. Stay warm!

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Manatee Springs, Florida: Pigs

Even the locals confirm that north Florida is more like southern Alabama and Georgia than the Florida we northerners think about when we think about heading south in the winter time.  That view was confirmed when we turned off highway 98 to drive down a dirt road where we were directed by a sign that said "Camp firewood for sale."  Actually, we were directed by a lanky local with a lopsided grin and stubble on his chin who was painting the sign. "Just take the wood you need," he said, in a twangy accent we had never heard before. "The deal is on a sign, and there's a box for your money.  It's the honor system."  Then, as we started to drive down where he had pointed, he called after us, "Just watch out for my dog!"

We passed several dilapidated house trailers back among the trees before we reached his gate.  We were a bit apprehensive about opening it, wondering whether the dog inside was a pit bull or a doberman, but the wood we saw stacked inside was a powerful incentive.  We hadn't had a decent campfire since we got to Florida.  The wood we had bought at the camp stores and even a Publix (the main grocery chain here) was so green that it wouldn't burn, and it had been so cold that there was no sitting outside in the evening without a fire.  We cautiously opened the gate, quickly carried our rack of wood out to the van, put our money in the box, and closed the gate behind us.  When we got back to the highway we thanked our guide for the wood.  "Did you close my gate good?" he asked.  "I've got a puppy in there and don't want it to get out." We assured him that we had, and drove on to the campground.

Manatee Springs is a beautiful state park on the Suhwannee River. It is named for warm springs, one of them over 65 feet deep, fed by a system of underwater limestone caves. Divers in full regalia were just entering one of the algae covered springs when we arrived, making interesting patterns on the surface of the water and undisturbed by the small alligator on the far bank.  We walked along the boardwalks that led back into the swamp and out to the river, getting some nice images (we hope) and watching a few manatees, which were unphotographable from our perspective, but interesting nonetheless. Walking along the paths back toward the parking lot, we were curious about the holes that someone or something had dug all along both sides of the path.  The were about six inches deep and covered the ground adjacent to the path.

So that night we cooked our dinner over, and sat eating it around, our first good campfire.  After eating, we were huddled around the fire (it was still cold--it snowed in northern Florida that night) when we heard three loud snorts and the sound of something running down the trail in front of our camp. Moments later we heard rustling in the bushes behind our camp. "That sounds like something big," Angie said.  I thought it might be the herd of small deer that was hanging around the campground, so I went to the van to get a flashlight. Angie had just carried a large pot of water into the van to heat for doing dishes, when something charged into the campsite, heading for the spot where we had been eating dinner a few minutes before. I shone the light in that direction and saw a large sow followed by a young pig rooting about by our camp chairs. I tried to chase them away by banging on pots (it works with bears), but that had no effect, so I grabbed the big stick that we had been poking the fire with, while Angie scuffled in the dark van for her camera. (Dig the picture.)  Oops, no picture. Just as Angie emerged from the van with her G10, I chased the pigs off the site, having to give the little one a whack with the stick to get it to leave.

I read recently that there are feral pigs in every state in the continental US, with California having the most. In some regions, such as the Smoky Mountains, they are doing serious damage to the environment.  (We had had our camp invaded by pigs once long ago in California.  That time one managed to get Angie's breakfast. She thought that was pretty serious.)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Key West

We're sitting here at an RV campground in Key West, with the weather a balmy 61 degrees and the wind blowing gusts of 28 mph. Yesterday was the nicest day we've had, sunny and about 68. Mostly we've been freezing our tails off, with lows in the 30s and 40s. I know that that sounds warm compared with what you've been getting, but not so good for camping. We just put our longies away a couple of days ago.

We were lucky dodging a couple of huge snow storms on our way down here. We visited Angie's brother in Charlottesville, VA, getting there just after the 20 inches of snow from one storm had been cleared away, and escaping just before the next big nor'easter hit. Heading over to Atlanta, we stayed with our new friend, Mark Hendrickson, who's throwing over his present office job to devote his life to his real love, writing. He shared some of his short stories with us, and he has real talent, plus some life experiences which give him plenty of fodder for invention. (Mark is the brother of Marla, who is married to jazz pianist Tad Weed. What a lot of talent in that family!) The three of us managed to crash the engagement party of our niece Kim, who's had quite a few adventures in her own life, and her fiance Chip. They've known each other for eight years, and as Chip says, it was a a crooked road to the engagement, and all their friends got there before he did.

We were disappointed to find that we couldn't camp in any of the public campgrounds in the Keys. They are booked up to eleven months in advance--no more walk-ins. It's getting so you can't be nomads anymore, at least in the popular locations. We found the same thing in southern Utah. Last year they kept a small percentage of spaces open for transients, but this year they are going 100 % reservation in the national parks. At least in the west you can camp on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land if you are self sufficient, but it ain't that way in the Keys. We miss our gypsy adventures in Mexico, where you can go just about anywhere and find someplace to camp.

Our best camping experience so far was on Anastasia Island off St. Augustine. It was cold, but sunny, and the white sand beaches are beautiful. Angie got a couple of really nice images there. Otherwise, we haven't been able to do much of the kind of photography we hoped to do. Savannah was nice, too, but the weather wasn't conducive to photography--gray skies and lots of wind.

Coming through West Palm Beach we reconnected with our old friends Jack and Donna Jacobs, who lived on their sailboat Horizon in the Bahamas for 17 years. They got some of their first sailing experience with Jim on the Escapade, and we spent a lot of time with them at Man-of-War Cay when we were on our year long sailing trip 25 years ago. They gave up their boat, a beautiful wood Alden yawl, about 10 years ago, and now ride out the hurricanes in relative safety in their small house near the intra-coastal waterway.

Today we'll spend the day in Key West, which has become an absolute zoo, and not much like we remembered it from our separate experiences many years ago. And then we're off to the Everglades, where we hope to resume our picture making. From there we'll work our way around the Gulf Coast to New Orleans and southern Louisiana, visiting more friends along the way.

Update! See the photos that go with this blog here: http://www.fotogypsies.com/GulfCoast1/

Love to you all,

The Fotogypsies