Volunteering at A Spanish Language School

A year ago I spent a week in March in at a resort in the mountains north of Madrid volunteering at a language school for Spanish professionals who wanted to improve their English. My accommodations, meals and transportation to and from the resort were provided. All I had to do was speak English. A year later I tell my friends I would have paid to have the experience. It was just that memorable. Our group still chats regularly on WhatsApp to keep up with each other. This week one of them blogged about it, providing me a memory do-over . I thought you’d enjoy her account.

The Difference Between Tapas & Pinchos

My fellow blogger Fork on the Road  “Travel Tips for Curious Cooks” has finally written the post I’ve been waiting for, the one that describes our evening of food grazing in Valencia, Spain sponsored by the Valencia tourism board. As he is a foodie and I’m not, the finer details of what we were eating were lost on me. I was there for the ambiance, history and company. He was there to learn about tapas, pinchos and how a traditional evening of eating and drinking unfolds for the average Valencian. He took photos of food. I took photos of the interior of the restaurant and people. He gets credit for the photo and I get to share his expertise with you.

Read his post here.

Sleeping In Airports

I really dislike airport sleeping. Really dislike it. That’s not to say I haven’t been forced to catch up on much needed slumber on an airport layover. There was that time my flight landed in Singapore after midnight and I (exhausted because I don’t sleep in the cozy confines of budget coach airplanes) inadvertently wandered into the no exit, chairless holding pen for the next leg of my flight to Nepal and spent the ensuing seven hours sleeping on the cold tile floor. Alone. Clutching my backpack. Then there was the time I got kicked out of both the closed Burger King and closed McDonalds in the Beijing airport because I tried to catch some shuteye on their plastic benches during a nine hour overnight layover. And the time I missed my connection in the Istanbul airport and though it has a handy airport hotel for which I would have gladly paid their exorbitant price to lie flat on a bed, the connecting flight they re-booked me on kept getting delayed. Throughout the night, the agent regularly warned passengers to stay in the area because it could depart at any time. Nine hours of dozing while caffeinated later, I finally boarded the plane. These were not experiences I had in my supple-bodied twenties. No. They happened in my AARP subscribing years when tile floor and Burger King beds do a number on you.

That’s why I was so thrilled to find the website Sleeping In Airports.

The website shares timely information submitted by passengers organized by individual airport guides from all over the world on everything you need to know if stuck on a long layover. It also lists best and worst airports rated by actual customers. For example, about my home airport, SeaTac in Seattle it says:

  • Since this is a 24 hour airport, you can stay in the secure/airside area at night.
  • Several reviewers warned of loud TVs and announcements, even late at night, so earplugs are recommended if you want to sleep.
  • Airside – Most of the seats in Seattle airport are partitioned by armrests. However, there are long, padded benches that are nice for sleeping around Gate A14 or near the end of Concourse C (Gate 10). Avoid C9 and C17, as there are a lot of TVs in the area. The S concourse has padded benches near the center of the terminal.
  • Eye shades may come in handy as some areas tend to be bright at night.
  • There are lots of soft black seats with NO arms at the Southwest Airlines B8 gate!! (Juju – August 2016)
  • Landside – There is a meditation room on the 2nd level of the main terminal that offers peace, quiet, and comfy benches. Beyond that, places to sleep are limited.
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Amsterdam Airport Library

I’m flying to Estonia via Amsterdam in a few weeks and was thrilled to find both the Amsterdam and the Tallin, Estonia Airports on the website’s Top Ten List of Best Airports in Europe. Tallin is #3 and Amsterdam is #9. Both airports have comfortable plush sleeping chairs and libraries and the Tallin Airport has the added bonus of announcements performed by jazz and opera singers. Imagine that. No echoing nasal voiced announcements but rather the melodious voices of vocal artists reminding me that I need to get out of my plush sleeping chair to catch my flight home.

Travel Planning During the Low Season: March in Estonia & Latvia

As a freelance travel writer I subscribe to a variety of websites promoting cheap airfares. My favorite being this one. In early December they promoted a $420 round trip ticket from Seattle to Tallin, Estonia on Delta Airlines. There was a reasonable layover in Amsterdam (one of my favorite layover airports) and the departure and arrival times were civilized. I left in the afternoon (instead of the wee hours of the morning necessitating shelling out money for a Seattle airport hotel the night before) and arrived early afternoon (which meant I could drop my bags at my hostel and not spend an entire day wandering the streets of Tallin trying to stay awake until bedtime).

The only catch was the round trip had to be completed by March 31, 2017. I booked the ticket for the last two weeks in March and then researched the weather in Estonia and Latvia for that time of year. My first clue was Rick Steves, that intrepid entrepreneur of all things travel (incidentally, his free and extensive travel book library in Edmonds, Washington is one of my favorite haunts). His Snapshot series book about Tallin assumes you’ll only be there in the summer strolling in the parks and outdoor markets, drinking coffee at an outdoor cafe. I checked Lonely Planet. “In March locals pull aside the curtains to check the weather outside….and yup, its still winter out there,” the writers pronounced in their saucy description of month by month climate. LP also assumes you’ll be visiting during the long, warm days of summer and gives little clue about travel in the low season. I deduced the northern latitude means daylight is still at a premium, many of the summer resorts are closed and museums and tourist attractions have limited hours.

Still….that air fare was so cheap and as I began to book accommodations, I discovered more advantages to off season travel. Without asking, the Tallin hostel upgraded me to a private larger room at no extra cost. A complementary tour of breweries in Riga, Latvia – free transportation and tasting included. Significantly discounted prices at Estonian and Latvian spas. Restaurant discounts. Tallin Music Week. In return all I had to do was pack more clothing layers and plan outdoor activities around shortened daylight hours. Packing and itinerary planning will be similar to my recent December Iceland trip which I posted about here and here.

I am, as I said, a freelance travel writer so this will be a working trip. There’ll be additional perks brokered by Estonia and Latvia’s helpful tourism agencies so I can write the articles already promised to editors: press passes to Tallin Music Week, interviews about Latvia’s Blue Cows, free entrance to the House of the Brotherhood of the Blackheads in Tallin and Riga and sites that have become part of both countries Soviet era tourism promotion – old bunkers, KGB headquarters, Occupation Museums.

Part of my typical trip research is to watch documentaries and movies made in or about the country so I pay a bit more for my Amazon/Netflix/Showtime experience in order to watch obscure cinema. Over the past week I watched The Singing Revolution, a documentary about the culture of song in both countries and how it became part of both country’s resistance leading to independence. Its such a compelling story, I plan on turning it into an article or blog post when I return. And I found a travel show about each country filmed largely in the sunny summer months, which is becoming a re-occurring research theme for this trip.

Stay tuned. If you’re lucky enough to follow my personal Facebook page, that’s where I post while I travel.

 

 

Amsterdam Houseboat: Living Like A Local

There are sixty miles of canals in Amsterdam; 165 waterways that thread their way through the city defining its geography, its history, and your social status if you were lucky enough to live on or near one in recent history. The city’s canal system, built by draining swamps and creating canals in concentric arcs, was a model of urban planning for its time, earning the Canal District a place on UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 2010.

Most visitors to Amsterdam are content to wander the canals by foot or bike, crossing over any number of the city’s 1500 bridges, snapping photos of picturesque flower boxes and historic, gabled Dutch buildings. Or, they take a canal tour on the hop-on hop-off boats and private tour boats that wind the canal network. But it’s also possible to live like an Amsterdammer by staying in a houseboat vacation rental where you have an up-close opportunity to watch the city’s watery highway system at work and play. And if traveling solo, your options for finding an affordable houseboat rental are even greater.

Read more of my article published in Solo Travel Network here.

The Saga of Vinland/Iceland

Dateline: Saga Museum. Reykjavik, Iceland. December 25, 2016

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Christmas Day, Iceland

The weather outside was a howling blizzard. To escape I ducked into the Saga Museum, one of the only tourist attractions open Christmas Day in all of Iceland. Apologizing to the two young women working the counter who assured me they were getting twice their normal wage for working the holiday, I took the proffered English interpretive headphones and stepped inside the darkened museum to the first stop on the tour.

Vinland the display’s sign said. Vinland?? That’s a road, church, school and housing development where I live in Poulsbo, Washington, USA. What’s the name doing in an obscure museum in Reykjavik? And thus began a lesson about the intersection of my community and Icelandic sagas. I should have known it was connected to Vikings whose ongoing presence in my life has been described in a past post.

 

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First page of the Saga of Eric the Red

The pleasant English voice on my headset explained that Vinland was the subject of ancient Norse sagas, oral stories that captured the family history and feuds, migrations and voyages and feats of Norse men and women. Many of the sagas can be found on the Icelandic Saga Database. The oral stories were transcribed into written form some 250 years later. The journey, to Vinland is told in the great Icelandic sagas Eric the Red and Saga of Greenland.

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Saga Museum: Tykir the Southerner 

Those two sagas detail the heroism of Leif the Lucky, son of Eric the Red who sailed an expeditionary force in 1000 AD to what is now North America. One of the men in his party, Tykir the Southerner, a German slave captured by the Vikings, became separated from the group. When he returned he was clearly drunk and was clutching bunches of grapes. The newly discovered land was named Vinland; vin meaning wine or vine.

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Longhouse at Newfoundland Site

In 1960 archaeological evidence was found in Newfoundland that proved the Icelandic saga about the voyage of Leif the Lucky. A recreated Norse longhouse has been built on the site commemorating the landing of Vikings in North America.  Additional evidence suggests the explorers also spent some time in New Brunswick and around the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Still, how did the name migrate its way to my community? There’s scant information at the local historical society where I went upon my return. Vinland was first settled in 1888 by L. Halvorson. That’s it.

I went to Iceland, stumbled upon a familiar geographic name from home and discovered its connection to an Icelandic saga but have no idea how Leif the Lucky’s expedition, a Canadian landing and wine became the namesake for a settlement cum church/school/housing development/road in my community. A saga in and of itself.

 

Pristina and Aleppo: Let Our Memories Be Long

Two posts leaped from my Facebook feed today.

This: “I imagine Eastern Aleppo will be nationalized and then given to some rich developers to turn it into a Solidere. The property will be sold on the market. 6 people will make a killing and none of the forcibly evacuated will be able to return. Of course, they will be allowed to return, they just won’t have the money to rent or buy in their own land. Tourists will come from all over the world to admire the new architecture and maybe, just maybe, give the victims and the rubble we see today 10 seconds of silence before they go out clubbing. And such is the barbarism of civilization.”

And this: A New York Times travel article entitled Five Places to Go in Pristina.

They are related.

Pristina, in the event you haven’t heard of the city, is in The Republic of Kosovo, a partially recognized country that declared independence from Serbia. It’s had a long and bloody history that includes Roman and Ottoman conquerors; being split into Albanian, Bulgarian and German controlled territories during WWII;  becoming part of Communist Yugoslavia; becoming part of Serbia when Yugoslavia disintegrated and in the late 1990’s deteriorating into the ethnic and political conflict known as the Kosovo War.  In 1998-99 after months of media coverage showing the carnage, NATO intervened and bombed to force Serbian forces to withdraw. Kosovo was placed under United Nations administration and NATO peacekeeping forces were deployed to provide military and policing.

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In November 2001, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe supervised elections in Kosovo. I was assigned as an election supervisor that year and the following year. The evidence of NATO’s bombing was everywhere in Pristina. The telecommunications building was a shell and the site of a former military installation on the outskirts of Pristina that I visited was flattened. Since many bridges had been destroyed in the bombing, getting around the country was difficult. The infrastructure, feeble before the bombing because Kosovo was the poorest of the Yugoslavian republics, was damaged during it. Electricity was sporadic. Coal fueled the remaining energy plants and the air was thick with a grayish-brownish fog. The remnants of war were omnipresent. Our election briefing included warnings and graphic photos about the damage of hidden unexploded ordinances.

That was only fifteen years ago. So imagine my surprise in reading the gushing opening paragraph of a recent NYT article: Pristina swims in superlatives… Radiating from the promenade named for the recently canonized Albanian nun and book ended by the Yugoslavian era Grand Hotel and National Theatre, is a tangle of streets crowded with cafes, boutiques, fashionable locals and in the know internationals and the case for another superlative: coolest neighborhood in the Balkans.  

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The article highlights the exposed brick walls and collections found in a hip new book store, raves about a vegetarian restaurant that buys its ingredients at a green market down the road and the velvet jackets found in a clothing atelier owned by a young French trained Kosovar. About Kosovo and Pristina’s history? Nada.

I’m ecstatic to read of the country’s emerging reputation for hip destination tourism. The economy can use it. Kosovars deserve it. However, its ironic that the front page of the NYT covers the current heart wrenching bombing, destruction and refugee crisis of Aleppo, Syria while its travel section promotes the coolness vibe of a country impacted by bombing, destruction and a refugee crisis less than twenty years old.

Kismit that my Facebook feed today includes this observation about Aleppo’s future:  Tourists will come from all over the world to admire the new architecture and maybe, just maybe, give the victims and the rubble we see today 10 seconds of silence before they go out clubbing. And such is the barbarism of civilization.”

My photos of Kosovo are how I choose to remember the country. Someday I plan on returning to see the progress and sample a tartine at one of its noveau bistros. I can appreciate the changes, but giving short shrift to its history causing selective amnesia about the ravages of war? No.