Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Place from Childhood

Sitting in this spot, a spot which is more cherished today than when I first encountered it, I can see incredible distances. Beyond the distance traversed in mere seconds, time itself is bent to my will. I may choose to visit Disneyland (1964) or Pensacola Beach (1961) complete with the go-kart and paddle boat races. The colors just as vivid, the people restored to youth and vibrancy. One of my personal favorites, the igloo built by piling snow into a huge mound, a hole burrowed for a door, and the inside expanded to create Nanook's nook.

Such is the American Magical Reality of the Bell & Howell slide projector. The first time I encountered my magical spot I was 5 or 6 yrs. old, the spot being the seat next to this wonderful contraption. The whir of the cooling fan laboring to keep the ultra bright bulb from self destruction. The aroma of the heat coming from that bulb, its light focused on the screen which emitted a kind of chemical odor. My father would turn the nob and work the sliding mechanism, projecting the next image onto the screen, providing instant transport to a distant moment in time.

We would gather together, immediate family, extended family, friends and neighbors to view the color images of these captured moments in time magically transported into our living room. We would tell the story of the man that was a dead ringer for Harry Truman, swimming in the same Pensacola waters we swam in. The collective "awww" of adults verifying the cuteness of Stevie and brother Peter, anglers of incredible courage and skill, warmed by the Florida sun and secure in the knowledge that dad was only a few feet away. There is the image of brother Bill, smiling large with vanquished squirrels hanging by their tails in each of his fists. His name sake, Uncle Bill, standing behind him with the knowing look. Always good for a laugh, that one.

I'm a member of a kind of club, I'll call it the Kodachrome Club, connecting me to others of my generation. The phenomena has been documented in song (thank you Paul Simon) and countless nostalgic musings. All the members of the club have their own magic spot where they sat before the conveniently sized stinky white screen, listening to the whir of the fan cooling a really hot bright bulb, enduring the rehashing of family vacations, Christmas mornings, Thanksgiving dinners, various parties and coming of age events. What makes this club so great is there are never any large gathering of its members. Instead we each operate individually, like a terrorist cell, subjecting our victims to the physical demands of time travel and birthday parties.

I was recently listening to "Talk of the Nation-Science Friday". A physicist was explaining that a time machine, if it could be built, wouldn't be able to transport itself (and occupant) back in time beyond the day it was constructed. He obviously isn't a member of the Kodachrome Club. Little does he know of time travel. Members of the "Club" have time machines, these machines make noises and smells and are made up of complex components, controlling these time machines sometimes requires operator technique. The complex components are individual to the operators, each of us having our own slides that transport us to or individual histories.

I worry about my magic place and the time machine that takes me there. Who can I leave it to? My daughter can't be transported to my magic place, she has to find her own magic place. That requires her own version of a time machine, which she carries in her hand and sometimes in her purse. But the day will come when she inherits my time machine. I envision her using the more complex components, the slides, and converting them into something she values. Maybe a lamp shade or a ridiculous dress to be worn on Halloween. The projector and stinky screen are destine to be dumpster fodder. But, if she captures their existence in her time machine, they will live on as she travels to her magic place reliving the events that make her who and what she is. Just as I do, when I am in my magic place.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Happy Trails to you...

On the kitchen table rests, "The Happiness Project" a book by Gretchen Rubin. A quick scan of the cover elicits the cynical thought, "happiness, what a quaint concept!" As I flip through the contents of this book, it dawns on me, this book was placed here as a not so subtle hint. "Please, Stephen, abandon your curmudgeonly ways!", my loving wife's futile plea.

So I sift through this book, hoping for amusement. But just reading about Ms. Rubin's exhaustive research and preparation to find happiness, leaves me weary and unhappy. I find many of her suggestions suspect. I don't mean to disrespect Ms. Rubin nor discount her noble effort to help people find happiness. So I ponder the whole happiness concept. It seems to me happiness is purely subjective.

I wonder about people who seem to be happy all the time (aside from them just annoying the hell out of me). Are they truly happy, or addicted to positive attitude? Are there other elements in play here? How much of our happiness is a product of our DNA, how much a result of our environment? Ms. Rubin's research indicated that as much as 50% of our capacity for happiness is our genetic make-up, and as much as 30% is a result of our environment. That would leave a slender 20% for a positive attitude to reverse the effects of who you are and where you came from.

Does geographic location effect one's happiness? Life in paradise could lead to happiness. Is there a wall chart some where, a map of the world marked up by a Sharpie, indicating people from this area are 20% happier than people from another locale? I hope I'm wrong, just the thought of such a chart makes me unhappy.

I've decided to start my own happiness project, one that appeals to my own subjective sensibilities. But there must be rules! First, I mustn't be unduly cruel to the terminally happy, even if it would make me happy to do so. Second, I must document what I did that made me happy and why it made me happy (even if the effort to document makes me unhappy).

Day One: Jason and I went to the shooting range for some target practice. I got some practice getting used to my newly acquired S&W 10mm. It's a substantial gun that feels good in my paw, and after about 40 rounds I was getting a reasonable grouping at 3 meters. I shot the Ruger .22 and even at 10 meters it provides a nice tight group. I shot Jason's Ruger 9mm and it is a very nice gun that is easy to shoot. I was entertained by the guy in the booth next to me, he had a bunch of really nice guns. I really liked his Beretta .40, what a beautiful gun, and boy does it bark! This was a fun outing, but did it make me happy? It cost $60 in fees and ammunition (that doesn't make me happy), and I was gone from the shop for an hour in the middle of the day. Did my absence cause some undue cruelty to a terminally happy person? It's hard to say, there were no anxiety ridden messages on the answering machine, but that's not to say someone didn't stop by while I was away.

This is getting too complex (which makes me unhappy), am I allowed to flush conscience and responsibility in order for me to consider this a totally happy experience? Maybe I'll just give it a 2.5 on the happiness scale (a 1 being a not so happy experience and a 5 being a really happy experience).

Day Two: Saturday!! That makes me happy already, I'm going to give today a 5 on the happiness scale. Well maybe a 4, I do have to help Paul with his remodeling project, when what I ought to be doing is working on my own list of the million things that I've got to get done. I think I'll just drop by and offer Paul some encouragement, let him borrow a few tools (which I hate to do, it could provide unhappiness) and get to work on my own stuff. Then there is the movie factor, if Machete turns out to be the truly funny movie it promises to be, today could salvage it's 5 rating...

Tomorrow is Sunday, which normally would be an automatic 5 rating. The Sabbath, a day of worship and rest from cares of the world. But a couple of weeks ago I was called to be a counselor in a Bishopric. This is a calling that carries much responsibility, which in and of itself doesn't bother me. It's hearing about all the problems people in our ward have, difficult hard to solve problems. This could severely impact tomorrow's happiness rating, but I'm going to take the positive attitude approach. I'm just a counselor, all the real responsibility and heavy decisions are the Bishop's problem. I hope Hank is up to the challenge. Maybe I'll give him a copy of "The Happiness Project", a book by Gretchen Rubin.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Affairs of the pump

I'm typing, "If it is to be, it is up to me," my fingers furiously fumbling over the keys of the Royal typewriter in my ninth grade Personal Use Typing class. Mrs. Statchel, my little world's equivalent of a Nazi SS officer, focuses her disdain on me with laser beam intensity, her cat-lady glasses dangling from the chain draped around her neck. Being the third Wittkop male to find himself in one of Statchel's P.U.T. classes hadn't helped matters. The second Wittkop male, my brother Bill; was, at least in his mind, the equivalent of James Dean. That legacy, along with the splint on my right thumb, had not endeared me with Col. Statchel. "Go ahead, stone me to death with Royal typewriters! Throw in an old heavy Underwood, just for good measure!"- my thoughts as I wished for relief from this unpleasant state of affairs of my own making.

My mother had advised me to take Personal Use Typing, extolling the merit of this adroit discipline. Of course she would, my mother had been an executive secretary. Her fingers could gracefully glide across the glass keys of her ancient Underwood, effortlessly pumping out word after word. I had agreed with my mother's reasoning, figuring there couldn't be a better place to meet chicks...

It's fair to say I've been extracting revenge on machinery ever since, in my mind all of it being kin to that cursed typewriter. I am not by nature a competitive person, so I don't consider my crusade a man vs. machine struggle. It's much more primal, a love/hate relationship that began long before attending summer school to improve my failing grade in Personal Use Typing.

My father was particularly good at keeping me busy, so I often found myself on the business end of our reel type lawn mower. Two bucks to cut the Green's front yard, another three bucks for the rear yard. I had to cut the lawn of the widow across the street from the Green's for free, I still feel gratitude for the modest size of her yard. The Willifer's, the Harris', and several more who's names time has erased. That old reel mower never needed anything more than an occasional squirt of oil. Then came the Sears gas powered lawn mower! Wow! What a great invention, I could breeze through my tasks with a fraction of the effort. But at a cost, this convenience came with the price of maintenance. Change the oil, clean the air filter, sharpen the blade, plus the obligatory squirt of oil.

From the sweat of my brow came fabulous wealth. This is how I secured my first vehicle. Brother Bill had borrowed $40, a princely sum at the time. The debt was forgiven in exchange for his '59 Volkswagon Van (with a bad engine). A VW "how to" book was purchased and within weeks the engine was swapped out and I had taken to modifying the interior. Of course I was still over a year away from getting my drivers learners permit, however this fact didn't dampen the honeymoon. One night I got a little too brave. While my parents were out for the evening, I decided to take the van for a spin. This was another "Wow!" moment. Machinery provided more than just the challenge of repair and modification. They provide freedom and mobility!

By the time I had adequately ripened to receive my learners permit the van had been traded off for a '63 VW Beetle. In comparison to the van, it seemed like a rocket ship. The union of automobile and drivers license cemented my love affair with machinery. I had even come to terms with maintenance, just as the love struck ignores the faults of any object of desire. Being a teen aged boy I was well practiced at ignoring faults, especially my own, and had a crush on every female I encountered (my mother and Mrs. Statchel being the exceptions). First the throttle cable broke. Then the clutch cable. Exhaust leaks, oil leaks, brakes, flat tires. Reality being the harsh schoolmarm, I had to steel my resolve. I was in this for the long haul, especially when I saw the ad in the newspaper for the MGB.

As I was navigating my way into Irvington, to investigate this B series car of the Morris Garage marque, I was already envisioning myself sporting dark sunglasses. The wind trying its best to outdo my Odell hair trainer. Girls flirting with me, just on the outside chance they might get to go motoring in such a magnificent vehicle. It is not easy living with the knowledge that Alexander Pope was writing about me when he penned, "for fools rush in where angles fear to tread"

So a fool I have been, for 45+ years, loving machines until I hate them. Yet, I find comfort in this perverse relationship; knowing I will never relent, never retire. I will go to my grave, confident in the knowledge that no machine in my care was allowed to shirk it's duty, having sworn to make the infernal things fulfill the purpose of their existence.

I often think about how many different paths my life could have taken, where I might be now and what other type of machinery I would be cursing under my breath. I would trade the automobile for nuclear submarines, or the M1 Abrams tank. But regardless of how fascinating these other objects of desire might be initially, at some point the truth would be found out. They all share the machine equivalent of DNA with a Royal typewriter. Which is why, after all these years, I feel no remorse for throwing that anonymous iceball at Mrs. Statchel's Cadillac.

Friday, July 16, 2010

None finer in all the world.

I wasn't the first to reach the golden zone; David beat me there. I was lazy and didn't arrive until just after 7:00 am. Don't get me wrong, I love David like a brother, but he is a harvester. I am a gatherer.

To the casual observer, harvesters and gatherers might be considered the same. But there are fundamental differences. The harvester scrapes everything into the bucket, ready or not! The little green pea sized ball, the red slightly larger and definitely not ready globe, and the purple almost ready sphere. They all find themselves in David's bucket. This approach might work well for wheat or corn, but not for something as precious as a seasonal fruit.

A gatherer carefully picks that which is ready. It must have the right shape, size, texture and color. Each berry undergoes a rigorous evaluation. To do otherwise robs them of their God given right to fully mature, thus I allow them to better fulfill the measure of their creation. To the harvester a full gallon bucket represents an hour of work. To the gatherer a gallon bucket is a spiritual journey, something that isn't measured in time or effort.

I suffer from an extreme blueberry dependency problem. There, I've said it and the cat is out of the bag. But I offer no apologies, my reverence for the little blue orbs drives my pursuit for fruit excellence. However I don't hoard my stash of blueberries; I share them with friends and loved ones. A gift should be the best one has to offer, so from my personal stock I offer the gift that is a measure of how much I value the recipient. Such gifts are also a personal measure of ones humanity, the willingness to sacrifice time and energy in order to enrich another.

That is why the golden zone is so important. The berries gathered there are exceptional, their flavor exquisite. I would only share the location of the golden zone with someone I know would revere it as I do, another gatherer type. The golden zone has become for me my personal Garden of Eden. My cell phone has no reception there, so it cannot bother me. You can't hear a loud truck from a nearby highway, nor an obnoxious train to disturb with its audible vibrations. There is only the song of a bird or the buzz of a bee as it takes care of bee business. It is a place, when conditions are just right, you can hear Him whisper, "enjoy these blueberries, for there are none finer in all the world."

But, He also whispers to me, "be tolerant of David, even if he is a harvester."

Saturday, May 15, 2010


I have been thinking a lot about help, what it means to help someone, or to be helped by someone. Here is just some of what Webster's dictionary defines help as:

1. to make things easier or better for (a person); aid; assist, a) to give something which is necessary, as relief, succor, money, etc. b) to do part of the work of; ease or share the labor of c) to aid in (getting up, down, in, out, etc.) 2. to make it easier for (something) to exist, happen, develop, improve 3. to keep from, avoid, prevent

And this is just the verb portion of the definition! I know I am helped daily, often in ways I am unaware of, and I am immeasurably improved and enriched by the efforts of others in my life. I am also one that is unlikely to ask for help, I am loath to ask anyone to do for me that which I am perfectly capable of doing myself. But sometimes, when I've done all I know to do, I seek out help. I'm sure my friend Bob gets tired of my requests for help with my computer. He should probably tell me, "No, figure it out, learn and develop your own skills". But he doesn't, and I don't know why. Easier to fix it than to answer a thousand ignorant questions? Allows him to showcase his superior computer knowledge and skills? Just a darn nice guy that enjoys helping others? Probably all the above, and more.

Bev and I were watching an episode of Lost (we tend to lag 5-10 years behind popular cultural phenomenon), in which the mysterious John Lock was explaining to the lame drug addict Charlie what a double edge sword help really is. The analogy is a moth cocoon, the struggle the emerging moth goes through to free itself of the cocoon, is exactly what strengthens it so it can fly away and fulfill it's moth destiny. Helping it in any way weakens it, and the emerging moth would be incapable of flight. The Walking Moth, sounds like it could be a rock band.

So, this is my question, what is appropriate help? When is one making a difference for the good of another in need, and when is the helper just being co-dependent?

I ask this question for obvious reasons. All of my life I have been led to understand that helping others is a good thing, a moral imperative. The only instances in nature where one animal will help another is symbiotic relationships. There is always a one hand washes the other, so to speak, each animal reaping benefit from the other. But not with humans, we help one another constantly, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. I now struggle with this question, with my own motivations for helping others, with the apprehension of weakening instead of strengthening. This line of thought reinforces my aversion to asking for, or accepting help. But I also know that I don't have control over anyone but myself. Others will pray on my behalf, and offer help, and do things for me out of love.

So, I move forward, a seeker of truth and enlightenment. Sometimes a seeker of help, sometimes a giver. Wondering if I'm a walking moth, huddled up with other flightless bugs waiting for the bus.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Against my better judgement

Politics is something that shouldn't be discussed in polite company. I have spent the last couple of hours reading from the website: It's a website full of articles from different writers, all thoughtful and thought provoking. I enjoyed several articles by Thomas Sowell and Cal Thomas, I consider them wise and rational. Then I read an article by Mona Charen, about Greece's economic problems.

Greece is a small country, 11.3 million people. Seems that one in three Greeks works for their government. There were riots last week in Athens, Greece, over government austerity programs. The people rioting, government employees. Three are dead from the rioting. Greece is a nation on the brink of chaos and disaster. Why were they rioting? Because they don't want to sacrifice any of their benefits. The Greek government employee has a higher wage, better benefits and an earlier retirement than their private sector counterparts. It's impossible for a civil servant to get fired, even in light of gross incompetence.

All this news didn't much bother me, that's all Greece's problems, and we have enough of our own to worry about. Then the article moved on to problems much closer to home.

More than 50 percent of union members in the United States are public sector employees. There is a quote of an economic historian that points out, "Federal workers now earn, in wages and benefits, about twice what their private-sector equivalents get paid. State workers often have better health plans and retirement benefits than the private-sector average: 80 percent of public-sector workers have pension benefits, only 50 percent in the private sector." Then this article makes a statement that brings everything into acute focus (this is a copy and paste quote from the article, my apologies to Mona Charen if this offends her).

"It's no coincidence that the states with the most powerful public sector unions — New Jersey, California, and New York — are facing the most severe budget crises."

Oops! I only thought I was reading about Greece's problems! But these should be considered Spain's or Italy's or, yes, the good old USA's problems. We are facing a crisis that has been a hundred years in the making, our economic and government models are at odds, and our current political system appears inadequate (or impotent, you can chose the adjective). Mr. Obama and his administration seem to feel that growing our government is the answer to our economic problems. He is doing this at a time when industry and service sectors are struggling. This being the only portion of our economy that actually provides wealth, and therefore tax revenue, to pay for governmental services. This appears like the same approach that FDR used during the depression of the 1930's. It didn't work then, it's unlikely to work 80 years later in a larger and much more complex economic/politically diverse world.

Now we get to the really depressing stuff. Mr. Roosevelt's economic policies didn't fix the depression, know what did? Mr. Obama's economic policies aren't looking to good either, know what's gonna happen? Do a Google search on: What is Chaostan? You will find an article by Richard Mayberry. A pre 9/11, twelve year old article that is eerily accurate.
A wise man once said, "the worst time to be a parent is 18 years before a war". I have a nephew in the Marines, I wish he's get out, right now!

But I have a plan, a way to fix this problem. I need to be benevolent dictator of the world! Well, maybe just the USA for right now. Once I get the USA straightened out I can move on to Chaostan and the rest of the world. Be of good cheer! All I need is everyone's complete cooperation for the next 5-10 years....

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Repton, AL

Today's newspaper had an article in the travel section about Monroeville, AL. My mother's hometown claims to be the "Literary Capitol" of Alabama, which is what any article about Monroeville would be quick to point out. But to those with roots in L.A. (lower Alabama) there are always expeditions to places off the beaten path. I beat my path down I-65 south to exit 93, turning right onto US 84. 15 miles closer to Monroeville, you pass a sign declaring you are in Repton, AL. The first right hand turn past your welcome to town is Burnt Corn Road. How could anyone not want to drive on a road named "Burnt Corn"? Actually, traveling on this road takes you to Burnt Corn, AL. But that would be someone elses story, because I'm talking about Repton.

Repton may not be the bustling metropolis that Monroeville is, but it is just as firmly woven into my heritage (and my heart), as any place in the universe. Not far up Burnt Corn Rd, on the right hand side of the road is the William Carter Hospital. My mother gave birth to her first child in that hospital. Not even Monroeville, the soon to be literary capitol of Alabama, had such modern conveniences as hospitals in the mid 1940's. A little further up the road on the left hand side is Alabama Rut and Strut. I'm certain that taxidermy has its place of importance, but for me the Rut and Strut is a landmark. Directly across from the "Strut" is the front gate to Daddy Bill's farm. My mother's younger brother, William Lee Hendrix, is and has been my favorite uncle for as long as I can remember. My first cousins, Babs and Jacque, have called their father "Daddy Bill", also, for as long as I can remember.

Last year, and again this year, we have held our family reunion on DB's farm land. Turning off Burnt Corn Rd, through the gates, you have little choice but to follow the path made by the tractor as it heads toward the fields were Pensacola Fescue is grown for livestock feed. Passing through what was once a marvelous pecan orchard (severely damaged by hurricane Ivan), you enter the first large field. At the far end you turn to the left and head slowly (I don't drive a Jeep) down toward the pond. The pond could well be the center of the universe, a nexus of Louisiana Iris and Pear tree. A place where worry and stress float away, for they have nothing to hold on to. There could be no better place for a family gathering, and cousin Babs and her husband Jeff have added to natures perfection. An outhouse complete with hand wash station, and a fire pit so fine I think it should be patented. An adjacent field provides room for dueling clay launchers, where the men folk can embarrass themselves with their lack of marksmanship. This allows us to work up a healthy appetite, so we burn animal flesh over the fire pit and talk about how next time those clays won't be nearly so lucky. For those with an aversion to shot guns, there is always the pond itself. One can fish it, and probably be just as challenged as shooting skeet, or one can walk all around it, which will provide a more sublime satisfaction.

I wish I could understand exactly why I feel such a strong connection with this place. Why do I want to repair that pecan orchard? There is no doubt it is to some degree the peace I feel while I'm there, but it's more than that. Some people want to belong to something larger and more important than they are individually. The fields are large, but they are only important to a handful of people. It's said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Maybe it's the beauty my eye perceives, a simple elegance that only nature can provide. The way the fescue waves in the wind, and the divine color scheme on a perfect Saturday in Autumn. But it's something more, beyond the beauty and the yearning to belong, a secret element to this equation which defies definition.

I am a believer, and I will make my pilgrimage to the temple that is DB's farm land. I will worship at this temple, with the other believers, my cousins and their husbands and other family members that may be in attendance. I seek enlightenment at this temple, because it is here that my perception of God is clearest.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Day Six-the ride home

The 6 am wake up call was unwelcome, but I was 3,500 miles from home and I had some traveling to do. So I put on some traveling clothes and stepped out into the Madrid morning sun. Holy week had passed, and Madrid was alive and well, even at 7:00 am. Descending into the Santiago Bernabeu Metro station I continued to be impressed by how clean the Madrid subways are. The #10 train, one stop to the Nuevos Ministerios station, from there the #8 train carried me the remaining distance to terminal T4 of the Madrid/Barajas International Airport. Climbing out of the subway, I was surprised to find it would cost me a euro just to enter the airport. I was there well before my departure time, so I found some breakfast. I checked in with Iberia, got my boarding pass, and braved the customs/security gauntlet. Scanned, inspected, searched and approved I arrived at the departure gate just in time for the boarding call. I found seat 25C and got comfortable. Soon a gentleman arrived, he held the ticket for the window seat next to me. I got up so he could get comfortable, and we waited. Our Airbus 600 quickly filled and we took off on time. When I booked the flight, I read several reviews of Iberia. Many were not flattering, claiming poor service or late departures/arrivals. But that was certainly not what I experienced, maybe first class is different. Once you step past the large comfortable seats into coach, everyone is just another sardine hoping for a safe arrival at the planned destination.

A few hours into the flight, a movie I had no intention of watching, started to play on the monitors. So I invaded the privacy of my immediate neighbor in the window seat. He was minding his own business reading a book, it was in spanish, titled Manolete. He was very gracious, had a passion for bull fighting, the book he read was a biography of a legendary matador. He taught me all about the subtlety of bull fighting, how it was like a play with three acts. Act One is about training the bull to charge a horse. Act Two is about training the bull to charge a man. Act Three, culmination, a metaphor of life and death. From bull fighting we moved on to the differences in the spanish and american life styles, and the changes that both cultures had experienced. I quickly grew to like my new friend, we shared similar attitudes. He is from Puerto Rico, grew up acutely aware of his spanish roots, but had never been to Spain. Until he joined the US Air Force. The USAF stationed him at an airfield south of Seville for a couple of years, he and his wife fell in love with Seville. They return to Spain, and their friends there, as often as they can. I envy my new friend Roberto, his bilingual talents allow him live in two distinctly different worlds. His american life as an officer in the USAF, with all its challenges and demands and rewards. His spanish life, with its rich history and passionate life style. Vaya con dios, Roberto!

Back in the USA, I quickly realized that getting out is a lot easier than getting back in. But eventually customs approved my presence and I was once a again Stephen Wittkop, american citizen taking up space on his home turf. Brother Peter once again did taxi duty, picking me up at the Atlanta airport. This time I didn't have oatcakes to share, only stories of the events of the previous days. I spent the night at Pete's house, sharing some smuggled black licorice and more stories of the trip. We got up early the next day, Peter gets to his office early to avoid Atlanta traffic, and I made my way home to Birmingham. My duty performed, my darling daughter delivered safely to her study abroad program. Once home, I got on my computer and sent her an email to tell her of my joys traveling with her and to reassure that all would be well. I know it will be, and she will return home enriched by the time she spends in Spain, with a new list of friends to keep track of. I am not a writer or story teller, it's over a month since Cait and I left Birmingham on a journey across the Atlantic. I have agonized over the wording and sentence structure of this travel log, each post my personal equivalent of passing an impossibly large kidney stone. I don't know what I'll write about next, I can only hope it can compare with the experiences I shared with Caitlin.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Day Five- School Daze

I'm not sure how long I laid in bed wondering what time it was. I couldn't sleep, but I wasn't willing to get out of bed, because I had no where to go and nothing to do for several hours. I finally got up and showered, dressed and packed my bag. Didn't like it, so I unpacked it and did a better job on the repack. I was out of ways to entertain myself so I hit the streets early (by Spanish standards). At 6:45 am the only people on the streets of Salamanca were city workers, cleaning and tidying and making the place presentable. I give them credit, they keep their city clean, and they should be proud of it's cleanliness. Later in the day, they would still be at it, Cait and I saw a machine that looked like Dr. Seuss designed it. A small riding vacuum cleaner with an elephant trunk like hose that the operator moved about sucking up all offensive debris.

I eventually wandered over to Patio de Escuela, it was about 7:30. There was a young man there playing his guitar. I recognized the song he was picking, so I asked him, "Neil Young?" He smiled and said "yes", he too was german, and spoke excellent english. He was in Salamanca to study spanish, because he loved language. He'd already gone to university for law, but couldn't pass the bar exam. He didn't know what he wanted to do with his life, but he was sure it didn't involve law. After a while some more people showed up, and the door to Cursos Internationale was opened. It was after 8:00, so I stayed in the patio area waiting on Cait. About 8:30 I decided to walk the route towards her apartment, knowing that I'd bump into her eventually. I rounded the corner from Fe onto Vitoria and there she was crossing Rua Mayor. "Sorry I'm late, but my host mom insisted I eat breakfast on my first day of school", she said with a smile. Cait decided quickly she didn't want dad hanging around, so plans were made to meet after school at Plaza Mayor. I wandered down the street and into a cafe. A muffin and an orange juice and I was suddenly tired. I returned to my hotel room, laid on the bed next to my perfectly packed bag, and drifted off.

I awoke to the sound of conversation outside my door. Housekeeping I thought to myself, so I washed my face and grabbed my bag. "Que hora es?" I asked as I was exiting, "Diaz media" was the quick reply. Well at least I didn't snooze past check out! I settled up at the front desk and stepped out into the sunlight of mid morning in Salamanca. I went from one small shop to another, looking at books, fountain pens, custom leather work. What ever the specialty of the shop, I checked it out. A little after the noon hour, I found myself on a bench in Plaza Mayor. I just people watched, the young the old and the in between, they were all here. I closed my eyes and let the sun warm me. I got up and walked around checking out every shop in the Plaza. I was standing right in the middle of the Plaza when Caitlin came strolling up and with a big smile on her face says, "I've got about a dozen new friends!" Big relief! Another anxiety down the drain. She was to meet up with the new buds in the park around 3:30. So off to the Cursos Internationale offices to iron out the tuition problem. But the problem turned out not to be a problem, it had all been figured out before we got there. All that remained was a bit of tuition and the first month's rent with the host family, and we were out of there. Only three problems remained, the first one was lunch.

Paella, what a wonderful invention! I got a vegetable paella, Caitlin ordered the seafood. I was impressed that she was so bold, I can remember when she wouldn't even consider an onion. The next problem was a cell phone for local use, to keep the i-phone bill within reasonable limits. Outside the phone shop is where we witnessed the Seussian vacuum cleaner. With a pre-pay cell phone in hand the last problem was going to be the most daunting. This problem was mine, I had to leave Salamanca and head back to Madrid. This meant leaving my darling daughter behind, and even though I knew she was going to do just fine, I was going to miss her terribly. I gave her most of the euros in my wallet, just to handle laundry and unexpected expenses. We hugged and I told her I loved her, wishing I was more eloquent, then I sent her off to meet her new friends in the park.

I headed for the train station. I ran across the young man with the guitar while crossing a street. I told him Caitlin had mentioned meeting him, and he acknowledged the same. I offered him words of encouragement, "you know what you don't want to be, that's almost as good as knowing what you do want to be, best of luck." He smiled and was on his way, probably to the park to meet with the rest of the gang. The first available seat to Madrid was on the 8:05 pm train. This was going to offer me plenty of time to think about the last few days. I thought of a trip Caitlin and I made to New York when she was in high school. She had been studying american sign language at the time, and she tried to teach some to me on the flight. This trip was certainly a larger version of that one. Instead of sign language, it was spanish. Madrid instead of New York. I have faith she will continue to enrich my life with her talents, her style, and her smile.

In Chamartin Station I found the metro and made my way to whatever station the map showed having a Holiday Inn. I finally found it, checked in and requested a 6:00 am wake up. I lay in bed waiting for sleep and pondering something I'd noticed about Spain. Three different hotel baths and the bath in the apartment of Cait's host family, they all sported bidets. What's up with that!?! Is it a cultural thing?!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Day Four- Easter

Easter Sunday morning, the last day of Holy Week. The plan was to learn the city better, locate Patio de Escuela, and then find the apartment of the host family. When we first arrived, Caitlin had the caballero at the front desk call Maria Jesus Arias del Pozo to arrange a 5 pm arrival at the apartment. We headed toward La Plaza Mayor, Cait wanted to try a cafe she'd seen there, she'd heard that it was great. I enjoyed my huevos tapa, but she was not impressed by the cappuccino. We headed down Rua Mayor and as we turned left at Casa de las Conchas, we heard drumming. Of course! Easter is the last day of Holy Week, why wouldn't they have a final procession? We could see the procession approach, it was a couple of blocks away. I noticed a young woman standing, waiting. She was wearing a Patagonia base shirt and a North Face jacket, I just knew see was American, so I asked her. I was wrong (as is so often the case), she was German but spoke excellent English. She was on spring break and had won a Spanish class in a raffle (that sure wouldn't happen in Alabama!). The different organizations that were involved in the procession each wore their distinct outfit, some played drums, some were drum and bugle corps. There were several with floats, all carried by caballeros. There was one float that had an empty casket, the symbolism is kind of obvious. The procession lasted maybe an hour, and I was sad that it ended.

I took a few pictures of Caitlin on the front steps of the church that we stood in front of while the procession passed. We then went down a street we had traveled a day earlier, and there was Patio de Escuela. I even remember staring at the statue in the middle of the patio on Saturday, not realizing it was an intended destination. One down, now to find the host family apartment. I lead us on an unintended wild goose chase for a while, but then figured out we were not where I thought we were. Once I got my heading, we made our way up Paseo Canalejas to Paseo San Antonio. We took a break in a nice cafe on Calle Mejico, snacked a little, drank a little, and used their wi-fi (we are 100% american). We made our way back to Paseo San Antonio up to Camino de las Aguas. About 8 blocks down the hill toward Rio Tormes we found 67 Camino de las Aguas. Two down, Cait wanted to take over the map and guide us to the hotel. We had been walking for several hours, so a short respite was in order. I could almost feel Caitlin's anxiety over meeting her host.

We arrived at 67 Camino de las Aguas at 4:59 pm and Cait rang the bell for apartment 2A. Nothing. "Ring it again, this time for more than just a second", I advised. Still nothing, Caitlin is looking at me like she wants to explode. "Let's just be patient for 5 minutes", is my next attempt at wisdom. Just as my cell phone is telling me my 5 minutes are up, a car pulls up and a woman gets out. She says something and Cait responds with "Si". The woman threw her arms around Cait and kissed her on each check. I was thinking this must be Maria (pretty safe bet there!) as she was retreiving a few bags of groceries out of the car. She then unlocked the door, kicked it open, and beckoned us to follow her to 2A. Caitlin was shown her room, given the rules for using the kitchen, and was told "esta es su casa". If I had to guess, I'd say Maria is in her mid 30's. She's married with two children, one son and one daughter. I liked her immediately, but this wasn't for me to like, Caitlin had to get used to her new situation. It was time for me to make my exit. I hugged Caitlin and we made plans to meet at the hotel at 8 pm.

Outside the apartment building, I decided to find the straightest route to the Patio de Escuela. So down the street I headed, turned right at the little store we bought a great pastry at earlier in the day. Up several blocks and turn left, into the park. On the other side of the park I ran out of known commodity, I now turned to the map and forged ahead. I walked a good swift pace as though I knew where I was going. I passed Iglesia de San Esteban, through a plaza, up an alley. The Plaza de Anaya is in between Iglesia Nueve and.....ahh some other really cool building. Cross Rua Mayor and up Vitoria to Re. I was at Patio de Escuela in what seemed no time at all. I pulled out my phone, hit the timer, reversed my steps back to the apartment. 19 minutes 10 seconds. I was pleased, this was not going to be a big deal. I returned to the hotel, my feet aching from a day of walking in stylish shoes.

I sat on the side of the bathtub, my feet soaking in hot water, tears streaming from my eyes. Although my feet ached, my heart was full of love and gratitude and hopes. I knew my daughter's anxiety level was high, but I also knew everything would be just fine. With each passing moment the problems and fears were being dealt with, and by the time I left for home, there would be nothing left to worry about. When Caitlin's knock came at the door, I had to dry my feet and eyes. I told her that I'd found the best possible route and we should walk it. We started at Patio de Escuela turned at Fe to Vitoria. Across Rua Mayor through Plaza de Anaya down the alley to the plaza in front of San Esteban. We arrived at the apartment, turned on our heals and headed back. I had already picked out a restaurant that was on the way back. As we walked, I made jokes about how her calves would get so big and muscular, she would have to pull up the zipper on her pants leg just to accommodate (I don't think this appealed to her). Dominico's Cafe was the place I had in mind, and it is fabulous. We were seated at a table, the waiter inquired of our hearts desires. When he realized we wanted a meal he was going to tell us we would have to go next door into the restaurant. But Dominic was in the house and holding court, and let that waiter know that we would be served right where we were. We ordered appetizers and entrees. When asked if the wi-fi had a password, with a wave of his hand, Dominic made it clear no password needed. I took Caitlin's hands in my own, looked into her eyes, and once again prayed for the perfect words of encouragement. Cait's cheese croquettes were light with a wonderfully subtle flavor. My onion soup was exquisite. The entrees equally delightful.

With the satisfaction of a wonderful meal we made our way up the alley, through Plaza de Anaya (Caitlin had to tell me about 10 times the proper way to pronounce it) and to the Patio de Escuela. I then escorted my lovely daughter back to the apartment of her host family. We made plans to meet at the patio at 8 am, so that billing problems with the school could be sorted out. We hugged, both of us probably tearful, as I walked away I called out, "Todo mi amor!"

In the bed at the hotel, with my feet aching, I prayed for sleep.......

Friday, April 16, 2010

Day Three- Salamanca

We did not get an early start on Saturday. But we really didn't care, there was no big hurry. We eventually made our way to the Starbucks near the hotel, and came to consensus that the blueberry muffin sold in Spain is better than the blueberry muffin sold in Alabama. We also enjoyed a yogurt cup w/muesli. I have to chuckle when I think of Caitlin looking in her Spanish/English dictionary, trying to find out what muesli meant in English. Cait wanted to do a little shopping before we started our voyage to Salamanca. I was quick to show her the little shop that I'd scoped out on Thursday evening. It didn't take her long to find a cute blouse, and it was refreshing to find a shop keeper that provided some personal service. We wandered and shopped for a little while, but eventually it was time. We went back to the hotel, gather our gear and checked out.

Down the stairs into the Alonso Martinez Metro Station, the #10 line one stop to Tribunal. There we picked up the #1 line, six stops to Atocha Renfe, just as we had done the day before. We made our way to the familiar ticket office, where I punched the button and got my number so I could buy our billetes. Turning on my heels to look around, there, waiting for his chance to buy some tickets was my asian friend from a day earlier. We greeted one another as though we'd known each other for years. He told me how the spanish are not the least bit co-dependent. If you miss your train to Toledo, that's just too bad, you can buy some more tickets tomorrow. He asked me about the trip to Seville, I told him the high speed train alone was worth the trip, but the city itself was the most beautiful in Spain. The streets are lined with orange trees whose aroma was liken unto honeysuckle. I could see it in his eyes, he was on the edge, wanting to jump in. It was at this point his oldest son came in and said, "Dad, Mom is at the other ticket office and says that there are no tickets available for Toledo today." He looked at me sheepishly, I smiled and offered my hand. As we shook hands, I told him, "enjoy Sevilla, and near the train station is a cafe that has the best frozen yogurt you'll ever eat."

I stood waiting my turn to buy tickets, as I looked over my shoulder to see where Caitlin was, I heard laughter. There she was sitting on the bench waiting on me, talking to a group of children. They were all siblings, an Israeli family. The boys were flirting with Cait, the girls were giggling as they watched their brothers make fools of themselves. Dad would come and check on them as he waited his turn to buy tickets. Another beautiful family, ready to befriend fellow travelers. It was finally my turn to buy tickets. I told the man, two one way tickets to Salamanca. Well, it seems we were in the wrong place. All trains heading south left from the Atocha station, but if you want to travel north, that required the Chamartin station. Who knew? Certainly not I! Not a problem though, buy a couple of tickets at the kiosk, and tracks 1, 2 & 6 would provide a train about every 10 minutes. The trip to Chamartin was quick and we soon had tickets to Salamanca. Caitlin wandered around the train station while I stood watch over our stuff.

As we were strolling along the platform looking for coche 2, we started a conversation with a couple speaking english, the queen's english. They were from Birmingham, England (a coincidence? I think not). She was a retired school teacher, he a retired product development coordinator. They were not only seated right behind us, they were headed to Salamanca for a two week spanish class. We chatted for quite some time, but eventually settled into our seats to watch the countryside whisk by. This was not an express train, we stopped probably 8-10 times on the trip north. Each of the towns or pueblos (small town) had it's own endearing quality and I found myself day dreaming about what it would be like living in one of these neat little towns. This was the first time I remember seeing a house. In Madrid all we saw were apartments, with the ground floors being shops, cafes, restaurants, banks (lots of banks!). Same in Seville. But small towns had houses, and some of them were really cool looking. One small town we passed had a wall around it, obviously it had been a city/state during the middle ages. The train was similar to others we had traveled on, clean and comfortable. There was the familiar monitor that displayed time, temp, the name of the next stop, and our speed (in kph). This train, although not a high speed, would still hit speeds of 150 kph (about 90 mph for the non metric) which for a train that made multiple stops wasn't too shabby. We started the count down, three stops to go, two, one...We were in Salamanca.

Our british traveling companions invited us to walk with them into town. It wasn't a long walk, and the steady conversation made the walk pleasant. Once we passed Paseo Canalejas, Peter and Barbara Jones bid us adieu and pointed us in the right direction. We walked a couple of blocks to Plaza Santa Eulalia were we found Hotel Condal. Hotel Condal is not a 4 star hotel, but our room had a bed and a bath and wi-fi (kinda). We made ourselves at home, then it was time to explore Salamanca. Caitlin has on her key ring a little tag that states, "boys are nice, but shoes are forever", so it was her great delight to discover a city in which every other shop was a shoe store (or so it seemed). We got hungry and found a very cool bar that had "tapas" galore. I love sardines, and my favorite was the fresh sardines with green olives. I even tried one that was a cow stomach stew, I liked it! The broth reminded me of pinto beans. It was the most reasonably priced meal of the whole trip, a measly 12 euro. It was getting cool, so we went in search for a coat for Cait. After a false start at one store, the "right" coat was found and the wrong one returned (style is such an individual thing!). Finally we strolled down to La Plaza Mayor, the center of the old section of Salamanca. The place was packed with spaniards doing their thing, eating a little, drinking a little and talking a lot. It was getting late (by our standard) so we returned to the room. I took off my shoes and relaxed on the bed, while Caitlin did the Facebook thing. I eventually started to doze, thinking about what an incredibly beautiful little city Salamanca is, and fantasizing about what it would be like living there. I was falling in love with Spain!?! But this was romantic, nothing could be more impractical or irrational. However when you're in that state, half way between sleep and consciousness, reality is way over rated. So I envisioned myself learning the language and customs, and becoming a part of it, and offered no apologies.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Day Two- Sevilla

We had pretty much decided that Seville would be our day trip prior to making our way to Salamanca. The real deciding factor would be the cost of the high speed rail. The info available on the official Renfe website seemed prohibitively expensive. But a travel review website stated the official website was seldom accurate and an in person visit would determine the best prices and seating availability.

I wanted to get up early and get going to maximize the day in Seville. Maybe it was the jet lag, or particularly strong mattress magnets, but we didn't stir until 7ish. An hour or so for showering and prepping (we had to dress stylishly, after all Europeans dress up just to walk the dog) and a visit to the 24 hr restaurant (in Spain a tortilla is an omelet), it was probably after 9 am before we were headed for the Metro (subway). I had studied the Metro map and had a good idea how we would get to the Atocha Renfe Station. As we stood in the flow of foot traffic trying to decide which of the Blue Line stair cases to walk down, we were approached by a man who in a thick southern drawl asked, "can I help y'all"? Without hesitation I had to ask where he was from. "Mississippi" was his answer. We offered that we were from Birmingham, Alabama. I just had to ask how it was that he found his way to the Alonso Martinez Metro station at this particular point in time. He was a firefighter, injured doing his duty. He made the decision that instead of hanging around and living on disability, he would come to Madrid and teach english. I'll bet he's a great English teacher, with little more than 10 seconds of instruction I was now a master of the Madrid Metro. I shook his hand, thanked him for his kindness and wished him God's speed. As we scurried down the correct Number 10 staircase (that was my folly, they are numeric not color coordinated) I thought, "I hope he teaches his students to speak English with a southern accent."

The number 10 line one stop to Tribunal station, switch to the number 1 line and six stops later we were at Atocha Renfe. On the number 1 train we struck up a conversation with an Asian couple that were speaking English. They were from New York City, in Spain for a spring break vacation just because they had never been. He was in finance, she a medical doctor, two sons and a daughter. A beautiful family, friendly and easy to talk to. A new set of friends. We arrived at Atocha Renfe and set off to find the ticket office, anxious to find out what the cost was for high speed travel to Seville. Buying a train ticket in Madrid is not unlike ordering a sandwich at a good delicatessen, you take a number and wait your turn. Just as I was pushing the button to get a number, up walked my new Asian friend. I pushed the button a second time and handed him his number and asked him were they were headed. They had planed a day trip to Toledo. He inquired our destination, high speed to Seville, my answer. He was green with envy! There was no way, the attention span for all three of his kids added together was less than 5 minutes, the 30 minute ride to Toledo was doable, but not Seville. I reassured him that Toledo was a great choice and they would thoroughly enjoy themselves. As my number was called and I strolled off to buy tickets, I thought to myself, "Gosh, I hope Toledo isn't a dump!"

At 124 euro per round trip ticket the high speed wasn't cheap, but it wasn't entirely unreasonable either. I waited for Caitlin to come find me, as she had wandered off while I was left to score the tickets to Seville. I bought a glass of zumo naranja (fresh squeezed orange juice) and waited. She finally appeared (she was not all that far away) and beckoned me to follow. I was lead to a sidewalk vendor (within the station) that sold inexpensive jewelry. Cait was sure she needed a couple of new rings. The vendor was a huckster of the first degree, he flirted with Cait and was certain she needed many rings. He asked me if I liked Obama, I stuck my tongue out and made the razz sound. He was not impressed, he liked Obama, he asked me if I was a racist. I was ready to go, Caitlin assured him I was not a racist but a conservative. I am more than willing to spoil my little girl, I bought her three rings. I have little tolerance for liberal hucksters, if that guy lived in Alabama I have little doubt he could give Larry Langford a run for his money.

We settled into our seats on coche 6, waiting for blast off. The high speed train was stylish, clean and comfy. We fit right in! The seats have jacks for plugging in headphones, which they hand out like candy. There are video monitors that display time and temp, and after we got on our way, played a movie. We started off kind of slow until we were out of Madrid, then speed slowly increased till we were scooting right along. Top speed of this train is claimed to be 300 kilometers/hr. (about 190 mph for the non metric crowd). I had no way to accurately verify how fast we were going, all I know is it was incredibly smooth and quiet for a vehicle that large traveling at speeds in excess of 150 mph. The country side whisked by, for a while we passed orchards of gnarly looking trees I assume were olive trees. We passed lots of farm land tilled and probably planted with some crop that had yet to peek through the soil. Our train was not a non stop, we made a single stop at a small city the name of which escapes me as I write. But once we were on our way again, we entered Spain's orange grove region. Orange grove after orange grove, for an hour at high speed. That's a lot of orange juice! Soon the train began to slow and we were at the Seville train station. I probably should have expected it, the Seville train station was clean and stylish and full of cool little shops. We looked around for a while, I studied a map of Seville, I had no idea what we should do or where we should go. That didn't matter, we had a city to subdue and we were burning daylight, it was time to go exploring.

Let me set the scene as we left the train station, it was a sunny afternoon, sky a perfect hue of blue, a mild breeze to fill our sails, and the temperature a perfect 22C (about 71 Fahrenheit for the non metric crowd). It was as though God had given us a little wink, and encouraged us to enjoy a perfect day. We wandered down street after street with no particular destination. We eventually wandered down a street where there was an interesting looking cafe. We were hungry so we chose a table and waited to be served. There were two waitresses, neither one seemed too interested in waiting on us. Eventually we were served, the pinchos were a delight, the drinks soothing to the palate. But the service, I didn't know if it was another case of us being unfamiliar with the Spanish routine or just having the bad luck of a couple waitresses that didn't want to be at work on such a perfect day. What ever the case, I didn't let it bother me for long, I paid the bill (la cuenta por favor!) and we continued our roaming about. Seville has very wide sidewalks, with a blue pathway dedicated for bicycles. We spent a moment at an automated bicycle rental kiosk, but couldn't determine exactly how to proceed, so we moved on. Many of the streets were lined with orange trees, one had but to stand under a tree and let the aroma of the orange blossom wash over you. I thought they smelled like honeysuckle, Cait wasn't so sure. We walked for a long time, eventually Caitlin said, "Dad, lets sit down."

I sometimes think a black hole has nothing on me when it comes to being dense. The emotional release in baggage claim a day earlier should have warned me that my little girl was rapidly approaching her limit of anxiety and self doubt. So as we sat on the bench, and she poured out her heart expressing her every fear and doubt, I felt another person's emotional pain more acutely than ever before. This wasn't just any body's pain, this was my darling daughter, and her pain made me feel as though I'd failed her in some way. I prayed for the right words, words of comfort and encouragement. I don't know how long I held her close, or how long we cried together. I don't know if my words provided any measure of comfort. All I knew was love, a deep unconditional love. For my daughter, my wife, my whole family, all my friends. They all enrich my life, often in ways I don't perceive and can't understand.

We were sitting at a table outside a little cafe near the train station. We were chatting and enjoying some ice cream (mine was a frozen yogurt, it was simply the best....ever!). Cait motioned toward something behind me and said, "there goes someone in one of those pointy head outfits, lets follow him and see where he goes." After the pointy headed guy we went, Caitlin making sure I didn't follow too closely. After several blocks there were more pointy headed guys, several more blocks even more pointy guys. We followed them into the old section of the city. Before long we were perched on a wall that bordered a little park, underneath a really large gnarly looking tree, waiting for what would be the Friday night procession. From up the street in front of us came two mothers with their children, two little girls that could be twins and one little boy. One of the little girls had a drum that she beat on, all three were kind of singing/dancing and being adorable for adorable's sake. I tried to record their antics with my i-phone, but by the time I got into position the performance was over. We waited for the procession, every now and then we would hear something, but no procession. Caitlin and I both were getting hungry, so we gave up the wait and went off in search of something to eat. We never did find a place that was suitable, and as time and daylight were running out we retreated to a place in the train station. It wasn't bad food either! We wandered the train station, I bought some really great black licorice. Before long we were on our way back to Madrid, the high speed train isn't quite as exciting at night. I tried to watch the movie, but found myself reviewing the day's events and all that I'd learned. We stumbled out of the Alonso Martinez Metro Station and up to the hotel. It was nearly 2 am, we needed to rest and prepare ourselves for the trip to Salamanca in the morning.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Prelude & Day One

The true story, as best as I can remember it, of Stephen and Caitlin Wittkop's travels in Spain. My darling daughter Caitlin is a language major studying Spanish, and needed to fulfill a study abroad requirement. Enter Universidad de Salamanca Cursos Internationales, a full immersion live, breathe, eat, speak the language for 10 weeks course. I had the responsibility and great pleasure to escort my darling daughter to Spain, and ultimately to Salamanca. But this is more than a mere travel log, because this was a journey of personal discovery as well. Purely selfish reasons motivate this blog, as it is my hope to relive all the wonder and emotions over again at some time in the distant future, when senility will make them seem fresh and new.

Day One, March 31 - April 1, 2010
Up really early (like 4:30 am-ish), loaded luggage into the car, and with the prayers and blessings of Caitlin's mother (my lovely bride) we were off on the first leg of the journey. The trip to Atlanta was delightful, cool but not cold, and as the sun came up it revealed a blue sky. A good day to travel. We made it to my brother's office in a timely manner, and after hugs and salutations, the three of us were headed to the airport. I had the wise foresight to bring some oatcakes, which we shared and consumed with hound dog gusto (anyone that wants the oatcake recipe let me know!). Brother Peter wasn't exactly sure where to drop us off, but the guess we made turned out to be exactly where we should be. Checked baggage, got boarding pass, and made our way to the departure gate. I don't remember the wait being long or excruciating, and within a few hours we were at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.

The first leg of the trip complete, we were confronted with our first uncertainty. When we checked in at Atlanta, we were issued only boarding passes for the flight to Chicago, we didn't want to leave the secure area and have to go through security again. A friendly TSA lady directed us toward the area where our departure gate would be and assured us that the airline would issue boarding pass at the gate. Well Duh! I guess TSA personnel get used to answering stupid questions from the inexperienced traveler.

We grabbed a quick meal in the food court close to the departure gate and settled in waiting on the plane to Madrid. Caitlin got the window seat and I stood guard in the aisle seat. Long flights are drudgery, but the A600 is a darn nice plane and at least we didn't have to sit in the center seats (4 across). We arrived in Madrid just after 7am local time and I was immediately impressed by the beauty of the Madrid Airport (i-phone picture above). We made our way through customs and found the baggage claim area. It's a shame we did not find both suit cases! After retrieving the large suit case we waited and waited for the smaller one. No small suit case. Caitlin was getting very upset. The small case had all the necessities of life in it, how would she survive? After doing the paperwork for a lost suit case and after a small nervous breakdown, we were on our way towards the exit. As we passed the belt where we retrieved the large suit case, the chute that delivers baggage to the belt was once a again active and spitting out luggage, and there was the beloved small suit case. A tearful reunion in the baggage claim area! We made our way to the main terminal, got a couple bottles of water and booked a shuttle bus to take us to the hotel. The shuttle driver spoke English and was very engaging. When Caitlin asked him which city would be the better for a day trip (Seville or Bilbao), his immediate response was Seville. I commented, "But Bilbao has the Frank Gerry designed Guggenheim", his response was "that's all it's got". Madrid is a city of about 5 million people and arriving at the time of day we did, in the middle of Holy Week, one could have thought it was our own private city. There were hardly any people on the streets, little or no traffic, it was spooky!

We were delivered to our hotel, checked in and got comfy in our room. It was at this point I experienced a sudden wave of dread. I was a stranger in a strange land, didn't speak the language, knew nothing of the customs or society. What would I do if something bad happened? The dread turned to guilt, for I am guilty of complete indifference toward those that come to my country (I am speaking of the wave of Mexicans that seem to have invaded our country over the past few years), they are strangers in my land, don't speak my language, are ignorant of my customs and values, etc. This was my first epiphany of the trip. I must show a gentler hand towards these invaders, these strangers in the land of my birth. Maybe I should volunteer to teach an English class (it could happen!?!) After awhile we made a few sorties out of the hotel room, just wandering around, not knowing where we were or where to go. We found a neighborhood cafe and had a little snack, it was good food and drink, but the experience reinforced my feeling of not belonging.

On the afternoon sortie we found a Starbucks. We had to go in, just to compare it to the Starbucks Caitlin works in at home. I know, why go into a uniquely American business when in Spain? Maybe because it offered comfort, a certain familiarity. If the Spanish could embrace and accept Starbucks, then they could darn well accept my daughter and I and we were a step closer to belonging there. Dinner was at a 24hr restaurant close to the hotel. As the sun was starting to set on our first day in Spain, Caitlin just wanted to retreat to the hotel room and her laptop. She had to Facebook her friends and tell of her adventure her own way. I went for a walk and learned the neighborhood near the hotel a little better. Found a cute clothing store that I new Caitlin would find interesting, found a Starbucks only a block from the hotel. The wave of dread was gone, the new Stephen was getting excited, tomorrow was a new day in my new country. And we were going to take the high speed train to Sevilla!