Wednesday, April 25, 2007

This is Cathy writing the blog. Usually David and I write together – so romantic – but I’ll be writing about a couple of trips that David didn’t get to go on. I guess he could write about the great meals he cooked while I was gone, but frankly, I think you’d rather read about Italy, Spain and Morocco than ramen noodles. (Hey, Cathy, no fair -- what about the nights I took the kids out for dinner?)

I’ve been traveling a good bit in the past two months. I’ve been trying to limit my airplane flights because I’m making an effort to reduce my carbon footprint. But I think I blew my carbon budget for the year on plane trips to Italy and Spain.

The trip to Italy was purely pleasure – a week with Emma, two other teenaged girls, and an long-time Seattle friend with family roots in Italy. We went to Sicily and Calabria (Calabria is the toe of the Italian boot, Sicily is the soccer ball). David warned us to stay away from soccer games – the past several months have been marred by soccer fan riots in Europe that have resulted in serious injuries and even a death in Catania, Sicily. But Emma and I went for the shoes (definitely not the cleats) and the food. We also went so we could meet our friend’s family who lived up in the olive groves of Calabria. The shoes were great – trendy and elegant. The food was flaky and sweet in the morning and dripping with olive oil and cheese at night and it is a good thing feet don’t expand as quickly as waistlines.

We got on the plane in Copenhagen with proper blonde Swedes and Danes and mysteriously, by the time we got to Rome, everyone was shorter and had dark hair. It was weird, when we landed people were having loud arguments, making out, and pushing, and the overhead compartments were full of cheese – the plane ride had completely changed everyone’s appearance and personality.

We enjoyed our first excellent espresso, canolli, and fresh blood orange juice in the Rome airport, then took a short flight to Sicily. We rented a car at the airport. It was the first time I’d driven in a few months and, while the Italian drivers were far more polite than I expected, the roads were not designed for a car that held five people and their luggage. Our first stop was Taoramina, up the steep flanks of active Mt. Etna. I drove through an increasingly narrow street and finally had to drive down it in reverse with the verbal assistance of half the streets' residents. I almost turned down another street before a woman pushing a baby carriage gestured wildly and told me the street was 1.9 meters and she could see our car was 2 meters wide.

Taoramina is built into a hill and the highlights of our first Italian dinner, down four flights of stairs from our hotel, were good bread, strong olive oil, and a good wine from the ashy soil of Mt. Etna. Since we ate in a seafood restaurant, the owner brought out a huge tray of raw seafood on ice – shrimps, sea bass, clams and so on – sort of like a cheese or dessert tray where he could lovingly describe each fish. He also brought out a half dozen photo albums with pictures of satisfied customers – an Irish singing group, a Russian fashion model, a famous singer I'd never heard of, and big dumpy middle-aged couples. A few more flights of stairs down in the main part of town we could see people wandering around in costumes and throwing confetti to the beat of a pop music light show. It was Mardi Gras!

In the morning we walked through drifts of confetti and investigated the marzipan shop (I settled on the marzipan artichokes, rather than the marzipan chicken legs or marzipan corn on the cob). We found a pasta shop that sold pasta in a variety of forms including pasta shaped like little penises. (See the bonus pictures below!) Tell me, what do they call the pasta dish from that? The girls tried on shoes, ate gelato and were blown away by the price of leather jackets at Dolce & Gabbana.

In the middle of our trip, we took a ferry over to Calabria and drove several hours up into the mountains to
spend a night with my friend’s cousins. Perhaps because it was an Italian family, there was a long-running feud between the families of the old brother and sister who both lived in the same tiny village. We visited both branches separately. They spoke no English. Actually, the elderly sister spoke a little English, but she was partially deaf. And she wouldn’t translate for her brother because of the feud. The brother, Francisco, kept a little book in which he had carefully noted all of the family names and branches, including the names of my friend, her six brothers and sisters, and all of their spouses and children. It turned out that for years, as each of these American cousins came up into the hills for a visit to the old country, Francisco had worried that they were coming to stake their claim on their portion of the family olive grove. I think at this point he realizes the American branch just comes for the family experience, so Francisco’s family set out a big lunch spread and we had the pleasure of a table-full of people saying, “Mange! Mange!” to really encourage us to “Eat! Eat!” We left full and ready to head back to Sicily and the town of Siracusa.

We were amazed at the art, architecture and ancient ruins of Siracusa. We stayed a few days just south of Siracusa, on the ancient fortress island of Ortygia. We walked the same streets as Plato, Sappho, Archimedes, and Dionysius. But not in the same shoes.

Catania, where we stayed on our last night, was an armpit of a city, clearly the product of corrupt city governance. Every other place else we visited in Italy was much better managed and taken care of.

When we left Lund for Italy, the farmers in the market had been selling twigs that they assured us would bloom, and the farmers had been covering their vegetables with warm blankets so their lettuces wouldn’t freeze (check out the photos in our previous post). The days were short, dark and cold. When we got back from Italy, crocuses and little purple and white flowers were in bloom on campus lawns but the days, while sunny, were still cold and short. Then Akiva and I left for three weeks in Spain and Morocco and David and Emma looked forward to three weeks of ramen noodles. (David sez: enough is enough! Emma and I actually made fish one night!)

The reason I went to Spain was for a meeting to discuss the Aalborg Commitments by the European Sustainable Cities and Towns group in Sevilla. Rather than just fly quickly in and out of Sevilla, I decided to explore the region a bit more. And I decided to take along a traveling companion.

When Akiva and I looked at a map we saw Africa was less than a fingernail away from Spain (maps can be so deceptive). So we decided to take a train and ferry to Morocco after the Sevilla meeting. And just a few days before the Sevilla meeting, I saw an announcement for a meeting in Barcelona of the Alliance for Global Sustainability. That sounded good too, so Akiva and I headed off first to Barcelona, then took a little side trip to Valencia, Spain’s third largest city. On our trip we ended up in Morocco and in the four largest Spanish cities – Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, and Sevilla.

A little about Valencia. We all know about Valencia oranges – Sevilla oranges, Valencia dreams – and Valencia has lately been in the news because it is hosting the America’s Cup sailing competitions. Valencia also claims to have originated paella. But the reason we took a four-hour train ride from Barcelona to Valencia was because I’d read about Falles. Falles is fire festival in honor of St. Joseph that has grown to mammoth proportions. We were ready for heat, for loud eruptions, for color searing across the sky. You say fire, I say go. (Burning Man, here I come!)

Each year people in 350 or so neighborhoods in Valencia build elaborate, elegant and giant papier-mache sculptures. The sculptures tend to depict political satires – which we didn’t understand – and to be a bit crude – which even Akiva understood. The sculpture that receives the most community votes is placed in a museum. The other 349 are stuffed with firecrackers and burned up on March 19 at midnight. In my humble city planner opinion, this set of activities is immensely successful for creating strong communities and a healthy city. Valencia is a jewel – the police are really helpful, the sanitation workers are exceptional. Streets were swept moments after fireworks, garbage cans were emptied before becoming full, parks and benches were plentiful and well-cared for.

The serious city problem I saw in Valencia – remember it is just a fingernail away from Africa – were the large encampments of African men under most all bridges in the big city parks. The men were hanging out their washing next to cardboard box houses, setting up chairs in their “front yards” on carefully mowed park lawns, and they glided silently through Falles crowds with barely a ripple. Other immigrants, from Central and South American, seemed a bit more integrated, selling street trinkets and playing Peruvian panpipes, but the African refugees presented true sustainability problems with no easy solutions.

Leading up to the orgy of Falles sculpture burning are three weeks of parades and music, carnivals, bullfights with guest matadors, people getting dressed up in old costumes, and of course fireworks. We saw plenty of fireworks, including a midnight show and another super loud show at 2 in the afternoon in the main city square -- packed with perhaps 500,000 people. Akiva sat on a dumpster with 10 other kids who all kept rolling off whenever an especially loud rocket exploded.

Akiva and I walked around maybe 30 Falles sculptures, and saw the parade of thousands of women (and
babies) in jeweled dresses and mantilla, their hair coiled like Princess Leia, bringing armloads of red, white and pink chrysanthemums for an offering to a giant Virgin Mary. Some of the women weep as they walk, but I suspect some may be weeping after being in a nine-hour parade. The men also dressed up – like pirates with short pants, vests, and bandannas. The artisans who created the Falles also had their own special outfit of a smock with a yoke and gathered pleats and a plaid Falles scarf particular to each neighborhood.

We especially liked watching the jeweled women text messaging, smoking, and eating soft ice cream and churros that were being deep fried on nearly every corner. We took a pass on the bullfights. We also took a pass on March 19 when the city explodes since we had to be back in Barcelona for my meeting.

Our first few days in Barcelona were spent on the tourist trail – we stayed on the famous Ramblas pedestrian mall and went to the Picasso Museum (a must see), the aquarium (okay, but it needs more information on the current state of the oceans). A popular street theater in Barcelona was men who dressed up as Greek sculptures and stood on pedestals waiting for people to drop a few Euros in their hats before they came to life. I think they would also have come to life if we’d taken their hats. We spent the majority of our time in Barcelona wandering around looking at the work of Antoni Gaudi.

I’d heard Gaudi’s name before but hadn’t much considered his work before visiting Barcelona. Gaudi was an architect who lived and worked around Barcelona between 1880-1926. Gaudi turned architecture on its head, and blew in its ear. He was remarkable for his creative breadth, his obsessive attention to detail, and his productivity. He designed and supervised the construction of furniture, houses, stores, apartments, schools, churches, a cathedral, and our favorite, the huge (44 acre) Park G¸ell that is managed by the Barcelona parks department. Every path, every tile-encrusted bench, every soaring column was beautiful, efficient and practical – and a delight to move through. Akiva loved climbing the walls.

Gaudi built all of his masterpieces by attending first to nature – the shapes of the windows in his apartment building La Pedrera were like leaves that morphed gradually to maximize interior light while keeping the building interior cool. The columns holding up his massive cathedral La Sagrada FamÌlia resembled in shape, angle, and function, the trunks of trees. In fact it was the cathedral that Gaudi became truly obsessed by. He ended up living at the building site and eventually begging local neighbors for donations to continue his work. When he was killed near the cathedral by a streetcar, he was not recognized at first because of his overgrown hair and his pauper’s clothes, held together by pins.

Although Akiva tends to dress down, I’m still keeping him presentable. In fact he was more than presentable and made many friends at my Barcelona meeting because he spoke three of the main conference languages – English, Swedish and Japanese. The Alliance for Global Sustainability is a group of about 200 academic researchers on energy and water from MIT, University of Tokyo, Chalmers Sweden, ETH Zurich and the Technical University of Catalonia. I spent my time networking in English and was most impressed with student work: a campus organization in Tokyo that had schooled the university in campus-wide energy efficiency measures; joint programs led by MIT students to Asian and Africa to work with local innovators on energy and water reclamation projects using local materials; students studying a bouquet of energy sources – solar, wind, biofuels, geothermal – to grow unique energy solutions for local regions. These bright students realize that one size and style of shoe does not fit all!

Akiva and I also liked the emeritus University of Tokyo professor who frequently reminded all the eggheads at the meeting to keep their own bodies healthy through good diet and exercise. This professor believes sustainability education at every level begins with understanding our personal, physical connection to the planet – and that we can’t work for sustainability if we neglect our own bodies.

I also spent some time with the group of academics who are starting to develop educational curricula for sustainability education – I do wonder how soon sustainable planet questions will show up on the S.A.T.s and other standardized tests.

Akiva struck up a friendship with Dennis Meadows, one of the authors of a classic environmental text, The Limits to Growth. Dennis, who now lives in France, was the keynote speaker in Barcelona and it turned out he was also going to be the keynote speaker at the conference we were headed to in Sevilla. So we shared a cab ride and got together on the overnight train from Barcelona to Sevilla.

The overnight train to Sevilla might have been the highlight of the trip for Akiva. Spanish trains are clean, reliable, and (according to Akiva) fun! We shared a bunk bed, ate in the dining car, and were enchanted with our little toiletry kit that came with our compartment. We got to Sevilla ready to meet and completely refreshed.

The Sevilla meeting brought together close to 2000 city planners, mayors, environmental consultants and other folks trying to make sense of new European Union sustainability rules – and people simply trying to make their cities better. More than half of the participants came from southern Europe – Spain, Italy and Portugal – but there were people from all over the world. I was the only American – except for Dennis Meadows, but then again, he has emigrated.

The meeting presented best practices and trainings, which were okay, but I got the most information by networking and talking to people next to their posters of current projects. The meetings, especially rooms full of mayors, seemed ready to float away on their own hot air. Akiva was ready to leave long before I was, so on the last day of the meeting, we walked around Sevilla a bit and then got on a bus to Tarifa, the most southern port city of mainland Spain (there are a couple of Spanish islands further south off the coast of Africa).

We played cards on the three hour bus ride while the rolling green hills with orange groves changed into dryer grape growing regions, and finally into the wind-scrubbed port of Tarifa. Tarifa is considered a windsurfer’s mecca and it has the pizza joints, board shops, and biker cafes to prove it. We were just there overnight, long enough to have a pesto pizza and pesto pasta made by a chef who went to the groceria next door to buy a bunch of basil. We headed off on the first ferry of the morning to Morocco, an hour away.

The ferry was packed with cars carrying surfboards and a couple hundred people with day-glow Coast of Africa and Costa del Sol stickers affixed to their jackets on their way to Tangier with us.

I’d read on the web and in various guidebooks to watch out for shady moneychangers, thieves, hustlers, taxi scams, and beggers when the ferry landed in Morocco, so my traveling antenna were way up as Akiva and I got off the boat. Well, the guidebooks were wrong. There were some people in long robes greeting relatives and friends, a mess of tour buses waiting for the day-glow sticker crowd, an ATM machine, and a couple of taxis. I changed money – although the taxi driver was happy to take Euros since the money machine only gave me big bills that he couldn’t change after he drove me to the train station. The train station was newly remodeled and clean, the helpful and pleasant ticket sellers spoke English, and there was a clean bathroom, a stand up snack bar, and another ATM machine. We sat around for a few hours waiting for our four-hour train ride to Rabat, the capital of Morocco.

Rabat lacks the romance in our imaginations of Marrakech, Fez, or Casablanca, but a good friend of ours in Seattle is married to a Moroccan man from Rabat and we were lucky to be invited to spend a night with his family at their weekend house near the beach in Skirhat, a suburb of Rabat. Their house was in the middle of a new development – houses were being built all around us by construction crews who lived in tents next to the buildings they were working on. Our hosts included our friend’s mother, his two sisters (one worked for the city of Rabat as an accountant and the other was a doctor – a nephrologist), the accountant’s husband, and their daughter. Language was a bit difficult for us since we don’t speak Arabic or French. While Akiva entertained the two-year-old daughter, I watched our friend’s mom make vegetarian cous-cous. We also experienced our first cup of Moroccan mint tea, poured steaming hot from high above the tea glasses – a Moroccan drink of bonding and relaxation. Our friend’s family called a riad – a B&B in a traditional courtyard house – that an acquaintance had just opened in Marrakech and made arrangements for our next night in Morocco.

After a walk on the beach – great waves, surfers! – we passed by a woman riding in a hired car. It turns out getting a taxi is not just as simple as calling a taxi – our host had to shanghai the driver (and his current passenger) to their beach house and then get a commitment from the driver to come back later to take us to the train station for the next part of our journey.

The five-hour train ride to Marrakech was pretty uneventful. The train rose into the mountainous interior, past sheep scattered on parched red earth and eucalyptus trees aligned along dry stream beds. Men lingered outside our train compartment having intense conversations in Arabic, sucking hard on pungent cigarettes. We talked to people in our six-seat train compartment – a young man from Fez who thought Marrakech was boring, a Moroccan couple visiting from Miami where they worked in a hotel. Most people were friendly but the woman from Casablanca on the seat next to me reading the Koran looked with some disapproval at Akiva’s uncovered hair before answering her phone set to a ring tone of Jingle Bells.

Marrakech also seemed a bit different than guidebooks had indicated. Much tamer, easier to get around, and less filled with exotic people than I had expected. The riad where we stayed the first night was empty – we may have been among its first guests – and the managers were still trying to figure out how to be good hosts. It was convenient to the main sites of the city – we could easily walk to the main square Djema‚ el Fna, where most all of the Berber snake charmers, henna tattoo artists, monkey trainers, musicians, souk vendors, orange juice squeezers and fortune tellers hung out. Same old, same old. What I really enjoyed in the square was the ecstatic Gnawa music played late at night, although it freaked Akiva out.

On our first day in Marrakech I sprained my ankle and so I decided we’d hire a car, drive into the desert, and ride camels. We found a driver to take us over the Atlas Mountains, through a snow squall, past Berber villages with hungry children (really the only noticeable poverty we saw on the whole trip), around hairpin turns that showed yet more villages carved into the mountainside, distinguishable from the rocky landscape only by their bright white satellite dishes. I’d read about the petroglyphs of the Dra’a Valley and hoped to see them, but our driver couldn’t find them.

We did find the dunes and the camels and spent a magical night under the stars, nursing our camel-riding saddle sores. We fell asleep looking at shooting stars and hearing snatches of Berber talking, singing and drumming coming from tents scattered all around us. We awoke at dawn, had a Berber breakfast (flatbread, oranges and strong tea), rode our camels a few hours back to the paved road and spent the next day walking slowly through a couple of other Berber towns – Zagora and Ouarzazate and other mountain villages.

I’d been hesitant to use internet cafes since Casablanca had just had a suicide bomber in an internet cafe, but I figured it would be okay hacking in the desert, surrounded by a bunch of guys in long blue, brown and green hooded Berber robes. These guys were much better dressed for the weather than I was – when I left them in the computer cafe at night to walk the quarter mile back to our hotel I fought through a sand/wind storm and wished I had a long hooded robe too.

Back in Marrakech we moved to a different riad that had much more experienced hosts and a beautifully kept room. We spent the next two days wandering around Marrakech palaces, the Jewish synagogue and cemetery (both had armed guards), and getting henna tattoos that we took on with us to Madrid, the last city of our journey.

We had been away from Lund for 18 nights and slept in 13 beds in 9 cities. We traveled with carry-on luggage but we were getting a bit ragged. Madrid perked us right up. I left Akiva asleep in the morning in Madrid (we’d arrived at our hotel at 2 in the morning) and walked through beautiful city plazas just starting to wake up with shutters rolling open, people having their morning coffee, and sanitation workers picking up from the revelries of the night before.

Our hotel was just a block away from a big art museum called the Prado. Even getting there early, long lines were waiting to get in to see the masterpieces. I wanted to Akiva to see some paintings by Michelangelo, D¸rer and Rembrandt, but I knew what he really would like best would be The Garden of Earthly Delights by Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch, painted around 1500. Akiva was indeed enchanted and we spent a good chunk of time in front of this painting, discussing what was going on. It’s a truly bizarre and surprisingly modern piece of work. Then we headed off to nearby Park Retiro, rented a rowboat and spent the last afternoon of our trip racing around a little lake.

When we got back from Spain and Morocco the crocuses in Lund had given way to forsythia, magnolias and daffodils and to that surest sign of spring flowering – teens sunbathing in the central plaza. We welcome the longer days to come.

[Note: we'll post some bonus photos from these trips in a separate entry pretty soon!]


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