November: Spain

When we moved to Morocco I discovered that several European discount airlines flew in and out of Casablanca for something akin to bus fair...I went a little crazy.  In one night I bought tickets for both of us to Lisbon and Madrid...for about the price of two fancy dinners out.  Max stopped me just before I bought tickets to Milan, and it's a good thing.  Who knows where I would have stopped?  I was out of control.

But I do not regret my impulsive travel bargain shopping.

We loved Madrid for the following reasons:

The Spanish Royal Palace & Cathedral
The churches in Spain are pretty much like free art shows - with some extra pizazz...the Catholic kind, I guess.  The Royal Palace Cathedral has some beautiful stained glass and vibrantly painted ceilings.

The Royal Palace was nothing to sneeze at either.  It was a much welcomed honest-to-gosh blustery autumn day and we were glad to make our way through the line into the Palace after an hour or so.  One of the 2,000 plus rooms, the Stradivarious Room, contains the only matching Stradivarious quartet in the world (two violins, a viola, and a cello).  I sneaked a picture of one of them before being tsk tsked by an attendant.  Which, of course, made me very embarrassed.  I hate pushy tourists who think their picture of priceless art is more important than the preservation of said priceless art.  I was just swept up in the Stradivarious moment!
The Royal Palace
 Outside of amazing free art in the Spanish churches we went to a few museums in Madrid that were terrific.  We stood in front of Picasso's Guernica for some time at the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia.  It is massive - about   137 inches by 305 inches.  Even better than seeing it in person was seeing it in Spain where the tragedy of Guernica actually happened - to read about the history, see part of the country in which it occurred, and then see the art it inspired added another level of appreciation for me.  ...and sometimes, let's be honest, adds the first level of appreciation.  I like art, but I'm not afraid to admit I don't always get it, you know?

El Greco!  El Greco was born in Greece (hence the name) but painted during the 16th century in Spain.  The wikipedia describes his style by saying  

El Greco has been characterized by modern scholars as an artist so individual that he belongs to no conventional school. He is best known for tortuously elongated figures and often fantastic or phantasmagorical pigmentation, marrying Byzantine traditions with those of Western painting.  

His religious figures are sinewy and sad and always painted as if part of this world and part of the next.  I didn't know much about him before this trip and we were lucky to see his work in several museums in Madrid and Toledo.      

Which brings me to Toledo!

Tagus River Surrounding Toledo on Three Sides
 We took a short 30 minute train ride from Madrid to Toledo and spent a few days wandering up hills (only uphill it seemed) into churches, and mosques and synagogues and having a generally wonderful time.  Toledo was once a haven of relative tolerance and co-mingling of Moors (Muslims from North Africa), Christians, and Jews alike.  We saw many remnants of Toledo's golden age including a Sephardic Synagogue and Museum (the name for Spanish Jews), a Muslim Mosque, and my favorite, the Cathedral of Toledo.  I think this may be my favorite church of the any I've seen in Europe.

The Cathedral of Toledo
Oh, hello.
Toledo's cathedral not only boasts a dozen El Greco's and a handful of Goyas depicting Christ and the Apostles, but also carved stucco in geometric patterns and muqarnes - both very traditional Muslim architectural arts found in Mosques all over the Middle East.  The sacristy contains tapestries and clothing of previous cardinals, including golden banners covered in Arabic writing.  No where else have I seen such a mixture of religious iconography.  Granted the choir seats in the nave of the church depict the violent recapturing of Granada and its surrounding cities during the Crusades, but there are still whispers of a moment where art and devotion were universally appreciated in Toledo regardless of faith. 

Is it wrong that after learning the tiny misericords in the choir (small benches what you lean on while praying) illustrate various naughty activities frowned upon by the Catholic church we tried to figure out what each of them was?  Surprisingly enough, the only one a little blush worthy was a man peeking on a nude bather.  Most of them depicted dragon fighting and animals playing cards together... Strange days, those Middle Ages.    

The amazing gold plated altar piece in the Toledo Cathedral
A peek into the courtyard of one of the monasteries we visited in Toledo.
Best Gargoyle Ever. 
The horseshoe door speaks to Toledo's Moorish past

Toledo at Night
Don Quioxte
Love me some Don Quioxte.  Toledo borders on Don Quioxte's region of windmills and you could find little statues of him everywhere.   When Max bopped into a local shop to ask the shopkeeper the name of Don Quioxte's trusted companion he looked a bit aghast and said "Sancho.  Of course!  This is very important here."  So there you go.  If you go to Spain you'd better know your Sancho.  

I think I found my food heaven.  I am a plate sharer and I like to sample everything at the table.  Enter Tapas.  These tiny portions are usually ordered at bars and people will have a bite and a drink at one bar, mozy down the lane and eat another tiny plate and have another tiny glass of beer and so on. But the experience is equally as good for teetotalers like ourselves.  We prowled the streets looking for tasty menus and then popped in for small plates of sausages, cheese, jamon, grilled veggies or fried fish.

For the record, I had the best garlic shrimp of my life in Madrid.  I watched them dump a handful of shrimp in a small dish of olive oil and oodles of garlic and slowly heat it up until they were cooked.  Max had to stop me from tipping up the bowl of garlicky goodness and drinking it when we finished. We compromised on me sopping it up with a chunk of bread.

Other food highlights include copious amounts of Spanish ham called "Jamon Iberico" - think little four seasons piggies fed on acorns and other lovely things their whole life - spicy chorizo sausage (see a trend?), plates of Manchego cheese and perhaps the finest meal I have ever eaten.  After touring castles and walking up hills all day in Toledo we stopped for an early dinner at the base of the Castle.  After about three hours we had cleaned up a dish of partridge served with giant white beans, roasted red peppers with cured deer meat, roast suckling pig with mashed garlic potatoes and bacon wrapped fillet Mignon stuffed with a fig dressing (respectively).  We finished with a mango moose topped almond custard as well as a chocolate "St. Geronimo" cake.  Once a decade my friends.  I don't know if my waist line (or my wallet) could handle much more than that kind of excess.            

And the hot "chocolate" with dipping churros!  Best. Dessert. Ever.  On more occasions than a weekend really demanded we partook of hot chocolate - really more like pudding - and tiny churros for dipping into the pudding/chocolate.  I'm reliving my food coma just thinking about all the good food. 

On Speaking Arabic
Why would my Scottish looking American husband speak Arabic?

That must have been what our waiter at the Museum of Ham was thinking (Please note that the restaurant is really called The Museum of Ham).  When we struck up a conversation with our waiter and he learned that we were from America he said "Well, I am from Baghdad.  You know, things are hard here.  I work and I work and at the end the day I just don't quite have enough to make the ends meet"

Too bad for him said Scottish looking husband responded in modern standard Arabic "You are from Baghdad!  Well, it's nice to meet you.  How long have you been in Madrid" 

To which our waiter did not respond, so Max repeated it and then the waiter smiled nervously, ducked his head and walked away.


Playing on the sympathies of traveling Americans in regards to the war in Iraq.  Shame on you Mr. Spanish Man.  Shame on you.  But props to my Mr. Red Beard.



I’m a swimmer.  But I don’t come from a family of swimmers.  We have kept our feet firmly on the ground for decades kicking soccer balls.   I estimate my sweet mother has sat through at least 1,000 soccer games in her life…that’s a lot of hooting and hollering.  But during the 2004 Athens Olympic games I became obsessed and started swimming in our local pool.  As my skills improved I purchased goggles and a cap – because I felt ridiculous doing the dog paddle in full gear. Overtime it became my go to for exercise.  To the point that high levels of chorine in the University pool ate away the backside of my swimming suit in college… I didn’t notice for some time.  Good thing it was my college bum and not my almost thirty bum.

When we got to Morocco I was very excited to start swimming again – between the move from Jerusalem, our temporary status in DC, and fertility injections that made me sick, it had been a long time.   Surprisingly enough I couldn’t find a lot of lap pools in the area!  There are pools along the ocean front corniche, but most of them are filled with ocean water and accessible only with expensive club memberships.  And really, like I want to swim laps in front of people wearing diamonds with their bathing suits.

Another, larger concern of mine in Morocco is interacting with actual Moroccans.  For my job I do a bit of it, but it’s always in a work capacity.  Max and I have come to realize it’s a lot harder to have regular conversations with people now than it was before as students.  We drive a car so we aren’t interacting with bus drivers and fellow passengers, we have a housekeeper who buys our groceries during the week so we only talk to people at the markets on the weekend, and we work with Americans all day long  (with the noted exception of locally employed staff who are awesome – thank goodness for them). 

When we set about looking for a gym we wanted three things 1) a gym with a pool 2) a gym with different floors for genders instead of different days like most places in Casa and 3) a local gym where we could engage with actual Moroccans.  Thanks to the help of my Moroccan office-mate we were able to accomplish all three. 

A few weeks ago we showed up for the first time on a women’s swim night – even though there are floors for men and women the pool is separated by gender each night.  I pulled my stuff out of our shared gym bag before Max disappeared into the men’s floor and I made my way down to the pool.  As I descended I heard crazy loud disco music and all manner of yelling and splashing.  To my delight, and a bit to my nervousness, I discovered a water aerobics class in session. 

“Venez! Venez!”  the drill instructor/aerobics teacher hollered from her position at the front of the pool.  Come, Come

I dutifully ducked into the changing room but when I unrolled my towel it revealed I had somehow packed only my tankini bottoms….  Bad news bears.  My options were to stick it out in the dressing room until Max was finished in an hour and try to explain myself in broken French to the class, or act like it was normal to wear a high wasted tankini bottom with a hot pink sports bra to water aerobics.   Some of these women were wearing knee length swimming suits and I already stuck out as the only non-Moroccan, but what’s living overseas really about if not feeling uncomfortable from time to time?

I tried to drop my towel and sneak into the water as inconspicuously as possible and it was well worth it.  They know how to work it out here!  When you think water aerobics you think of retirement home pools full of swimming-suit-skirted-empty-milk-jug-swinging 70 year olds, but at the risk of sounding cliché, this wasn’t your grandma’s water aerobics class.  A young Moroccan ran the length of the pool and back the entire time shouting for people to work harder and on occasion even reaching into the water to push someone’s head down, making water treading more challenging.   And she didn’t shy away from bossing me as the newcomer. 

“Plus Dur!  Plus Vite!”  work harder, work faster!  she yelled, squatting next to me in the pool. 

Somehow it wasn’t a confrontational kind of yelling, everyone was laughing and having a great time – kicking their legs about and yelling jokes back to the instructor.  Every once in a while she stopped for a small dance break and then got back to the pool.  It was awesome.  

In the locker room afterwards the 15 + women where having multiple conversations with each other in a web across the small space and passing dates back and forth to eat.  Most were sitting in wrapped towels telling stories and illustrating them with exaggerated hand movements.  At this point they had switched to Arabic and I had little idea of what they were saying, but it was nice to witness, if not be part of in a small way, the camaraderie and intimacy that happens with Arab women behind closed doors.   It is much stronger than I have ever experienced in an American women’s locker room where everyone faces the wall to change clothes and then bustles out before the sweat has dried on their foreheads.  I realized that my swimming suit bottom/sports bra combination didn’t matter a bit and what matters here is being together.

One particularly jovial woman handed me a date.  “B’saha” she smiled from behind her sopping wet hair.  To Your Health   


Morocco at the Met

Love This.