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Have you ever revisited an old love affair to discover that nothing is quite the way you remembered it? What once looked glossy and polished may now seem a little tawdry? What once was deeply romantic many now feel a bit contrived?
I first fell in love with Capri in 1995. I arrived by night on a late ferry, flanked by a handful of college-age women from my study abroad program in Florence. We'd hopped a train to Naples, made our way through its insanely crowded streets to the ferry landing, and cruised across the famous Bay to arrive at this magnificent rocky outcrop jutting proudly from the Mediterranean Sea.
Capri! It took my breath away.
Twenty-two years later my memories of that long weekend are still blurry but warm. I recall the long, winding bus ride up to the top of the island, AnaCapri, where our group had arranged shared rooms in an inexpensive hostel that looked (to me, at the time) like a 'real' castle.
I remember eating spaghetti bolognese under the stars at an open air restaurant by the side of that same road; staring out into the deep night, across the white rooftops undulating in the darkness.
I have the faintest recollection of hiking with friends through ancient fields and coming across 'real' Roman ruins. Someone took photos of me gazing in awe at two glorious rocky limestone edifices rising from the sea off the island - I Faraglioni. I recall thinking what a romantic spot this could be, if you were there with the right person.
In my college photo album from that year, I have pictures of a few of us entering the world-famous Grotta Azzurra (also known as the Blue Grotto) in a rowboat. Somewhere deep in the cavern of my memory I remember the man piloting that wooden boat telling us to lay down, low, in the bottom of the boat so we could slip through the tiny hole that was the entrance to the cave. I can still see the luminous electric blue light inside of that underwater cave. I have zero recollection of how we hired him, how long it took to get there, or anything else. Just that radiant, searing blue.
I remember wanting to dive into its brilliant waters and feeling envious of Roman Emperor Tiberius, whose private swimming hole this had once been.
"I get it," I thought. Tiberius might have been one of the cruel Roman emperors, but I had to admit he had good taste.
At age 19, I was an easy sell. This was the stuff dreams are made of. Later, when back studying at my university in California, I came across a cigarette ad in a magazine that was set in Capri. In it there is a photo of a beautiful woman on a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean.
Above the woman, the ad reads: "She's gone to Capri and she's not coming back."
I didn't smoke, but I clipped out that ad and pressed it into my scrapbook anyway.
"Someday I'll return!" I told my roommate.
* * * * *
Twenty two years later I found myself on a warm June day crossing the Bay of Naples again. I was headed back to Capri! Except this time, I'd brought not just 'THE' right person... by my side were FOUR of my favorite people!
Seated next to me in the crowded, slightly run-down professional ferry were my husband Señor Aventura and our three children - The Scientist (11), Soccer Dude (10) and Little Angel (8).
There we were, crossing the Mediterranean in the glorious summer sunshine!
And boy, were they ever grumpy!
Everyone was sleepy and hungry. Little Angel was yawning. Soccer Dude wanted to play video games on a phone. My husband mentioned about ten times how much he preferred to go on wild swimming adventures. Even more, The Scientist had an infected cut that was really bothering his foot. Every single step the poor guy took hurt. There was a lot of grumbling! As you can see from the photos, none of them were that excited about our arrival.
"It's going to be great!" I chirped at them like an irritating mama Pollyanna.
"Humph!" they groused, and continued silently up the hill to the heart of town.
Ultimately though, after we stopped at a pharmacy to get the foot sorted out, things started to improve. We had lunch at a restaurant with a beautiful view.
(The food was overpriced and just so-so, but the view itself was world class.)
With food in our bellies, our little group of grumblies stopped noticing only the hordes of tourists flocking restaurants, cafes and jewelry stores around us... and instead began to see the loveliness of the buildings and the land.
"It's pretty here, Mom," Little Angel exclaimed. "There are so many flowers!"
While our glasses weren't exactly rose-colored yet, they were certainly much brighter than they'd been an hour or two earlier!
Here then, are the great triumphs and recommendations from the day we spent exploring Capri... along with a few helpful hints for tourist traps you may want to avoid.
Highly Recommended - 4 Things You MUST DO in Capri!
1) Get out of town!
So here's the thing. Capri has been a 'resort town' for thousands of years since the days of the Roman Emperors. This area has been dedicated to tourism before most major European cities existed. So, as you may expect, the heart of the resort town itself really feels commercial. The town of Capri lives and breathes tourism... and seems also to be infused with cash from wealthy expats looking for summer homes. The vibe doesn't really feel authentically Italian... it feels 'fake Italian'.
As an antidote we recommend getting out of town! Pick a direction and/or a destination and just start walking. There are a myriad of beautiful, well maintained roads and paths that will take you all over the island. The further you walk away from central Capri (and its boat landing below) the more likely you are to find something authentically beautiful and enriching. There are a lot of places you can walk to, and you could probably even walk the entire length of the island in a full day to see several of them.
The longer you walk, the less likely you are to run into groups of other tourists... most of whom take the buses and do not walk. The farther you walk, the more likely you are to engage with locals who actually live and work on Capri. (More about this later!)
As we walked we passed by amazing things including the villas of famous British writers, gorgeous landscapes, farmers cultivating lemons on terraced hills, and what was perhaps the world's most beautiful cat!
2) Do something OLD! Really old!
The highlights of Capri are OLD... and famous for a reason.
There are several you can choose to visit - mainly on your own - including ruins from the old Imperial palaces (including the temples, villas and aqueducts of Emperor Augustus), the Faraglioni, the Grotta Azzura, the small harbor, and lovely Anacapri.
As long as you're not traveling with tiny children we highly recommend Villa Jovis. Built by Emperor Tiberius and completed in 27 A.D. this is one of the most preserved ancient Roman imperial villas in Europe.
For a very small fee you can enter and roam through Villa Jovis on your own, even walking around its grounds and through abandoned/destroyed rooms of the ruined palace. You can step right on the ancient tiled paths, and sit in the rooms of the Emperor, taking in his ridiculously phenomenal view.
It's no wonder Tiberius retired here and governed Rome for the last 10 years of his reign from Capri.
Just be careful, there are no security measures at Villa Jovis and if you are traveling with small children I would not recommend bringing them near the area where Tiberius used to throw (no joke) his prisoners and slaves into the sea. The drop is easily hundreds of meters and there are no protective guard rails to stop your little person from slipping off the side of the cliff.
Villa Jovis is truly unforgettable and will make your journey to Capri completely worthwhile.
3) Make a local friend!
When we travel we try to speak with locals as often as we can, especially in the native language if we know any part of it. I recommend this even more when you're in a place as overrun with international tourists as Capri.
We struck up conversations with everyone we met... from servers in the restaurant to the man offering a clean bathroom at the side of the road for hikers.
It's easy to understand why Capri natives would have a love/hate relationship with tourists that provide their livelihood. We've seen so many rude, entitled tourists in action - demanding, condescending, littering.
We try instead to show respect and ask questions to the people who actually live and work there about the history of the island, and for recommendations about the best parts of it. You may just get some 'secret' recommendations that will give you a more authentic and special experience!
4) Buy something lemony!
Limoncello is a liqueur that has been made in southern Italy, especially along the Sorrento and Amalfi Coasts, for at least a hundred years. It is produced from lemon zest (Femminello St. Teresa lemons) left to steep in spirits. When the oil is expressed, it makes a yellow liquid that they mix with syrup. Limoncello is beloved in Italy (just after Campari!) and lately other parts of the world are discovering it too.
In Capri you can also buy liqueur filled lemon candies and all kinds of aprons and ceramics decorated with lemons. The best part is that these special lemons are actually grown on Capri and so it is likely that with effort you can find and purchase a limoncello or candies that come from locally produced lemons.
4 Things to SKIP in Capri...
1) Try NOT to eat at a restaurant on the main street
If you want to experience truly great Italian food, we suggest staying on the mainland in Sorrento... or even perhaps heading to a smaller town like Massa Lubrense or Sant'Agata. The restaurants on the main street in Capri are terribly overpriced and, much like California's Disneyland, they have a captive audience. You are on an island and you are hungry... thus, you will have to eat, even if the quality of the food is not spectacular.
If price is no problem, there are a few well-reviewed restaurants to be found on the Island... including Ristorante Le Grottelle and Ristorante Le Capannina. We recommend doing your research in advance and calling for a reservation ahead of time, especially if you plan to travel during a high tourist season. Just stay away, if you can help it, from the restaurants and cafes that line the center of town. Who needs to eat a plate of plain pasta for $35 euro each? It's kind of silly.
2) Don't buy gelato in Capri.
For many of the same reasons cited in #1, we recommend that you save your sweet tooth for the mainland. My children were horrified to discover that gelato on Capri ran up to 5 euro for a single scoop, when they knew they could get two big scoops back in the mainland town where we were staying for less than 2 euro.
After visiting at least four gelato shops and comparing prices, I watched (somewhat in awe) as my son and daughter decided NOT to ask me to buy them gelato in Capri.
"By our calculations, Mom," explained The Scientist, "We can skip this gelato and negotiate with you to get three scoops back in Sant'Agata tonight."
"Wow!" I could not quite believe it. "You want to wait for your gelato?"
"Yes," they nodded sagely. "If we wait, you'll pay LESS and we'll get A LOT MORE gelato."
I could not have felt more proud. "Your self restraint is amazing. With that kind of logic, I think you've each just earned an extra scoop!"
3) Don't take a tour bus!
Obviously if walking isn't your thing, a tour bus is still a great way to see Capri and Anacapri, and to get an overview of the island.
That said, the island is small enough that if you are able-bodied and willing to walk, you can see the entire thing by foot. As we mentioned earlier it really pays off to get off the beaten track and see parts of the island where there tour buses DON'T go. You're more likely to get an authentic taste of Capri... and to meet real Italians who live in Capri or travel there to stay in their summer homes.
The sooner you get off of the pre-planned bus tour and organize a walk or hike of your own, the sooner you may be able to experience more of the 'raw beauty' of the island.
4) Don't arrive late for your ferry back to the mainland!
The truth is, ferries to and from Capri run essentially on time and the lines of travelers waiting to get back onto the boats are enormous. Especially because some of the ferry companies sell a single afternoon ticket (expecting that you may need to take an earlier or later boat) it is entirely possible that the ferry you were planning to take home may be oversold. It helps to have patience and a little flexibility in your schedule.
In other words, build in a time buffer or come with a Plan B.
I heard a man in front of me in line for return tickets complaining bitterly to the saleslady that his ferry had left without his family because it was already too full of other passengers. Despite his litany of reasons why his family HAD to get back to the mainland ASAP (because they stood to miss their connecting transportation to another Italian city and also their nightly hotel room) she was unable to help him.
His ship had, quite literally, sailed.
After hearing this we made sure to arrive on time to our ferry and even so, the line to enter wrapped halfway around the harbor! So, unless you are the world's most relaxed family... we highly recommend arriving for your return boat a little early during high season.
If you expect it to be a hassle and wait patiently at the front of the line, you just may get an air conditioned seat on the ferry home!
* * * * *
Despite a few small drawbacks to be aware of, Capri is still world-famous for a reason! It may not be quite exactly the exquisite jewel of my decades-old memories, but it's one of those places you've just got to see! I'm thrilled to have checked it off of our family bucket list and shown it to my husband and kids.
With a little planning you can absolutely make the most of your time on this special Italian island!
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In July our family had dinner in Milan with a lovely group of Italians and Americans.
"We're going out to our place by the lake this weekend," one of the Italian husbands (Claudio) confided with a smile. "With the kids. The weather will be perfect!"
"Oh really?" asked his friend, another native of Milan. "Where's your place?"
"A little village along the lake, Cannobio," said Claudio, squeezing his wife's hand.
"Cannobio?" my American husband perked up and listened with interest. "We LOVE Cannobio!" He proceeded to regale the table with stories of his many long bike rides throughout that part of the Lago Maggiore region, and his special love for the Cannobino River.
"But this is amazing! I cannot believe that a foreigner... an American... can know so much about our little town of Cannobio!" exclaimed Claudio. "NOBODY knows Cannobio! You know more than I do!"
What a fun compliment! Dear readers, if you don't already know about Cannobio, this is your lucky moment! For all who love rivers, mountains, wild swimming and sumptuous Italian food, Cannobio is a restful vacation dream come true.
8. Arrive By Ferry!
Only around 5,000 people live in the lovely lakeside town of Cannobio year-round, yet it's a vibrant place visited (especially during summer) by travelers from around the world.
There are several ways to arrive in Cannobio. If you have a car you can arrive from Milan in two hours, circling around beautiful Lago Maggiore with wonderful glimpses of the lake along your drive..
The best way to arrive, though, is by ferry!
If you're not eager to deal with parking in a small, ancient town with narrow streets, it's perfectly simple to catch a ferry from a larger, more modern town (e.g. Luino) and head straight across the water to Cannobio.
We've been so impressed with the ferries that circumnavigate this enormous lake. Run by "Navigazione Lago Maggiore," they are clean, efficient, on time, and very safe.
In fact it's so easy and fun to see the lake by ferry, you may end up visiting many more towns than you'd originally planned!
To get more information about traveling through Lago Maggiore by ferry, or to find out how to book your tickets, click here.
7. Enjoy Window Shopping & A Famous Weekly Market!
Have you always wanted to see a 'typical' Italian outdoor market? This is a pretty good place to start. Held on Sundays between 8am and 13:00pm (that's 1pm for Americans!) the market sets up right next to the water's edge. An enormous line of well-tended stalls, side by side, offer all of the products you might imagine and many more.
Popular items sold at local Italian markets (including Cannobio) include leather goods, candles, crafts, paintings, beach wear, toys, clothing, jewelry and metalwork, handbags and more. Artisanal foods are available too, from handmade cheeses to beautiful salami, fresh fruit and vegetables... even fish from the lake!
The market starts right in the heart of town and fans its way down toward the outskirts of Cannobio. You could spend many pleasant hours shopping, speaking with vendors and looking through the offerings!
Best of all, if you get hungry, an entire row of good quality restaurants with open-air seating are just on the other side of the merchant stalls. You can unwind and savor your purchases over a glass of vino tinto with your favorite shopping partners!
6. Breathtaking, Unforgettable Views!
I can pretty much let the photos speak for themselves here. Whether you're a water person, a mountain person, a camper, an adventurer or someone who just loves spending time in (or photographing) nature... you're going to find yourself glowing while getting to know Cannobio.
It's hard not to be inspired with this kind of light dancing on the waves; this kind of verdant forest sheltering you!
At one point I commented to my children that I felt like a character in the novel "Heidi". With stunning mountains towering above us and blackberries to pick along the sides of the trail, I almost yodeled just for the sheer joy of it!
(Okay, maybe I *did* yodel. Can you blame me? Just too much joy to keep inside!)
5. Ponte Ballerino!
This special, rare suspension bridge (aka "catwalk") is famous locally as a tourist attraction due to its fun swinging quality. Touted as similar to a Tibetan bridge, its hanging steps rock from side to side as you walk across its center. The Ponte Ballerino reminds me very much of a peaceful, small version of the famous Capilano suspension bridge we've enjoyed in the forest outside of Vancouver, B.C.
The bridge itself has a special story. It was built to replace a simple ford that had existed long ago to help local people cross the Cannobino River. Sadly, a young woman in her twenties (the daughter of a local man) drowned while trying to cross the ford with a large bale of hay on her back. A few years later, another woman and her children had to be rescued from the river when a flash flood knocked them into the water.
Thanks to these incidents, 12 local families banded together to fund the building of the suspension bridge that continues to stand today. Constructed by Albertini di Cannobio, the bridge was partially rebuilt in the 1950s.
Now adorned with love locks, the suspension bridge sways gently from side to side as travelers and locals cross it daily. It's easy to imagine the romance of standing in the middle of this bridge in the midst of a vibrant sunset... or under the moon and stars.
Although not widely known outside of Cannobio, this bridge and the magnificent views in both directions are truly worth your time.
4. Meadows and Wild Berry Picking!
What's not to love about this picture? If you're headed to the many fantastic swimming holes up the Cannobino River, this is the view that will accompany you along the quiet, well-kept path.
Make sure to gather a handful of tart wild blackberries growing at the side of the walkway... they're delicious!
3. Cannobino River!
This exquisite small river begins in the Italian Alps around 7,200 feet of elevation, and winds its way gently down through the Cannobino River Valley. For most of the first twelve miles, its maximum width is only around 33 feet. However, once past the Church of Sant'Anna it begins to widen into a natural basin over 300 feet wide (and a few meters deep). Ultimately the Cannobino emerges into a wide river bed and then flows through the lakeside town of Cannobio, ending at last in Lago Maggiore.
Generally the Cannobino is gentle and peaceful, but a few times each year there is a sudden rush of water from snowmelt in the local mountains, causing the water to suddenly become powerful, rough and wild. Due to these rare flash floods, the Cannobino is known as a 'torrente'.
During the other 98% of the year the Cannobino is a tranquil and beautiful place to spend a lazy, 'chilled out' afternoon. During warmer months travelers and locals alike love to spend their days playing, swimming, relaxing in rubber innertubes and diving into its pure, cool waters.
Whether traveling alone, with friends or with family, this is a fabulous place to enjoy a hot July or August day!
2. Ristorante Grotto Sant'Anna!
We recommend calling in advance for reservations to this spectacular, unique restaurant. Perched next to a jagged, narrow gorge above the Cannobino River (which is many meters deep in this location) the outdoor dining experience at Ristorante Grotto Sant'Anna is almost unparalleled due in large part to its jaw-dropping setting and vistas.
We dined at a stone table beneath a lovely grape arbor. Since we were among the first reservations of the sunny day, the atmosphere among the servers was very peaceful, attentive and relaxed. A fabulous moth flitted around our table and spent some time hanging out with us, landing for a time on my son's hand!
The dishes and desserts turned out to be creative, well-portioned and well made. Dessert was an especially big hit with the children, but the entire meal was solid (photos below). We enjoyed excellent service but noticed that as the restaurant filled up, it took much longer for the food to arrive at other tables. So, we recommend making your reservation for an early seating!
"Someday you could bring your future partner here to propose marriage," I remarked to our 12 year old son, The Scientist. "It's such a romantic location!" (I was only half-teasing, it's that special!)
He, of course, groaned. "Awww Mom, you know I'm NEVER going to get married!"
His dad and I tried not to smile.
"Well, if that's the case," I nodded, "I guess we'll have to return as a family in a few years to celebrate when your Dad and I have our 20 year anniversary!"
Until then, we definitely recommend this dining experience! Nestled in the hills above the Cannobino, Ristorante Grotto Sant'Anna is a hidden treasure!
A word to the wise: Due to outstanding reviews and an unbeatable location, it's almost impossible to get a table at this restaurant without calling in advance. (We know this firsthand; we've found out the hard way that you can't just show up unannounced. They've absolutely turned us away in the past... with no availability for a week!)
1. Wild Swimming and Diving in Grotto Sant'Anna!
A favorite Aventura family pastime!
Wild swimming refers to outdoor swimming in pristine natural spots that lack infrastructure AND manmade pollution. There are entire guides devoted to wild swimming in various European countries, and my husband Señor Aventura has made a point of buying all of them. He and the children absolutely delight in wild swimming.
As it turns out, the Grotto Sant'Anna is a well-known and beloved destination for wild swimmers!
Just below the Church of Sant'Anna, a large natural pool flows out from the narrow gorge and down toward the much wider river basin. As swimmers glide through the basin and approach the gorge, the water suddenly becomes extremely deep and cold.
On hot summer days, many youth (and fit adults) spend time diving into these cool, deep waters from high up on the lofty cliffs towering above.
For the 'adventurous' set - for example, my husband and sons - going even further to explore the narrow, dark river gorge itself is delightful too!
"The water was the coldest I have ever experienced!" confessed The Scientist with a glowing smile as he emerged from the gorge. "It was freezing, Mom! There was basically no light because the stone walls of the gorge were so high. Suddenly we saw a really big frog! It was bouncing along the river, and it was brown! It was croaking!"
"Mom, I touched it!" crowed Soccer Dude gleefully. "I touched the big frog!" Their eyes were big like saucers as they described exploring inside the gorge with their dad.
Later, Soccer Dude and his father took turns diving off of the high cliffs. They emerged from the water completely exhilarated. I was amazed by my courageous ten year old son who clambered up the massive cliffs to dive again and again. He certainly has the heart and soul of a bold adventurer!
If you, too, enjoy a great adventure, look no further!
Wild swimming and diving at the Grotto Sant'Agata will make for a perfect summer's day!
L- Soccer Dude prepares to dive from halfway up the cliffs (center of frame)
R- Soccer Dude emerges beaming from the water after his huge dive!
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Readers of this adventure travel blog may have noticed that I've been quiet over the last month.
From the death of my sweet brother a few weeks ago to the political unrest continuing in Catalunya, it just hasn't felt right to write up our many travel adventure stories... though we do have so many more adventures to share.
Every time I see a photo of one of my kids beaming from ear to ear while splashing in a gorgeous lake or enjoying gelato in an ancient city I get that sinking feeling of, "Why do I deserve to be lucky when so many people are suffering?" or "Why do I get to travel the world with gorgeous, healthy kids while my brother had such tragic luck?"
However, as much as it sometimes feels wrong, the world has continued to turn. Every morning the sun continues to shine, and we are still here.
A lot is happening here in Barcelona right now. Here is the update, told from the limited perspective of outsiders; interlopers. (We so love our life here, but we know deep down that no matter how long we might stay we will never be 'native'.)
If you were to pick up an international newspaper today, you'd read headlines about 750,000 Catalan citizens protesting in Barcelona yesterday. They are upset about the arrests of nine of their regional government leaders, eight of whom are still jailed in Madrid.
A massive flood of impassioned humanity took to the streets yesterday night in our beautiful city, chanting and singing, and listening to speeches about Catalan history and peace. Family members of the political prisoners read aloud texts they'd sent from jail. Also read aloud was this text from exiled Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, currently in Belgium:
"Your light reaches us in Brussels and illuminates the road we have to continue traveling. You are our strength."
Barcelona streets were filled with protestors yesterday illuminating the dark, chilly November night with bright lights flooding from their cell phones. Many photos and videos taken from above during the manifestation reveal that it looked much like a sparkling sea of white light moving in the midst of blackness.
What you can't see is that it was terribly cold here last night, with a biting wind that cut right through thick jackets. All of these people left their cozy homes to protest on the streets warmed only by their shared fury.
As someone who has lived in this beautiful place for nearly a year and a half, it is impossible to witness firsthand this kind of spirit and passion, and not be moved with some kind of emotion.
"What the Spanish government is doing right now is unimaginable," frowns Enric, a Catalan friend from the gym. "I am not Independista, my family is very Spanish. However, putting these politicians in jail is not right! It reminds me too much of our history and the days of living under Franco. This is a stain on our history."
"The situation is ridiculous," a British friend who has lived and worked in Catalunya for 27 years confided recently. "Taking political prisoners and holding them without bail in a so-called democracy is ridiculous. Yet nobody in the world is talking about it! Nobody in Europe is talking about it. No matter how you feel about the independence movement, pro OR con, jailing these people is simply wrong!"
She then went on to tell me that while British to the core, her heart is with Catalunya.
"I am not Spanish," she confided. "I am British. I would never, never give up my British passport. My family are there. But the people who have welcomed me and filled my life for 30 years... they are Catalan. I truly love the Catalan people. This is my home."
Since she is not a Spanish citizen, my friend cannot vote. She has no voice whatsoever in what's happening all around her... to her... and possibly to her job!
"What about the three quarters of a million expatriates living in Barcelona?" asked our German doctor friend rhetorically, on another recent night. "We cannot vote. We cannot express ourselves. Yet, we live here. We work here. Our jobs are on the line. We pay taxes and raise our children. We contribute! Everything happening affects us keenly."
This is a common theme right now.
My twelve year old son, The Scientist, tells me that one of his best friends at school may now have to move to Italy next year with his family. The father's company may relocate their headquarters there due to unrest in Barcelona.
My boy feels so sad and frustrated about this turn of events. He's finally made some great friends in Spain and now the closest one he has here could be leaving. It's amazing how adult politics can rip apart two twelve year old buddies, who would have spent some quality time growing up together. These kids are caught up as innocent bystanders in a political war.
"I don't want him to go, Mom," The Scientist sighs with a deep crease in the center of his forehead. "It's not fair."
Our Brazilian friends are in the same boat.
My friend Beatriz* confided to me on Friday that her husband's company is waiting for a few months to see what happens with the upcoming vote in December and with the protests... but that if this situation continues, it will relocate to Madrid next year.
"It's so sad," she shared quietly, "because we were planning to buy a house and raise our children here. We really like it in Barcelona. But now everything is undecided. So, we will wait and see. Maybe we will go."
There is so much sympathy given publicly to those who favor independence, but I have not heard the Catalan politicians yet addressing the needs and hopes of all of the millions of people here who are being disenfranchised by this unstable situation that continues to unfold right in front of their eyes.
It's so hard to say what will happen next. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has called for new elections in Catalunya on 21 December, to create a new government. The 24 million dollar question is this: What if the Catalan people vote, again, for an independista government? What if a majority of voters - this time in full accord with Spanish law - again select officials who favor independence?
What will Rajoy and the EU do then? It will thrust everyone into a real pickle.
Catalan President Puigdemont is banking on that possibility. He fled to Belgium shortly after he declared Catalan independence and the Spanish government enacted Article 155, taking over the Catalan government.
With a small group of fellow leaders, Puigdemont traveled to Belgium to request a fair trial which he felt he could not receive in Spain.
Orders for their arrest have been issued by the Spanish supreme court and they are each accused of embezzlement, sedition and rebellion. Puigdemont turned himself in voluntarily to the government of Belgium, and gave them his passport. He has been released on bail in Belgium while a Belgian judge decides whether to execute the Spanish arrest warrant.
Meanwhile many other Catalan government officials were indeed arrested and put in a Madrid jail without bail.
One of them, Carme Forcadell (now the former president of the Catalan Parliament) had to pay 150,000 euros this week to make bail and secure her own release from the prison of Alcalá Meco in Madrid. Her passport has been taken by the Spanish government and she must report weekly to a Catalan court, or before the Supreme Court if a date is named. Her bond was paid by the National Association of Catalunya (ANC) with money from a 'solidarity fund'.
Lawyers for some of the jailed politicians say that by fleeing Spain and heading to Belgium, Puigdemont has put their clients in a tough position and made it harder to argue their cases. "Now Spain can effectively argue in court that without prison, our clients are a flight risk," they explain. "Every day Puigdemont stays in Belgium makes things harder for the others in prison."
Certainly, this is complex.
It is likely that Puigdemont will be on the ballot in the 21 December election, working from abroad to be re-elected as president of Catalunya. I can only imagine the kind of chaos this may create, if it actually happens.
For months now our family has tried hard to stay neutral through all of this. We have many friends on both sides of the issue - adults and children. We admire and respect them all, and see their differing points of view.
Yet we have also been personally affected by the political climate here in Barcelona in many ways.
Here is a small example. Last Wednesday our kids could not go to school due to a strike. The strike was not supposed to affect the local schools, which were open for the day. However because there were protests all over Catalunya that affected the transportation systems, the children could not physically arrive at class.
"I really need to go to school today Mom," The Scientist insisted. "I have a math exam!"
Yet he waited for over an hour in the morning standing at the metro station to get on a train to school and though there was a train sitting right in front of him the whole time, it never left. Finally he gave up in dismay and came home to study.
Later we learned that protestors had physically seated themselves on train tracks all over the city, making it impossible for the trains to run. In fact, so they did this all over Catalunya and even on the tracks around Barcelona's major trains station, Estació de Sants, thereby disrupting regional and international train travel as well.
My husband planned to drive the other two children to their school, since their normal bus service had been halted for the day. When he looked at Google Maps in the morning though, every freeway was a sea of red. Cars were not moving at all. The wait in any direction lasted hours. He tried to take the kids to school by train, but as I mentioned before, the trains were not running.
At last, they left the station and consoled themselves with chocolate croissants on the way home.
I'd had three appointments scheduled that day, and had to walk for over an hour to get to one of them. At my doctor's office a woman came in urgently with a medical emergency (kidney stones) and the poor thing couldn't take either a subway or taxi due to the strike! I tried to imagine that poor lady walking in agony to receive emergency medical help and it made me feel angry on her behalf.
Our kids were so bored and miserable at home, wishing to be at school with their friends and teachers. By 3pm all five of us felt full to the brim with frustration.
"I just want to go to SCHOOL, Mommy!" sighed Little Angel. "We were supposed to have swimming today!"
"I just wish things would go back to NORMAL!" agreed Soccer Dude.
"We completely understand." I exchanged a look with their dad, who was trying to get a little work done on the computer. "We both wish it was a normal day too."
Of course, these are small inconveniences and we have no right, really, to feel angry or upset. It isn't our country or our political history, and we are not the ones who will have to live with the results for the next several hundred years. California is just a flight away, anytime we decide we need a break from all of this.
So we try to breathe and roll with it, appreciating all of the amazing things about living in Catalunya during this unusual time in its history.
It's a credit to the city and its calm, measured police force that these massive, million-person protests can go off twice a week without violence or injuries... or even major arrests of the protestors.
Even more, it's a credit to the strength and goodness of ALL the Catalan people (both independistas and pro-Spanish unity) that they can wear their hearts on their sleeves in front of the news cameras of the world like this, and continue to try to keep a positive attitude when so much around them feels uncertain and unknown.
They wake up, go to work, take care of their families, and then go to protest for what they believe in. You have to admire that kind of passion and grit.
What will happen? We have no sense of it. As foreigners we try only to understand what is happening around us. Every day we ask questions, seek more information, and try to learn from the people we meet.
Day by day, along with the rest of the world, we wait to see how all of this tumult will end.
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It’s hard to say what will happen next in Catalunya.
A little over a week ago, the region stood ready and filled with emotion. Would Catalan President Carles Puigdemont declare independence from Spain? Would he not?
The streets were filled with protesters, and nearly every conversation one might overhear in any café... or on a random corner waiting for a traffic light... revolved around Puigdemont’s possible declaration.
On the night before Puigdemont's speech my husband got together for dinner with a close Catalan friend, a business owner. This man confided that as much as he was wary of Catalunya declaring its independence, he also saw a lot of hope and opportunity in the situation.
“It’s almost like leaving a stable job at the big company to go out on your own, as an entrepreneur,” his buddy Aleix* explained. “Yes, there is a lot of risk, and you don’t have the security and backing of the large company. However, there is also tremendous potential.”
From his point of view, if Catalunya seceded from Spain there could be temporary discomfort and uncertainty, but in the long term it could be a great opportunity for innovation and investment. This region has long been a motor for industry.
The next day (the day of the declaration) I headed by train to Sant Cugat to pick up Soccer Dude and ferry him to his evening fútbol practice while my husband Señor Aventura met up with a group of his friends to head down to the Parc de la Ciutadella, where thousands of hopeful Catalans waited outside of the Catalan parliament building for what promised to be an historic moment.
My husband was excited to witness this incredibly unique event.
“Be careful,” I gave him an extra hug before we parted ways. “Who knows what the streets will be like tonight if he declares independence and the Spanish civil guard or federal police begin to make arrests.”
“I’ll be fine,” he assured me. “It means a lot to Aleix to hear the speech in person tonight, so a group of us are going to go down together to listen to it and support him, and then we may get drinks.”
While Señor Aventura made his way toward the epicenter of political activity, I took the opposite route and headed out of town. The vibe in Sant Cugat, a well-heeled bedroom community twenty minutes outside of Barcelona, was decidedly calm compared to the palpable, almost electric tension within the city.
I met a dear friend for lunch, and we spent two hours analyzing the Spanish political situation in context to our own experiences in the United States (my home country) and Britain (hers).
Independence would make a large impact upon both of our families for a variety of reasons. We discussed the sudden rush of large companies to leave Catalunya, the possibility of a run on the banks, and how investments here right now are suddenly on hold.
“I ran into our realtor the other day,” my friend Gwen* confided as we enjoyed salad, stuffed mushrooms and chicken. “She’s the one that helped us buy our house here in Sant Cugat. I said to her, ‘You must be very busy right now, I’ve heard the real estate market is booming!’ and my realtor said, ‘Yeah, until two weeks ago. The second the independence referendum happened, sales went completely flat.”
“I completely understand that,” I nodded. “As a foreigner, I feel like I’m sitting on the outside of this thing waiting to see how it plays out before we even go to IKEA to get more furniture for the apartment. If it gets violent and there’s some kind of civil disagreement, who knows if we may need to leave for a little while until things calm down. What’s the point in spending more money in this economy if we’ll have to scrap any investments?”
“How disappointing,” we agreed, reflecting together on how happy all of our children are at school right now and how much they love their teachers this year. What a shame it would be to have to yank them out of school and fútbol in a hurry due to a regional political problem.
I consoled myself by ordering a slice of berry cheesecake.
After lunch we headed up to school to collect our respective children. I then shuttled Soccer Dude and Little Angel to fútbol practice knowing that The Scientist (a 12 year old latchkey kid these days) was already at our apartment working with his Catalan tutor.
The buzz in the air had intensified by the time we returned to Barcelona and arrived at fútbol practice.
Fútbol parents are asked to wait in the gymnasium cafe while the children receive their training, and on this day I was quite grateful and willing to settle down at a table not far from the flat screen television on the cafe wall.
The television had been turned on and was already playing reports from local news reporters waiting down in the Plaça along with my husband and thousands of others. They were preparing for Puigdemont to speak, and interviewing people of all ages waiting to hear him declare victory and independence.
“I’ve waited all of my life for this,” said one older man in Catalan. “I will feel so proud to be part of a free and independent Catalunya.”
Little Angel and I sat at our table with an American friend and chatted while waiting for the speech to begin at 18:00 (six p.m.). The gymnasium cafe was already crowded with parents crowding around the television screen, and everyone seemed to be watching with great attention.
To our surprise though, about ten minutes before his speech was due to begin, the reporter announced that it had been delayed and that Carles Puigdemont would now not be speaking until 19:00 (seven p.m.)
“I wonder what that means?” I asked out loud. “Maybe they are negotiating behind the scenes with Madrid?”
“Could be,” my friend Jane nodded. “I heard that Switzerland offered today to mediate the situation.”
“That makes sense.” We settled in to wait.
Finally at ten minutes to 19:00, the screen on the wall showed the members of the Catalan parliament streaming into the empty chamber and taking their places. The buzz in the cafe around me suddenly hushed, and everyone turned their attention back to the television. It quickly became so quiet, you could have heard a pin drop.
Puigdemont began to speak. I struggled to keep up, as he was addressing the chamber in Catalan. Thanks to years of Italian, French and Spanish instruction I can basically catch the gist of most Catalan (which is almost like a blend of the three languages) but I’m still lost to the nuances and subtleties of dialogue.
Because of this, I wasn’t sure at first if he was declaring independence… or not.
Puigdemont spoke about the history of Catalunya and its many requests to Madrid for a free and fair election. He then discussed the recent 1 October independence referendum, citing both voter turnout and the high percentage of votes (over 90%) toward independence from Spain. He condemned the violence shown by Spanish federal police and civil guard members on the day of the election.
It seemed as though he was declaring independence. When Soccer Dude emerged from fútbol practice - exhausted, showered and very hungry - we crept out of the gymnasium cafe trying not to bother all of the other families who were still sitting, transfixed by Puigdemont’s speech and its huge implications.
We boarded our bus home. Its driver was sitting at the bus stop in the dark listening intently to the speech which was playing loudly all throughout his bus.
“I really feel for that guy,” I whispered to Soccer Dude and Little Angel. “I’ll bet he would rather be at the speech in person like Daddy or watching it on TV, but he has to work instead. It’s a really big moment for his city and his country. Many businesses shut down early tonight.”
“Bummer,” Soccer Dude agreed. “You’re probably right.”
We strained to listen to the speech playing over the bus speakers, but it was even trickier to understand without being able to actually see it taking place.
Then, without warning, there was an eruption of sound that might have been applause. The bus driver turned off the radio and kept heading down the hill. A woman boarded the bus in tears. She wept angrily and spoke loudly on the telephone to a relative.
“What happened?” asked Soccer Dude. “Did he declare independence?”
“I’m honestly not sure. Let me check the news on my phone.”
Scanning the news, I read this quote in English from Puigdemont’s speech:
“I want to follow people’s will for Catalunya to become an independent state. We propose to suspend the effect of the independence declaration… in order to work towards putting into practice the result of the referendum. Today, we are making a gesture of responsibility in favor of dialogue.”
“Hmmm... “ I tried to explain to Soccer Dude while Little Angel hopped up and down. “Looks like he declared independence but then immediately suspended it and asked for talks with Madrid. Seems like he’s trying to straddle a fine line.”
(“Seems like he’s trying not to get arrested,” remarked my husband later that night.)
“That sounds complicated,” said Soccer Dude.
I read on. Puigdemont also said, “I am not planning any threat. Any insults. We are all responsible for this. We need to de-escalate the situation, not feed it any longer. I want to address everyone about the issue. We are all part of the same community and we need to go forward together. We will never agree on anything but we have proved many times that the only way to move forward is with democracy and peace. That requires dialogue.”
Later that night, after dinner, we learned from the news that after his speech Puigdemont and the members of the Catalan parliament had gone ahead and quietly signed a declaration of independence toward the end of the meeting.
“Oh. He definitely DID declare independence,” I murmured to The Scientist. “Madrid is going to be pretty mad about that.”
“Will they use the 155?” my elder son asked with concern. “Everyone at my school was arguing today about the independence. Half of my classmates are pro-Spain and the other half are pro-Madrid.”
“Sounds like a pretty fair representation of all the people we know here,” I agreed, thinking about my own adult friends who are divided on the issue and the statistics cited by nearly every newspaper showing the region is fairly evenly split with respect to its feelings about independence.
“What will happen now, Mom?” he asked.
“I’m honestly not sure. Article 155 is a very powerful part of the Spanish constitution that states that the government of Spain can suspend home rule of any of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities… if they feel that that region does not follow the law of the Constitution or attacks the general interests of the country as a whole. So, Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy may decide to use Article 155 and take over the government of Catalunya.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s actually never been used before! It’s an extreme measure meant for extreme situations.”
“I wonder what Rajoy will say!” remarked The Scientist, who at age 12 is becoming more and more interested in local and international politics.
The next day we found out the answer. We’d just arrived in Mallorca for a long weekend and my husband and I were unpacking upstairs in our AirBNB when The Scientist began to call my name from downstairs.
“Mom!” he yelled, “Mom!”
He came bounding up the stairs.
“It’s Rajoy! He’s on TV, he’s going to respond to Puigdemont! Come and watch!!!”
I hurried downstairs in time to catch most of the speech with The Scientist perched on one side of me and Soccer Dude on the other.
Prime Minister Rajoy spoke in Spanish and was much more easy for me to understand. His tone was forceful but calm, and his words were reasoned but not conciliatory.
Rajoy began by stating that two pro-independence parliamentary groups (who did not obtain a majority of votes in the last elections to the Catalan parliament) were acting against the Spanish Constitution, the law, and the will of a majority of Catalan people.
He condemned this as a provocative act designed to break the law. He denied the legality of the independence and announced that it would have zero effect upon Catalunya or Spain.
“Those who wish to separate and divide Catalonia** from Spain must know that they will not succeed,” he said, “and they are not going to do so because it is against the majority of Catalans and Spaniards as a whole. They are faced with a law and a government ready to enforce it.”
Rajoy then emphasized, “Everyone… I repeat… is subject to the law and the rulings of the courts.” He confirmed his commitment to defend Spanish democracy with “firmness, determination and with the instruments provided to us by law.”
Prime Minister Rajoy requested that President Puigdemont clarify in writing whether or not he had actually declared independence by Monday, and announced that if the independence was not renounced, Article 155 would be invoked.
Monday came and went, but Puigdemont did not clarify the political status of Catalunya. He asked instead for two months to spend in dialogue. Rajoy extended the deadline for a clear written response until Thursday (tomorrow!) but began immediately to implement Article 155.
The leaders of the two pro-independence parliamentary groups, Jordi Cuixart (Omnium) and Jordi Sànchez (ANC) were arrested on Monday and are being held without bail pending an investigation for alleged sedition.
The Spanish High Court also banned Catalan chief of police Josep Lluís Trapero from leaving Spain and took his passport as they investigate his actions with respect to the 1 October referendum.
More arrests are expected anytime, and as of now (Wednesday morning) local papers are announcing a Spanish takeover of the Catalan government.
Protests continue, and at night the banging of pots and pans on balconies of citizens pro-independence (and against Madrid) has resumed and become loud again.
For now though, the atmosphere in the city feels less charged. Unlike the powder keg of declaring independence, the Spanish takeover of the government seems to be met by most locals with a mixture of resignation, relief and disappointment.
“The referendum was historic,” my pro-Spain physical trainer remarked after the 1 October independence vote, “but ugly. This was not well done.”
“Nothing will change,” said our friend Eduard* at the school bus stop. “You'll see. Things will go back to normal.”
“A ver,” shrugged Francesc* (an independista) lifting his small son to hold him close. “Let’s see.”
* Names changed to protect anonymity.
**Catalonia is Spanish spelling of Catalunya (Catalan spelling)
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The longer we live in Spain and the more closely I encounter the Catalan Independence movement first hand, the more I have the sense that in many ways this country is like a large, colorful, somewhat dysfunctional family. In other words it reminds me of pretty much all families, everywhere.
In American holiday movies, we often celebrate this kind of family. So many films are spun around a Christmas reunion where the weary mother slaves all morning making a huge holiday feast that at least a third of her relatives won’t eat because they are dieting, vegetarian or (like me) gluten free.
The guests who do show up on time spend at least half of dinner gossiping about wild cousin Suzy who has just gotten a mohawk or new tattoo… and who may or may not arrive at dinner late with her new boyfriend who - rumor has it - is twenty years her senior.
There is a hum of tension in the air, but also an undercurrent of connection… and dare we say it… there is a tired but abiding love.
The more my husband and I talk with our Catalan friends (both the independistas and those who are pro-unity), the more we understand that their situation has a profoundly emotional flavor and seems a lot like a crazy American holiday dinner.
“Madrid just doesn’t understand us…” the independistas sigh dramatically, sort-of like your middle-aged aunt who is considering filing for divorce after 25 years of marriage. “We give and we give (money) and what does Madrid give us in return???? Nothing!”
“Catalunya is spoiled and unappreciative!” grumbles gruff Madrid and the rest of Spain from the opposite end of the table, a bit like a beleaguered husband. “She doesn’t realize how good she’s had it. I’ve given her autonomy and incredible opportunity. It’s not like I had an affair!”
Then he carefully cracks his knuckles and his neck.
(Madrid looks a little bit scary but the young cousins suspect he will still race around the living room and tickle them after this tense dinner has ended.)
“That region needs to learn respect,” snaps Madrid’s aged mother (the Spanish Civil Guard). “She thinks she’s too good for my son!”
(I’ve actually read just this week that people in Madrid are saying that Catalunya needs a good ‘slap’ right now to knock some sense back into the territory. Yikes!)
The European Union even plays its role as the family patriarch sitting at the head of the holiday table… as Catalunya’s wealthy father-in-law who hired her years ago to work in his big, successful firm when she and his son were newly married.
The EU is listening warily to the whole divorce conversation as it unfolds, without saying much... carefully polishing his pocket watch… unsure deep-down whether to fire Catalunya if she goes ahead and files for divorce, or keep her on with the firm in spite of his son, because she’s been a brilliant worker.
Despite all of the tension around the Spanish family table right now, most of our friends here in Barcelona seem to be waiting on and expecting a relatively happy ending to this episode. They are waiting for the moment in the story, perhaps, when the entire family bonds over a bittersweet memory of their ancestors who died in the Spanish Civil War. The moment when they make a toast in honor of their grandparents, shake hands and wipe tears from their eyes.
Everyone seems to anticipate an ending that is perhaps mildly disappointing for all... OR a cliffhanger where you will have to wait for the sequel to find out what happens (and the sequel is truly never very exciting).
Nobody we’ve spoken to in Catalunya seems to expect this situation to become a tragedy.
To our Catalan friends, this ‘independence referendum’ narrative is destined to become a family classic… or a family headache… rather than a suspenseful horror story. We really, really hope they are right!
“Eduardo seems to think nothing’s going to change,” remarked my husband after he returned from the morning drop off chat at the bus stop today. “He seemed very ‘tranquilo’ about the whole thing.”
“Is he concerned about the big banks leaving?”
“Well, that’s not really such a big deal. Nobody is losing their jobs. They’ve just changed the address of their main business operations to other territories… but business will continue as usual here.”
“What did Francesc say?”
“He wasn’t at the bus stop today… maybe his son is ill… but that other Catalan dad who works in Britain was there and he seemed quite fed up with the situation.”
“Yes, he said that this has gone too far and needs to stop before things get out of control and it makes a severe impact on his homeland.”
“Well, I read that President Puigdemont plans to declare Catalan independence tomorrow! Do they think there will be a violent response?”
“So far, nobody seems too worried. I guess we’ll see!”
As outsiders we watch and listen. We wonder privately how much further the independence movement can push its envelope before Madrid cracks down and sends in tanks and troops. Already 20 convoys of troops were sent in earlier in the week to help ‘support’ the Spanish federal police and Spanish Civil Guard who have remained in town since the October 1 referendum.
Over the past seven days, while Catalan President Puigdemont and his regional government recounted and certified the official votes from the election and decided how to proceed next, we’ve definitely noticed an upswing in local sentiment for Spanish unity.
Pro-Spain demonstrators have been walking the streets clothed in Spanish flags and singing boisterously. The Catalan police (Los Mossos de Esquadra) have been protecting pro-Spain groups marching throughout the city chanting, yelling and setting off fireworks.
At night when the independistas come out to bang their pots and pans, some neighbors are now blasting the Spanish national anthem loudly from their windows.
When we first arrived in Spain about 15 months ago, Spanish flags flew next to Catalan flags all across the city. As the Independence referendum of the 1st of October neared, those Spanish flags disappeared. Suddenly the only flags we saw flying all over the city (hanging from balconies, roofs and windows) were Catalan flags and pro-independence flags.
However, this week, the Spanish flags have come back and were certainly out in full-force this weekend when two massive protests (called ‘manifestacións’) in favor of Spanish unity took place in Barcelona and Madrid.
The unity turnout was enormous, with estimates ranging from 350,000 to 1,000,000 people in attendance in Barcelona alone. Everyone was draped in Spanish flags, singing and chanting. Some people were even weeping.
On another day, the Podemos political party organized a large protest called “¿Hablamos?” (Shall We Talk?) and 10,000 protesters came to this manifestación dressed completely in white, to represent peace and conversation between the two sides.
My friend Alba, a strong independista, confided skeptically to me over a cup of tea that Madrid has been bussing people in from outside of Catalunya to protest for unity because they could not find enough pro-Spain protesters locally. I checked this out and she was right; over 100 busses had arrived locally by Friday to bring in pro-unity demonstrators before the weekend’s massive rally.
When I mentioned this to my husband Sr. Aventura, he laughed.
“Yes, but did Alba mention that Catalunya does the exact same thing for pro-independence demonstrations? On the day two weeks ago when I had to go to the airport, all of Diagonal was shut down with an independence protest and there were endless busses lining the street that had brought independence supporters from all over Catalunya to Barcelona to demonstrate!”
“So, you’re saying the tactic sort of goes both ways?”
“Yup. It makes good press. More impressive-looking protests for the international news media.”
Meanwhile Puigdemont presses forward with his determination (and that of his government) to make a unilateral declaration of Catalan independence. Large companies based in Barcelona continue to convene board meetings day after day and many are choosing to leave the territory based on fears of instability that may soon overtake the region after the declaration of independence.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has made it clear that Spain will NOT accept the move for independence, and reserves the right to invoke an article of the Spanish constitution that has never been used before - Article 155, the so-called ‘nuclear option’.
Article 155 is sometimes likened to an atomic bomb because it would legally allow the government of Spain to forcibly take over the current government of Catalunya and run the entire region until a new government can be elected.
“Spain is indivisible,” says Rajoy, and there is more than a small threat in those simple words.
As an American raised with the pledge of allegiance, I think about the words I was taught to speak as a child - standing, with my hand over my heart:
I pledge allegiance
To the flag
Of the United States of America
And to the Republic
For which it stands
One nation, under God,
With liberty and justice for all.
I never thought of ‘indivisible’ as a threat before now, but I guess sometimes a threat and a promise can share the same body. My husband and I have enormous sympathy for the Catalan people and yet we also see and understand Rajoy’s point.
He is the prime minister of a democratic nation, an indivisible nation. It’s his job to keep democracy functioning, decisions of the Supreme Court followed, and elections legal.
The Catalan independence referendum of 1 October was not a legal election. It truly lacks legitimacy. Not only was it declared illegal by the Supreme Court of Spain before the vote, but the vote itself was not run cleanly. There was no independent oversight to make sure that it was run properly and votes cast correctly.
On the day of the election the Catalan government spontaneously announced that any Catalan person could vote anywhere in the country, rather than voting in their own neighborhood where they were registered.
Thanks to this, many people were photographed voting at more than one location, more than one time!
The Spanish Police and Civil Guard also confiscated many, many boxes of votes so we will never know how those Catalan citizens may have voted. Did they vote ‘yes’? Did they vote ‘no’? It’s impossible to say.
Finally, more than half of the people in Catalunya did not even leave their homes to vote, as they were told by the government of Spain that this vote was not legal or valid. As law-abiding citizens, they stayed home.
So, is it really fair to all of these citizens to be forced into an Independence for their country that they did not vote for and perhaps do not want?
“We know, we know,” nodded my independista friend Alba when I raised these concerns with her over tea. “It isn’t that we disagree. We would prefer a real, legitimate election… but we have asked for one of these for many years, and Madrid does not give it to us. So, we must now make it for ourselves.”
In 2014 there was another non-binding referendum on the same topic… rebranded a ‘participation process’ to poll the Catalan voters about their feelings around independence. The results then were not dissimilar to the results now. That poll saw 2.3 million votes cast, with 80.8% in favor of independence. Voter turnout ranged from 37 to 41%.
Three years later at last week's referendum we are told 2.2 million votes were cast, with a voter turnout of 43%. The result this time? 92% in favor of independence. So the tide has surged a bit for independence.
“From an outside point of view it seems to me that Madrid’s iron fist is causing Catalan people to become more passionate about your independence,” I remark to Alba.
“Oh yes,” she smiles with a twinkle in her eye. “We independistas smile a lot these days and say that Mariano Rajoy must be ‘muy Catalan’ because he has been the best helper to the independence movement we have had!”
Alba admits that once independence is declared tomorrow, President Puigdemont and his government may be arrested.
“It will be Madrid's huge mistake though,” she adds, “Reacting with force will unite all Catalan people behind the independence movement.” She gazes off into the distance with hope and I can see the flush of pride on her face. She appears determined; and perhaps a little naive.
“Be careful Alba,” I caution her, thinking about how much she has volunteered with the election recently. “You are a mother with a young son. He needs you.”
“Yes, this is what my mother says,” she agrees. “My mother lived during the time of Franco and she tells me that everything happening now is exactly what happened then. The events unfolded one at a time. People lost their rights one at a time. My mother is telling me to prepare to flee if we must.”
I can tell that Alba is not listening much though to me, or to her mother.
“It is because I AM a mother though that I must press forward for our independence,” she whispers. “We cannot stop now. I must build a better life, with better opportunities for my child. If not now, when?”
Under the table, I grip my seat with my hands but say no more.
We will see what happens next.
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Rubber bullets? Tear gas? Striking old ladies with batons until they bleed from the head? Ripping little children out of their parents arms? Breaking women's fingers? REALLY?
One of the reasons we chose to move to Barcelona was the wonderful and pervasive feeling of peace and tranquility in this incredible metropolis.
I've spent time in lot of big cities during my life... Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Dallas, New York, Boston, Vancouver, Tijuana, London, Paris, Rome, Madrid... just to name a few.
Yet none of them have ever felt quite as safe, clean and beautiful as we have always found Barcelona to be. From my first weekend journey to Barcelona in 1995 to our official move here in 2016, I'd traveled to Barcelona at least six times before we moved here. Every single time I left with the same feeling about the city.
To me, Barcelona has been a vibrant, living symbol of the very best a human life has to offer: Peace. Energy. Joy. Beauty. Excitement. Culture. Cuisine. Music. Creativity. History. Fútbol. Passion!
So if you'd told me back in June 2016 as I packed up a house full of cardboard boxes in California to move to Spain with my husband and kids that I would soon be experiencing a major terrorist attack AND living in a country flirting with civil war where local voting was met with police brutality, I would have found that very hard to believe.
Yet somehow, this is where we're at today.
"Mom, why can't we go to my fútbol game this afternoon?" The Scientist asked me. "It may be the last match I get to play this year, if FIFA doesn't approve me for international play. I really want to go!"
"Honey, I know. I want you to be able to play. Nobody's going to play today though... it isn't just you. The Catalan Federation has suspended all games after 2pm though because of the violence. They say they want to protect the safety of their teams, the referees and the fans."
My twelve year old son's face fell. "Oh." He looked longingly out of the window toward the rainy afternoon, as we listened to police sirens blaring in the distance. "That makes sense. This is a hard day... for everybody."
"Yes, it really is." We sat in silence, glumly, thinking about the images we'd just seen on the news of an old lady getting dragged away by Spanish federal policemen in black riot gear. She looked about seventy years old and was wearing a sweater and leggings. She looked like she could be somebody's grandma.
To be clear, the federal police and civil guard committing these actions were NOT Catalan police. The Catalan police force ('Mossos d'Esquadra') mainly sat this one out. They were present at the polls but ignored most orders from Madrid and did not try to stop their fellow citizens from voting. Some Mossos wept openly as they watched peaceful citizens attempting to vote for independence; later harmed by Spanish cops.
This violence was Spain vs. Catalunya.
What the heck was going on?
For readers who have never had the pleasure of traveling here, Barcelona is the capital city of Catalunya... an important and prosperous region of Spain.
Yesterday, over two million Catalan people from cities all over the region headed to the polls at local schools to vote in a referendum about whether or not Catalunya should become its own independent nation.
As in, get a divorce. Leave Spain and strike out alone! Try to join the European Union as its own country.
In the end, 90% of those voters chose independence.
The Catalans who voted yesterday are operating on the principle of self-determination... a concept based on the ideals of equal rights and equal opportunity. According to self-determination, people have the right to freely choose their sovereignty and international political status without any interference.
"Why do the Catalans want to divorce Spain?" my friends at home have asked in confusion. "Why aren't they happy?"
First off, not all Catalans actually feel this way. Until yesterday, the opinions here were sharply divided... about 50/50. Just as many Catalan people wanted to stay in Spain, as wanted to go.
Among the Catalans that are pro-independence, there are a variety of reasons to leave. For some of my Catalan friends the issue is simple and economic. Madrid takes a lot of Catalan tax money and doesn't give it back proportionately. People look around and see public roads that need fixing, public works that need completing, and they feel that isn't fair. They want their money back.
For others it is the story of a 300 year struggle going back to the 1700s, when the Bourbon monarchy ended the autonomy of the Crown of Aragon (and therefore, the autonomy of Catalonia which had been a territory of the Crown of Aragon). For hundreds of years Catalonia had operated independently. Now it had to answer to the Bourbons.
The people who feel most passionately about independence, though, are the ones who care the most about language. They want their kids raised speaking Catalan, and they want classes in school taught in Catalan. For them, language is the heart of a nation.
In the mid-1800s there was a resurgence of interest and pride in the Catalan language and cultural traditions. Out of this 'Catalan Renaissance' came a nationalist movement, with people eager to once again have their own nation. This feeling persisted and Catalan nationalists came closest in the 1920s and early 1930s under the leadership of Francesc Macià. He was the leader of a pro-independence political party and ultimately became the head of the Catalan Republic until he died in 1933. The Catalan Republic lasted for less than 6 years from 1932 until it was crushed by General Francisco Franco in 1938.
Under Franco both the autonomy of Catalunya and the Generalitat were abolished. During Franco's nearly 40 year rule as a dictator, the Catalan people had no voice or independence and were not allowed to teach their own language to their children or pass down their cultural traditions.
When Franco died in 1975 Spain moved to restore democracy. Autonomy was restored and Catalunya has benefited greatly from autonomy ever since... but there has been this ongoing issue over language, culture and Catalan identity. It has remained a very tricky and important issue for most Catalan people.
HOWEVER. Approximately three million Catalans did not vote yesterday. Mainly they stayed home from the referendum because the Spanish government stated that this was not a legitimate democratic election.
They felt that their votes would be invalid or even illegal, so why bother? No European countries had supported the referendum, or agreed to honor its results. Many other Catalans felt (at least until yesterday) some loyalty and connection to Madrid and the rest of Spain.
"I didn't vote yesterday because I felt it was not a legal election that would be internationally recognized," explained our friend Eduard* this morning at the school bus stop. "That said, I do believe that Catalans deserve to vote what is in our hearts for our future. I estimate that 90% of Catalan people felt very strongly yesterday that they should have the right to vote - yes or no. Based on the violence of the Spanish Civil Guard toward the voters, I will tell you that 99.9% of the Catalan people are very angry and upset about how the Spanish police have treated our citizens."
Eduard was referring to the violent actions taken by the Spanish Police and Civil Guard yesterday toward peaceful Catalan citizens trying to vote. Some Catalans were shot in the face and head with rubber bullets; thrown down the stairs; had bones broken; and were even clubbed in the head.
"This is NOT Spain," agreed our other friend Francesc*, who DID vote for independence yesterday. "This is not how we act here. We are a civilized people."
Eduard frowned and shook his head. "My friend from Chile called me yesterday and said to me, 'What, is Spain becoming Venezuela now?' My friend from Finland called too. It is very concerning. For the first time, I am worried."
The independence referendum of 1 October was called many months ago by the leader of the Catalan people Carles Puigdemont, a former journalist and mayor of Girona who in 2016 was named 130th president of the Generalitat of Catalunya. He is the first-ever president of Catalunya to refuse to take an oath of loyalty to the Spanish Constitution and Spanish King Felipe VI.
Puigdemont has not been working alone toward the goal of Catalan independence... he was placed in his role by two pro-independence groups called "Together for YES" and "CUP" (Popular Unity Candidacy). He has a large and somewhat cohesive government that has been working very hard toward the goal of Catalan independence for a long time.
If this were a romantic story of good and evil, Puigdemont's nemesis or arch-rival would easily be characterized as Mariano Rajoy. A regional president vs. the prime minister of the country! Rajoy is leader of the conservative People's Party and currently the Prime Minister of Spain.
Before becoming prime minister, Rajoy was a longtime head of the Opposition party in Spain, with a strong focus on economics. He discredited socialist leaders as not understanding how to manage money and blamed them for Spain's terrible crisis during the global economic downturn. Although he campaigned on financial integrity and security, since his election Rajoy has been accused multiple times of financial corruption. He has currently been the Prime Minister since 2011.
Rajoy says that it is his duty and the duty of his government to uphold the law and 'preserve the integrity of the Spanish state'. In other words, he says he is defending democracy itself. He himself is currently the head of a minority government and it could topple if the fallout from this referendum gets bad enough.
Rajoy authorized the Spanish Civil Guard to enter Catalunya and use proportionate measures to try and nullify the Catalan referendum.
"Proportionate?" scoffs Eduard. "Proportionate is when I hit you and you hit me back. Proportionate is not hitting defenseless old women who are sitting peacefully on the ground in the head with police batons... or throwing people down the stairs!"
Catalans would not agree then, that Rajoy's actions and the actions of the police, were reasonable and peaceful.
Despite their best efforts though, the Spanish police and civil guard were not able to stop the Catalan referendum from taking place.
Not that they didn't try!!! Really hard!!! Here are some of the things the government of Spain did in the past two weeks to try to stop yesterday's vote. It's like a laundry list of oppression:
What a terrible mistake.
From the perspective of an outsider... an American... someone from a country where violence has too often been used to solve problems, there must be a better way than this! Oppression and brutality can only lead to more anger. It will surely fan the flames of the independence movement, not snuff them out.
Yesterday I read an article in The Atlantic about how the Spanish Government misunderstood the independence movement. I highly, highly recommend this piece and think everyone should read it. Especially Mariano Rajoy!
Abraham Maslow once said, "I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail." Apparently the Spanish government felt its best tool was a military force at its disposal, and they have hammered this delicate Catalan problem with brute force rather than intelligent finesse.
This is not only terrible for Rajoy's PR (and that of Spain as a democracy) but it was so unnecessary. Six months ago I didn't know more than one or two Catalan people that truly wanted independence. They just wanted the politicians to talk and hammer out a financial compromise.
Today, Catalunya is united on the issue of independence more than perhaps ever before. That's what happens when you hurt old women and little children in front of a thousand cell phones taking video. By acting from a place of fear rather than faith in democracy, Rajoy himself has lit the match for the explosion that may ultimately shake all of Spain.
Our family has no skin in this game, or at least, very little of it. As Americans living abroad on a temporary basis for an exciting life adventure, it is easy to see the perspective of both sides. I truly understand why Spain wants to continue embracing Catalunya as an essential part of itself, and I also understand why much of Catalunya wants to be its own nation.
The heartbreaking thing (as I see it from an outside perspective) is the loss of the beautiful Catalan sense of security and innocence in one single day.
We've gone from Catalan students singing, proudly waving flags and banners, handing out flowers and taking classes from civil rights leaders about non-violent protest... to shocked and angry citizens of all ages rubbing their eyes in disbelief, after witnessing soldiers from their own country attack their neighbors and friends over a peaceful vote.
After disbelief comes anger.
I feel their loss keenly, this loss of innocence.
Living in Barcelona had been a breath of fresh air for our family during this past year, like a heavy mantle was lifted that we didn't even know we were sitting under. We loved living in a place where people genuinely trust the Mossos (local police), children are truly safe on the street, people of all ages felt incredibly free to protest without fear of repercussion, and two people with strongly differing political opinions could still live harmoniously in apartments side by side, proudly displaying their different flags, and yet share a coffee in the morning.
I come from a country where we have not really had such innocence for a long time... at the very least, since the attacks on September 11, 2001. (African American friends in my country might argue that we have actually never in our history had that kind of innocence... as our country was built in large part with the blood, sweat and tears of forced labor.)
Just a few hours ago in my own country the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history took place. My sister and her husband actually happened to be in the audience when a man in his 60s opened fire from a hotel room above the large crowd listening to country music at a open-air festival in Las Vegas. At time of writing nearly 60 people are now reported dead and more than 500 injured.
My family members were badly shaken and incredibly lucky to get out alive!
Although this is the worst mass murder in modern American history it is also the kind of headline we have become hardened to. Sadly, this kind of random, tragic violence happens in the USA all too frequently. It's almost too much to process mentally and emotionally so, often, people ignore it and go on with their day.
Yesterday I watched that same yoke descend upon the shoulders of the Catalan people I now know and love. This morning I saw the same sorrow, fear and uncertainty in their eyes that we know too well in other parts of the world.
"I don't understand it," our Catalan friends are saying. "I did not believe it could be like this. Not here." They look dazed, crushed... and angry.
President Puigdemont is on the cusp of declaring Catalan independence... perhaps within 72 hours. Madrid will surely not accept (or even acknowledge) this decision.
I fear that instead of independence we are entering a time of Catalan instability... and possibly, greater tragedy to come.
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It wasn't supposed to go like this.
We were supposed to be on a plane right now. Crossing the Atlantic. I should have been sipping a glass of white wine to calm my nerves over the flight. Gripping my arm rest when the airplane hit inevitable turbulence. Smiling bashfully once it settled.
We were supposed to be landing in JFK soon, grabbing a cab to Brooklyn. I'd point out important landmarks to my twelve year old son as we yawned and rubbed our tired eyes. My son... my eldest... The Scientist. The boy obsessed with flight economics who had agreed delightedly at a moment's notice to fly with me across the ocean for a five day journey, just Mom and son.
A close family member of ours has been quite ill for some time. This dear person lives in Brooklyn, a bit over 4,000 miles from Italy we spent most of our summer.
It's very important to me to visit them in person, to give the kind of love and hugs that cannot be shared just over the telephone or via Skype or Facebook.
Señor Aventura had agreed to stay back and care for Little Angel and Soccer Dude.
"We'll be fine," he encouraged me. "You need to go and be with your family now. I'll take care of the kids."
Gratefully, I'd agreed. There is no blessing like the love and support of a kind, decent life partner.
Flights out of Barcelona at short notice were not cheap. The Scientist did some digging though and discovered that by flying out of Milan there were direct flights to New York that cost hundreds of euro less per ticket! It was the difference between 990 and 600 euro per ticket. Wow!
We were headed back to the lake district to spend a few more weeks in Italy anyway. This made the decision a no-brainer. We'd hang out for a few extra days by Lago Maggiore and then fly directly to NYC.
"Wow Mom, my first time ever in New York!" The Scientist grinned from ear to ear as I purchased our tickets. "I can't wait to see our family! I can't wait to see the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty!"
"This isn't exactly going to be a sight-seeing trip," I reminded him gently. "We're going to visit someone we love... who isn't feeling well at all."
"Yes, I understand," he nodded. "That's the most important reason why I am am glad to go. I want to see them. A lot!"
What a strange assortment of clothing we'd packed for the coming weeks!
Brightly colored bathing suits next to shiny black waterproof flats. Quick-drying synthetic beach shorts and skirts rolled up against trendy jeans. Hiking boots, lightweight jackets and pebble beach swimming shoes stuffed in next to "cool tee-shirts" and hip sneakers for my son. We even packed black umbrellas for the predicted 92F/34C rainy New York weather in July!
Our family hit the road and spent two glorious weeks enjoying the Milan and Italian lakes including Maggiore, Como and Monate.
During this time in Italy my incredibly strong and fit husband Señor Aventura also raced in an amateur/semi-pro cycling competition in France called the Haute Route Alpe d'Huez with his close friend from Colorado, and while he was gone the children and I spent delightful, languid days soaking up sun and playing by the shores of Lago Maggiore.
I'll surely be sharing lots of stories about amazing the Italian, Swiss and French towns, beaches and lakes we experienced there for months to come!
At last, however, Wednesday night arrived.
Two days ago now.
Our flight to NYC was scheduled to leave at 10:25am so we strategized. We would wake early at six! Finish packing, clean the AirBNB, and then drive to the Milan Malpensa airport, arriving by 8:30. Señor Aventura, Little Angel and Soccer Dude would hug us goodbye and put us on an American Airlines flight to the United States!
Before we knew it, we'd be enjoying a Starbucks latte (me) and hot cocoa (my son) in Brooklyn.
My stomach was full of butterflies for the morning flight. I'm still working on conquering my fear of flying. I seem to be on the 30 year 'conquer-your-fear' plan!
"Can't wait to see you tomorrow!" I texted our loved ones in New York, and then tucked everyone in to try and get some sleep.
What a hot, muggy night it turned out to be in the Italian town of Sesto Calende! Mosquitoes circled our beds like little vampires. Thanks to a somewhat tragic lack of air conditioning, we were obliged to keep the windows wide open... but this left us exposed and easy prey for many tiny, bloodthirsty nuisances.
Around 3:30am while swatting away what felt like the umpteen millionth whiny mosquito near my head, I suddenly heard an insistent buzzing sound coming from the direction of the living room.
"What the heck is that?"
Half asleep and pretty thirsty, I stumbled out of the bedroom.
The buzzing turned out to be a text. I picked up my phone.
"Your plane has been delayed?" asked our family in NYC.
Sure enough. Three other texts were waiting for me from American Airlines.
"Your flight has been delayed." Twice! It was now running SIX HOURS AND FORTY MINUTES late!
"Six hours??!!??" I muttered "That can't be right. I've never heard of a delay that long. What's going on?"
"That seems strange," my NY family agreed.
Internally I groaned, noting for the first time that my stomach was cramping and aching pretty badly. "It's just about 4am here my time," I typed. "I'd better try to get more sleep. I'm going to be a mess by the time we finally arrive in New York. Sounds like we've got a long day ahead!"
As I reached to turn the lights back out, there was a new buzz.
American Airlines, again.
"Flight AA0199 Canceled."
"WHAT?" I sat up straight, no longer remotely sleepy.
"Oh my gosh," I texted my family frantically. "They just flat out canceled our flight!"
"What? Are you sure? Who did?"
So much for going back to bed!
The next few hours were a blur of calling and contacting American Airlines, British Airways, Vueling, and AirBNB... trying to figure out what the heck we were going to do.
"We have just one other flight leaving today from Milan," they told me at American Airlines. "It leaves from Linate airport in exactly one hour. How close are you to Linate?"
"Um," I said, looking down at my pajamas and listening to my sleeping children snore in the next room. "Linate is at least an hour from where we are staying. My kids are asleep. There is no possible way we can get there in time."
"Yeah," the customer service rep from American Airlines agreed, "Actually, you'd have to be there for check-in right at this moment. That won't work."
Calmly and kindly, he recommended I take a full refund.
"I can't process it for you though," he said, "because you bought your ticket through British Airways. So, you'll need to call them for the refund."
I called British Airways and was quite disappointed to reach what was assuredly a call center in India. (I later discovered their off-hours call center is based in Mumbai.)
"Can you give me your record number?" a lady with a thick accent asked me on a line that was crackly, distant and faint.
I gave her the number and described what had happened.
"Can you hold the line please?" she asked and then put me on hold. (It was not really a question.)
A few minutes later she returned. "I'm sorry Madam but I cannot find a record of your ticket. Are you sure you purchased it through British Airways?"
"Yes," I responded with exasperation. "I am looking at my receipt right now. Perhaps you did not understand the confirmation number? I will read it to you again. It's..."
Suddenly I found myself talking to dead air space. Did she hang up on me? Did the line simply disconnect?
"Argh!!!!" I snapped, slamming the cell phone down... and then dialed the British Airways customer service line to wait on hold AGAIN.
This time, blessedly, perhaps because business hours were now open in the UK I got a woman in Britain who spoke English perfectly and asked all of the right questions. "How close are you to Malpensa?" she asked. "Are you able to refund your accommodation in New York? How old is your child?"
She grasped the situation instantly. (Phew!) After we'd discussed all of the complications, she confirmed with American Airlines that our flight had indeed been canceled.
"Honestly madam," she commiserated, "If I were you, I'd take the refund and start over. The first flight I can get you on won't even arrive in Britain until tonight, and the next flight that will arrive in New York won't get there until very late tomorrow. That is a VERY long travel day for you and your son... plus you will still be out your AirBNB expenses, and you are traveling with a young child. By the time you arrive, your little boy will be exhausted and you'll essentially have to turn right around to return to Europe!"
Morosely, I looked at our calendar and agreed. The AirBNB was not available for a later date, and with its "Strict" cancellation policy there was only a slim chance of getting our money back.
Then she explained to me that there was no way they could fly us back to our home in Barcelona... we'd have to return as scheduled to Milan, even though my husband and children would no longer be in Italy. The answer became obvious.
I'd been trying to force everything to work out. Nothing was working.
"So you recommend that I take the refund on this flight and then start over?"
"Unfortunately yes, I do."
Señor Aventura nodded in the background, affirming that he agreed. "Let's cut our losses and move on. We'll find a way to fly you to New York soon."
I sat with my head in my hands, feeling exhausted and crushed. When I looked up, The Scientist was rubbing his eyes blearily. "What's going on, Mom?"
"Honey, they canceled our flight. We can't go to New York today after all."
"WHAT?" His twelve year old face crumpled and he began to sob. "But I've been looking forward to it so much! I want to see our family! You said we were going to New York!"
"I know. I feel the same way." My eyes began to water. Before I knew it, we were both crying.
"It's not your mom's fault," my husband consoled The Scientist. "She can't control airline cancellations. These things just happen sometimes."
"What are we doing to do then?"
"Well, I say we pack up here and drive to Decathlon. It's time to go camping."
"Camping?" The Scientist rubbed his red, leaking eyes and looked up at my husband. "Camping where?"
"We're going to camp in France tonight!" Señor Aventura smiled. "I was going to take your brother and sister camping on our drive back to Barcelona. Now I'll take all of you! I've found us the perfect place, not far from an amazing box canyon and some fantastic natural pools to swim in!"
"Really?" our son sat down and began to look less heartbroken.
"Is Mom coming too?" asked Little Angel, who'd ambled into the room. "To camp?"
"Yes, Mom is coming too," agreed my husband. "Let's go buy a tent for five people!"
"Oh, I'm SO EXCITED!" giggled Little Angel. "I've never gone CAMPING before!" She began to dance around. "My first camping! And mom will be there! Yay!" She threw her lithe little arms around my waist. "I CAN'T WAIT!"
So this is how the Aventura family unexpectedly found ourselves on our way to camp as a family of five in France!
After tearfully contacting my family in New York to explain the flight disaster (and our plan to book a new flight asap) I took a shower and began to clean the apartment.
We packed the car and drove to Decathlon where we bought cheap sleeping bags and sleeping pads for The Scientist and I... we had nothing at all with us, since we were supposed to be on an airplane!
Next, we bought a big tent. A really big one.
Forging ahead we drove northwest for about five hours to Nice. We managed to pick up some groceries in a VERY multicultural Carrefour, where the women were all carefully covered and wore headscarves. More than once I found myself wishing desperately that I hadn't chosen to wear a tank top, as fellow shoppers stared.
"Why can't I speak French when I need it?" I murmured in frustration, remembering the four years I'd spent studying that language as a kid in school. "Why do I have to stand out so much right now?"
As swiftly and efficiently as we could, we purchased ingredients for S'Mores and eggs for Señor Aventura's famous breakfast burritos.
"Can we get ramen with sushi?" asked Soccer Dude. "To have by the camp fire?"
"Um... sushi for camping?" We laughed. Classic Soccer Dude!
Finally, purchases made, we headed up into the mountains and down the tiny twisting roads beyond Nice toward Roquesteron, France.
At last, we arrived at Camping Les Fines Roches, a lovely campground next to a river bed in Roquesteron. It was nearing sunset and we were anxious to get the tent set up before dark.
Little Angel and I helped the boys figure out how to pitch and stake the rather unwieldy tent, and then we cooked a little dinner on the camping stove.
"I can't believe I'm camping!" she said to me about three million times.
"I can't really believe we're camping either," I agreed, "but here we are!"
We finally settled in for the night, and I actually think I even managed to get a few hours of sleep before a rooster began to crow around 5:30am. It crowed every five to ten seconds for about two hours. No big deal. (The boys were ready to hunt it down and eat it for breakfast by 6:15!)
After getting in trouble for trying to light an actual fire ("That is illegal in France in this season!" another camper informed us) we quickly doused it with water and dirt and then used the camping stove, where our favorite mountain man Señor Aventura cooked his famous 'special eggs' with tomatoes, fennel, onions and garlic and wrapped them in flour tortillas for the children.
"These are delicious!" sang out Little Angel. "I can't believe I'm eating eggs on a camping trip! I can't believe I'm actually CAMPING!"
Before we drove back to Barcelona, we went a bit further into the mountains to find the series of special box canyon pools my husband had read about.
It was a gorgeous day. The tiny town above the canyon was sweet and incredibly picturesque.
The journey involved a steep hike down hundreds of feet, until we finally found the base of the canyon below. On the way down I managed to slip thanks to a large mass of slippery, muddy dead leaves and land hard on my backside, twisting my ankle in the process.
Frustrated tears slid down my cheeks. It wasn't just the ankle... not really.
"We were supposed to be in New York!"
I couldn't help but think about my family across the ocean, missing us. We were missing them too.
My eight year old daughter reached out her delicate hand to me, gripping my muddy fingers with her elegant clean ones.
"It's okay Mommy. I'm really glad you're here with me! Isn't this beautiful?"
Seeing her elated face, I pulled myself together. I stood up and dusted myself off. Together we kept going, and at last came to the pale blue green pools my husband had described.
"Mom, look at this tiny frog that just hopped onto my hand!" cried Soccer Dude.
"Mom, look at that dragon fly! I've never seen one like it!" exclaimed Little Angel.
"Mom, look at the clay on the bottom of the pool! It's just like the clay we play with at school!" she added.
"Mom! Can I go explore these pools with Dad?" asked The Scientist.
Looking around at the bright sunshine bathing my kids in its gentle warmth and the surreally clear, clean water of the mountain pool they were splashing in, I finally exhaled.
We didn't make it to New York. The Scientist and I weren't yet with our American relatives. Our family member didn't suddenly recover. This is truth, not fiction.
Yet, we were together with our dear ones. We were here! Standing in a remote, pristine clay bottom pool in the middle of a box canyon in France... watching tiny amphibians and insects swim languidly past our legs. What a surprise!
The world - even with all of its twists and turns and raw imperfections - still manages to awe me with its unexpected beauty.
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I want to write this now, while I am sweaty and exhausted. Before my feet stop tingling, before I take a shower and wash off all of the stink of hard work, fear and pride. There is salt dripping from my forehead into my eyes, and that’s the way it should be at this moment.
I want to write it while I am still full of endorphins, still brave. Legs covered in dirt, t-shirt damp and clinging to my abdomen.
It would not seem like much to most. Not to Señor Aventura, my true love. Not to the three Aventura children, the lights of my life. They are all so outdoorsy, so bold, so strong. They could have accomplished this goal with ease… made it seem tiny, insignificant... even delightful. (They are like mountain goats, but skipping and frolicking along the way.)
Today I conquered a trail though, a really steep and forbidding trail - and I did it alone. There was no-one ahead of me, no-one behind me, and no-one by my side. I spent a harrowing hour alone on the side of cliffs, hiking in 90 degree heat and at times I was not sure I was even still on the trail.
I passed an ancient bridge and paused to take photos. I climbed up a cliff face so steep, I’m still amazed I was able to go up it without places to grip with my hands and feet.
In the end, I made it to the charming little town of Rodellar… where I sat trembling in the shade of the church and gave silent thanks.
Why is this such a big deal, you will probably ask. Thousands of people, millions of people even, climb trails alone every single day of their lives. They think nothing of it.
Why is it a big deal that one city slicker, a woman who still thinks of herself as a girl, someone that prefers lattes and movie theaters to camping under the stars… has done such a simple thing?
Is it because I’m now 41, an adventurer entering midlife?
Am I a living, breathing cliché? (“Hey world, don’t be afraid to try new things!”)
Do I want my daughter to see that women are strong and powerful?
Or how about this...
Stanford, 1994. April? May? I’m a freshman with a crush on a boy in my dorm, someone who kisses me from time to time late at night when he’s stoned and we’re talking in the dark about philosophy or music. He has a kind face, looks a little bit like James Spader with a strong chin and a dimple in his cheek when he smiles.
I throw on something, who knows what - something I hope will look pretty, and pack my backpack full of books, papers, a large soft blanket to sit on with an embroidered sun and stars. It’s one of those machine woven blankets popular with students right now. It is my very favorite; I wrap myself in it at night to feel warm and safe now that I am far from my childhood home.
Off we go!
I am smiling at this guy, and laughing at all of his jokes. Except, the trip is turning out to be not that romantic after all. I’m in the back seat, his brother in the front. As we drive my friend holds up a a ziplock bag of magic mushrooms; he tells me that he and his little brother will take them at the beach today and have an adventure.
“Oh, sure,” I smile awkwardly, disappointed.
“Do you want some?” he asks, probably trying to be generous.
“That’s okay,” I shake my head and smile. “I’ll just stay and work by the ocean.”
We park on the side of a road. Next to the road there is a field, and from the field a trail down to the beach. The ocean looks beautiful below the cliffs, and I’m heartened by the sound of waves crashing and sea birds calling.
I spread out my blanket, pull out all of my political science books and papers and begin to study for the upcoming final exam. The boys take their mushrooms and go on walkabout.
“Have fun!” they grin at me, as they walk away.
An hour passes. I’m alone, but pretty happy. The water is really beautiful here in Santa Cruz, and I’ve got snacks and a lot of work to do. The sun is shining. It almost feels like my home in San Diego.
I’m still thinking about the boy, a little. 'Maybe he likes me?' I think/hope. 'As a girlfriend, maybe? He wouldn’t have brought me to Santa Cruz, out of all of the girls in the dorm, to meet his brother, if he didn’t. Right?'
Suddenly there’s a blot on the sun, a shadow falling directly over me. I look up with a smile, expecting to see my friend and his brother.
Except it’s not. Standing in front of me, completely naked, is a tall thin man. I have never seen him before, but he has clearly seen me sitting alone on this beach.
He is muscular and has dark, wild hair and an intense look in his eyes. He is only feet away from where I am sitting, and I am all alone. I have never seen a naked man in person before, but everything is right there now at eye level on full display.
He says nothing but begins to move toward me.
“Nobody will even hear me if I scream,” I think, and find that I cannot find my voice. There is no scream in me. Not one! My voice seems to have curdled like spoiled milk.
Then I do the only thing that seems sensible and natural. I ran a lot in high school, and heck, it’s been less than a year since high school. Fight or flight kicks in. Big time.
Off like a shot, I run. I know the guy is following me, I can hear him behind me, and when I turn my head I can see him… but I run hard and fast. I have an advantage… I am wearing shoes, and he is not.
I am literally running as fast as I can through the foliage toward the place I think we parked our car, up at the top of the cliffs on the side of the road. I am running toward civilization. I am running toward a small blue car like it is my salvation.
I run and run, sweat pouring from my body, and think to myself, “Why am I here? Why did I think I was safe as a girl alone in the middle of nowhere? What the hell am I doing?”
As I run, I realize the absurdity of the situation. I am here by myself in a remote part of Santa Cruz because a boy I like (and wanted to impress) feels like taking drugs and wandering aimlessly by the sea shore.
I have left myself open to danger... and with relative ease, it seems to have found me!
Panting and shaking, I pull myself out of the dense tangle of foliage and out to the street where I see our car. I am in tears. I am covered in dirt. There are scratches on my arms and some of them are bleeding.
I huddle by his car on the driver’s side and remember I have nothing. No keys, no backpack, no food, no books. Everything, even my wallet, was left down by the water.
But I am here! I am still here and I am breathing and the man seems to have disappeared. So I stand in the most visible place I can, next to our car, and I pray.
In a little while (was it ten minutes? an hour?) I see my friend walking up the road. He and his brother are smiley, loopy. They’re having the best time. They’re seeing things I don’t see. They're walking and talking sloooowwwly.
“Woah!” he says to me, looking me up and down. “What happened? You look like you’ve just come out of World War III!”
His little brother looks at me as though I am an alien, and spontaneously they both begin to giggle.
I explain about the naked man chasing me through the brush. In the end we go together, the three of us, back to the shore where I’ve left everything.
“I wonder if he took your wallet,” they say as we climb back down.
The backpack is still there though. So are the books, course readers, papers and surprisingly even my wallet. There is only one thing missing. That large sun, moon and star blanket is gone. That blanket of comfort and safety has literally been pulled away.
“Bummer, dude,” says my friend to me, laughing. “Maybe the guy was cold.”
I look at him, so goofy and relaxed when I am on cortisol-overdrive, having perhaps just prevented my own assault, and suddenly wonder how I could ever have found him attractive. I realize in an instant what a poor match we would be. We are both kids pretending to be grown ups.
“I’d like to go home now,” I say, gathering my things and trying to hold my voice steady. On the way back to Stanford I curl up in the back of his car without talking. I’m exhausted, and ready to sit in a hot shower; to call my best friend and cry.
I’m eighteen, and suddenly I cannot be alone in nature. Every time I find myself alone on a rustic path - anywhere - my heart begins to race fiercely and there is ringing in my ears. I am not afraid of the wilderness; no, not exactly. I am afraid of who may be lurking in it.
Nearly 24 years later, I remember this experience like it was yesterday… most of all when I’m hiking. Thankfully though it’s now just a tiny memory, one that surfaces once in a blue moon. Hard to believe nearly a quarter of a century has passed since that odd Spring day.
I live a life blessed many times over. It took eight more years to meet my perfect travel companion, the brave and good man known as Señor Aventura… but meet him I finally did, and now we cross the globe with our Scientist, Soccer Dude and Little Angel.
Lovely Little Angel is (amazingly!) closer than I am now to the age of eighteen. We are raising our eight year old daughter to be strong and fearless.
We are raising her to jump into deep natural pools, rappel down cliff faces and slide through waterfalls.
She’ll be a surfer, a swimmer, a hiker, a climber, a camper. She will not walk through this world scared to be alone in nature.
I’m so proud.
Today when she gets back from canyoning with her dad and asks me, “What did YOU do today Mommy?” I will tell her:
Today I clambered up cliffs and crossed canyons. I wandered where there was no clear direction and kept going, even when I was shaking and unsure that I would ever find the road or town.
Today I put one foot in front of the other on a narrow path no more than six inches across with a vertical drop straight down into a deep, dry creek bed.
Today I walked where nobody could hear my voice.
Today I faced my fears and at the moment when I was most scared, I grabbed a large rock (warm from the sun) and held it in my hand for comfort and for strength as I continued to climb.
Today I turned around to see if anyone was following me, and realized that I was blessedly alone ~ and safe.
Today I walked through the wilderness… and in the end, I found my way, all by myself, back to civilization.
Disclaimer: In this post I have tried to recreate events, locales and conversations from my memories of them. In order to maintain their anonymity in some instances I have changed or omitted the names of individuals and places. I may also have changed some identifying characteristics and details such as physical properties, occupations, and more.
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Today there was a terrorist attack in our adopted city, Barcelona. The place we adore. Our home. A terrorist group has claimed responsibility for inspiring the horrific incident that took the lives of at least 12 innocents with scores more victims in the hospital tonight. Some reports say more attacks may be in store over the coming days.
When the news broke Señor Aventura and I had just come back to our apartment with the three Aventura children after enjoying a very typical three hour Catalan lunch with our good friend here in the city, "George" who, like me, is an American teacher abroad. George is on summer vacation from his teaching position here in Barcelona and has just taken a wonderful new apartment in the area of the city near Vall D'Hebron. He'd invited us to meet up for lunch and to see his place.
Lunch in Spain is a very relaxed affair, especially in the month of August when the city is essentially shut down and almost all of our native Catalan friends have left for a month of vacation. Restaurants are uncrowded at this time of year (when you're far from the tourist action) and it was fairly easy to find a table.
Many restaurants offer what they call a 'menu' which consists of two courses (such as paella and fish) plus a beverage (water, beer or wine) and a dessert (like flan) for 9 Euro. It's a fabulous deal, and makes eating out with the kids a real joy.
I ordered a glass of white wine and so did George. The Catalan waiter announced he'd bring us a bottle, and then he also handed a full bottle of vino tinto to my husband. We must have looked surprised to be handed two full bottles of wine because the waiter laughed and said cheerfully in Spanish, "It's a Mediterranean lunch!" Then he grinned and told my husband, "I'll call you a taxi after." Everybody laughed warmly, though we had no real intention of polishing off both bottles at 2pm. Somehow, this story feels important now.
We had such a nice time together catching up on our summer travels and plans for the new year. By the time our family got home hours later everyone was smiling and feeling quite relaxed. Our kids began to play a game and my husband sat down to accomplish a few things. I decided to put my head down for a brief, lazy August 'siesta' and had just drifted off when I heard my husband say, "Hon - there's been an attack. Looks like a terrorist attack."
"Oh no, where?" I murmured, thinking immediately of Paris and London.
"Here. Barcelona," he told me numbly. "Las Ramblas."
"Oh my gosh."
I sat up and grabbed my phone. He stayed on his laptop and we began to search for news to learn more about what was happening.
"It's still happening, I think," my husband said quietly. "I'm not sure."
Just then I got the first of many loving and concerned messages from home in California, from a dear childhood friend. "I am incredibly saddened to hear of the van attack in Barcelona. Are you guys all OK?" my friend wrote.
Immediately I responded to let her know that we were all okay, that we sent our love.
"It's all over the news," my husband nodded when I told him about the many messages of support and worry that were beginning to pour into my mobile phone via text, WhatsApp and Facebook. I called my mother, to let her know that we were safe.
Barcelona is a huge city. With a population of 1.6 million (not including tourists) within the city limits and five million people in the greater metropolitan area, the density of each block is very high. As it happens, we live far from Las Ramblas... it's a 27 minute drive from our building to the epicenter of the attack.
Standing out on our balcony overlooking the city, you would never have known anything was amiss. Bicyclists continued to cycle slowly up the street, people walked with their kids, music played from an apartment somewhere nearby.
About an hour after we first heard of the incident, I noticed a helicopter hovering fairly close by. Later we heard that one of the suspects had been apprehended there near our neighborhood, and shot while trying to flee from the police.
"Wow, that's pretty near to us," my husband said.
"Can I go play soccer downstairs?" The Scientist asked.
"Maybe not tonight, it's almost dinner time," we responded.
We've been listening to the Spanish journalists all night, and the news from the government is grim. Twelve dead with a few more critically injured, mortality numbers may rise. Anywhere between 50 and 80 hospitalized. Even more traumatized, and a large part of our amazing city on lockdown. Restaurants and businesses closed, the metro shut down, buses stopped. Local hospitals are caring for the victims, but at least two have said they have an adequate blood supply... no current need for donors.
The news hasn't identified the victims here yet, at least not as of the last time we checked... but we already know who they must be. Anyone who lives here would know. The victims were undoubtedly tourists from all over the world... street performers and artists, many of whom will sketch your portrait with incredible skill in moments for a few euro. They were mimes. They were families with children, looking to find out what the hype of Las Ramblas is all about. They may even have been local pickpockets, sifting through the throngs of travelers to pinch a wallet here or there. They were a colorful, beautiful, diverse crowd of humans. Many languages and cultures. None of them, not a single one, deserved this.
One of the world's known terrorist organizations has now claimed responsibility for the attack, and I refuse to write their name in this post because they don't deserve the free publicity. Basically that group inspired a bunch of teenaged, hormonal boys - online - to ruin their own lives and become murderers. The group gets no respect from me; and certainly no space in my blog. One of the actual attackers, not much older than my eldest son, is already dead. Nobody wins.
I have a strong message though... and I mean this with all my heart. It's for all the people we love, and all the people at home who may be feeling sorrow and fear right now.
DON'T BE SCARED. Don't! I'm sitting in Barcelona right now and it's the most amazing city you can imagine. Motorcycles are heading up the street, neighbors are having a dinner party, and the Catalan police (who have a massive presence, all the time) are well on top of the situation. They are an incredible group, and they have their eyes on everything all the time. They arrived on the scene of the incident within seconds. Literally.
They've got this. They're on it!
If you've always wanted to come to Barcelona, DO IT! Book your travel tonight. You will love this incredible town... its food, its culture, its history. The warmth of the people. The beauty of the Catalan countryside!
Don't allow this attack to stop you from following your dreams. Do you love to travel? Then TRAVEL! Don't let these fools stop you from seeing the world, don't live in fear. That's what they want, right? To strike fear into the hearts of innocent people so that everything shuts down? Commerce stops? Travel stops? Everyone sits around petrified, peeing their pants?
I always wondered how I would feel in light of a real terrorist attack near me, and now I am actually living through one and I can tell you. I'm not scared at all. I'm just mad. I'm mad that anyone would even think of hurting these beautiful travelers, local citizens and artists on one of our city's iconic streets. I'm mad that anyone would even consider taking away the sense of peace and beauty that infuses this special place. I'm mad that they were successful this time, even though the Catalan and Spanish police have adeptly shut down hundreds of other plots in the last few years.
But I'm not scared.
Look - it's a crazy time in history. Anything can seemingly happen anywhere, at any time. We've seen that this week already in Charlottesville, and before that in San Bernadino, and before that in Orlando... and the list goes on and on.
Now it's happened here, in Barcelona. That sucks! I hate that it happened, and I'm horrified by the events and incredibly sad for the victims and their families. I'll willingly donate blood tomorrow if they need it. I'll follow the instructions the Catalan police give us, to the letter. But I'm not scared at all. I'm not thinking of leaving, and I feel just as safe here as I would in California. Safer.
Don't let the fear-mongers win.
If you love to travel, and you've got a hankering for sangria and tapas; for beautiful beaches and flamenco; and to see the glorious Sagrada Familia (at last, just a few years from its completion!) DO support this amazing city and come to Barcelona! It's honestly as beautiful tonight as it was this morning, and the strong, kind-hearted people here will be as wonderful tomorrow as they were yesterday.
It feels very important to our family to get this message out there into the world today.
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This article contains images of 2,000 year old human skeletons, as displayed today within Italy's
world-renowned ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Parental/Teacher guidance recommended and
reader discretion advised!
"What will it be like, Mom?" the kids asked. "Will it be beautiful?"
"I'm not sure that 'beautiful' is exactly the right word to use to describe a dead city."
"But didn't you say it was frozen in time?" Little Angel pressed. "That's amazing! How does an entire city get frozen?"
"It got burned by lava from a volcano, don't you remember?" her older brother retorted. "We read all about it at school."
"Actually, Pompeii wasn't exactly burned by volcanic lava," I shook my head. "It was definitely buried by ash and pumice, but the thing that really doomed its inhabitants was something called a pyroclastic surge. A super hot mass of hot gas and rock fragments came rushing down the slopes of Vesuvius incredibly fast... and basically incinerated every living thing. The city itself is still there."
"What's incinerated?" asked Little Angel, frowning.
"Burned," replied her brother, smiling triumphantly.
We'd piled into our little Volkswagen car early in the morning on what would surely be a scorchingly hot day, equipped with sun hats and lots of water, to show our children one of the most important (and best-preserved) ruins in human history... the famous Roman town of Pompeii and its wealthier counterpart, Herculaneum.
"Can you tell us the story again, Mom?" asked Soccer Dude as Señor Aventura navigated us deftly through the crowded streets of Naples. "I want to understand what I am looking at."
"Sure," I agreed, and began to tell them the story with as much detail as I could recall. (I haven't been a history teacher for 20 years for nothing!)
"Today we're going to be looking at two ancient Roman towns, or at least what is left of them. They are called Pompeii and Herculaneum. Each of them was bustling and prosperous until the tragic day nearly 2,000 years ago when all life ground to a sudden, violent halt!
"Were they like this, Mommy?" Little Angel asked, pointing outside toward Naples.
"No, you'll see. They were both a lot smaller than Naples. Pompeii was a decent sized town that had its own theaters, stadiums, restaurants and neighborhoods.
Herculaneum was a lot smaller and more upscale, like a beach resort. Herculaneum was more like the communities of La Jolla or Del Mar, back in the city where we're from in San Diego (California). Small, but elegant and well-maintained."
"Oh," she nodded. "Okay, so then what?"
"Seventeen years earlier there had been a very big earthquake here in Campania (probably a foreshock to the volcano) and citizens of Pompeii and the other local towns were still rebuilding from it. They'd been reconstructing theaters and temples that had sustained serious damage, and generally trying to move forward.
The locals really had no idea what was about to happen to them Even though Vesuvius had erupted before, the last big eruption of the volcano had taken place so far back in the distant past that there was no record of it.
Nobody living at that time knew that Vesuvius was anything other than a very fertile mountain near Pompeii where the best grapes were grown. Lovely villas dotted the mountain and the region was considered to be a fantastic escape for Rome's rich and famous."
"What's fertile?" asked Little Angel.
"It means that the soil was really good for growing things in, like fruits and vegetables," interjected The Scientist.
I continued. "Earthquakes happen a lot around here, so nobody paid much attention to the fact that the ground had been rumbling for days. People continued to plan dinner parties and go out to shows and gladiator fights.
In the days right before the massive eruption there had also been some strange signs that things were not quite right... for example, pets and domesticated animals ran away from their homes, and the local wells and fountains suddenly dried up."
"Doesn't it seem like somebody should have noticed that things weren't normal?" asked Little Angel. "Wouldn't people be surprised and upset that their pets ran away?"
"Maybe they did," I answered, "But we don't know much about that because we have only one eyewitness account of what actually happened... and the person who wrote it wasn't living in Pompeii."
"What happened next?" asked Soccer Dude, intrigued.
"Suddenly, at noon on August 24th, there was a massive explosion - different colors of sand and ash actually rose high into the air. It looked like a huge pine tree in the sky to the folks across the Bay in Misenum who saw it happen. Within an hour, ash from the eruption had completely blocked out the light from the sun!"
"Oh wow," said Soccer Dude. "That must have been kind of freaky for them."
"Did the people in Pompeii escape?" asked The Scientist, even though he already knew the answer.
"When the eruption first began, the people didn't really know what to make of it. Some fled for their lives, and those were the lucky ones. They grabbed their statues of household gods, money and jewels and got the heck out!
Others insisted on staying behind to protect their property, or were unable to leave because they were sick or disabled. They prayed hard to their gods and hoped for protection.
Ash was falling at the rate of about six inches per hour, and at first the people who stayed behind tried to sweep it off of their tile roofs. As time passed, the piling ash got so heavy it began to actually crack the roofs and finally collapsed the second levels of buildings down onto the first levels. That's why we may not see many two-story buildings in Pompeii today.
Twelve hours later a wall of volcanic mud rushed down Vesuvius and covered nearby Herculaneum completely, suffocating that entire town and burying it and all inhabitants that had not already fled alive.
Because the mud came down so fast, many of the buildings of Herculaneum still have their second level intact... and some even have their original wood beams and balconies which did not decay, thanks to the mud which acted as a preservative. Many still have their original paint in vibrant colors on the walls!
Very early the next morning, around 6:30am, a pyroclastic surge rushed down the other side of the mountain toward Pompeii.
Those superheated gases burned the lungs of all remaining inhabitants and killed them instantly! Their bodies were then quickly encased in falling ash, where they remained for the next 1800 years."
The faces of the Aventura children looked grim as they took all of this information in, sitting in the back seat of our car and knowing that they were about to see the ruins of this disaster in just ten minutes.
"The air around the Bay of Naples was thick with ash. People with asthma and other respiratory conditions really struggled to breathe as they tried to escape the disaster. A small tsunami even took place in the Bay at the height of the eruption, leaving sea animals flopping about eruption on the sea floor for everyone to see... and the sky was black even at midday."
"Was it like that even where we are staying?" asked Soccer Dude worriedly. "If it erupted again tonight, would we be okay?"
"Yes, Gioia tells me that we are out of the range of the volcano in Sant'Agata Sui Due Golfi," I assured him. "You'll be fine."
"So what happened?" asked The Scientist. "How did it end?"
"Well, the eruption lasted for a total of two days. During that time Pompeii was buried under a thick layer of volcanic ash. It disappeared from sight. If you hadn't known it was there, you would never have guessed.
Pompeii and Herculaneum, plus a few other local towns, were eventually lost to history, except for two letters written by Pliny the Younger, a historian and statesman who was just a teenager when Vesuvius erupted. He later wrote an eyewitness account of the eruption that had killed his uncle, the famous naval officer and scientist Pliny the Elder.
Pliny the Younger wrote two letters to a famous historian named Tacitus, describing the entire eruption in as much detail as he could give from his vantage point across the bay, and also drawing from reports from family friends about what had happened to his uncle who had died of an asthma attack in Stabiae. That is actually how we know what happened! Without his letters none of these ruins might ever have been found."
"That's really sad," said The Scientist with a frown. "You mean, the Italians might have just built other cities right on top of them?"
"You'd be amazed how often that happens," I replied. "Remember, even Barcelona where we live in Spain is built right on top of an old Roman city."
"Did those people really have to die?" asked Soccer Dude. "If an eruption happened again today, would all the people living here die too?" He looked out the car window and gestured at all of the apartment buildings around our car.
"Well, I think it would be hard to survive that kind of pyroclastic surge at any time in history. We're talking about 400 degree heat! You'd have to evacuate and escape it... because you couldn't withstand it. They say the thermal energy released by the explosion of Mt. Vesuvius was 100,000 times the strength of the atomic bombs they dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II!
Luckily, we have early warning systems in place now that can tell us in advance if there is going to be a volcanic eruption. So, the people of Naples will know they need to evacuate before Vesuvius erupts again."
"Wow." The kids sat in stunned silence for a minute.
"I didn't know all of that," reflected my husband. "That's really interesting."
"How did they find the cities, Mommy?" asked Little Angel. "If they were buried?"
"That's a great question, sweetie. Pompeii and Herculaneum were lost and everyone forgot about them for almost two thousand years. Then in 1738 workmen were digging to lay the foundation for a summer palace for Charles of Bourbon, King of Naples... and they found the ruins of Herculaneum!"
"Oh my gosh! They must have been so amazed!"
"Did they find Pompeii too? At the same time?"
"Well, about 10 years later another excavation, this one led by a man called Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre, discovered Pompeii. The cities lost to Vesuvius weren't lost any more!"
I then described to my children how for nearly 300 years since then, these sites have undergone extensive excavation by archaeologists.
One of the most amazing discoveries during this period was made by Giuseppe Fiorelli and his team of archaeologists and excavators. They discovered a technique that made it possible to preserve the exact form of body shapes as they were discovered in the hardened ash.
"In a street called "Alley of the Skeletons" they discovered hollow areas within the ash. They could see that these hollow areas contained bones. Instead of digging into them to retrieve the bones, they instead filled the cavities with plaster. They allowed the plaster to harden for a few days, and then carefully chipped all of the hardened ash off of it."
"Why did the archaeologists do that?" asked Little Angel curiously.
"They'd found bones before in hollow cavities, and seen the impressions left by body parts in the ash and mud. They had a hunch that if you filled up the empty spaces with plaster, you might get a cast of the living thing whose body had made the space. So, they tried filling up a space... and after they chipped away the plaster what remained stunned everybody! They had created the plaster cast of a Pompeiian citizen that perfectly captured its exact moment of death!
I finished by telling them how smart this technique was, and still is!
"Even now, hundreds of years later, this remains the best method for getting an accurate representation of the dying figures. Over a thousand bodies have been retrieved from the ash in Pompeii, but only 100 of them have been perfectly preserved in cast replicas."
"Are we going to see those bodies, Mom?" asked The Scientist.
"That's really creepy!" announced Soccer Dude. "I want to see them though."
"I think the harder thing to see will be the skeletons at Herculaneum," I replied.
"For a long time archaeologists and historians thought many citizens of Herculaneum might have escaped alive, but right before you were born (I nodded to The Scientist) they discovered piles upon piles of skeletons of people who had hidden in the waterfront boat houses waiting to escape.
About three hundred Romans of all ages had been hiding inside the houses, waiting for the eruption to end... and they were sadly burned alive in an instant by a cloud of superhot gas and ash."
"That's so sad!" sighed Little Angel.
"Yes. It really is. But it's history, and it's important to understand it by seeing it in person, rather than reading about it in a book."
Señor Aventura had just pulled our car Chico Suave into a paid-parking lot right across the street from the ruins of Pompeii. It looked like you could buy anything in this lot, from fake statues to bottles of water, to an Italian lunch; even 50 euro cents per bathroom visit! They were definitely maximizing their location.
"Ready?" my husband asked.
Emerging from our car into the sticky heat of the day, we began to ascend the hill leading to the ancient town.
At the bottom of this post (organized into two groups) I will include more photos taken in Pompeii during our tour with our vivacious tour guide Sandro (and the bevy of British and Eastern European beauties that joined us) and also more from Herculaneum, where we later guided ourselves after lunch.
We'd been recommended to pay for a guide, and it was incredibly worthwhile!
Sandro was an excellent guide to Pompeii... witty, lively and capable of bringing the ancient city back to life with his many colorful anecdotes and jokes. He spent half of his time showing us interesting sights and explaining history, and the other half hitting on one of the ladies on our tour, which made for fun viewing and kept the dead city feeling quite lively!
Watching our three children gently place their hands on walls that were thousands of years old was incredible. There is no way you can learn the sensation of cool stone beneath your fingertips from a book, or smell the inside of a two thousand year old gymnasium!
Their eyes were like saucers as they stuck their heads inside real ancient bakeries and pretended to serve soup from the world's original fast food restaurants.
The highlight of our day? You may get a laugh out of it...
After the guided tour ended and we paid Sandro, the five of us went to stand in the shade along the side of a high wall. The Scientist pulled out his blue Android mobile phone and began to play "Pompeii" by Bastille, a modern pop song and musical artist that are very popular with today's youth in the USA.
As suggested by its lyrics, the five of us closed our eyes. We listened to the words and melody written about Pompeii... standing right in the middle of the city! Then, as the song suggests, we opened them and really looked around at the actual walls of Pompeii all around us, imagining them crumbling down.
We could imagine ourselves there, back in time, on the day of the actual eruption!
Looking down at my arm, I noticed goosebumps had risen on my flesh despite the intense heat of the lunchtime sunshine.
Together we gazed in awe at massive Vesuvius, resting so nonchalantly in the background... and thought about the impressive harm and ruin it had rained down upon innocents. On impulse we held hands and gave thanks that for now, the five of us were still all together and blissfully alive.
This was a long, hot and important day... unforgettable. We wrapped up eight hours spent wandering around both Pompeii and Herculaneum feeling physically exhausted, emotionally drained, and also incredibly grateful for all we'd seen ~ and all that we have!
Life is so delicate and transient, and we are so blessed.
More photos: POMPEII
More photos: HERCULANEUM
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