Bon Viatge!

Meg and Grant go to Barcelona & beyond

Month: October 2015

Six months in

What can happen in six months? As it turns out, for us, six months has meant visiting over twenty cities in six countries, having hosted about six friends in Barcelona, and having relished in six local holiday celebrations and festivals.

As a special treat for this momentous occasion, I’m featuring a Q&A with Grant so you can hear his perspective at this milestone. At the end of this post, I’ve shared some of my own reflections since having left U.S. soil in April.

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M: Tell us about the funniest memory you have so far from our time in Europe.

G: I thought it was funny that time when we went to the Mexican restaurant, and you ordered a tamale. Then it came, and they put it down in front of you, and it looked like a quesadilla. We were very confused. I’m pretty sure this is a quesadilla. We asked the waiter, “She ordered the tamales. I think this is the quesadilla.” He’s like, “No, no, no, that’s right,” and he walks away. We start to question everything. We’re just like, you know maybe in Spain a quesadilla is actually a tamale, they just call them different things. We were convinced. It’s funny how being in a new place can make you question things that you know really well.

M: What’s been your favorite place to visit?

G: Portugal, I would say. Specifically, I really liked the Quinta da Regaleira that was outside of Sintra. I went with you and Kelly, and I lost you guys at one point. And…I’m going to be honest, it did not bother me at all. I just ran around that entire place until well after it closed, because it was just so cool, and I loved exploring it.

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M: Tell us about the most embarrassing cultural fauxpaux moment that has happened.

G: I was at the climbing gym a couple weeks ago, and after I climbed, I was going to leave. There was this little girl standing in front of the only door. She’s like maybe four or five, really small, just standing there in front of the door. I walk up to her, and I kind of look at her, and she looks back at me. Then I try to pantomime that I want to get out of the door, but she’s not getting it. She’s just staring at me. I realize I have no idea how to speak to this girl in Catalan or Spanish to ask her if I can get by. So I’m just standing there, completely blocked by this four year old. What am I going to do? Do I just go back in and climb some more? How am I going to escape? Then I realized that her mom was standing in line, and she saw what was going on. Then she sort of stood there and laughed at me a little bit. Then she called her daughter over, and she left, and I got out. It was funny how something that was so simple could completely foil me.

M: What’s the best food or dish you have tasted so far (and you can’t say dinner tonight just to flatter me)?

G: I would say patatas bravas. I’ve gone whole hog for patatas bravas. I’ll order it basically at all the places in Barcelona, and they all have them, even if it’s not on the menu. You just say, “I would like some patatas bravas,” and they’re like “Sure.” One time we were hiking and we went to this pizza place after we were done, and all they had on the menu was pizza and beer. We were like, “We’d like some patatas bravas,” and he doesn’t even bat an eye. He’s like, “Ok, vale, vale, vale, vale, bravas.” So I really enjoy that. Also nata. I enjoyed nata in Portugal – that was delicious.

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M: …and we have a nata place here in Barcelona.

G: We do, but we haven’t been yet, because it closes way too early. An after-dinner nata sounds like the most amazing thing, but basically it would have to be open until midnight for that to work in Spain.

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M: What is the worst food or dish you have tasted so far?

G: I had this paella once that had pig ear in it. I tried some, but it was just rubbery and gross. The entire time I’m eating it I’m thinking, pig ear is basically the chew toy we would give to our dogs growing up. Now I’m eating it. I honestly don’t know what they saw in it. It’s not great.

M: How have you adjusted to life without full-time work?

G: Shockingly quickly. It’s funny because I worked at Meraki for like four or five years, and over time you accumulate all these things in the back of your head of like oh, I’d really like to work on this some day or we could fix this and make it better. I think after a week, they were gone. I had one time when I had a dream of some library that was going to solve some problem we had, and that was it. It’s sort of surprising to have spent so long on something, and all of a sudden, to have it just be completely gone from your brain.

All of that energy, when you’re working at a place, if you enjoy what you’re doing,  goes into, “How can I make this thing that I’m working on better?” All your new ideas are in the context of this one thing that you’re trying to solve or provide or do. A lot of that energy now is directed at, “What are the things in my life now that I wish were different? How will the Internet solve this for me?”

M: What has been the best day in the last 6 months?

G: I would say when we went to Switzerland, and we did the Cheese-Chocolate hike. I really enjoyed that. The countryside was beautiful. We were walking next to cows, and we got to be like, “Hi cows.” There were castles, and fondue, and more chocolate – I really enjoyed that day of hiking around Switzerland.

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M: What has been the worst day so far?

G: Going to Cinque Terre was the worst nightmare trip ever, because it was a series of unfortunate events. Well, for starters, we thought we were going to catch the 6am train from Milan to Cinque Terre because we wanted to get an early start and it’s a three hour train ride. But that was totally unrealistic. We made it to the train station just barely, through some combination of running and jumping on random buses that we hoped went in the right direction. We just barely made it, but we didn’t have time to buy our tickets. So I bought a different ticket online that was the same price and an hour and half later. We got on the train. Then the guy comes by, and he’s like, “This ticket isn’t valid. If it was within an hour, then you could change it for €5, but because it’s more than an hour, you have to pay like €200″, or something ridiculous. So that was annoying. Then we got there and it was like 50°; it was so hot.

M: 50°C, you mean.

G: Yeah, Meg, we live in Europe. Use celsius, like the rest of the freakin’ world. Quick, what is 50°C in fahrenheit?

Ahh, I don’t know. 40°C is 100°F, right?

G: Uh, something like that. I thought it was like 42. I could be wrong.

[Editor’s note: We were both wrong. 50°C is 122°F and 37°C is 100°F]

Anyway, it was so hot. There were so many people, because this was in the middle of summer. I think you just need to never go to the touristy spots in Italy in the summer. Then the whole point of going there is that there’s this trail, and you walk between these five towns, that’s why it’s called the Cinque Terre. The trail was closed. So we couldn’t take it; we had to take the train instead. But all these tourists were also forced to take the train. We waited through two trains and could not get on, because it was so crowded. Eventually we got on.

M: We also missed our pesto-making course.

G: Oh yeah, our pesto-making course was in the next town. It should have been easy to get to, because it’s like a 15-minute walk on that trail. But there’s no other way besides the trail between these two towns; you have to take the train. Because we couldn’t get onto those two trains, we missed the class that we had already pre-paid for. Yeah, it was just bad.

On the flip side, we ended up taking the train all the way to the last town, skipped the other three, and then we did wine tasting there, so we recovered pretty well. Except then our train back was horribly delayed. We show up with more than enough time. We were early for this one because we didn’t want to miss it. And then that train was two and a half hours late. But not like oh it’s two and half hours late, go do something and come back – every fifteen minutes it would say it’s coming in fifteen minutes…for two and a half hours. I was so annoyed at the Italian train system that they could penalize me for paying the correct amount for a ticket at a slightly different time and then they could have a train that was two hours late.

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M: What do you miss the most about the United States?

G: Umm, burritos. And Papalote salsa. Papalote burritos is the thing that I miss the most. Also, the free water that they give you at restaurants – I miss that. They don’t do that here, and it’s really annoying. You have to buy it, and it costs like €2, which is somehow offensive for water, and it’s the tiniest half-liter thing. I miss free water.

M: Beer is cheaper than the water.

G: That’s true. But sometimes you want water. Just a giant glass of ice water. And you can’t get it – it’s not a thing.

M: What’s the best thing about Spanish culture?

G: I think the thing that I enjoy the most is Gracia, our neighborhood here. I like the way that it’s mostly closed off to cars. The roads are fairly narrow, and there’s lots of restaurants and shops, and people just walk all over. I would have said that San Francisco was a walkable city, because it’s relatively small and you can get around. But it has nothing on Gracia, where you’re just in this tiny little area and you can walk around. It feels almost like I would imagine a village does in the 1800s.

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M: What’s the hardest thing about living in a foreign country?

G: I think for me, the hardest thing is probably the language. I feel like in my day to day life, I know enough, and enough people know English, that I’m able to function. But there are times when I run into situations, like with that little girl, where it’s like I am woefully insufficient here. Or anytime we want to go to someplace and order something specific, or call our electricity provider and say that there’s a problem. Those things, they’re difficult because you have to have this vocabulary to be able to do it, and you can’t pantomime over the phone to some guy who works for the Spanish equivalent of PG&E.

M: Any big lessons from traveling so far?

G: I think the big thing that I’ve learned from traveling is that it’s better to not always have a plan. I think we’ve started narrowing in on this balance where, we’ll have a rough idea of what cities we want to go to, and maybe we’ll have some airbnb’s, but we won’t have an itinerary. I really like that. I really like being able to get to a place and then say what do you want to do tomorrow? What looks cool? What’d you see today that you wish you could have seen more of?

It’s interesting, when we were first traveling, I would do so much research about the practical things – when we get to the airport, how do we get to the city center? How do we get to our airbnb? Is there a metro or bus? How much do the tickets cost? How do you buy the tickets? I wanted to have that first little bit figured out. And now, we’ll fly into cities and be like, how do we get to the airbnb? I don’t know! We’ll figure it out. A bunch of people are going that way, we’ll just go that way.

Travel hasn’t made me particularly introspective. When we’re going other places, I’m feeling in the moment. But I have realized that it’s something that I really enjoy. I mean, everybody enjoys going on vacation. But I would be sad if after this year, we went back to real life and only had two weeks of vacation a year for the next 30 years or something. I think I’ve realized that I want to find a way to travel more, to live abroad more, even if it’s for shorter times and in other places.

Oh, and always get a SIM card for your phone. That’s the practical advice.

M: What’s it been like living in a small apartment with your wife and spending more than two hours a day with her?

G: Far worse than you could ever imagine. No, it’s been fine. It is interesting from going to seeing each other a couple hours in the evening to seeing each other all the time.

M: Tell me more about that…

G: Which part? And why did that sound like a threat?

Also I do like the small apartment thing. I feel like my natural tendency is not to have a ton of things. I don’t like a lot of clutter. The small apartment forces that on us. It also puts an upper bound on our messiness. You and I tend to scatter things everywhere until it becomes unbearable… and then clean. Which is roughly a two day cycle in this apartment because it’s so small.

How did you think it was going to be – us spending this much time together? Did you think it was going to be the best thing in the world, did you think our relationship was going to implode?

M: I didn’t think we’d be spending this much time together. I just thought we’d each do our own thing. Or I thought that we were going to start to work on something together. So I thought about us spending time together in that context. I was always worried about how hard it would be to meet people – like friends here. And I think that was an accurate fear, because it’s kind of like you’re asking people to get emotionally involved with you when you know you’re not going to be there forever. Who wants to be someone’s friend for like a year? Mostly we’re friends with other people who are drifters as well.

G: Yeah, fellow gypsies.

M: But I’ve actually really enjoyed the time that we’ve spent together. I feel like I know you even better than I did before. Do you feel like you know me even better?

G: Well, I already felt like I had you pretty much all figured out to begin with. I’m seeing new behaviors and desires that I’m learning.

M: Like what?

G: You’ve always been a little bit more high-strung…in the best way possible, obviously. I always thought that was like this innate thing about Meg, a thing that was just what a Meg was. But it’s been interesting here, because the Spanish culture moves slower, and because we’re unemployed, that I’ve noticed that you’ve slowed down a lot more. You seem less like, “We need to figure out x, y, and z.” It’s moved you more towards being relaxed and winging things…you’re coming over to the dark side, a little bit.

M: Is this time everything you dreamed it would be?

G: It hasn’t gone exactly the way that I would have pictured it, but I have enjoyed myself immensely, so in that sense, yes, it’s been a great lifetime experience.

M: How is it different than you thought it would be?

G: I’ve enjoyed relaxing time a lot more than I thought I would. I thought I would be very restless and wanting to be doing things all the time. I thought I would have the same kind of energy I had when we were working full-time and also doing a bunch of things for fun. I kind of thought that the same level of busyness would carry over, just the subject matter would change. But I think it’s actually slowed down a lot. We still travel and see places, but we also spend a lot of time relaxing, reading, playing DOTA, things like that. I was surprised by that.

M: What is the #1 place on your list to visit next?

G: I really want to go to Ireland. Seems like it’s very pretty, and also it has castles.

M: What do you say to people who ask, “When are you coming back?”

G: I keep telling them that it will be around April/May of next year, because that will be a year, and that’s what we said. Nobody ever believes me though. They fall into one of two camps: 1) You’re never coming back. You’re just going to live in Europe forever. OR… 2) They’re shocked. I know you said a year, but I didn’t think you’d actually do it, as if they thought we were going to become broke and have to come back. Or get tired of the culture and miss home. Challenge accepted.

The next thing is the next big phase in our life. It’s a little bit like when you graduate from college, and you don’t have a job yet. In 6 months, I’m graduating and I don’t know exactly where I’m going to be, where I’m going to be living, what I’m going to be doing. I’m excited, but I’m not really sure what’s coming next, even though I have some thoughts about what would be nice. It feels a little bit like that.


Meg’s reflections

My biggest takeaway from having lived in Spain and taking time off of work has been the realization that I can really design my own life. Before, I felt like I was on a conveyor belt track that was just taking me to the next “stage”. Moving to Spain was like jumping off the conveyor belt. I’ve seen how life can be done differently. As part of that process, my priorities are re-arranging.

I also don’t feel like I have to know everything. I can’t count the number of times I’ve said or thought “I don’t know” since I’ve left the U.S. It is ok to say “I don’t know.” It is ok to not be the best – or want to be the best – at everything. Some things in life are meant to just be savored and enjoyed as they are.

Traveling has kept me in this state of sharp freshness. Every day brings new experiences that keep me raw, keep me feeling alive. There is something about first’s that awaken my soul. I know this won’t last forever – but I am interested to know what the constant tilling of my soul will yield in the future.

I am happy – filled with a joy, freedom, and peace that can only be God-given. I feel like I have shed so many unnecessary layers in my life. I have shined the light on monsters of anxiety, and I know that I will be ok. On one hand I feel like I have more control to have the life I want, and on the other hand, I feel that I have a lot less control than I think – and that’s ok. To not worry about tomorrow – that is truly the gift of this time for me.

When my cousin Mahlon tragically passed away a few years ago, I learned that your world can change in an instant. Nothing is ever guaranteed, not even our next moment. Living in Spain has shown me the positive side of that – you never know where life will take you or what goodness you have yet to discover in the world. It gives me hope for what’s ahead.

Budapest with Erik and Alison

Over the river and through the woods to Budapest we went! We had the great adventure of exploring this beautiful riverside city with our good friends from San Francisco, Alison and Erik.

Budapest is a place of contrasts – at once flat Pest and hilly Buda, sort of Eastern Europe and sort of Western Europe, with elegantly ornate Opera Houses and ruin bars blocks away from each other. I didn’t know what to expect when traveling to Budapest, and I can’t say I really figured the city out after five days, either. Every place we visited or person we talked to added a facet to my impression of the city.

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Sadly, Budapest was the epicenter of many conflicts in the 20th century – from World War I to World War II to post-WWII strife and communism (which is a contentious topic today). It is hard to grasp the full understanding of a nation with practically totally opposite viewpoints on everything from America in the 20th century. A Hungarian we met, though, did point out that growing up in the 1980’s in Hungary was not so different than anywhere else – he watched Tom and Jerry cartoons and lived a pretty good childhood. There are many different viewpoints on communism and its effect on people. I will say that it is amazing how the city has kept going and developing and progressing, especially in the past 20 years.

Rather unfortunately, I caught what Grant got in Munich and was sick for several days in Budapest. Even more unfortunately, Grant and I passed on our sickness to our friends – sorry, guys! You are troopers!

Day 1

We stayed in the Jewish Quarter of the city. We walked around the neighborhood our first day – popping into shops, figuring out the currency (this necklace is 1,500 HUF!?!?! Oh wait. That’s only $6 USD),  and visiting some important Jewish landmarks. There is a wall commemorating the victims of WWII from Budapest and more widely Hungary, as this area of the city was the Jewish Ghetto during WWII. More than 400,000 Jews were deported from Hungary to Auschwitz in total.

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We visited the Dohany Street Synagogue, which is the largest synagogue in Europe.

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Inside, it reminded me of a Catholic cathedral. Being in this sacred space made me realize how little I know about the Jewish faith and how services are held.

The most remarkable thing about the synagogue, though, was the outside garden around it. It serves to memorialize all the Hungarian victims of WWII. Over 2,000 Jews who died in Budapest during WWII are buried in the courtyard of the synagogue, and there is a metal tree with leaves of victim’s names to commemorate their lives. It is a beautifully simple garden area that makes you want to sit and contemplate the people who lived here. What did their faith look like as they faced persecution? I can’t even imagine what that would be like.

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Amidst the sadness, there are some hopeful stories, including a Swedish ambassador and a Swiss ambassador who gave legal passports and safe shelter to save many Jewish families.

Day 2

The next day we explored St. Stephen’s Basilica and the Opera House before heading to the famous Szechenyi thermal baths.

St. Stephen’s Basilica was decked in marble and gold, with ornate sculptures. The highlight, of course, was seeing what was supposedly St. Stephen’s right hand from around 1000AD (yikes!).

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We were shown on a tour of the elegant Opera House, surrounded by soft red velvet and shiny gold accents. At the time it was built, the requirement was that it not be quite as large as the Vienna Opera House.

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After getting some sustenance, we headed to our first thermal bath experience. There are several natural thermal baths around the city, but the only authentic ones are on the Buda side (Szechenyi is actually on the Pest side). They have large thermal pools of various temperatures. You pay basically a day use fee to use any pool you want. In Budapest, they are not only used for relaxation, but also for medicinal purposes. You can additionally get massages and use saunas there. It’s like a whole day spa, except for a lot cheaper!

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We decided the outdoor pools were the most relaxing and hung out there for a few hours. Surprisingly, the hot temperature of the pools take a lot out of you! Every time we went to the pools, we felt quite drained afterwards.

Day 3

I started to feel much better on Day 3, so I ended up having a fuller day of activities. We started by walking down to the Danube and crossing the Chain Bridge to Buda.

Very ornate facades greeted us as we walked down to the river. Here is a great example:

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Once we crossed the river, we explored Castle Hill, which has several buildings of interest. Matthias Church was one of the most unique churches I have ever seen. The bright tile roof on the exterior only hints to the kinds of patterns, colors, and themes that the interior contains!

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Photos don’t capture the sheer quantity of unique patterns that cover every inch of the inside of the church. Yet the patterns didn’t overwhelm the eye!

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Then we headed to a tour of the Hospital in the Rock, which is a large network of tunnels and rooms underground, which were first used as a hospital and later a top-secret nuclear bunker underground. During the siege of Budapest during WWII, the doctors and nurses had to treat patients in this hospital for three weeks without running water. My crowning achievement of the tour was stepping up to try out the air raid sound maker – cranking to signal that an air raid was coming. I got a full applause from the tour group.

Hospital in the Rock sold the strangest souvenirs I have ever seen – original gas masks that were stored there in case of nuclear attack – for only $6 USD. Grant considered buying a few for a future prank, but we thought that transporting them might get difficult. Well, yes, Mr. flight attendant, I am carrying a gas mask. For what reason? Well, none, really, just thought it made a cool souvenir.

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In true Budapest form, we capped off the day with a soak in the thermal Gellert baths. The shiny, tiled walls of the inside thermal baths relaxed and calmed as we let the hot water relax our tired feet.

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Then we headed to a ruin bar for drinks. Ruin bars are basically old, abandoned buildings that have been transformed into trendy nightspots. The walls are crumbling, and you have to dodge random flea market finds from old computer monitors to rusty cars to find a place to stand. They are the trend in Budapest.

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Grant’s keenly observed that it was like being in a Chili’s – except with authentic knick knacks everywhere.

Day 4

Caving! As it turns out, around Budapest there is an extensive network of caves. Grant’s adventurous spirit must have sensed this, so of course we had to try out caving through them. We signed up for a tour with a company, and we had a lot of fun! It was a lot more intense than any of use expected! To be fair, though, the name of the tour was “Adventurous climbing-crawling tour”, so ….

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We descended a total of 1000m underground, and at times we had to army crawl through 2-ft tall tunnels for about 10m or so. My heart jumped up in my throat a few times, especially maneuvering through the small spaces, but the instructor was patient, kind, and relaxed. Plus, how are you going to bail early on a caving tour? It’s not like there’s an easy way out! Mainly, I could just feel my muscles tire out towards the end of the tour. It turns out caving requires a different strength set than I usually am using!

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Grant filmed me getting out of some of the tightest spaces on the tour, which you can see below to give you an idea.

In this first video, we had to go head first down:

In this second video, there was a certain way we had to wedge ourselves through the triangle-shaped hole in order to fit:

Needless to say, the climbing and sliding tuckered me out! I was pretty sore the next day. The tour was just Grant’s pace, and I’m pretty sure he could have stayed down in the caves and explored all day! We all agreed we had a great time, and it inspired us to do more adventurous things like this!

That evening, all of us went out to celebrate our last night together for a while. 🙁 A highlight of our evening out was me insisting that all of us try Polenka, which is a fruity brandy drink that you shoot. It was disgusting! To our credit, we all finished our shots, though.

Day 5

My heart felt pangs of sadness saying goodbye to Erik and Alison as they headed on. Their friendship is such a gift to us, and we were so glad we got to see them and experience a new place with them. It can be hard to make friendships as an adult, and I treasure my relationship with them. They are the kind of friends who will fly cross-country to see you and visit, the kind of friends who are the only ones who are allowed to make fun of you about certain things, and the kind of friends totally worth keeping in touch with.

Grant and I’s last day in Budapest was spent in the way so many of our last days in places are spent: our own little food tour + impromptu walking around. It’s nice to relax into a place and not worry about rushing to various sites.

The romantic backdrop of one of the oldest cafes in Budapest lulled us into a hypnotic spell of sipping coffee, nibbling cake, and discussing our hopes and dreams.

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We strolled hand-in-hand against the blistery wind along the Danube to a memorial to the Jewish victims who were murdered and shot into the Danube between 1944 and 1945. The sculpture lines a section of the Danube with models of all different kinds of shoes – from women’s heels to men’s work boots to dainty flats. It is a solemn reminder of all the anguish and torment that happened here. Never again.

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Having seen Dachau and now the memorials to victims of the Holocaust in Budapest, my mind can find a weight to attach to what happened in WWII. I don’t have to imagine – I have seen the exact places where these horrific things happened, and I have a new understanding of who these people were. Seeing the specifics has given me a deeper empathy, a deeper understanding, and I can’t imagine having lived through that time in history and still having faith in society.

Stomachs growling for lunch, Grant hit TripAdvisor for nearby suggestions. Wouldn’t you know that there was a Tex Mex place within walking distance? It was like an oasis in the food desert of Europe’s Tex Mex scene. It is owned by a man from Colorado, and it was the real deal. We chowed down on so much chips & salsa and fajitas and washed it down with a fresh, frozen margarita.

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The last food stop was a gelato place that makes the gelato looks like roses. I was so excited to see how they formed the gelato that way!

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^Maybe a little too excited based on the crazy that you can see in my eyes in the above photo…

We combined chocolate, vanilla, and caramel to create the savory and sweet chocovanamel rose! It lived up to every expectation I had.

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Street art

The way people had rescued rundown walls by turning them into colorful, bright street art really caught my attention as we walked through the city. Here are a few of my favorite street art works we saw:

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Thank you, Budapest, for showing us so many sides of your elusive personality!

Prost to Oktoberfest!

Giant pretzels, one-liter glasses of beer, and getting to dress up – how can you go wrong with Oktoberfest? As festivals go, Oktoberfest is in a category of its own. I’ve never seen a festival so large, and with so many happy and tipsy people adorned with leather overalls and busty lace-up dresses. We traveled to Munich to meet up with our friend from San Francisco, Erik, and went to two days of Oktoberfest festivities. A friend described it as an “adult Disneyworld”, and I couldn’t agree more with her description.

Downtown Munich

Before we gave into the hedonism of Oktoberfest, we got to know Munich better. We took a guided walking tour of the main areas – Marienplatz, the market and maypole, the original Haufbrauhaus, and a couple churches. Munich is very flat and very low – there is a city ordinance against buildings over a certain height. Walking around, we bestowed “German” names upon each other – me as Ingrid, Erik as Herr Staab, and Grant as Count von Ausgezeichnete (count priority excellence – named after the first class section of Vueling airlines, which we flew on the way there).

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The shops downtown were overflowing with dirndls, lederhosen, and hoards of people. It reminded me of Christmastime on Powell Street in San Francisco! Even the Tommy Hilfiger store had its own take on dirndls and lederhosen.

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After the tour, we headed to the English Gardens, which is a huge city park – larger than Central Park in NYC. Although the mornings and evenings were chilly, the sun had heated the afternoon pleasantly for a beer and lunch in the biergarten at the Chinese Tower in Munich. My first lunch in Germany had to be spaetzel, the adult version of macaroni and cheese. We chowed down on pretzels, spaetzel, currywurst, and other treats as we chatted with an Australian mom and daughter sitting next to us. Afterwards, we strolled around the English Gardens, including the lake and the spot where people surf a water inlet in the park. The surfers in the park was probably the most random thing I saw the entire time in Munich. These hang-ten’ers were in full-on wetsuits.

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We headed to get the guys outfitted properly with rental lederhosen and turned in early, anticipating a full day at Oktoberfest the next day. They look dapper, don’t you think?

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Oktoberfest – Day 1

Oktoberfest is a festival that originated from a marriage celebration of a Bavarian king over 200 years ago. It has grown to include over 12 large beer tents, holding thousands of people, and a huge theme park with legitimate roller coasters and rides. Here is an aerial view I got at night from the large ferris wheel:

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You can see just how crowded the festival got! The large rectangle buildings are the beer tents. Beer tents provide beer, food, and live music. Each of them is decorated inside differently. You can see how many people these tents can hold from these photos of a few of the larger ones:

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We had heard that in order to get inside the beer tents, you had to get to the festival before 11 AM on weekends. Once we German-ed ourselves up, the first thing we did when we arrived at 10 AM, then, was to head to Cafe Kaiserschmarrn tent, which serves coffee and pastries all day long. One latte and a delicious flaky apple strudel later, we were fueled up and ready to prost in the beer tents.

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We headed to Hacker, one of the more popular tents known as Bavarian Heaven for its ceiling covered in clouds. However, we were too late! We had to wait just to get in the biergarten surrounding the tent. When we got in, there were no tables to sit at! You have to be seated at a table in order to be served. In addition, there was a large crowd of people waiting to get inside the tent.

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Time for Plan B! We jumped ship on Hacker and started wandering through some of the other beer tents. Unfortunately, all of them were just as crowded! I was desperate to get us a table, and every table I could find if they had room for three people to sit. We wandered into the biergarten of the tent that is known for serving wine and hard liquor (they also serve beer). We went up and down every aisle until – someone finally said yes – we could sit at their table!

We each ordered a one-liter glass of beer (because that’s what you do at Oktoberfest) and started to feel the magic of this fall festival.

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I ordered us three large pretzels for lunch. I had no idea the pretzels were larger than my face! So big!

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We were so lucky to meet the two charming northern German couples who let us sit at their table. They were about our age, and after everyone had a beer, all inhibitions went down – including the language barriers from German to English! The girls asked if I wanted to go to the bathroom with them, and my friendship with them was sealed. We came back from the bathroom laughing and chatting to the guys at the table, also now prost’ing.

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It wasn’t long before all five of us were best pals. Our Oktoberfest definitely would not have been nearly as fun without having met them. We drank, talked about life, and generally laughed about everything from grumpy cat to cheek-to-cheek photos to Mr. Burns from the Simpsons saying “Ausgezeichnete” or “Excellent”. People are really not that different around the world – at our age, we share the same feelings of confidence and insecurity. Songs were sung, glasses were chinked, and promises were made to visit Barcelona and northern Germany.

The group:

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Our best grumpy cat face:

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Grant and our new friend totally winning at life by each holding six glasses in one hand (the waiters and waitresses at Oktoberfest are freaking amazing at carrying a lot of glasses at once):

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All together, the perfect way to spend Oktoberfest. I’m so glad I got to share the experience with Erik and Grant.

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Oktoberfest – Day 2

Unfortunately, Grant was not feeling well enough to go out (fighting a bad cold!). Erik and I were supposed to wake up at 7:30 AM to make it to the tents early enough to get inside. A jar of beer at 8 AM just did not sound good, though, so we slept in. We headed to the last day of Oktoberfest in the late afternoon to find the tents much more clear! We could actually find a seat easily.

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Gingerbread cookies shaped in a heart are very popular at the festival. People write things on them in icing and then give them to someone else to wear around their neck. The whole tradition reminded me a lot of homecoming mums from high school in Texas – the act of wearing the heart around your neck was like a symbol that somebody loved you. Since Grant couldn’t make it, I bought him a heart that said Count von Ausgezeichnete (his German name). Hilariously, the woman who helped us with the icing told us we had been saying it wrong the entire time, but that didn’t stop me from cementing the nickname with some colorful icing.

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A highlight of our second day at Oktoberfest was finding the beer-carousel, which basically was a bar that slowly turned in a circle. What a brilliant idea! Turning tipsy people in a circle – what could possibly go wrong?

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Farewell for now, Oktoberfest! I will miss thy delicious beer, sweet apple strudel, savory spaetzel, and spicy bratwursts!

Dachau

On a more serious note…We had one more day left in Munich, and I thought it would be an important experience to visit Dachau, the notorious Nazi concentration camp, just outside of Munich. Grant was still feeling low, so I went by myself and did the audio tour.

I have never felt like I felt standing at the gates of Dachau. I felt physically ill standing on the ground where over 200,000 victims suffered. I could feel the weight of the 40,000 souls who perished there. Walking around between the bunks, the showers, the heavily-guarded gates, and most disturbingly through the crematorium, stories from the twelve years of this monstrous place’s history whispered and shook me right to my bones.

Never again a sign there declares. I know I will never forget.

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Love is in the air

We have been blessed this past month not only to celebrate our own wedding anniversary, but to also be surrounded by and celebrate with two good couple friends who have made the wonderful decision to tie the knot. How fun it has been for us to share this time with them! What an encouragement and reminder of our vows they are to us!

Amit & Ilana

We have known Amit and Ilana since we first moved to San Francisco. It was a very special wedding for us since we introduced Amit and Ilana and since we saw their relationship grow from flirtation and interest to dating to now married. I lived with Amit in my first apartment. Ilana knew Grant’s roommate in San Francisco and stayed with them when she first moved. They are the only couple for which we know each individual equally well.

While I’m getting nostalgic, let’s pull up some of those early San Francisco photos…

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We flew to Seattle for their wedding weekend. I thought it would be strange to be back in the United States, but it was surprisingly normal. Just a few things felt funny: dollars felt too small and ornate in our hands, we had a bit of a shock stepping into a huge, brightly lit Rite-Aid, food came way too quickly at restaurants and our tap water glasses were constantly re-filled. It was also interesting how easily we got through customs on the U.S. side. All the border control agents greeted us with, “Welcome home!” as if we had served our country or something. It reminded me of how strong American pride is.

The wedding weekend honored both Amit and Ilana’s family origins with components from Sikh culture and Jewish culture, all against the backdrop of their shared values: travel, family, friendship, and the outdoors. On Friday morning, we got dressed up in beautiful silk Indian garments for the Sikh wedding. It was so good to be reunited with our good friends, Erik, Mo, and Alison! Amit and Ilana were so grand in their elaborate outfits.

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I learned so much about the Sikh culture. I have to say, it really struck me how similar world religions are. The rituals and traditions of the Sikh ceremony did not seem so foreign to the Catholic in me. Two things I loved about the Sikh ceremony: 1) Amit rode in on a horse (AWESOME!). 2) Food was an integral part of the celebration before and after the ceremony.

On Saturday, we got to witness the Jewish ceremony lakeside. The venue was absolutely stunning, and the weather was completely clear for the ceremony. Again, we were so thankful for our friendships and the community/family we had formed in San Francisco that we were reunited with. This was the first Jewish wedding I had ever been to, and I really appreciated how clearly they explained the significance of the various traditions. Ilana was such an elegant bride, and Amit was the most emotional that I’ve ever seen him. I basically cried through the whole ceremony – I was so happy for them! Marriage is such a huge commitment, and I am so happy that they found each other and made that decision to share life together.

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Congratulations, Amit and Ilana! Mazel tov! We love you! Grant and I will always support you in any way that we can. Speaking for the others, your greater San Francisco family always has your back.

While we were in Seattle to celebrate Amit and Ilana, we also had the opportunity to spend time with Kat too. It has been so fun to visit with Kat so frequently this year. Somehow the circumstances have worked out that we have gotten to see her four times in the last three months. Amazing!

Kat showed us a few different sides of Seattle: the living computer museum and Seattle wine tasting (who knew?). I love being able to talk to this amazing lady in person – I’m so lucky to have her as my sister! I love being able to actually share things real-time with her instead of just re-counting it over the phone. Kat gets me, and I get her, in a way only sisters can understand. Sometimes it feels like we share the same heart in two different bodies. Big hugs to you, Kat! Here’s to hoping we will see each other once more before the end of the year!! Erin, you in too? 🙂

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Kristle & Matt

Kristle and Matt came and visited us in Barcelona as part of their honeymoon! These two lovebirds got hitched in August, and unfortunately, we couldn’t make the wedding. The photos looked so beautiful! Kristle and I were roommates in Pittsburgh during grad school, and we both moved to the Bay Area after school.

Trip down memory lane…

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A few months into dating Matt, I knew that he was the one for Kristle. The way she talked about him just showed how strongly they felt about each other, and she had a spark in her eye as she talked about who they got along. I remember a conversation we had at a diner when I realized how serious their relationship was. I’m so glad that they found each other and got married!

We were so honored to have them include us in their vacation. They were literally glowing with happiness – see for yourself!

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I loved being able to share that afterglow of the wedding with them. We reflected on how amazing it is to be surrounded by so much family and friend love on your wedding day.

We did a double-date to Torre Bellesguard, a lesser known Gaudi work in Barcelona. A local musician played the piano and sang against the backdrop of the imposing towers and surrounding gardens. The musician was really cracking the jokes – unfortunately in Catalan! Although I’ve got to say, I’ve never seen a crowd quite so excited about a Coldplay song!

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Another highlight of Kristle and Matt’s visit was experiencing La Merce festival, a Catalan festival, in Barcelona. We got to witness two of the the most common Catalan traditions in one of the main squares: the giants and the castellers. Each neighborhood in Barcelona has their own representative giants, which are basically very large paper mache people. Likewise, each neighborhood has a casteller group, which each performed.

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It got a little sunny in the square:

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This past Sunday, which was a few days after this festival, there was a Catalan parliament election. Tensions were pretty high before the election. There is a large portion of the population that wants to separate from Spain – the catch is that Spain won’t let them legally vote on this. Catalan separatists believe Catalonia would be better off without Spain for two big reasons: 1) They consistently have economically contributed more to the central government than the aid or representation they receive (they contribute 20% of Spain’s whole GDP). 2) They are culturally separate. They have a separate language and separate traditions. During Franco’s rule, Catalan culture was purposefully repressed. Especially among the older generation who lived through this, there is an emotional reaction to the central Spanish government.

Anyway, during this festival, there was a scuffle between the separatists and those who want to stay with Spain. Someone from the government displayed a pro-separatist flag, which sparked someone else from the government to pull out a Spanish flag. Literally the whole square erupted into “boo’s” when the Spanish flag was displayed. It was kind of crazy. Here’s a video of the incident, as it was newsworthy:

The separatist parties won a majority in Catalan parliament on Sunday. They promised that if they won a majority in this election, they would declare independence from Spain within 18 months. We’ll see how that goes. I’m personally skeptical, as it’s unclear how they will convince Spain that this is a good idea, and with the civil war in recent memory, no one is actually going to take up arms over this.

Thank you Matt and Kristle for sharing this special time with us! Congratulations! You are a wonderful couple and a great encouragement to us!

We are so blessed to have such wonderful friendships in our lives.

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