Bon Nadal means “Merry Christmas” in Catalan. This was Grant and I’s first Christmas away from our families, and our first Christmas celebrating another culture’s traditions more than our own. Although we did get a kick out of learning about crapping logs and other Catalan traditions, we still managed to infuse Christmas with a little bit of home for our little family of two.
Bike ride to see the holiday lights
As soon as December started, Barcelona streets were dressed in Christmas lights. By far, this is the biggest part of Christmas decoration here. There aren’t so many elaborate shop windows or gigantic trees. A group that we bike with sometimes organized a bike ride to go down a lot of the streets in the city that are lit up. It was fun to see the spirit across the city, and we felt a little bit of neighborhood pride for our tiny neighborhood that had the best light displays.
As in many European cities, there were Christmas markets set up around the city. They commonly sell nativity scenes and festive decorations for the season. Catalan Christmas markets have a few unusual offerings that you won’t find anywhere else, though.
Caga Tió literally means “pooping Uncle” and is a log with a face on it. The markets sell all sizes of this, because the tradition is that the log “grows” over time (meaning the parents have to swap out different sizes of the log). Basically, the kids “feed” the log through the month of December. On Christmas Eve, they beat the log and sing a song about beating it so that it will poop. It then “poops” out little fruits and candies for the kids. Traditionally, kids don’t get bigger presents on Christmas; rather, Three Kings’ Day, January 6, is when the kids receive gifts (from the Three Kings, not Santa).
We carefully selected a tió for our house, keeping in mind my stringent requirements: cannot have a creepy face, must have a cute blanket, and must be packable to take with us when we leave.
There are big Caga Tió’s that kids sit on for photos as well. Think “mall Santa Claus”. I got my photo with one (after shoving aside a few kids, just kidding!).
A caganer is a pooping man figurine that is put in the nativity scenes alongside Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus. He is usually put in the background and supposedly represents “fertilization”. They make the caganers to be all sorts of famous people and also cartoon characters, like Sponge Bob. It’s bizarre.
There is also a human-sized caganer in our neighborhood that represents the clocktower in the main Gracia plaza. It is a huge pooping clocktower that rolls around to different locations. Could you get more festive?
On Christmas Eve, we went to the international church for service. As soon as the first notes of “O Holy Night” rang out, it hit me that it was Christmastime, and we weren’t with our families. I started crying right then and there in church. I really took being with family in the past for the holidays for granted. Thankfully, we weren’t really without family – we had each other.
We cuddled around the Netflix fake fire channel at home as we ate a homemade “Texas-style” meal, which included two of our guilty pleasures: mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese. There were also green beans, but really those were just for show.
I have tried to make Christmas morning breakfasts a special thing the last two years, so this year I made cinnamon buns from scratch.
As we sipped our mimosas and chowed down on cinnamon buns, we opened presents that Santa (Mom!) had brought us. And we didn’t even have to beat our log to get them!
We hurried off to a lunchtime cooking class, where we learned how to make some fancy traditional Catalan dishes and then got to eat our the rewards of our labor! We went with one of our friends here in Barcelona.
Grant made friends with a little girl who was there with her mom. It was amazing, because Grant spoke to her in English, and she spoke back to him in Russian, and somehow, magically, they could communicate! They made a snowman out of dough and folded some pretty cool origami with their napkins.
All in all, here are the dishes we made:
After such a huge meal, I konked out on the couch, while Grant indulged in a game of DOTA.
In the evening, we saw a live ballet performance at the Opera House of The Nutcracker. It was beautiful! It made me want to start taking ballet lessons again. The whole piece was very whimsical, and it was a great way to end Christmas Day!
We were blessed to be able to Facetime with our families despite the distance. We didn’t get a photo with everyone, but this was a great shot with the Marvins and Dittmans!
That’s probably as close as we’ll get to a family photo in 2015 🙂
Hope everyone has a happy new year, and we’ll see you in 2016!
We were so fortunate in November to be surrounded by family as we went into the holiday season. My parents came to visit Spain, and Kat and Sara met up with us as well! We missed Erin, Brin, and the kids, but it was still so wonderful to have so much of the family together.
I have missed my parents so much. Being across an ocean from them seems so much further away than even the distance between California and Texas. I was so excited to share our life in Spain with them and get in as many hugs as possible.
How do I describe how much my parents mean to me? They have given me everything – a solid start to life, continual guidance as I grew up, and a friendship as an adult. Their care and love for me overwhelms me and makes me tear up. I don’t think I say it enough, but my parents are incredible people. I love you, Mom and Dad!
As a change of pace on the blog, I have recorded our trip with a series of haikus and photos capturing the highlights of our trip.
When we galavanted around Europe/Africa with Megan in November, she and Grant graciously agreed to co-write the blog post from the trip. You’ll get a taste of all three of our perspectives. Additionally, Megan had this great idea to make sound recordings of different locations we visited. They capture so much more than photos can and will transport you to the places we visited.
We were so excited to travel with Megan through Paris, Barcelona, and Morocco! We were honored that she chose to spend her vacation with us! I am so thankful that God gave me a third sister in her. Without further ado…
Chapter I: Paris (by Meg)
Grant and I took the train from Brussels to Paris to meet up with Megan. Megan had selected a cute attic apartment on airbnb for all of us to stay in. It was so surreal to knock on the door of this corner apartment and for Megan to open the door to greet us. It wasn’t a big jump to imagine that she could live there! We spent the first day walking in Le Marais and along the Seine. On our way, we ducked into the Musee de la chase et de la nature (The Museum of Hunting and Nature), which provided us with lots of laughs. Forget IKEA, I know where I’ll be shopping for future home decor…
As we were strolling the Parisian streets, I kept saying, “Guys, we are all in Paris right now!” It felt surprisingly normal to be in Paris in the Fall, with Grant and Megan.
We were searching for a savory French restaurant for our first dinner in Paris. Unfortunately, we had not counted on places being so crowded on a Saturday night! All the highly-rated TripAdvisor restaurants were full. We were about to commit to just eat Thai food. Then, Grant exclaimed that he had found a French food place called “Chez Chen”. Out of hunger, Megan and I blindly followed Grant. Our hunger curdled to suspicion as we turned the corner to be greeted by the mini “Chinatown” of Paris lit with neon Chinese food signs. As it turns out, “Chez Chen” is a bonafide Chinese food restaurant. Nothing French here. “Chez” in a restaurant title does not necessarily mean the place serves French food, go figure! We had a good laugh at ourselves as we joked about ordering “Chez Chen’s schezwan chicken”.
The next morning, we headed to theSacré Cœur Basilica. It is perched on a hill overlooking Paris. As we do, we climbed to the topmost point to get the panoramic views of the city. The ghost of the Eiffel Tower even lingered on the horizon.
Did I mention that a theme of our trip was beautiful sunsets? The night before we had watched the sun turn the Seine into a golden and rose-colored mirror. This evening, we explored the Parc de Butte Chemante and watched as everyone clung to the last minutes of daylight in the park. Megan had studied this park and filled us in on what made it unique. We wandered the many dimensions and layers of this city park, an oasis of wild in a city of ordered chaos. The fall colors decorated the green pathways. We found a spot of grass to sit and watch the sun go down on our second day in Paris.
At the edge of the park, there is an old country house that is a bar and restaurant. I got dejavu that I was in Austin or something, as we sipped on beers with Christmas lights twinkling from the eaves of this white pueblo. It did not nearly feel cold enough for November in Paris!
On our last day in France, we rented bikes and took the train out of the city to Fountainebleu to visit the beautiful countryside and grandeur of the chateau there. We cruised on the bike path through the forest nestled in between the villages, breathing in the crisp air en route to Barbizon. It is not hard to understand why artists came to Barbizon to paint and work – the forest opens to a small cobbled street that winds between modest, ivy-covered houses. I felt like I was inside the small village in the movie Beauty and the Beast (Bonjour!).
We followed the bike path back to Fountainebleu to spend our last hour of our day trip exploring the enormous royal chateau of Fontainebleau. I was struck by the enormity of the complex as we rode around its perimeter. The whole building was so grand and the grounds so extensive. Apparently, Fontainebleau is even larger than Versailles, but it is less visited.
I really enjoyed seeing the countryside outside of Paris. At the train station, as we awaited the train to carry us back to Paris, Megan and Grant came up with a game to fist bump and “joust” on bikes. What is it they say about siblings? Something about being cut from the same cloth?
The next adventure awaited us in Barcelona…
Chapter II: Barcelona Part I (by Megan)
I had very few expectations for Barcelona, but it captivated me at first sight; not difficult considering the sweeping aerial view I was treated to from my window seat as the plane descended along the coastline. There were even dolphins swimming in the water below! It was one song and dance away from being a Disney movie intro.
I was excited to see Grant and Meg’s “home” turf. As they led me to their apartment in Gracia, they explained some key parts of Spanish culture. First, I had to master the Spanish stroll, which as it turns out, is significantly slower than New York pace. I kept darting ahead only to realize I was the only one who didn’t know where we were going. Pedestrians dominated the narrow “vias” of Gracia and would only move for the occasional motorbike. People of all generations would congregate in the placas sprinkled throughout the neighborhood. In effect, there was a lively hum distinct to this intimate community with an appetite for the fullness of life. Speaking of appetite, Grant and Meg got me hooked on the lunch specials: two courses plus bread, dessert, and a glass of wine for 10 euro!! I could get used to that…
Next we went to Park Guell, an eclectic hillside park designed by Gaudi. The impressive thing about this place is the whimsy and adventurous spirit that it encompasses. We hiked all the way up to the top where we could see across Barcelona to the ocean. We overheard (OK, Meg overheard and translated) an adorable little boy ask his mother where the sky was. It was the same color as the ocean so it was indistinguishable except for being dotted with boats. Then we watched a sunset so beautiful that you couldn’t help but notice the sky.
Grant took me to the Sagrada Familia where I nerded out on complex geometry. He was a trooper while I spent hours in the museum studying the plaster models, catenary curves made with sandbags and cable, and diagrams of the cross-sections of the columns. Above all, the cathedral was an example of how good things take time to build, but the result can be timeless.
Now no trip to Spain is complete without some sangria and Meg has found the good stuff. We had a girl’s night along with her South African friend Bex at Casa Lolea where we gushed all night at the polka dot branding, tried to barter with the server for some of the décor, and debated which of the four sparkling flavors was the best. To top it off, I located the only store in NYC that carries the brand! Consider me enabled.
After a few days in Barcelona, we took the train to the coastal village of Tarragona known for its well-preserved Roman ruins. We had a private guide show us around and he seemed to know everything and everyone… even the organist at the cathedral. I was most riveted with the fact that the roads and buildings of an entire civilization could be so casually erased. Towards the end of the tour we all became perilously hangry, so that’s about all I remember…
Then we were off to Morocco!
Chapter III: Morocco (by Grant)
For the first 20 minutes, I was on edge. Having heard mixed things (“it’s beautiful, you’ll love it” and “it’s dangerous, you’ll get kidnapped”) I was curious to see which was more true. As a driver took us from the airport, I tracked our progress on Google maps to ensure we weren’t being taken to the seedy underbelly of Marrakesh. Google carelessly forgot to color-code the seedy bits though, so it didn’t do much good.
Once we arrived at our riad, things got better. Moroccan riads have all the rooms laid out around a small central courtyard with a fountain, shade from the sun, and plenty of couches for drinking delicious green tea on. I decided I liked Morocco.
Refreshed and caffinated, we set out to explore the markets. After a few minutes of wandering, we come across the enormous square of Jemaa el-Fnaa.
As Meg and I take in the sight, Megan sidles up behind us whispering “don’t let them put a monkey on you.” I’m sorry, what? “Apparently some people will put a monkey on your shoulder, and you have to pay them to take it off. They also do it with snakes.” This sounded liked a photo-op best avoided, so I kept an eye out as we made our way through the square and into the small side-streets that contained the souqs.
I’m not normally a shopper, but the souqs are fun. It’s an endless maze of small shops selling fascinating things. Haggling is pretty much the same as anywhere:
1. Express vague interest.
2. They say “give me democratic price for now” (a phrase I love).
3. Name a number. No matter what it is, they will look deeply offended.
4. Walk away.
5. Agree to the new lower price they chase you down with.
We wandered into an apothecary where we were introduced to the smells and tastes of various herbal remedies popular in Morocco. After buying a few things the shop owners invited us to drink more delicious green tea with them! I forgot all about the snake-wielding monkeys.
The next day we met our guide, Abdullah, who would take us to the desert. An 8 hour drive sounds boring, but there were lots sites to see on the way, the landscape changed every 30 minutes or so, and we had a good group cry to Adele’s “Somebody Like You”. My favorite stop was at the Kasbah in Telouet. It looks like crumbing ruin from the outside, but inside has the elaborately geometric decor of a palace. We also had the place to ourselves, which made me feel less like a tourist and more like an explorer.
The desert. One minute we’re in a place that looks indistinguishable from Arizona, the next minute, we’re here. Camels were waiting for us, so we mounted up and took off into the dunes. Our camels were a perfect match for their riders: Megan’s took off at a New York pace, having not yet mastered the art of strolling. Meg’s was, to put it delicately, gassy. My camel, taking up the rear, stubbornly refused to follow the other two.
After a quick stop for some sand-boarding (which is just as awesome as it sounds) we arrived at the camp where we’d be spending the night. Meg and I immediately decided that in our dream house, we will have a room filled with sand covered by rugs, because it feels amazing to walk on. After dinner and a bit of live music by the fire, we took some blankets away from the camp and lay looking up at the stars. It was a wonderful experience, and at this point we realized it was a mistake to only spend one night in the desert. The next morning we had to drive back to Marrakesh to catch our plane.
Chapter IV: Barcelona Part II (by Megan)
Since Grant wasn’t feeling great when we got back to Barcelona, we took it pretty easy. We explored the Placa d’Espanya and Montjuic area, which was primarily developed for the 1929 World’s Fair and then added to for the 1992 Olympics. The Magic Fountain is a common tourist spot, but the tiny structure behind it, the Barcelona Pavilion by Mies van der Rohe, is a must-see Modern icon for architects. Naturally, I had to see it.
Meg and I continued up to the Montjuic Castle, which was really more of a fort, but impressive nonetheless. There were archers practicing on the grounds because, well, can you think of a more epic place to practice archery? By this point in the trip, we had mastered the technique of climbing up the highest point in sight to catch the sunset, so that is exactly what we did.
To continue the sister bonding time, Meg and I went shopping at some stores that weren’t available in NYC. The most shocking trend we noticed was the prevalence of furry sweaters. We are talking full-on 2000’s style fuzzy sweatshirts. I especially appreciated this version because of our experience with the feral cats of Morocco (Editor’s note from Meg: There were so many feral cats on the street of Morocco. They terrified me. I think they could sense my fear, though, because they would swarm me at any chance. Even during dinner.).
At this point, my time with Grant and Meg was up and they could finally have their sofa back. It was fun to mooch off of my big brother and to solidify a new sister relationship, but I am most grateful to have had the opportunity spend time with them in this chapter of our lives.