We get cookin’ in Madrid

Is it fair to let the weather color your impression of a city? We’re just back from our three day getaway in Madrid, and we had almost non-stop rain. We were prepared with good rain gear – we DO live in Amsterdam, after all – but it definitely dampened our spirits and our desire to explore the city in our usual, wandering, “let’s see where this street takes us” way.

Still, we couldn’t spend the whole weekend in the hotel. Thankfully Madrid has plenty of charming corner cafes where you can stop in for a plate of jamon and a glass of wine. Or a cup of thick hot chocolate and some churros, when “sweet” wins out over “savory”. And while it’s probably a terrible thing to admit, we didn’t go to the Prado Museum, or any art museum. What did we do, other than eat churros?

We did a quick tour through the Palacio Real, and saw the table where King Juan Carlos I signed his abdication papers, elevating his son, the current King Felipe VI, to head of state.


Take the stairs at the Palacio de Cibeles

We visited the gorgeous Palacio de Cibeles, a former post office, now a cultural center with art exhibits and public reading spaces. (Tip: skip the elevator and take the elaborately tiled winding stairs.) We escaped the rain for a few hours by ducking in to the Naval Museum, where we saw the Mappa Mundi, a beautifully drawn map of the known world, created in 1500. Since most of the museum’s interpretive information was in Spanish, we missed out on some of the juicier details, especially about the map’s creator and his tragic end.  And even though it kept on raining, we took a slightly muddy stroll around Retiro Park and visited the Palacio de Cristal.

(An aside: For reasons I cannot explain, the Park was overrun by Mormon missionaries. We saw no fewer than 4 pair of them, and I swore to talk to the next team of Elders we encountered, mostly to find out why there were so many of them. Both in the Park, specifically, and in Madrid, more generally. And why they didn’t seem to speak any Spanish. Unfortunately, no more crossed our path and I’m left to live with more unanswered Mormon questions. So it goes.)


You can’t see the Mormons but trust me, they’re there…

But the highlight of the trip came near the very end, on Saturday evening. In the past year or so, we’ve started looking for food tours when we travel. Food tours are a great way to find some hidden gems, learn about a city’s history and gastronomic culture, and get recommendations from a local guide. Our beer and currywurst tour in Berlin was great, and introduced us not only to the wonders of currywurst, but to some lovely new people. We were looking for another tour in Madrid when my dear husband suggested, instead, a cooking class.

If you know me, you’ll know I’m not much of a cook. I am a baker. Give me recipes and measuring cups and clear instructions and I’ll give you a delicious chocolate cake or the best florentine cookies you’ve ever had. But cooking? Too much approximation. A “pinch” of this? “Season to taste”? Whose taste? Cut the onion how?

But vacations are opportunities for adventure, right? And so we found ourselves in a bright, well-equipped kitchen with one other couple, turning out 5 traditional Spanish tapas dishes. (Four are below; not pictured: the crema catalan for dessert. Oh, and the sangria.) The instructions were clear, the recipes were relatively simple (even for me!), and everything was delicious. Especially the tortilla espanola, which is NOTHING like what most Americans think of when they hear “tortilla”. We left with full bellies, a copy of all of the recipes, and the seed of an idea for a Spanish-themed party.


We made this! (Ok, well, half of it.)

Did we give Madrid a fair shake? Or did we let the rain and wind and cold get to us, so we failed to see the best of the city? Is it like the stranger you meet who could have been your soul mate, if not for the fact that you met at the podiatrist’s office, or at a funeral? Circumstances matter, environment matters – there’s no escaping that. So we gave Madrid our best, under the circumstances, and we’ll extend some generosity to Madrid, knowing that she wasn’t at her best. Maybe we’ll go back, maybe we’ll move on to another part of Spain, in the spring, when we’re sure the sun will be shining. Until then, we’ll be making sangria and cookin’ up some tapas.

No turkey, but tapas

There’s no Dutch equivalent of our American Thanksgiving, but that’s not going to stop us from celebrating with a long weekend getaway. We’re off to Madrid, so our Thanksgiving dinner will include patatas bravas instead of mashed potatoes. It won’t be a traditional meal, but living abroad has taught me that the trappings of a holiday matter a whole lot less than the person with whom you share the holiday. This year, as always, I’m grateful for my generous, patient, and loving husband, who has made this adventure abroad possible. (And who will have his patience tested by the horrible Spanish I am about to unleash on the good people of Madrid.)

Many believe that gratitude is something that can be taught, or cultivated. I don’t think it is a natural state for most of us. And in difficult or stressful times, it can seem that we have little for which to be grateful.

I’ve written many times (too many?) here about David Whyte’s remarkable book Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words. I return to it over and over and always find just what I need, or just what I didn’t know I needed. Here he is on gratitude:

Gratitude is the understanding that many millions of things come together and live together and mesh together and breathe together in order for us to take even one more breath of air, that the underlying gift of life and incarnation as a living, participating human being is a privilege; that we are miraculously, part of something, rather than nothing.

It isn’t about cataloguing a list of what we’re thankful for – though that never hurts – but about paying attention and being alert to the wonder in the simplest acts of our lives.

Thankfulness finds its full measure in generosity of presence, both through participation and witness. We sit at the table as part of every other person’s world while making our own world without will or effort, this is what is extraordinary and gifted, this is the essence of gratefulness, seeing to the heart of privilege. Thanksgiving happens when our sense of presence meets all other presences. Being unappreciative might mean we are simply not paying attention.

Wherever you are on Thanksgiving, whether you’re celebrating or not (or wishing you were) I hope you’ll join me in an effort to pay attention, and to cultivate a sense of presence. Although my seat at the table is far away from family and friends, I am grateful that we are all part of each others’ world.

Too much

That’s about the best I’ve got right now…it’s all just too much. Too much time has gone by since I’ve written anything here. Too much reading, discussing, worrying. Too much is happening in the world. Too much to process or to begin to understand. Too much distraction, though some of it welcome. Too much uncertainty, too much at stake. Here in Amsterdam, too much rain.

Everyone with an opinion and an internet connection has weighed in on the results of the US election, and what might happen next. Some of it has been honest, clear-headed, and helpful; some not. I don’t think adding my still-forming thoughts to the ever-growing body of commentary would benefit anyone. I will say that experiencing the election from overseas has been unexpectedly hard.

Weeks before the election, we planned to join friends at the Kurhaus Hotel in Den Haag for the traditional “Who’s the President?” Breakfast. Allowing for the time difference with the US, the party starts at 5am Wednesday with wall-to-wall CNN coverage and a buffet of bacon, eggs, and donuts. Lots of donuts. We had a lovely dinner the night before with our friends, complete with American flag table decorations. Total strangers approached us to express their concerns about the election and to ask who we voted for. We stayed overnight in the Kurhaus and I went to bed hopeful, but, (if I’m honest), worried.

The alarm woke us at 4:15 and we were in the ballroom by 5am, joining several hundred expats, military personnel, and some Dutch journalists. I took one look at the numbers on CNN and thought, “This is not good. It’s too close.” And the morning got worse from there. Over the course of the next few hours, it slowly dawned on everyone in the room (and most/many expats lean Democrat) that we were at the worst party ever. Inexplicably, there was a band at this event – five 20-somethings in suits playing standards and light jazz. I think we heard “The Girl from Ipanema” at least twice – a song I hate under the best of circumstances. I remarked to a friend that this must be what it felt like to listen to the orchestra play as the Titanic sunk.

Just after John Podesta told the Hillary supporters in New York to go home and go to bed, we called an end to our party, as well. Instead of going to bed, it was off to work (it was 8am, after all), where I had a day of commiserating with my 2 American colleagues, fighting with a Swedish coworker about vote rigging, and generally trying to make sense of America. Which I’ve been doing ever since.

Dutch people often ask us what we miss about America. Other than my family and friends, there’s really not much. It’s not like we live in rural China – most of what we want or need we can find here. (Although my dear husband does miss free refills on his Diet Coke.) But as we learn more about the plans of the President-Elect, I do miss being in the US, if for no other reason than to have something to DO, some collective action I can be part of. It is hard to know how to be effective from so far away. We are still homeowners and registered voters in Massachusetts, and we still have a voice. We can stay informed and be ready to act. We can make calls to our representatives – who are, thank God, progressive liberals like Elizabeth Warren, who are already doing what I’d want my reps to do.

But I can’t help feeling like I should be doing more. If I was in the US, my work or my friends or my church would offer opportunities for discussion, for protest, for action. Instead I feel a bit adrift, absorbing information and opinions, wanting to be useful but not sure how. (Suggestions welcome.)

In the end, I think we will need to get comfortable with “too much”.  In response to our worries we should offer each other too much support. In response to uncertainty there should be too much information, too much truth-telling. Threats to anyone’s civil rights or liberties should be met with too much protest. How I contribute to this from such a distance is unclear, but for now, may there be too much conversation, too much thinking, too much reading, too much solidarity.