Rain Greets First Full Day in Spain

The rain in Spain falls mainly on … my feet.

Our first half-day in Madrid proved gorgeous, with coolish temperatures and sunshine that lasted well past 7. We walked way too long in search for the perfect tapas bar, so we settled for a good-enough one and then a second where the waiter didn’t appreciate sharing. Isn’t that what tapas is all about?

He grudgingly allowed us to order one set meal for Declan that we intended to share (along with drinks for everyone), then proceeded to remove all the silverware save one setting and replaced the generous portion of bread with a stingy one. Tipping is optional in Spain, and I had fully intended to leave nothing to the surly bastard despite being an otherwise generous tipper. But Marilynn was the only one with euros, and she left what I thought was an obscene tip based upon the (lack of) service we received.

Largest palace in Europe

During our first night in Madrid, the skies opened. It was still raining a fair bit when we set out for the Palacio Real de Madrid, the largest royal palace in Europe at 1.45 million square feet. The rulers decamped for smaller digs in the ‘burbs long ago, but the palace is still used for royal ceremonies and the like.

In addition to the rain, it also was pouring tourists, even 15 minutes after the palace opened. We dodged and weaved among the mostly Asian tourists during the entirety of the visit. Fortunately, photos aren’t allowed inside the palace or we’d probably still be there, waiting for someone to finish taking a selfie while blocking the view of 50 other people.

Like any Big House opulent enough to charge admission, the palace is filled with bling, gilt, tapestries and Masterworks. Ho-hum, four Goyas in an antechamber. Yawn, four Stradivarius instruments (two violins, a viola and a violincello) in another. Huge tapestries and elaborate ceiling frescoes can be found in just about every room.

Personally, I enjoyed seeing the rare stringed instruments, which apparently could fetch $15 million apiece if sold. The throne room was quite impressive, with four lions guarding the steps leading to the his and hers thrones and the four ornate clocks positioned around the room.

Looking down

While others were looking at the walls and ceilings, however, I was looking at the floors. I don’t think any two of the ones on the tour were alike. I liked the wooden floors best, many with intricate patterns of different wood species. But the tile floors also proved delightful, with swoops and swirls of complementary colors joined in interesting patterns.

So, my advice for visiting the Palacio Real de Madrid is come for the bling, stay for the flooring. And hope it’s not raining—the liquid kind or the touristy kind.

Spanish and Cuban Influences in Tampa Bay Area

Making our way from “Waitee Longee” Springs, Declan said he wanted to see the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg.

We are traveling to Spain next month for an Irish conference, and Declan has immersed himself in all things Spain. Not only has he had Spanish language lessons in school since he was a kindergartner, he has been planning and plotting this adventure since we bought our tickets in December.

Although Salvador Dali is known the world over for his surrealistic paintings, the Spaniard also sculpted and made experimental films, among other creative pursuits. And, of course, he also was a flamboyant self-promoter, mustache waxed and curled into a big ol’ smiley face. Thinking about it, Dali was a walking emoji before they existed.

I had been to the former location of the Dali Museum a couple of times, leaving both times impressed by the depth and breadth of the man’s work. My favorite has always been the hologram of ‘70s rocker Alice Cooper that Dali did when both where at their artistic apexes. I only saw the hologram on my first visit, leading me to believe it was on loan.

Are you a stoner?

You can read about the hologram at Civilized, which apparently is a pro-pot website. Top-notch reporter that I am, I figured this out when the promoted items after the story

Hologramincluded a search box for cannabis dispensaries and a QA box that asked, “Are You a Stoner?” And apparently you can buy a photo at Walmart!

We enjoyed our visit to the new museum, but I think the ceilings aren’t as high, which limits the full effect of his insanely large masterworks. Although we put three hours’ worth of quarters into the parking meter, we were on our way after 75 minutes or so.

Best Cuban in Tampa

The day’s highlight undoubtedly was wrapping my lips around the best Cuban sandwich in Tampa, which you can find on the edge of Ybor City at Brocato’s Sandwich Shop. Real Cuban bread makes all the difference between an OK Cuban sandwich and the taste sensation that is Brocato’s.

The shop is located in a too-small cinderblock building that fills to overflowing every weekday lunch with people of all types, colors, sizes and professions. Like the Village People, if the band was co-ed. You’ll see a couple of guys in suits and ties waiting in line behind cops, construction workers, moms and “tourists” like us.

But the line moves fast, and you can glimpse seven decades of memorabilia while you wait. Sandwiches include chips you select from large, gray garbage cans on rollers on one end of the building, as well as a drink (including beer!). There is limited seating inside, which is too cozy for me, so we always sit under the covered awning out front.

In addition to a Cuban, get yourself a devil crab, which locals say is the best in the area. Unfortunately, I can’t eat them anymore after developing an extreme intolerance to onions several years. But when dining with a group, I’ll still order one, break off a smallish piece, dose it with a dash of Tabasco, pop it in my mouth and savor the creamy crab goodness before passing the rest over to everyone else. Because you don’t want the deviled crab—or anything else from Brocato’s, for that matter—to go to waste.

And if my stomach complains, it’s a small price to pay.

Weeki Wachee: Once-in-a-Lifetime Means Never Again

Visiting the mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. For Declan and me, it means we never have to visit there again during our lifetimes.

Yes, there are mermaids that suck in air through hoses like they’re in a hookah bar (just picture that for a moment), and a big tank and lots of bubbles. Ultimately, however, it’s a big ol’ piece of cheese wrapped in an interminable wait.

Vintage Florida

I’ll admit it. Visiting the springs was entirely my idea. As a native of central Florida, I’d heard about the springs from the time I was a wee lad. It’s part of old Florida, a throwback before the glitz and glamour of Mickey and Universal forever changed the tourism landscape.

Hitting the pipe
Mermaids frolic (and get an air fix) at Weeki Wachee Springs.

When the idea of a spring break trip to Orlando surfaced, I made Weeki Wachee Springs a stopover before visiting my sister in Tampa.

Maybe the blinders of adulthood clouded my vision of the springs, because many people certainly seemed to enjoy their outings. But there wasn’t enough to do at the park, with long times either in line or waiting to get in a line. They have a crack marketing staff, though, because we heeded the website warnings that the park would be closed once capacity was reached, prompting us to arrive shortly after opening time.

But there were only three mermaid shows the entire day, and the first one didn’t start until 11. So, what to do for two hours? The boat ride through the springs filled quickly to overflowing, so we took in the wildlife show, instead. It was your basic turtle, snake and gator show, with cheesy humor throughout.

Waiting is the hardest part

And then we waited. Declan spent five minutes on playground equipment that was about eight years too young for him while I made a business call. We had already made a complete circuit of the grounds and had no desire to swim at Buccaneer Bay, half of which wasn’t operating on the day we visited.

We were among the first in line for the mermaid show. Lines open 30 minutes before the show and fill quickly. Once ushered into the theater, we sat around and enjoyed the black-and-white archival footage of mermaids frolicking, and the show was introduced by concert footage of Jimmy Buffett performing “Fins,” complete with lip-synching mermaids.

The show was “The Little Mermaid,” so we all know the story. Ariel, while celebrating the mer-equivalent of a quinceanera, gets to go topside, where she saves a drowning sailor boy. To woo him, Ariel strikes a deal with an evil witch who takes her voice in exchange for getting legs. Fighting ensues and love triumphs over evil.

To their credit, the performers were graceful. Personally, I’d be thrashing and gasping for air instead of calmly lip-synching or performing that far underwater.

However, cheese rules this performance, and likely any other performance at the springs. Despite their grace, the performers essentially were taking air hits off a hose like the one you find at the gas station to put air in your tires. It’s a mental picture that’s hard to move past, like watching a junkie jonesing for a fix.

The witch looked like she has long strips of cloth like you’d see at the carwash in her hair. And when Ariel’s friends joined her birthday celebration, the costumed turtle was just too much. Declan and I were crying by the time it surfaced to the stage and started “dancing.”

The audio track included many voices singing a song. I failed to mention that live fish swim around the tank, and while the song was playing, a feeding fish passed by our viewing portal, mouth opening and closing as if it was singing along. We drew stares as we laughed uncontrollably.

After the show, Declan really wanted to take a boat ride, so we waited another 40 minutes (at least) for a 30-minute boat ride that didn’t reveal much in the way of wildlife.

Fortunately, the Italian restaurant where we had lunch offered sangria, the better to wash the taste of what we now call Waitee Longee out of my mouth.

Feuding, Fighting and Other Effing in Game of Thrones

I’ve never seen “Game of Thrones” nor read the popular books, but I know it’s hot stuff in Northern Ireland, where a good bit of the series is filmed. From Belfast, you can take “Game of Thrones” bus tours to various filming sights, combining that (or not) with other Causeway Coast attractions such as the Giant’s Causeway, Old Bushmills Distillery and the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge.

Game2
So apparently in “Game of Thrones,” there’s fighting …

So despite my ignorance, I felt compelled to glimpse the Northern Ireland Games of Thrones’ Tapestry while at the Ulster Museum earlier this week. You can see it for yourself through March 4, 2018 at the Ulster Museum. But for those not planning a visit to Belfast while it gets dark by 5 p.m. this time of year, you can see it here.

Game3
… and feuding …

From what I can gather from the tapestry, the show entails lots of fighting, feuding and other “f” words I’d rather not write out. Below, you’ll find pertinent information about the tapestry, quoted from the museum, along with my commentary.

The tapestry is “a 77-metre long, medieval-style wall-hanging that brings to life the events, locations and story of the most popular television series of all time.” What? No M*A*S*H?

Game5
… and effing (is that two dudes?) Hard to tell …

Recalling the island’s textile manufacturing past, “the tapestry has been hand-woven and hand-embroidered using linen sources from one of the last surviving linen mills in the area. Much of the tapestry contains the same linen that is used to create the costumes and sets for the series.

“Each key scene and character in the tapestry is hand-drawn by artists and illustrators. Then, the drawings are brought to life (or death, as a quick viewing revealed) by hand-weaving experts using a state-of-the-art Jacquard loom, ready for hand-embroiders who meticulously embellish the finer details – from King Joffrey’s golden crown to Daenerys’ shimmering white and silver hair.”

Game4
… and blood, lots of blood coming out of dudes.

And blood. Lots of blood. And dudes on fire. And blood coming out of dudes.

Despite having no idea what was going on, it was cool to look at. And it smelled like a feed sack, minus the feed.

Trump Tales Follow Us to Emerald Isle

Although we’re nearly 4,000 miles from home, we can’t escape the specter of Donald Trump. He’s seemingly everywhere, whether he’s pooping out Armageddon on his throne at the Ulster Museum or acting eerily like Santa Claus in the Lyric Theatre production of “What the Reindeer Saw.”

While Marilynn was in Dublin giving another public “Hopdance” lecture, Declan and I had the day to ourselves. After a somewhat lazy morning, we headed to the Ulster Museum to see art from our friends Marcus Patton and Joanna Mules. They are part of a Royal Ulster Academy (RUA) 136th annual exhibition at the museum. The Ulster Museum is free to visit and always fun.

Get yours in the gift shop

Marcus and Joanna were friends with Stewart Parker when he studied at Queens University Belfast in the ‘60s and were invaluable to Marilynn’s biography of the playwright. They live a few blocks from the museum (and Queens), and no visit to Belfast would be complete without stopping by their imposing Victorian duplex (not kidding) for a gin-and-tonic, a warm fire and good craic.

Marcus is a talented illustrator who is showing an architectural watercolor in this year’s exhibition. Joanna submitted two bronze sculptures, a medium she took up recently. Joanna is a skilled painter and portrait artist who did a rough sketch of Marilynn this summer for a series of portraits of writers reading from their work. There is a future column on that experience coming up.

While perusing this year’s artwork, we came across this multimedia work of Trump pictured at top. Whether you think Trump will make America great again or drive us all off a cliff, you must agree that Kyle Alexander Lundy’s representation certainly is provocative. According to the description, photo prints are available, if you’re interested in adding to your art collection.

Santa Trump?

A Trump-like character in the guise of Kris Kringle made an appearance later that night in the Lyric Theatre’s original production of “What the Reindeer Saw.” It’s no coincidence that the ascendant Santa happens to be the 45th incarnation of Claus who wants to break all the rules before understanding why the rules exist in the first place. Maybe it’s to make the North Pole great again, but it didn’t work any better in the play than the US president has managed thus far in real life.

Instead of learning how to drive the sleigh and making his list (not to mention checking it twice), Santa prefers to spend his time at his own Mar-a-Lago, the reindeer shed. There he plays reindeer games with Prancer and his pals, although games are difficult to play among those lacking opposable thumbs.

Much PG-14 hilarity ensues, including liberal use of the “f” word at one point, a succession of fart jokes and a randy Santa wanting to make merry on his desk with Mrs. Claus, who was played by a dude. For good measure, throw in fractured Christmas tunes, local references (many of which flew right over my head) and a lot of snow at the end.

While not a panto, I guess every Irish Christmas play must have its own version of a dame (who is always a dude in drag). And like a panto, the play had a happy ending. I sure hope we can say the same thing about a Trump presidency.

Once Not Enough for Family Belfast Adventure

Apparently 205 days overseas in 2017 wasn’t quite enough of an adventure for my family, because here we are back in Belfast.

Declan and I have returned for a little over a week, while Marilynn is here for much longer, researching her new book on the literary responses to the peace process in Northern Ireland. She’s doing archival research to establish historic timelines for the books, plays and poems she’ll include in this project.

Marilynn’s also interviewing authors she wants to feature, including poet Michael Longley and novelist David Park. OK, we hosted and were hosted by both writers and their spouses several times while we were here earlier this year. However, it’s quite different to exchange pleasantries and a glass of wine with someone in their house versus querying them about works they wrote decades ago. The earlier encounters set the stage for the current ones.

Marilynn’s also giving public lectures on Hopdance in Belfast and Dublin, in conjunction with Lynne Parker, artistic director of the Rough Magic Theatre Company in Dublin. Lynne is also the niece of the late Stewart Parker, the subject of Marilynn’s second book and the playwright who also wrote Hopdance, a semi-autobiographical account of the amputation of his left leg from cancer when he was 19.

Different this time around

Although fewer than four months have passed since we left Northern Ireland on July 25, it’s a much different experience. We swapped our Queen’s University accommodations along the tree-lined Windsor Park for a serviced apartment along the busy (and certainly not tree-lined) Lisburn Road. Fortunately, the traffic dies down in the middle of the night, but the Tesco truck unloads outside until 11 p.m. or so, with much beating and banging, and the traffic picks back up about 6. Despite being four stories up and behind double-paned glass, we hear nearly everything.

 

The weather has been dank since the moment we touched down. And while the cold is OK for a little while, it grinds down one’s psyche day after day. The not getting light until 7:30 a.m. and the darkening by 4:30 p.m. certainly doesn’t help.

But that hasn’t stopped Declan and me from exploring our adopted hometown further. We spent several hours our first day looking for Declan a pair of shoes and both of us thermal shirts but to no avail. Then yesterday, we went shopping for Thanksgiving dinner supplies with our friend Eileen.

Gardens and markets

Eileen then drove us to Antrim and dropped us off at Antrim Castle Gardens while she attended her gardening course nearby. The castle itself was destroyed by fire in the 1920s, but the expansive gardens alongside the Sixmilewater River that date from the 17th century remain. It was a nice way to spend a couple of hours, particularly watching the river meander toward a bridge, where it picked up speed due to an elevation change past the bridge. As a heron watched from the shore, children atop the bridge dropped leaves into the river to watch them bob in the now-turbulent waters.

After her class, Eileen joined us for a cup of tea in the gardens’ tea room before dropping us off near the Belfast city centre, where we met Marilynn for dinner at the Christmas market.

I’ll have to admit I had higher hopes for the market than reality revealed. After a time, all of these public events and festivals take on a certain sameness. It wasn’t much different than the Easter market we saw in Prague, save for the lack of a Belfast culinary “delicacy.” But you could gorge on food from around the world, including one stall that sold burgers formed from a wide variety of critters, including kangaroo, wild boar and crocodile. I wasn’t much taken with my cowburger, but Declan liked his Asian noodles and Marilynn enjoyed her footlong German sausage served on a baguette.

While I didn’t see any unique Belfast cuisine, we weren’t surprised at the number of stalls selling items made from wool. And Declan, for perhaps the first time ever, saw his name on one of those personalized tchotchkes every tourist shop has. A small triumph, to be sure, but one more indication that we are back home.

One Foot in Two Worlds

Three short weeks ago, an exhausted Bolch/Richtarik family returned to the US.

The intervening days have been a whirlwind of unpacking, washing, shopping, errand-running and overwhelming tiredness. Think jetlag on steroids, and you still haven’t approached the fundamental weariness that has hit the household’s adult population. Declan, naturally, is unaffected.

Don’t get me wrong: we are genuinely happy to be back. We missed (among many other things) our cat Gunner, our king-sized bed, ceiling fans, big-ass washers and dryers, driving to the store, our community, milkshakes and American plumbing. Say what you want about our country, we do plumbing right. And, of course, I’ve been smoking or grilling nearly every day on the Big Green Egg.

My sister asked me whether the Irish ate pork. “Whatever gave you the idea that they didn’t?” I asked. “Because you’ve been smoking so much pork,” she replied. “Well what else are you supposed to do on a Big Green Egg?” I said.

Too much to do

Part of the reason for our tiredness, I think, has to do with the incredible amount of household work that awaited us. Take the mail, for example. Despite stopping all of the magazines and everything else we possibly could, we had an overflowing milk crate’s worth of mail waiting for us. It took me an entire day just to deal with that, separating the snail mail wheat (very little) from the chaff (very much). Seeing seven months’ worth of mail at one go does provide insight into how often charities we never support constantly send us stuff we don’t want.

The contents of two bedrooms and my office were packed away so our tenants could feel at home with their own stuff. All of those things have to find their way back where they belong—a process that’s still not complete.

Marilynn shops what’s on sale, creating a weekly menu based on store specials while stocking up on pantry items. We ate through as much of that as we could, leaving the rest for our tenants. But that meant the cupboards were bare when we got back. It seems like we’ve been to one store or another every day since we got back.

I was responsible for turning everything back on that had been turned off, resubscribing to what had been canceled and getting our cell phones working again, which required at least four trips to the AT&T store, three to Best Buy and a drive to the Atlanta ‘burbs for a new flip phone for Declan.

Add the start of Declan’s school year (and the requisite supply list shopping), my business and Marilynn’s work, and it all adds up to too much to do.

Another life left behind

Another reason for our malaise, I’m sure, is that we still are pining for our life in Belfast and our friends there. Toward the end, I absolutely felt like a native, albeit a native with a decidedly Southern American accent. I took great pride in striding unmolested past the Belfast tourist office, where reps for various bus/rail/drunkie cab tours hang out and hand leaflets to passing strangers. People who know where they are going don’t get pamphlets.

We have a ton of friends there and had more adventures in seven months than many families have in a lifetime.

Simply put, living outside your country and somewhat out of your comfort zone puts a new perspective on every aspect of your life. I can’t escape thinking about the post-World War I song, “How Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree?)”

And I believe the answer is: You can’t.