Thursday, September 12, 2013

Art everywhere

Graffiti.  For some people, the word conjures up images of no-do-gooders in hoodies, spray painting vulgarities and crappy "art" on other people's property.  And I will have to agree: a good portion of graffiti in large cities takes on the form of a crappy tag of someone's stupid fake name or a poorly drawn picture of a rat.  That kind of graffiti gives graffiti a bad rap.  In a sense, it lives up to its name.  Graffiti is the Italian plural of graffito, which means a scribbling.

However, there are artists out there who have genuine talent and can wield a spray can like a mighty brush.  It was lovely to see how spray paint art was incorporated into the mom-and-pop shops lining the tiny streets in El Barri Gotic in Barcelona.  Instead of leaving the metal grates unadorned when they closed up shop for the evening, these business owners decided to display their own graffiti to showcase what they sold or who they were as a business.  This can completely transform a street: instead of walking through a street surrounded with depressing, grey, prison metal doors, you are bombarded with a visual feast that makes your walk through the neighborhood that much lovelier.  Although the Picasso Museum was my absolute favorite repository of art, the streets of Barcelona came at a close second.

A Pharmacy in the Barri Gotic.

Eyeglass store.

Same store, different entrance.

One of my favorite places in Barcelona.  They served the best, thick hot chocolate. 

We were lucky enough to happen upon a guy doing a piece for a local food store that specialized in Spanish meats.  Here he was applying sheep stencils to his art.

An impromptu art lesson for Des on our walk.  We point out graffiti all the time to Desmond and call it art.  Even if it's horrible graffiti, we still call it art because c'mon, how many of us are really that artistically talented?  If Des is going to give me the crappiest picture ever drawn of me, it is art.   What we need to teach him as he grows older are meaningful ways to display art so that it isn't destructive or offensive.

Des was a walking canvas, too!

A glove shop that also sold "complements," like fans.

For the most part, art that was professionally done and commissioned by store owners was usually left intact. However, there were places that had their professional art ruined by young and inexperienced graffiti artists, which is a damn shame.

We love going to new cities and seeing what kind of art we could see for free.  Currently, we are in Amsterdam and they have this amazing "art walk" that takes you into a neighborhood where beautiful, colorful sculptures are strewn about.  However, Des has always been more interested in street art and would prefer to look for graffiti than to enter an art museum.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Don't judge a city by it's slummiest part

We basically chose to come to Budapest because it was somewhat centrally located and, more importantly, it was cheap.  We read that it was a beautiful city with quite a lot to offer in terms of culture and attractions.  Our friend, Sherrie, told us how much she loved it in Budapest when she came to visit a few years ago.  We didn't know quite what to expect when we got here except that we had read that where we lived, the 8th District, called Jozsefvaros, was sort of sketchy.  But so what?  We lived in what was supposedly the slummiest district of Barcelona (El Raval) and that was a bunch of BS.  We LOVED our neighborhood and the beauty that comes from diversity.  I enjoyed having neighbors from India, China, Morocco, and Bangladesh and our neighborhood wasn't all sparkly clean, but gosh darnit, it had loads of character.

This is not what we experienced our first week in Budapest.  Our apartment is absolutely lovely.  Although nothing will replace our apartment in Barcelona, this one has floor to ceiling windows, which provide so much light!  The lights in our Barcelona apartment were on all the time because all of our windows faced the inner courtyard, which hardly ever got enough light.  The Budapest apartment looked brand new and completely matched the pictures we saw on AirBnB.  The courtyard was a bit shabby, but charming and the view of the Catholic Church next door, covered in ivy, was wonderful.

The view of the Catholic Church next door from our balcony.

Our apartment.

The light!  I love all of the light!

Our little balcony!

However, the second we stepped out of our courtyard and onto our street, you could tell that Jozsefvaros lived up to its reputation.  Our building is right next to some sort of halfway house, so we always are confronted with, well, halfway-house-type people standing and smoking on the sidewalk.  Coming to terms with the realization that we aren't in BCN anymore, and that this place was nothing like L. Frank Baum's Oz, we had a rough few weeks of settling in.

Anything and everything goes.  :)

Don't get me wrong.  I've gotten to know our neighborhood and the rest of Budapest pretty well and it is absolutely beautiful.  There are pockets of Jozsefvaros that are absolutely lovely and we love going there (our favorite thing to do every Wednesday is to go to our local market on Rakoczi Ter and then eat a delicious (CHEAP!) three-course meal at Cafe Csiga).

This is the Rakoczi Ter Market.  It's nothing fancy, but you get cheap produce, meats, cheese, and some amazing home-cooked Hungarian dishes.

Cafe Csiga (it literally means Cafe Snail).  Our very favorite place to eat in Budapest.

We've gotten to know our neighbors, who speak no English, and have conversations over our coffee with the waiters at our favorite restaurant.  We know the workers across the street at the Turkish market and they always give Des a sweet or some balloons.  The cheese lady, Agi, at the cheese stall in the market gives Des a roll of smoked cheese (sort of like our version of string cheese) when we visit her.  We have grown to love the rundownedness of the buildings and being able to see how beautiful they once must have been.  My favorite building in all of Budapest is so run down, it looks partly abandoned.  But when you look up, you can see beautiful windows with colorful flowers in the windowboxes.  It really lifts my soul.

My favorite building in our neighborhood.

Beautiful museum in our District.

One of the nicer streets in District VIII.

The inner courtyard of my yoga studio.

So, yes, we live in a crummy part of the city and that has colored our experience in Budapest.  If we would have lived in Buda, on the other side of the Danube, the "nicer" part of Budapest, we would have experienced something different.  However, I wouldn't have learned several uncomfortable truths about myself.  I have learned that I do indeed carry bias within me, I do judge people based on what they look like, I don't do much (but talk a lot) about the plight of those who are suffering mentally, physically, or economically.  Living here has forced me to look at myself in a new light and realize that for a long time, I have carried around a superiority inside of me because I'm (relative to the majority of the world) well-off and educated.

I'm grateful that my son plays with the neighborhood kids.  His best friend, Csubi (pronounced Chubby), lives in our building, in a small apartment that houses at least 5 adults, plus him and his baby sister.  They are nothing but nice to Des.  When we see a homeless man sleeping on the street, we stop and explain to Desmond in very simple terms, why this might happen to someone.  We see opportunity everywhere to practice humility and generosity and to teach our son that nobody's life is the same, but everybody hurts and loves and laughs and cries just like we do.  Budapest has offered us what no other city ever has: a chance to become better human beings.

Csubi, Des, and Billy celebrating Des's birthday.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Vagabonding and Slow Traveling

It was a little over a year ago that Billy got the email saying that he had been accepted as an intern at a certain large corporation headquartered in Wisconsin.  We both collectively breathed a sigh of relief since the main goal of most first year business school students was to get a decent internship and possibly land a job from it.  We had heard great things about this corporation and so decided that we would keep an open mind about it and about possibly living in Wisconsin.

About a month into Billy's internship, he came to the harsh realization that he wasn't meant for corporate life.  He needed to be passionate about his work if he was going to be putting in 50-60 hours of his time every week into it.  I was in SLC at the time, struggling with my own decision to leave my PhD program, so I didn't really see the changes occurring within my husband, but I could hear how sad he sounded over the phone and how unfulfilled he seemed.  I sent him a link that evening to a website called Escape the City, which helps professionals connect with "opportunities outside the corporate mainstream" and that, I think, was how the ball got rolling.

We started thinking about the types of jobs that would motivate us, push us to work hard for our employers.  The types of jobs where we could feel amazing at the end of the day, having made a significant difference for some person or organization.  We searched and searched and nothing ever seemed right.  After spending 6 years thinking about reproductive epidemiology (and having loved learning about it), I felt that I needed to do something different...that the life of an academic wasn't calling out to me anymore.  Problem was that I didn't know what I wanted to do.  I was, for the first time in a long time, completely uncertain about my professional future.  What I did know with 100% certainty was that I loved spending time with my son and my husband.  I knew that one day, my time would run out with the both of them and the thought of spending more time away from them doing something that I didn't truly love really hurt.

After having several discussions about what we wanted from life, we realized that the answer was already there: our little company in SLC gives us the best of both worlds. It would allow us to work together and it meant working for something we both believed in: showing kids that learning can be fun.  We were silly to look elsewhere.  We decided that we would try to expand one part of our company by forming partnerships with international schools all over the world.  We used being in Spain as our jumping-off point and have, to date, had meetings with schools in Spain, Slovakia, Portugal, Greece, and Italy (with some solid "maybes" in Bulgaria, Slovenia, Lithuania, Hungary, and Serbia).

So, how do we make this life work?  We must be soooo rich, right, to be jumping around from country to country, not really "working."  Well, the truth is, we're really not.  We live on less than $100 a day for a family of three.  How?  We're basically homeless in the sense that we don't own or rent a brick-and-mortar home in a city somewhere.  We live a few months at a time in different cities, finding most of our accommodations on Airbnb or similar websites.  We choose countries where the exchange rates are in our favor.  We cook a lot and eat out sparingly.  We try to be picky about what sights we see and how much we are really willing to pay to see the baby Elephant at the Zoo or to see the view from the top of the Cathedral.  We travel budget airlines and via train.  We reuse plastic baggies and save take-out containers.  Bottom line, we live pretty frugally.  Although it has been an adjustment, living in Europe has actually made it pretty easy to be frugal.  For example, our fridge is a squat little thing.  I  make almost-daily trips to the market to buy our fresh fruits and vegetables because they simply cannot fit in our fridge.  We consume much less food here than we did in the states.

Here's an example of our daily budget while living in Budapest, Hungary:

$25 for half a week's worth of groceries
$14 for lunch for 3 people, and we took leftovers home, which provided us with a second meal
$11 for rent for our place (it's about 300 euros a month)
$5 for the bottle of rose champagne I just NEEDED
$10 for my art class
$7 for my yoga class

Of course we have bills on top of that: student loans, health insurance, and a credit card bill (which we use primarily for the decent exchange rate and the airline miles).  We are currently in the process of selling our two cars along with pretty much everything we owned (minus a few sentimental items) so that we don't have car payments, car insurance, and storage facility rentals holding us down.  We also don't have a phone bill, since we have figured out how to use the wifi capabilities of our phone to our advantage.

Basically, we live on less money traveling around Europe than we did in the States.  When we did our budget and came to that realization, we almost didn't believe it. It reinforced our decision to forego a traditional trajectory (marriage + work + house) and to make the most of our next few years as a family traveling and experiencing the world (and saving money!).  And although I wish it were possible to spend the next 3 or 4 years visiting every single country on the planet (like this awesome family), we have decided instead to focus on the countries we have always wanted to visit along with the countries that have the most American International Schools in the area and "live" there for the most time allotted by tourist visas (usually 3 months).  This gives us the unique opportunity to not only see what needs to be "seen" as a tourist, but to learn the basics of the language, learn how to cook the traditional dishes, and interact with the locals (I can't tell you how awesome it is to walk down my street in Budapest and be recognized by some of my neighbors) in a way that wouldn't be possible if we only stayed for a few weeks.

Currently, we plan to leave Budapest the day our visa expires (September 2nd) and will go back to St. Louis to sell all of our stuff.  Our plan for 2014 is to live in South America (Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru are top contenders now) and focus on drumming up business down there (and finally letting Des immerse himself 100% in a Spanish-speaking environment).  I am so excited and so thankful for all of the seemingly innocuous choices Bill and I have made in our lives that have led us to this place.  Leaps of faith really do work...

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Travel Fail

We started off on this journey on January 5th, 2013 with 1 hiking backpack, 2 large suitcases, 1 duffel bag, 1 carry-on, 1 stroller in a stroller bag, and 1 weekend bag (thanks to my SIL Katie for giving it to us as a wedding gift.  This is an AWESOME bag).  Not to mention the bag that contained all of Desmond's necessities for the 8-hour flight from NYC to BCN: several books, the iPad, earphones, lots of treats, a stuffed Curious George, crayons, paper, a matching game, and several crappy dollar store things.  We probably had over 300 lbs of stuff (Desmond included) between the two of us.  300 lbs. of. stuff.  And that was just a small fraction of what we own.  I had a hell of a time trying to figure out what to pack for a year-long trip and fretted over my decision not to bring that third pair of boots.

Like I seriously thought I would wear that fancy red dress while traveling.  To what?  Oh, right...all those theatre shows we went to and fancy dinners we had with that awesome babysitter we found.  You don't remember that?  Me neither.
Ha ha ha.  Silly little Scarlett.  If I could go back to 6 months ago, we'd buy another hiking backpack and get ride of the suitcases and duffel (but keep the carry-on bags) because, as you know from your basic science class where they showed you those videos of gorillas and spiders carrying their young on their back, it is much easier to carry a heavy load than to pull it, especially on cobblestone streets hundreds of years old.  

When I was pregnant, so many people would tell me and Billy to make sure to travel as much as we can or to go out as much as we can because once we had a kid, it would all be over.  I would nod my head and fear would wrap its icy cold tendrils around my little heart.  I loved traveling.  I loved eating at new restaurants.  I loved going to the movies.  And now everybody was telling me that as soon as this little fetus gulped its first breath of air, all would change.  I half-expected it to be like a scene in one of those movies where all hell is breaking loose and I'm pushing the baby out and as soon as the doctors hold it up everything freezes.  Everything's quiet except for the monitors beeping.  And then, he is looking directly at me, like really looking at me, dangling upside down, and he says, "It is over.  Everything is over."  And then I blink and everyone starts moving again and it gets really loud and I'm all disoriented and that's how I would know that my old life as I knew it would never be the same again.

Unfortunately, my life isn't an awesome movie and that scene sadly didn't happen.  So I took it as a sign that I didn't have to give up the other loves of my life and that this crazy little being, my beautiful little boy, would be a part of it.  And I wouldn't trade these experiences for anything.  And you know what?  It is not as terrifying as people make it seem to travel with their kids.  Yes, it's a hassle.  Yes, if I could hire someone to carry my bags, make all of our reservations, invent a transporter a la Star Trek: TNG, I would because it is not easy to travel when you have to take care of just yourself, much less a husband and a two year old (total different levels of care needed).

It was awesome for Des to have his own seat and his own space.   He loved getting the drinks and cookies from the flight attendants who absolutely loved flirting with him so that he could blow them more kisses = more Biscoff cookies for mom.  

Kids aren't the only ones who need a surprise!  Make sure you surprise your partner with something sweet.  It goes a long way to improving relations when you start getting snappy at each other from the stress of travel.

Look at how happy he is.  See?  Totally worth it.  I could now slink down in my seat and uncomfortably sleep, knowing my two guys are happy and content.
Kids don't need much: feed them, give them something entertaining, have a backup.  The end.  While traveling, don't try to force them to eat when you do, to sleep when you do, to be awake when you are. There will be time for that later.  While you're shuttling from country to country, it's important for them that the transition be as smooth as possible.  Let them tell you or show you what they need.  I made the mistake of trying to get Desmond on the new Barcelona time (7 hours difference from STL) and tried to force him to sleep when all he wanted to do was play in his new chair on the cool plane.  He screamed bloody murder when I tried to get him to lie down and cried for a good 5 minutes after I gave up.  20 minutes later, he put his own head on my lap and started rubbing his eyes.

Here we are at a bus station in Granada, ready to head out to Hungary.  Notice the time on the wall: 2:38 in the freaking A.M.  

5 bags.  5!  And this is after we sent one of our friends home with a large suitcase filled with superfluous clothing that we hardly ever wore and didn't need (we now know that we have to pack clothing that works for winter AND summer).

Curious George and the iPad: our sanity savers.  And all of those books we brought him?  They became superfluous after I downloaded the Reading Rainbow app on the iPad.  Best app ever.  Des loves it so much, he sings "I can go anywhere" all the time now.
Kids are super resilient.  Yes, they get cranky but if you treat it less like a chore and more as the fun adventure it should be, traveling with kids isn't bad at all.  They'll feed off your energy and hopefully, by experiencing travel with their cool parents, grow up realizing that being able to travel is such an amazing privilege and gift (just the fact that we could hop on a plane, watch movies on said plane, and get off the plane to be halfway around the world blows my mind).

Or they get so sick of terminals, trains, buses, and suitcases that they live the rest of their adult lives in one town, which is OK, too.  I'll still love to travel to come visit him.  

Monday, June 24, 2013

Almost "Here's looking at you, kid" - trip to Fes, Chefchaouen, and Marrakech, Morocco

“Travelling, one accepts everything; indignation stays at home. One looks, one listens, one is roused to enthusiasm by the most dreadful things because they are new. Good travellers are heartless.” 
― Elias CanettiThe Voices of Marrakesh: A Record of a Visit

I've wanted to go to Morocco ever since I saw Casablanca on TNT late one night in high school.  The food, the camels, the desert, its friendly relations with the US, and the fact that most Moroccans can speak French in addition to Arabic made me feel that no trip would be better than a trip to exotic Morocco.

Sherrie, who has traveled the world extensively, brought up the idea of going to Morocco, since I would only be a short ways away in Spain.  I said YES without even thinking twice.  We decided to celebrate her 30th birthday in Barcelona and then head off to Morocco, just the two of us, sans Billy and Desmond, for an entire week.  A week!!!  It's the longest I had ever left Desmond, but I really couldn't pass up the opportunity to go, right?  I mean, MOROCCO!!!!  So, we bought our ticket to Malaga, and then a bus ride to Tarifa took us to the ferry that would take us to Tanger, at the very tip of Africa.

Mountains, in Morocco?  Who would have thought?  The view coming in from Spain (despite my having seasickness) was breathtaking.  I was expecting sand dunes and I got Utah-style mountains.  It shook me up a bit to have my long-held presuppositions about Moroccan terrain shattered.  In a good way!

We had read over and over how we, as women travelers, had to be very careful while traveling through Morocco.  The guidebooks all said to expect unwanted attention from male shop owners and taxi drivers, so we were definitely on our guard stepping out of the ferry.  Almost immediately, we were approached by a man wearing a badge.  He asked us what we were looking for and I blurted out, "un gran taxi, s'il vous plait."  Sherrie grabbed my hand and started pulling me away from the guy.  He shouted behind us, "Wait, wait!  I will take you to one!  Very good price!"  Unfortunately, he kept on following us, indicating that we could change our money at this place and that the taxi driver standing right outside of it was very good and reputable.  We asked him what he charged to take us to Chefchaouen (chef-chow-en) (a town not reachable by train and about 1.5 hours away from Tanger).  He quoted us 90 Euros and showed us a questionable printed piece of paper with rates on it.  Sherrie grabbed my hand harder this time and before I could even say, "La, Chokran," she just said "No." and we started walking away.  Needless to say, thanks to Sherrie, we found a sweet guy named Chikri to take us to Chefchaouen for 50 Euros.

The Riad where we stayed in Chefchaouen.  A riad is a traditional Moroccan home that has been converted into a B&B or hotel.  

Chefchaouen (or Chaouen, as the locals call it) is a city whose Medina is painted in blue.  It used to be inhabited primarily by Jews (hence the blue) and is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen.  Unfortunately, we didn't get to spend the day there, but it means that there is something left to go back to in Morocco.  As Sherrie says, always leave something undone in a country so that you can always justify coming back.

Although not fun to walk around in the rain, the lack of sunlight and all of the gray from the mist and clouds made the colors really pop in such a beautiful way.

Women and men in Morocco wear what is called a djellaba, a long robe with a hood on it.  The men's djellabas are plain and usually white, gray, black, or beige.  Women's djellabas are a different story: they are very colorful and ornate, with beading and stitching.  

I love my Toms shoes, but they are the WORST for walking around slick streets in the rain.

We were so sad to leave Chefchaouen but were equally as excited to be heading to Marrakech (via a 7 hour train ride).  Marrakech is known as the gateway to the Sahara Desert.  We were going to book a Sahara tour, complete with camels and Berber tents, but the cost was prohibitive as well as the time (one day journey to and from and only one day in the desert).
We were surprised at how green and hilly the area between Chefchaouen and Fes was.  I never dreamed that Morocco would be green.  

Our Toms shoes on their way to being dry.

Muslim architecture is so beautiful, so grand, and yet so simple and elegant.  This is the entrance to the train station in Fes.  

The station in Marrakech.  I mean, seriously, this is THE nicest train station I've ever seen.  The bathrooms were impeccable.
 When we got to Marrakech, we were met by our host (who also served as our guide), Amine.  He redid a riad in the medina of Marrakech (medina means old city) and asked, with what I think may have been a worried undertone, if we were sure that we wouldn't want to sleep in separate beds.  I answered that no, we were just fine sleeping together and then remembered that in Morocco, homesexuality is illegal and quickly proceeded to tell him that I had a husband and child at home.

The breakfast we had waiting for us the next morning on Amine's terrace.  We had these amazing crepes  (I think they're called mlaui...I'm not sure how to spell it) and the most delicious black olives I've ever tasted.  Also, Moroccans are crazy about their mint tea.  They usually just brew regular black or green tea and then pour it over a sizable sprig of mint.  It is very, very sweet and you have to stand and pour the tea a considerable distance from the cups.  It took some practice.

Our guide, Amine, guiding us through the Medina.  In Marrakech, most of the buildings are pink.  It makes the entire city look very desertish.  Since I have never been fond of the desert (the real desert, not the Aladdin desert that I always dreamed Morocco would be like), the lack of green in Marrakech really got to me.  

The cool thing about (and problem with) a lot of Middle-Eastern, Arab architecture is that there is beautiful designs EVERYWHERE, especially on the ceilings.  

While walking through the city, you would get these amazing whiffs of  orange blossom from all of the  orange trees in bloom.

Ugh, tourists :)

Like I said, gorgeous ceilings.

Jamaa al Fna is the name of the largest market in Marrakech.  

Women making henna.

One of the few pictures we have with our guide.  Notice how he's wearing a sweater and scarf and I'm dying to take my leggings off, modesty be damned.

This was a shop that was selling kids' clothes.  Notice anything creepy?  I wonder if the owner intended to convey a message.

The largest mosque in Marrakech.  People who aren't Muslim are not allowed into the mosques, a decision passed into law by the French government when Morocco was a French protectorate.

Another smaller mosque.

Sherrie and I learned how to make our own Moroccan tagine for dinner.

Fulfilling one of Sherrie's lifelong dream.  Me?  I could've lived the rest of my life not having ridden a camel.

This camel seriously almost ate my head because I was in its way to the food.

During our hike in the Atlas mountains.

Eating more tagine right next to a river in the Atlas mountains.
 Although Marrakech was a completely new experience for me, I was happy to finally be leaving.  The vendors and men in the marketplace were really aggressive and I hated having to haggle prices with everyone.  I'm too nice and think that the prices are really cheap for my standards.  But Sherrie  made sure that we always haggled...and she could haggle like a Berber (which I guess is a compliment!).  I worried that Fes would be just the same, but I was surprised to see that it was so different.

The city of Fes is sand-colored, which may seem dull but it actually was really beautiful set against the lush green background of the surrounding area.

This is a view of the tanneries in Fes.  If you go to Fes, you'll have to visit strictly for the experience.  The stench is incredible.  In the white vats, they use lye and pigeon poop to take the hair out of the skins.

These vats are where they start dying the skins.

See what we're holding?  sprigs of mint leaves that we would hold up to our noses every so often to cover the smell.  We smelled like the tanneries for the rest of the day.

The medina in Fes is completely different than the one in Marrakech.  It is more labyrinthine in general, but more specifically, the people there aren't as aggressive as they were in Marrakech.

A view of the Medina of Fes.  It was really the most surreal experience to hear the call to prayer from all of the mosques (the green-roofed buildings in the picture are places of religious learning and/or mosques).  

Eating snails.  Not my favorite thing in the world, but it wasn't horrible.

Getting henna on our hands.

The palace in Fes.

With our wonderful french hosts, Catherine and Danielle.

They took us to the ancient Roman ruins of Volubilis.

Right near to Volubilis is Moulay Idris, the town made famous because of Moulay Idris, who brought Islam to Morocco. Notice the shape of the town: it looks like a camel.
And that was our trip to Morocco.  It was nothing I expected to be, yet I was happily surprised when I experienced it.  And I'm so happy that I experienced it with one of my best friends and that we did it all by ourselves.  I'm happy that I took a few Arabic lessons before we moved so that I could kind of communicate and kind of understand what was being said.  I'm not sure if I would go with Desmond, at least not until he is older, for fear that I would lose him in the maze of the medina or he would get run down by the multitude of motorcycles being ridden through the small alleyways of the medinas.