Mystery Artist #2

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

Day Two in Granada.  We had breakfast in the hotel, which provided quite a spread.  There were suspicious items like greyish “Chickens Sasage,” but also smoked salmon.  I knew what I would be having for breakfast for five days.

There was one of those machines that makes regular coffee, espresso, cappuccino, tea, hot chocolate, and six other things. It all comes out of one spout, and somehow it’s always good.  The girl in me who grew up with skim milk and Folgers Crystals and no second helpings comes out at times like this.  I could have stayed in the dining room all day drinking different coffee and coco drinks until they asked me to leave.  Lynn would have gone to the room and put the chain on the door long before.

Fortunately there was also a coffee maker in the room, so I could continue my caffeine-ating while we discussed what to do that day.

I don’t know if men do this too, but here’s how it often is with women trying to decide what to do.

“What do you want to do?”

“I don’t care—what do you want to do?”

“I don’t care.  How about the Superhumungous Museum?”

“Uhh … I guess so …”

“You don’t sound too keen.”

“Well I had hoped to go to the Smallish Museum.”

“Why didn’t you say so?”

“Well I don’t really mind what we do.”

When clearly, she does mind.  On and on it goes.  People trying to be nice are so irritating.

That’s not how it is with Lynn and me.  We’re flexible but know what we don’t want to do.  Which reminded me, I was going to have to come clean about the Flamenco dancing and say I would go, but only if we sat way in back where there would be no chance they would pull into an audience participation demonstration.  I talk a good game about being assertive, but I fully acknowledge how hard it can be.

We decided to check out the Jose Rodriguez Acosta Museum we had passed the previous afternoon.  The tickets were timed; ours were for 10:00 am so we had half an hour to kill.  We perused the art books on display and I got excited to see Acosta’s paintings, many of which featured Gitanos (gypsies, or Roma).

acosta-gypsies gitanos

We were the only visitors.  We chatted with the two young women at the desk.  They were both art history majors and lucky to have jobs here, they said.  We went out to the patio and enjoyed the view. If only there was a coffee machine.


Finally, our tour began. One of the young women came out and led us down some stairs and outdoors.  It turned out that the place was a carmen, or formal gardens.  Acosta was from a wealthy family and built it for other artists.  No one was here in the winter, our guide said, but artists came to live and work in residencies at other times of the year.  Hmmm.  I would be glad to live there during “the winter,” as they called it—sunny and 65F.

topiary-and-fountains crown-hedge

We walked through the gardens, then down into the catacombs than ran beneath the complex.


These went for miles and connected to the Alhambra and other carmens so people could have secret assignations and so on, I guess.  It wasn’t completely clear.

We climbed back up to the street level and entered a tiny museum.  “Acosta’s works are in the Carlos V Museum in the Alhambra,” our guide informed us.  “But here you will find many important works by other artists, many of whom are unknown.”

I’ve said I’m not an art critic, but after the Vatican Museum, the Borghese Gallery, and the Prado, I didn’t need a PhD in Art History to question why they would call these “important” works.  Our guide stood by while we politely looked at the motley collection of crucifixes and Madonnas and martyrs, many by “Anonymous.”

Well, never mind!  The gardens were worth the five euro admission, and we could see Acosta’s work at the Alhambra the next day.

Un Gran Salud

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

Lynn and I flew from Madrid to Granada, and I don’t remember anything about the flight except seeing these magazines and newspapers with photos of Melania Trump in the airport:

melania-2 melania

The first headline says, “I’ve never been the type of woman who gives her phone number to just anyone,” and the second is, “The Amazing Life of the Most Powerful Woman in the World.”

Um…she may be married to the President of the United States, but that doesn’t make her the most powerful woman in the world.  I would put Angela Merkel, Christine Legarde, or Janet Yellin in that category, but not Melania Trump.  Maybe they expect her to exert a powerful influence on fashion.

The Alhambra Palace Hotel.  What can I say?  It was like a palace.  The room wasn’t huge, but everything was of supremo quality and very clean.  For instance, the white linens on the beds were heavy thick cotton and the tile in the bath was beautiful.


We had two French doors that led out onto a massive terrace:


But the best part was the terrace bar, overlooking Granada:


No, the best part was, Lynn had got a great deal on our five nights.  Again, one of the big benefits of traveling during the off season.  It’s not like it was cold or rainy here, either, so I don’t why anyone wouldn’t visit Granada in November.

We had tickets for the main event of the trip—the actual Alhambra—in two days.  We headed out  to do a re-con walk and were at the entry to the site in about 10 minutes.  It was so easy, and we hadn’t gotten lost.  Feeling a little cocky, we decided to walk around some more.  We walked back to the hotel then onward in the opposite direction down an alley-like lane.  We passed something called the Jose Rodriguez Acosta Museum.

“Never heard of him,” I noted.

“Me either,” said Lynn.  “Something to check out later.”

We walked down, down, down a hill and stairs to a neighborhood called Albaicin.  We stuck to the main drag, which was about 12 feet wide. Every time a vehicle came by, we pedestrians had to flatten themselves against the walls of the buildings on either side.  A river ran along one side, a hill ran up from it, and at the top were old buildings … houses? Whatever they were, they were beautiful:


Families were out for their evening strolls along with tourists.  We passed shops selling arts and crafts, and tourist kiosks selling Flamenco tickets.

“I would like to see Flamenco dancing,” Lynn commented, “If we can find an authentic place.”

I wasn’t thrilled about seeing Flamenco.  For one thing, all the posters seemed to indicate that the dinner-dance package didn’t start until 8:00pm. I flashed back to a trip to Peru with my Peruvian friend Roxana, whose nickname for me is La Marmota (the marmot) because I sleep so much. She took me to a popular dance club to see a spectacular costumed dance show, which was followed by a free-for-all dance party.  The show didn’t get started until 10:00, you could cut the cigarette smoke with a knife, and worst of all—I am a terrible dancer.  Really.  I was finally cajoled by Roxana and her friends to get out there and dance, and I think they regretted it.  When I made a move to sit down after 10 minutes, they didn’t protest.  It was fabulous—watching everyone else dance—would I be dragged out to dance Flamenco in front of hundreds of people too?

We huffed our way slowly back up the hill to the hotel and ordered drinks and the tapas platter on the terrace.  Now this is tapas:


“I could eat this every meal,” I enthused, probably with my mouth full of food.  The bartender came to pour Lynn’s dry martini and my rum and Diet Coke.  The glass was the size of a fish bowl and he poured, and poured, and poured.


I don’t remember what we talked about as we watched the sun set, but I know it was very profound.


Beaches and Burgers

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

The Sorolla museum was set in the family home of this artist Lynn and I had never heard of.  The house was surrounded by tranquil gardens with fountains.  A few yards inside, and the traffic noise faded away.  The family’s furniture and family pictures and daily objects like pencil holders and water pitchers were still in place, so you could really imagine it as it was in the 1920s.  Madrid was probably quieter in the 20s, but this house would still have been an oasis.

Many of Sorolla’s paintings were sentimental, featuring small children on beaches.  All that was missing was a kitten.


Some of my best memories involve being at the lake with my siblings or friends, so I found the paintings sweet.

It’s unusual to see a portrait of a woman covering her face, as in the painting below. Usually a woman’s face and body are the gratuitous subjects of art.  But here you can almost feel the wind that is causing her skirt to billow, and the strong sun that is forcing her to raise her arm to see.  I’m not an art critic, but the composition, the colors and depiction of light and movement all feel satisfying to me in this piece.


I especially liked this one, maybe because it was so simple.


Several of the rooms were roped off, with my old friend the “Closed for Renovation” sign barring the way.  Again, this is one of the downsides of traveling during the low season.

The museum and gift shop were small, so soon we were done and ready for a very late lunch.  We spied a restaurant across the street called New York Burger.

“That sounds good!” I said, “We’ll know what we’re getting.”

“Right,” Lynn replied skeptically, and we scurried across, dodging speeding cars and buses.

In typical New York/Spanish style, this was a creative concept restaurant with endless menu options.  Has anyone else noticed the proliferation of menus with charts that lead you through a decision-making algorithm?  Here, Step One was, “Choose your Burger.”  But what were the choices?  Unclear.  Move on to Step Two, “Weight.”  How many grams of beef did I want?

“How much is a gram?” I asked Lynn. “I haven’t bought anything by the gram since I bought hash in high school.”

“I … I think there are 1,000 grams in a kilo ….” Lynn replied.

“But how big is a kilo?” I laughed.  “I’ll just order the second largest one.  I’m hungry.”

“So am I,” and Lynn.  “Oh, we’re not done yet.  Step Three is ‘How would you like your meat?”

And so on.  We finally managed to order.  Lynn got the special—a prawn burger, and I got as close to a plain old hamburger as I could.  I was exhausted from all the choices and not in the mood for blueberries, a fried egg, or caramelized pineapple. We snickered over some of the translations on the menu:

The meat of our burgers comes from top quality cattle’s of beef.

Well thank goodness!

Our burgers arrived.  Mine was the size of my head, and raw.  I wolfed it down.  The fries were okay; they came in one of those artsy cones that disguise the fact of how few you’re getting.  There was ketchup in one of those tiny paper cups; I asked the server to bring me five more.

“How’s your prawn burger?” I asked Lynn between mouthfuls.

“Good,” she replied, as hunks of it fell away, “except it won’t hold together.”  This seems to be the bane of the non-burger burger.

New York Burger had décor by Ikea, something I had seen in restaurants and shops in Italy and which we would see again in Spain.  There must not be enough real estate space for an Ikea on Malta.

We decided to walk back, stopping for a leisurely coffee in a sunny pavilion.  Our plan was to take in the botanical gardens on the way.  I managed to go in the Out gate, and was firmly informed that the gardens had just closed for the day.

True Friends, False Friends

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

Day Three in Madrid, I think.  Lynn and I arrived at the Royal Palace.  How did we get there?  I can’t remember.  This is one way in which traveling with a friend is different from solo travel.  When I travel alone, I am almost always “on” because it’s all up to me, and I remember every detail.  When I travel with a friend, I don’t recall things as clearly because they take on some of the “navigator” duties.   Actually, Lynn takes on more than her share.

I also don’t take as many photos when I’m with a fellow traveler. I don’t want to be one of those annoying people who says, “Ooh, stop, I want a shot of that!” every 10 feet.

There was no photography allowed in the palace anyway.  The only photo I came away with was this one, out in the plaza.  Lynn and I both fooled around and posed with spidey.


The palace was … well, palatial.  It was like a super-sized version of the Co-Cathedral on Malta, the one I wrote was like Donald and Melania’s penthouse.  Everything was gilded and gold plated, and there were actual gold plates set on the table in the dining hall.  I think the table was set for 30 people.  I wondered how many south American Indians had died for each of those gold plates.

There was very little signage.  We were basically herded on a one-way route through a series of rooms where all of exclaimed, “Wow!” in our respective languages. One room was where the king was dressed by his valets. Next was the chapel where he and the queen prayed.  “Chapel” sounds modest but it was as big as any church in my neighborhood. Another room was where he signed official documents.  Next was the throne room where he received official state visitors.  And so on.

The gift shop wasn’t very good, and we weren’t interested in entering the massive cathedral across the plaza.  It was only about 10:30 so we sat on a wall to figure out what to do next.  Lynn, keeper of the map, opened it up.

“I did do some research on each of the cities we’ll be in,” I said, “and the Sarolla Museum stood out to me as something to see.  I think it’s the home of the artist Sarolla.  I don’t know his first name.  I pointed out one of his paintings in the Prado.”

“Oh yes,” replied Lynn.  “The naked boys on the beach?”

“Yep,” I replied, scanning the map to find the house.  “Looks like we could take a bus there if we transfer …” I paused.  “But how about we just grab a taxi?”

“Yes, that’s fine with me!” Lynn replied enthusiastically.

It’s one of the perks of being older and having a bit more money. We had both used mass transit systems all over the world.  We wouldn’t take taxis everywhere in Spain, but figuring out a foreign bus system on the fly had no appeal today.

We got a female cab driver, a first for both of us.  She seemed to be driving in circles. Lynn and I exchanged looks.  A female cabbie could rip you off just as well as a male.  She spoke no English, so I asked in Spanish if this was the most direct route and she said there was a manifestación so she had to take a circuitous route to avoid the crowds.

“Manifestación” is what’s called a “false friend” in language learning, especially related languages. It doesn’t mean manifestation; it means a demonstration—like a street protest.  Some kind of labor dispute.  I knew what manifestación meant, and it made me feel a bit more confident about using my Spanish.

So I asked her if there were many women cabbies, to which she said yes, then let loose a blur of words so rapidly I could only catch about every fifth one.  So I don’t know if I really communicated clearly because I don’t think there are a lot of women cabbies, but who knows?  Maybe Spain is more egalitarian in that regard.

Be Mine, Be Thine

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

On the heels of Valentine’s Day and the last story about my worst trip re-entry ever, and having arrived home late last night from a group trip to Central America, I’d like to wish you all a Happy Valentine’s Day.

The composition of the group tour was typical of other such trips I’ve taken.  There were 10 of us plus the guide.  It was two married couples, three married people whose spouses hate the outdoors so they had come solo, and three single women.  I used to spend a lot more time wondering, “Why are so-and-so married and I’m not?” or wondering if I would meet a guy on one of these trips.  It could happen.  But all I could think of by the fourth or fifth day was “I want to be alone!”

I’ll write more about this trip once I’ve covered Spain, but for now I just wanted to repeat the theme I’ve written about annually on Valentine’s Day.

According to all the standardized tests I’ve taken, I am an extrovert.  I am sure that I’m not.  I get along well with people, I think.  I like meeting new people.  I like spending long blocks of time with certain people.  But when I am exhausted or stressed or just need to recharge, I want to be alone.  I think that’s the definition of an introvert.  Maybe because I’ve always worked in communications and development, I’ve learned to be comfortable being “on.”  But come Saturday, all I want is to hang out home alone.

Society has names for introverts: Loner, recluse, hermit, withdrawn, antisocial, wallflower, solitary, shy.

I am struggling to come up with a list of similar negative words for extroverts. The ones that come to mind are neutral or positive: Larger than life.  Life of the party.  Outgoing. Sociable.  Genial. Affable.

Think about it: The police catch a serial killer. The TV news interviews his next door neighbor. What does she always say? “He kept to himself.” As if that explains why he murdered people.

I happened to catch a TV show about eccentric people in Minnesota.  Apparently we are number one in that regard. They were interviewing the sister of Frank Johnson, maker of the world’s largest twine ball. When asked what she thought motivated her brother to undertake such an endeavor, her answer was, “Well you know, he never did marry.”

I never have married, but I’ve seen plenty of couples here and while traveling who look miserable together.  I just don’t buy society’s message that you have to be partnered to be fulfilled, happy, a valid person, whatever. It’s not that I’m opposed to it, I just don’t believe that being part of a couple fixes life’s problems. It’s like any other of life’s big choices—both being single and being partnered contain different trade offs.

I have often wondered if I could adjust to living with a partner.  I think I could; after all I’ve adjusted to living in other countries and had housemates and am in general an open-minded person who is comfortable with who I am.  I’m usually good at speaking up for what I want and don’t want, which seems like the basis of good communications.

Yadda yadda yadda.  Have a good Valentine’s Day with your sweetie, even if it’s your kid, or a friend, or your mom, or yourself.  Lord knows we can use all the love we can get in this angry world.

A Bumpy Landing

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

I decided to write one more post before I leave for Belize.

In my last post I noted that I have sometimes returned home in bad shape or to dicey situations.  This post is about that worst time ever.  There was that time I got bumped up to first class on a London to Minneapolis flight, was seated next to a handsome, single, and presumably rich man my age—but I had a terrible cold and I went through an entire box of Kleenex blowing my nose.  He expressed sympathy at the start of the flight, then faced away from me for eight hours.  I can’t say I blamed him.

This was worse.  I was dating a guy I’ll call Jed whose parents were Italian immigrants.  He had been to Italy many times.

Before I met him, Lynn and I had made plans to meet in Venice, and Jed was excited for me to see the country he loved so much.

By the time the trip happened, Jed and I had been dating for about two months.  By this point in a relationship, things have usually … erm, progressed … but not with Jed.  He made the trek from Minneapolis to St. Paul every Saturday night to pick me up, sometimes with flowers or a nice bottle of wine, Italian of course.  We would go out to dinner, have great conversations, maybe see a movie, then he would bring me home, kiss me good night, and leave.  There was no groping, no heavy breathing, no frustrated desires.

It kind of felt like a first date, every week.  It was all very nice, but there was no sizzle.  I thought that maybe if I was gone for a couple weeks, he would be dying to see me—and more.

So I went to Italy and Lynn and I had a great time as usual.  I bought a purple felt deco-style hat that Lynn said looked very “fetching” on me.

I had an early flight home from London, so I booked myself into a Yotel at Heathrow.  Yotels are cool little hotels in airports.  The rooms are tiny but mirrored all around to prevent claustrophobia.  For once, I was good and didn’t drink a bottle of wine the night before a long flight.  Instead, knowing Jed would be picking me up, I hydrated like crazy and went to bed early to get my beauty sleep.

I started feeling funny as soon as the plane landed.  I stopped in a bathroom to check my makeup before meeting Jed, and my face was ashen and gaunt.  The purple hat that had looked fetching the day before made me look like some sort of demented Dia del Muerte skeleton dancer.  Still, I had plane hair so I kept it on.

The look on Jed’s face told me I hadn’t just been hard on myself.  He asked if I wanted something to eat and I said yes, thinking if I got some chicken soup it might make me feel less queasy.  It didn’t.  It made me want to hurl, violently.

“I need to get home,” I said weakly.  But I couldn’t remember which ramp my car was parked in.  We drove around for a very long 15 minutes, me Trying Not to Throw Up in Jed’s SUV.

Finally, we found my car and I made a dash for it without even kissing Jed goodbye.  Thankfully he drove off so he didn’t have to witness me blowing chunks in the parking ramp.

Oh, did I mention it was the coldest night of the year, around -20F (-29C)?  Shaky, I managed to drive out of the airport before I pulled over, threw open the car door, and chundered on the side of the road.  This happened three or four times more before I reached home, where the heat was turned down to 55F (12C).  I cranked up the thermostat then started a bath of scalding hot water and lay in it shivering and shaking.  What a long night.

And Jed?  I broke with him a few weeks later after a couple more Groundhog Day-like dates.

Make Mine a Double

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

After hitting the gift shop at the Prado and loading up on Hieronymus Bosch refrigerator magnets, bookmarks, and postcards, we crossed the roundabout toward the Thyssen Bornemisa Museum.

But first, some lunch.  We walked into the first restaurant we saw and followed the hostess down some stairs, through a hallway, up more stairs, and into a back dining room.  It was probably early for lunch in Spain—only 1:00—so we had the room to ourselves.

I don’t remember anything about the food.  I know we laughed over some of the Spanish to English translations on the menu, and at the fat German couple seated near us who ordered strudel and beer.  I vaguely noticed the place fill with people, then empty again while we ate and drank a bottle of house wine and talked and talked.

This may be the number one thing I love about traveling with a friend.  Leisurely meals.  At home I gulp down my food while reading a magazine or watching TV.  I’m usually in a hurry to get on to the next thing.  I barely notice what I’m shoveling in my mouth.

Suddenly we realized it was almost 4:00 so we hurried across the street to try to see everything in the museum in one hour.  What a relief—it was open until 7:00.

The main art museum in Minneapolis, the MIA, has collections—like Decorative Art, Textiles, and Sculpture; or Japanese and Korean Art.  The Thyssen Bornemisa reminded me of the Reina Sofia Museum, with one or a few pieces from lots of different artists scattered seemingly at random throughout a somewhat shabbier building.  It had one masterpiece each by van Gogh, Chagall, Degas, Cezanne, El Greco, Caravaggio, Monet, Picasso, Gauguin.  It reminded me of the “Greatest Hits” compilations music companies used to publish when people still bought CDs.

There was a variation on this famous painting by Holbein of Henry VIII; the original had been destroyed:


We bought the obligatory postcards, bookmarks, and refrigerator magnets.  These make nice small gifts, or I think they do.  Maybe people hate them.

We went back to the hotel to freshen up, then back to the square where there were supposed to be loads of tapas restaurants.  This time we were determined to find an “authentic” tapas place, as if we knew what that would look like.  We found one that looked a little run down, and were soon being served, if you can use that term, by the crabbiest waiter ever.

The tables were covered with old linoleum.  Ours had some squeeze bottles of unknown contents and a pile of three thin, miniscule, nonabsorbent paper napkins.

“D’ya want something?” our waiter demanded brusquely in Spanish.  His clothes were rumpled and stained.

Lynn, always cheerful to servers, asked for red wine in English.  The waiter scowled and I repeated in Spanish, “vino tinto, por favor.”  He walked away without a word and returned with two smeary glasses of red wine, which he slammed down before us.  This place was authentic, alight.

“Para comer?” he demanded next.  To eat?  Lynn pointed to menu items and again he walked off without speaking, returned, and threw down some plates.  The food was basic but good.

I watched over Lynn’s shoulder as our waiter poured a half pint of beer, dumped in two very large shots of tequila, and poured it all down his throat.  Within minutes he was relatively cheerful, even coming to our table to ask if we liked our food.  I felt moved, imagining he got by like this hour by hour, night after night.

As I write this, I’m about to leave for Belize and Guatemala.  I’ve front loaded the blog to post throughout this trip, but I never know what kind of condition I’ll be in when I return so no promises about when the next post will be.

I don’t mean to sound melodramatic, but I’ve been on enough trips where I come home sick, or to some crazy family or work situation, so I’m cautious about committing to anything too soon after I get back.