Betsy and I are old hands at traveling to Bilbao, Spain. When possible, as it was on March 19, we fly overnight from Charlotte to Germany (in this case, Munich), and then on to Bilbao after an hour or two lay-over. Betsy is always able to catch a few winks, and now that I have totally given up trying to sleep on these flights, I get by nicely watching movies and reading books. To my surprise, the Lufthansa flight from Charlotte to Munich allowed me to access the movie screen on the back of the seat in front of me from the moment we boarded the plane. I watched almost half of True Grit before we ever left the ground, but the pilot cut a few corners and caught back up to his schedule before we landed. There were no movies on the two hour flight from Munich to Bilbao, but I kept busy reading the book, A Course Called Ireland, I needed to finish so I could leave it with Erik.
In Bilbao we moved quickly and competently through the normal baggage claim area and into the international baggage claim area. We claimed our bags, showed our passports to the guard at the door, and wheeled our luggage out into the Bilbao sun. Erik was not there, so I called him. He told me he was just leaving his parked car, so we met him in the car park. Next time we will know to take the new tunnel under the road to the car park instead of risking our lives. There was probably a sign directing us to the tunnel, but it was probably in Basque, since we were in Bilbao.
Forty-five minutes later we arrived in Colindres. Our friend Bruno, who lives next door to Erik, had, with his brother’s help, made a “Welcome Mr. and Mrs. Rasmussen” sign and taped it to Erik and Marga’s front door. It showed a picture of USA President Obama shaking hands with Spain’s President Zapatero. Inside the door, we found Marga and Nora waiting for us. Marga is in the early stages of pregnancy, and the parasite has been draining her energy. The same thing happened to her when she was pregnant with Nora, and I think it helps her cope with her problem knowing that it will soon pass. Nora is in the middle stage of toddlerdom. She seldom falls anymore, and she is constantly on the go, doing something. She was pleased to see us (especially her American grandmother), and right away she dug out the old toys we used to play with from the bottom of her toy chest. To her grandmother she brought the blocks they spent hours stacking, and the matryoshka dolls. She brought me That’s Not My Dog and other books I had read to her.
We were most eager to see how well Nora would understand us, and to see if she would speak English to us. We decided before the trip that we would do our best to totally avoid speaking to Nora in our rudimentary Spanish. Our hope was that Nora would realize that some people don’t speak Spanish, and you must therefore speak to them in the language they know. What we found was a two year old girl who, from all visible evidence, understood every word spoken to her, regardless of the language. When Betsy said “Nora, will you please pick up that paper over there on the floor and put it in the trash in the kitchen?â€ Nora barely glanced at her before immediately complying. When I rubbed my hands together and lamented, apparently to myself, “I wish I knew where my hand cream was. I could really use some right now”, Nora’s eyes started scanning the living room until they lit on the Aquiphor cream I had brought with me, then she went and got it, and handed it to me. It didn’t hurt any that to our starved eyes, she seemed cuter than a 10 week old puppy.
After a light lunch of chicken soup, fresh bread and wine, Betsy and I played with Nora until it was time to go out for a walk. Marga stayed home to rest while Betsy, Nora, Erik and I, along with Nora’s stroller (which is useful for carrying cookies, Erik’s camera, sweaters, emergency diapers, wet-wipes, and bottled water) climbed into the elevator and went out onto the streets of Colindres. Nora walks reliably by herself, but holds an adult hand at all street crossings. She is not fast, but she is steady. I found that walking while pushing the empty stroller was easier on my sore back than simply walking, so that became my job.
Every day in Colindres includes at least one stroll around town, almost always with a stop or three at a bar for a small glass of red wine and whatever free food the bartender brings you. If there are three of you in your group, each person takes a turn ordering and paying for the drinks.
If you stop a fourth time, the person who went first goes again. With a glass of red wine costing about 60 cents (Euros), it is possible to spend a fine couple of hours walking around town with friends, buying drinks for them, and they buying drinks for you, eating free food (often of superb quality), and end up spending about $3.00. It is clear to me that this “paseo” is vastly superior in fun, taste and health to the American norm where a guy drinks three beers after work along with a bowl of Cheeze-Its while sitting in the Barcalounger in his living room watching Sports Center.
Nora is very comfortable in all of the bars in Colindres. Many of the bar operators know her, and some even know her well enough to bring her a special treat that she likes. The place I know as “the olive bar”, because you can pretty much count on getting a bowl of delicious green olives with your wine, always brings Nora the end of a loaf of bread. The bartender at the place I know as “the hotel bar” (the only place except for the B&B just out of town where one can rent a bed) practically always gives Nora a plastic-wrapped sucker from a supply he keeps under the bar. One bar we frequent has a brass foot rail and handrail that go all around the bar. If the bar has an opening, Nora generally ambles over and climbs inside the rails, shuffling along the length of it until she must turn around and go back. At the Safari bar (African-theme throughout) Nora like to walk around and behind the life-sized rhinoceros, where no man has ever gone before.
Well-behaved children are welcome at bars, and why not, with Coke costing so much more than wine. Dogs too. Betsy and I have run into Messi and his owner three times while walking around Colindres. I’ve probably run into lots of people three times, but I only remember the ones with the dogs. I suspect Messi was named after the world’s best football player, Lionel Messi, but he (the dog) had a fairly distinctive brown stained area in his hind quarters, so I’m really not sure.
I generally sleep pretty well the first night in Spain since I usually have been awake for about 32 straight hours, and Sunday night was no exception. Erik and Marga treat us well when we visit them in Spain. They move Nora and her crib out of Nora’s room and into their own bedroom. Their biggest bedroom with its lovely king-sized bed and sliding, heavy light shield becomes our room, and it can be very, very dark. Throw in my iPhone’s white noise application simulating hard rain on the roof, and it is an environment quite conducive to resting.
Monday through Friday, Marga goes off to work early in the morning before anybody else wakes up. Her current schedule has her staying at work all day, then coming home at 3:00 pm. Erik usually prepares lunch, and after lunch Marga rests until 5:30, when it is time to pick Nora up from her Day Care Program and take care of her while Erik works in his office. Until her recent pregnancy, Marga would usually walk with Nora around town, often covering several miles, sometimes meeting a friend for a drink, and always, weather and daylight permitting, stopping at one of the town’s many playgrounds for Nora to play. Back at home, Marga would feed Nora, and bathe her, and put her to bed. With Marga feeling bad, and with Betsy and I eager to spend as much time with Nora as we could, we were able to help take care of Nora, allowing Marga to get a little extra rest. At 5:25, like clock-work, we went to pick up Nora from amongst the 4 or 5 children still left at the Day Care program. Each day Nora would look at us for a few seconds, and quickly walk to her grandmother’s arms for a big hug.
With Betsy holding Nora’s hand, and me pushing the stroller either ahead of them or behind them, the three of us would walk around town. One day Nora wanted to ride in her stroller, and then quickly fell asleep. We walked around town for another hour anyway. On another day, Nora was not tired at all (she had napped at Day Care), and I pushed the empty stroller for more than a mile and half – down to the waterfront, around to the other side of town, then back through town and home. We must have looked like a tortoise and hare race with me pushing the stroller ahead to the nearest park bench, then sitting there waiting for the slowly-walking never-stopping Betsy and Nora team to overtake and pass me, then jumping up and doing it again. Quite often on these walks people recognize Nora and speak with her. On more than one occasion, people bent down to smile and speak with Nora, calling her by name, and, despite Betsy and I standing there with big grandparent grins, never glanced at us once on their way in and out of their attempt to interact with Nora. I think her blond hair makes her stand out a bit, but Nora clearly has many fans in Colindres.
When we visit Erik, Marga and Nora, we slip into a routine which is quite different for me. It usually takes me a few days to adjust, but before long I am sleeping until 8:30 or so, slipping down to the bakery for fresh crí¨me-filled pastry for breakfast, and two small loaves of freshly- baked bread (only one if we are planning on eating a meal out that day), and returning to fresh coffee and breakfast. Sleepy-eyed Nora enjoys cookies and chocolate milk for breakfast, often breaking the cookies up in the milk towards the end, and then wanting to be spoon-fed the resulting glop. After a good bit of playing in her pajamas, Nora gets dressed for the day, and before long the four of us push her stroller into the elevator and head to the street for daily paseo number one. If it is a nice day, we might head down to the waterfront. If we have errands to do, we might walk to three or four stores to fill a prescription or buy some diapers. If pressed for time, we might head straight for Nora’s favorite playground. There we encounter a half-dozen grandparent and child combinations, many of them known to us. Sometime around noon we end our walk by going by Susinos grocery store, operated by our friend Andrés, where the butcher is Erik’s neighbor and friend, Bruno, and Tona, who runs the fruit and vegetable area, is a good friend to Nora. We buy the day’s grocery needs there, perhaps some thin cuts of pork or beef. Bruno sharpens his knife, grabs a hunk of meat, and expertly carves out exactly what we need.
It takes just two minutes to walk from the store to home, and soon Erik is preparing Nora’s lunch, usually a vegetables and rice combination, often followed by yogurt. At 1:20 Betsy, Nora and I get into the elevator, along with Nora’s stroller, and head to her Day Care program. The stroller gets left in the stroller area, and Nora good-naturedly but slowly leaves us behind and enters the fray that is the toddler room. Then Betsy and I head back home for lunch and a nap.
You have to take advantage of every opportunity to rest that you can when you are the caretaker of a two-year old. They are fun to play with, but they are very demanding of adult attention. It is necessary, but not easy, to periodically move one adult out of the attention-giving role and another adult into it. If done with meticulous care, it is even possible to substitute a lesser- ranking care-giver for a higher ranking one without the child throwing a tantrum. It is an extremely delicate move, however, and results in failure more often than it results in a smooth transition.
Thursday was Nora’s second birthday. We had brought some birthday presents from America, cards and presents from us, my mother, and from some of Erik and Marga’s friends and relatives in the States. That evening, after Nora came home from school, we gave them to her. Nora likes opening presents. Her favorite present was a card my mother had made for her. It had several pages, like a short children’s book, and the last page had a picture of Nora on it. Nora smiled every time she got to the last page, and then immediately wanted to flip it over and start again at the beginning.
Nora had her two-year health check-up on Wednesday morning. We waited along with a few other families for about 10 minutes, and then we were shown back to the Doctor\’s office. The Doctor asked Erik to remove Nora\’s clothes, and she gently measured, poked and prodded Nora, occasionally asking Erik questions. When she was done, we moved into the Nurse\’s office, and the Nurse asked more questions and filled out some paperwork. We were there less than half an hour altogether. Nora never cried once. She had moved to the 50th percentile in both height and weight, and we were all very happy with the results of her examination.
One night Erik, Betsy and I left Marga home with Nora and visited a relatively new Japanese restaurant in Colindres. It is run by some Chinese people, one of whom is friends with Erik. The man went to Japan to learn sushi preparation, and sushi is what they advertise. I eat sushi pretty often in the States, but what I found at that Chinese-run Japanese restaurant in Spain was a totally foreign experience. I couldn’t understand their menu, and neither the waiter’s Spanish nor his English provided the desired detail. Also difficult to understand was the price structure. The menu had no prices on it. We were told that we could have anything we wanted for 11 Euros. Eventually I understood that we could have everything on the menu, if we so desired, for that same 11 Euros. Better not take that pricing strategy to America. I enjoyed some tuna sashimi, some sushi, some fried chicken balls, and a sizzling plate of duck, along with a couple of servings of sake.
One night fairly early in our stay, I went to bed a few minutes before Nora was put to bed. While she was being changed on the changing table in the upstairs hallway, Erik told her to be quiet because â€œGrandpa is in bed trying to sleepâ€. Nora understood, lowered her voice to a whisper, and later admonished Erik to be quiet because â€œGrandpa\’s sleepingâ€. At 2:00 am that night, when Nora was asking for water over and over and over, Marga told her â€œBe quiet or you will wake Grandpaâ€. To Marga and Erik\’s astonishment, Nora immediately quieted down, whispered â€œGrandpa\’s sleepingâ€ a couple of times, and then went back to sleep. When informed of this the next morning, I was very pleased with the respect she had shown me.
Friday is market day in Colindres. A group of traveling merchants set up in a different town every day of the week. On Fridays they are always to be found on the same three or four streets of Colindres. The streets are closed to traffic, and they set up their booths, selling everything you can imagine. Each Friday Erik finds his olive man and purchases the week’s supply of olives. The olive man offers us several samples from his vast assortment, listens to Erik’s desires, carefully fills and weighs the bag, tells Erik what he owes and only then spoons olive oil into Erik’s bag. No wonder Erik buys all his olives here.
Nora’s Spanish grandparents had not been able to visit her on her birthday Thursday, but a birthday party was planned for Saturday afternoon at the Extremadura Social Club in Mondragón. In order to help transport us all the one and half hours from Colindres to Mondragón, Marga’s sister Belén drove to Colindres on Friday evening. She met Erik, Nora, Betsy and me at a local photographer’s studio where we were hoping to get some nice professional shots of Nora with her father, her Aunt, and her American grandparents. Unfortunately, Nora was a little tired, and while she didn’t mind posing with Daddy, she wasn’t particularly happy posing with anybody else. The photographer smartly suggested that we come back in the morning, which we did.
On Saturday morning, after visiting the photographer again, we eventually packed up all our things and drove to Mondragón. The four of us with American passports rode together, with Betsy in the back keeping Nora amused until she dozed off. We went right to the Social Center, where we hung around from one until three greeting the friends and relatives as they arrived to party with us. Nora’s Spanish grandmother – her Abuela – gave Nora a toddler version of a mop/bucket/broom/dustpan set, and Nora amused herself for hours spotting pieces of fluff on the floor and attempting to sweep them into her dustpan. Sometime around 2:00, Erik, Betsy and I followed Marga’s father, Juan, on a short trip across the street to buy four loaves of bread for our meal. We enjoyed a glass of wine at the bakery, although there was no room at the bar and we had to stand towards the back by the door, and then another glass of wine at another bar we stopped at during our two minute walk back to the Social Club. Each glass of wine came with a small snack, of course.
The meal was wonderful. Some of the food had been prepared by a friend of Erik and Marga who owns and runs a restaurant four miles from Colindres in Laredo. We picked it up Friday night and left it in the trunk of Erik’s car. On Saturday Erik carried the box into the Social Club’s kitchen. Then back from the kitchen came some fantastic seafood pate, crackers, cheese, large steamed shrimp, several large lettuce and tuna salads, and two kinds of ham – lomo and jamón. Like Eskimos and their eighteen words for snow, ham is very important to Spaniards, and their language reflects that. The entrée was a tasty fish dish. After dinner, a birthday cake was brought out and put before Nora. She didn’t mind the attention, and she liked the frosting. A few more presents were given to her, which she also liked.
When Erik mentioned that Juan was offering to buy us some brandy, I consented. What appeared, however, was more like a triple, probably due to Juan’s superior bartender interaction skills. Nora\’s grandmothers and some of her great-aunts took her out for a walk, and Betsy, Marga, and Belén walked over to the family patriarch’s home. Ninety-one year-old Ramón hadn’t been feeling well, and had decided not to make the trip to the Social Club, and they wanted to bring him some cake and check on him.
When I finished my brandy, I was invited to play cards with Marga’s father Juan, Marga’s Uncle Ramón, and Erik. The game of Cuatrola was explained to me. The deck of cards consisted of four suits, identified to me as clubs, money, cups, and swords. Twenty cards are used for the play; the rest are used for score-keeping. The cards that are used are, in ascending order, the jack, the horse, the king, the three, and the ace. One suit is trump, determined by a dealer card dealt face up. You must win if you can, but you don’t have to under-trump. I caught on pretty fast, except for dealing the cards counter-clockwise, which I had trouble getting used to. Juan said something which Erik interpreted as “He said he has never had a whiskey and Sprite, and with the women gone, now seemed like a good time to have one, and did we want one too?â€ I couldn’t turn that down, and it actually tasted quite good. Juan and Erik beat Ramón and me, and we started another game. At least, that is what it seemed like to me. Erik wasn’t doing much translating, and frankly, with all the table-slapping and laughing that was going on, not much translating was needed. The arguing between Juan and Ramón about the extent of my punishment for not following suit one time seemed eerily similar to North Carolina poker parties I have attended.
On what was identified to me as the last hand, I picked up the ace, three, and jack of trump, and two other aces. I forgot that I could bid “cuatro” (or is it cuatrola?) and play it alone, with the hand counting four times as much as normal, but I remembered I could bid “Solo!”, play the hand without my partner’s help, and have the hand count double, which I did. I took all five tricks, of course.
I sat in the front seat of Juan’s car, and when it stopped I got out and walked up five flights of stairs to Juan and Marce’s apartment. Betsy and I sat in the living room playing with Nora while Juan opened some wine and Marce prepared a good meal. Later Erik drove us to where we would be spending the night – Erik and Marga’s new furnished apartment in Mondragón. They bought it a few months ago, had installed a heating system a week earlier, and were hoping to begin renting it out very soon. It is a lovely place, made up of three bedrooms, a sitting room, kitchen, bathroom, and hallway. You can open the big swinging windows in the sitting room and look out on the mountain opposite you, and you can open the big swinging windows in the kitchen on the other side of the apartment and look out onto the courtyard. Marga’s family had worked hard that week cleaning it and preparing it with sheets, pillows, blankets and towels, and it was a perfect place for us to stay during our visit. That area of Mondragón is flat, and easy to walk, and the Hotel Mondragón, a favorite place of ours, is less than a minute away.
Erik called us in the morning, and then showed up at our door. We walked to the Hotel Mondragón for breakfast, and then we walked around town, burning off our morning pastry. We stopped by Abuelo’s house and rang the bell downstairs. He answered quickly, which meant that he was already up, and we had not awakened him. Betsy had reported to me that he had never left his bed when they had visited the day before, so it was especially good to see him up and about. Unfortunately, it always makes him sad to see me since he wishes so much that we could speak fluently to each other and be understood. Erik is a good translator though, and somehow – because of the type of person he is and what we have in common – Abuelo and I have become close. Belén made coffee, and later went up a floor to fetch Tiko, their very feeble 18 year-old dog. Soon Betsy and I said what surely would be our last goodbye to Tiko, and what we fervently hoped would not be our last goodbye with Marga’s, and now Erik’s, lovely grandfather, Ramón.
We walked just past the hospital to a junkyard that was owned by a friend of Juan’s. Erik expected Juan to be there feeding his chickens and collecting their eggs, but the place was locked up tight. We retreated 100 yards to the hospital and went into their first floor canteen where we enjoyed a glass of red wine. When Erik spied Juan driving by, we headed back up the street and visited his chickens.
The owner of the junkyard keeps a young but fully grown German Shepherd in the yard to protect the place. The dog does look scary, but isn’t actually dangerous. On one side Juan keeps a couple of dozen hens, and harvests hundreds of eggs each week. They keep Marga and Erik stocked with eggs, and I’m sure they give eggs to other friends and relatives too. On the other side Juan keeps his roosters and the chicks who take the place of their mother when she is chosen for the pot. Juan also keeps a male rabbit and a female rabbit, in separate cages.
Juan showed us the inside of a building next to the chicken coop. It was a small clubhouse, of sorts. There was a fridge, stove and sink, and a long table where people could eat together. There was a fireplace and a workbench, with old books and trophies on shelves along the walls. Carved into the ground behind it was a small bodega, coolly holding several dozen dusty bottles of wine. It was easy to imagine a half-dozen men in this room, perhaps playing cards or carving sticks and swapping lies.
Juan drove us to the Social Club where, it seemed, we were going to have another communal meal. Erik and Betsy went out to run an errand while Juan and I enjoyed a glass of wine in the bar. We watched the open-wheeled racing on the bar’s TV, and talked about it as much as our language barriers allowed. I told him that I wouldn’t want to be a race car driver, because I would be afraid to drive that fast. He said he thought he could do and would enjoy it. When swimming came on the TV, I told him that I liked to swim. He told me that he could swim, but did not like to. Soon Abuelo appeared, looking much better than he had in his bathrobe and slippers just a few hours earlier. When Nora and Marga, along with Belén and others appeared soon after, Nora’s great-grandfather doted on Nora in his teasing way. I was glad to see Nora smiling and enjoying him, because she doesn’t usually react very well to someone teasing her, but it seems she has learned his ways, and also learned to love him.
We ate salad and bread and ham and cheese, and the prawns left over from the day before. Our main course was a chicken stew, which, I was told later, was made from just one of Juan’s fat chickens. Juan must have killed his largest, because there seemed to be plenty of chicken. Spaniards tend to not waste food, so I doubt if there was much besides the chicken’s bill that didn’t make it into that pot. After dinner we enjoyed a whole half-a-birthday cake, also from the day before. When I was offered a glass of brandy later, I turned it down.
Sometime later we were driven back to the apartment where we were staying. We were very tired, and we declined the invitation to come up to Juan and Marce’s for dinner later, and instead said goodbye to Marga’s Mondragón family, then to Marga, and to Erik, and finally to beautiful little two-year-old Nora.
After resting and finishing our packing, we walked down to the Hotel Mondragón for a glass of wine and tapas. It had been a successful week. As we had hoped, our lovely granddaughter had no trouble understanding us when we spoke English to her, and she tended to speak English back to us. She mimicked things we said, and she demonstrated an uncanny ability to comprehend the meaning of words she absolutely could NOT have heard before. I was very impressed. It was distressing to see Marga have to go to work and otherwise cope with the severe lack of energy she was feeling due to the fetus she is carrying, but I think the child care and occasional ironing and kitchen clean-up assistance Betsy provided might have helped offset some of the extra work that always comes from having guests in your home. I hope so. And it was very good to see Erik too. There is very little in life more rewarding than the multitude of gifts that comes from raising a very good human being, but I have found one, and it is this: watching your child receive those same gifts.
At 5:45 in the morning, like clockwork, Belén appeared at the curb outside our apartment. We loaded our bags and selves into Juan’s car, and she competently drove us through the rain and the fog for almost an hour to the Bilbao airport. Eighteen hours later we had sprung our three dogs from the kennel and we were happily back in our home in North Carolina. It had been another great visit.