Sunday, March 20, 2016

VaughanTown Belmonte, Spain

I am lounging in my hotel room in El Puerto de Santa Maria in southwestern Spain recovering from a week working with VaughanTown in Belmonte, Spain. It was an extraordinary week, one I won't soon forget. 
First, let me explain Vaughan Town. It is a program started by American Richard Vaughan (I'm told he's a Texan!) in 2001 to help Spaniards improve their English skills. We all meet up in the Spanish countryside, far from the distractions of the city to spend most every waking minute talking. We take walks and talk, we eat sumptuous meals and talk, we pick up the phone and talk, we sit in the bar and talk. And in the evening we have programs -  presentations, skits (all of us take part at some point), music. Every night was a surprise. Most of the Spaniards come at the behest of their companies or because of a desire to advance in business. We Anglos (and the Anglos this session included Englishmen, Canadians, Americans, Scottish and Australians) come for a myriad of reasons I'm sure, but its a nice perk to spend a week for free in a 4 star hotel with meals and wine included! We are responsible for the cost of transportation to Madrid and any extras like between meal snacks. I can't imagine how anyone could have needed extra food as the meals were wonderful and the servings large. But it was nice to sit in the bar and have a cafe con leche for an afternoon one on one session! VaughanTown has a number of venues in Spain, all within a few hours of Madrid. The program I attended was in Belmonte, about 90 minutes from Madrid. Belmonte is in the province of Cuenca, region of Castile-La Mancha. Yes, the Don Quixote La Mancha.
Tilting at Windmills
The village has a population of just over 2000 people and is basically an agricultural town. The Palacio del Infante Don Juan Manuel Hotel & Spa housed us all in grand style. The hotel is set in a 14th century palace and partial ruins of the palace are left untouched on the ground floor in stark contrast to the opulent hotel.
This area is a walkway from Reception to the spa and outdoor pool.
Every window of the hotel frames a spectacular view.
The view from the stairwell by my room.
The 15th century Belmonte Castle stands watch over Belmonte and also over the hotel. The 1961 movie, El Cid with Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren, was partially filmed at the castle. I was also told a battle scene from Lord of the Rings was filmed there, but I can't confirm that. Mid week, we walked to the castle for a tour.
The crew in front of Belmonte Castle.
Every morning at 9 we would meet in the dining room for an expansive breakfast buffet and look over the schedule for that day. We usually sat at tables of four - at least one Spaniard at each table, but sometimes more. 
The breakfast room, not to be confused with the dining room!
At 10, we began our day with one on one sessions (50 minutes of talking wherever you wanted), conference calls (3 Spaniards and an Anglo in a meeting room on a speaker phone and an Anglo in their own room on the other end with a script), one on one calls (Spaniard and Anglo each in their own room talking on the phone) or in Rehearsal for the evening program. No Spanish speaking is allowed! In my one and only conference call, I was sitting on my bed listening to the Spaniards responding to a question I'd asked, when I accidently poured a glass of water over the phone while taking a drink. When I asked another question, I was told they couldn't understand me because, "It sounds like you're under water."! I loved the One on One sessions for it was the time you really got to know the Spaniards. You could talk about anything - although it was recommended to stay away from politics and religion. Of course, as soon as they knew I was from the USA, they'd ask about the upcoming election. Made for some lively conversations. As the week went on, our conversations got more personal and it was at that time that connections were made. Every day there were also one or more 50 minute "free time" sessions for Anglos, which were opportunities to walk into town, take a nap or pal around with another Anglo. Lunch was served at 2 and the seating arrangement was the same as breakfast - 1 or 2 Spaniards at each table of 4. Meals were lively affairs with lots of laughter and loud conversations. And lots of wine. I believe I drank more wine in my week at Belmonte than I did in the previous year! We had siesta after lunch for 60-90 minutes, then back at our 50 minute sessions until around 7 when Programs began. Carlota Romero was our Master of Ceremonies and she was a Master indeed. An actress by profession, she was like a firecracker and always had hilarious -and usually bawdy - skits and activities. We also had some Anglos give informative presentations - one on Niagara Falls and another on Guatemala as well as a funny explanation on the rules of the game of cricket! Dinner was at 9 (9??? That's WAY past my bedtime!) and we usually sat around talking till well after 10. Sometimes there was an optional event after dinner. On our last night, the Program consisted of each Spaniard presenting a 5 minute talk on a topic they had been given that morning. Some were comedic, some were touching, one in particular had quite a few of us openly sobbing. After dinner that night, we all headed to the on site bar and danced to loud Spanish music as well as Olivia Newton John singing songs from Grease (?) and some Abba (??). I mostly watched and enjoyed it immensely! There were some impressive dancers! I headed to my room a bit after 1 a.m. and at 1:30 was drawn to my open window to watch the diehards in our group raucously heading into the village to a small bar that was open till 4. Needless to say, some folks weren't at breakfast the next morning and the ones that made it were not very perky! 
So here's my take on it. VaughanTown is a remarkable program that gives Anglos an opportunity to really get to know the Spanish culture and Spaniards a unique way to experience English language immersion. But it breaks your heart. I spent 6 days with 25 other souls in a glorious setting where we connected in an extraordinary way. And then, just like that, you disconnect. Friday afternoon I wrote in my journal, "It is a week that will change you and heal you and give you courage if you open your heart. It will fill you with laughter and tears and more love than you can hold. It will leave you oh so grateful and wanting more. It will fill your memory bank to overflowing and you will fall in love over and over and over again."
Some photos of a few of the participants. I wish I had a pic of each and every one! Especially our Master of Ceremonies, Carlota! I can't believe I missed taking a pic of her!
Fernando and Diego from Spain. Fernando is every bit as happy as he appears and Diego is not at all as serious as he appears!
The artist Elin from California. She and I are heading to Morocco together in a few days!
Enrique from Spain. What a smile!
Diana from Guatemala. The completely amazing Program Director, she kept us in line and focused...mostly.
Sandra from Spain. She was shy, but so dedicated!
Renee from Los Angeles and Suna from Washington state. These were the first two people I met the day before the program started and they are both terrific dancers!
We broke into groups and were given a photo project. This is Jose as Vincent Van Gogh.
Frank was Australian and loads of fun!
A group selfie from the photo project. Clockwise from top left: Martin from England, Paco from Spain, Afzar from Canada, Elin from California, Fernando from Spain and Rhona from Scotland.
Brian from England. Like me, this was his first VaughanTown. Some Anglos have been a dozen times!
David from Spain and me!
The whole group! The only pic I have of Carlota - she is in the front in the middle with the red stockings. Viva Carlota! And Viva VaughanTown! Until we meet again!

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Lunch in Prison

No, I did not get arrested for jaywalking or even for wearing ugly shoes (which just might be a criminal offense in Milan)!
My plan for my last day in Milan was to trek down to the train station to buy my ticket to Marseille and then go visit the Cemetario Monumentale. Opened in 1866, the Monument Cemetery is an amazing collection of Italian sculptures and fantastic tombstones representing some of the best of Italian artists. This sunny day seemed the perfect time to wander the grounds. Upon visiting their website, I discovered the only day they are closed are Mondays! Bah! I then received an email from my friends Grace and George with an article from The New York Times about a restaurant on the grounds of Bollate Penitentiary on the outskirts of Milan. All the cooks, waiters and dishwashers are inmates at the prison and it is a grand experiment in inmate rehabilitation. The article stated that dinner for the month of March was almost fully booked, but never mentioned lunch. I immediately emailed the restaurant, named InGalera (Italian slang for In Prison) and within 15 minutes received a reply that they did indeed have an opening for lunch. Please send my phone number. I emailed back the number at the hostel and soon Silvia Polleri called to confirm my reservation. I took off soon after with plenty of time to make my 1:00 reservation. The train station ticket office was packed, but by 12:20 I was on the metro headed to the outskirts of Milan. It was a long haul and included getting off the green line and catching the red line to the last stop in western Milan, RHO Fiera. At 12:55 I hopped in a taxi and told the driver, "Carcere Bollate, per favore." (Prison Bollate, please) He looked at me for a moment, then asked, "The restaurant? I've heard it is good." And off we went. He dropped me outside the main gate and as I entered the guardhouse, I was met by a gentleman in a suit who asked my name. When I told him, he checked my name off a list and told me to follow him and just like that I was within the prison gate. He was an amiable man and was delighted when I told him I was from Texas. He walked me to the front door of the restaurant and all of a sudden the barbed wire topped fences were replaced with the hush you feel when surrounded by elegance. Not over the top like a 4 star hotel, but a subdued tastefulness that I didn't expect to find in a penitentiary. 
Wooden floors and floor to ceiling open shelving holding hundreds of bottles of wine. I was shown to my table for one between a table of three men in business suits and another that seated three smartly dressed women and a man in jeans. They looked at my shoes. I felt slightly underdressed. The gentleman who had met me in the guardhouse told the table of four I was from Texas like it was a big deal. I was mildly mortified, but smiled all the same. I was glad when a waiter/inmate came and handed me a menu and asked what I'd like to drink. After bringing my sparkling water and a basket of rolls, I saw all the posters mounted on the walls were from prison movies - Clint Eastwood in Escape from Alcatraz, Tom Hanks in The Green Mile and Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption - but in Italy it was released as Le Ali Della Liberta', The Wings of Freedom.
 I ordered Bruschetta Mediterranee and Spiedo de Pesce.
Bruschette Mediterranee
Skewers of Fish
Service was fast and the meal was remarkably good! The humble vegetables - potatoes, carrots and celery - were prepared so perfectly that I enjoyed them almost as much as the skewers of shrimp, squid and octopus!
I was almost done eating when Silvia Polleri, the manager of InGalera came to my table. She welcomed me and asked how I enjoyed the meal. I told her I was wonderfully surprised. She took a seat across from me and asked if I had seen the article in The New York Times and when I answered yes, she smiled broadly. I was the first customer as a result of the article published that morning. We talked for a few minutes when she stood up and said, "A picture!". I handed her my phone and she instructed a guest at the next table to take a photo of us.
Silvia Pollari and me in front of the Escape from Alcatraz poster. She grabbed a stack of papers, came back to my table and proceeded to give me a copy of each different placemat they have - all with photos of different prisons around the world! I was one of the last patrons in the restaurant and asked to take a picture of the staff before I left. They gladly obliged.
The man with the tie met me at the guardhouse. The other three are inmates at Bollate. 
The meal was fairly inexpensive (indeed, the taxi to and from the metro was almost the same price as my lunch!) and very well prepared and plated. The entire staff was professional, friendly and seemed happy to be doing this work. It was a wonderful experience. Thanks Grace and George for the very serendipitous email! Read The New York Times article here:

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Surrounded by Angels (for mom)

One great thing about traveling alone is that I can change my plans at any time and I don't have to consult anyone else. When I left Molyvos with Dan and Bethany for Mytilene, I expected to spend one night there, then catch the ferry the next afternoon. I'm not sure why I thought I needed a night in Mytilene, but I quickly decided I'd take the ferry with Dan and Bethany that afternoon. Just about 90 minutes prior to boarding, I had a ferry ticket to Piraeus and we had some time for a small snack at a cafe before we claimed our rooms. I'd booked a 4 bunk room and for most of the overnight trip I was the only one in the room. D & B (Dan & Bethany) let me stash my backpack (I now affectionately call it The Beast) in their room as there was no way to secure it in mine. I slept pretty well and when I awoke in the morning, there were two other women sleeping in my room! I slept right through their arrival! D & B & I took a taxi to their hotel so they could stash their bags. It was too early for check in, but they had a great looking breakfast buffet out so we sat and ate breakfast while I tried to firm up my plans. Bethany is a whiz on her iPad and she discovered it would be better to take a bus instead of a train to Patras where I would catch another ferry to Italy. So off we went in search of the bus to Patras. We wandered around until an off duty bus driver took pity on us and set us in the right direction. D & B walked with me the entire way to make sure I got on the right bus. It was such a rushed departure (trying to make the Greek bus driver understand I wanted to get off at the central bus station in Athens took a minute) that I never got to properly thank them for all the kindness they showed me. Such angels they are!
The bus driver alerted me to my stop and I was let out on a city block in an industrial area. I was perplexed as I saw nothing that indicated the bus station. I looked at the driver and pointed to the left with raised eyebrows. He rolled his eyes at me, pointed to the right, shut the bus doors and drove away. I headed right and within 20 feet spied two women rolling suitcases down the cracked sidewalk. I followed them when they veered off between a plumbing supply store and a drapery shop. Very quickly it became obvious we were at the bus station. I found the ticket counter, bought my ticket for Patras and went to sit at Slot 28 where my bus would leave from in an hour. I was so glad to get The Beast off my back. Within minutes an elderly lady carrying a purse and three large bags sat beside me. She glanced at the snack bar a few doors down, then at her many bags, then back at the snack bar. I tapped her on the shoulder and indicated I'd watch her bags. She seemed thrilled with the idea and rushed off. Soon enough she was back with a drink and a bag of chips and offered me some. I declined and she picked a carnation out of a bouquet in one of her bags and gave it to me! She smiled broadly when I put it in my ponytail. We tried to talk, but I know no Greek and she knew no English, so we sat side by side until the bus came. She let me know it was the correct bus and I helped her carry her many bags to the luggage compartment. She then grabbed my hand and led me around to the other side of the bus where passengers had already started loading. As we walked up the stairs of the bus she asked me something and I don't know how I understood her, but I showed her my seat number-6. Believe it or not, she was in seat 5. We shared a pleasant 4 hour bus ride to Patras and when she exited the bus one stop before me, she made sure I had a half package of cookies to take with me along with a big hug and kiss.
My Greek angel
Patras, on the western coast of Greece, is lovely in a worn out sort of way... like a favorite old sweater you can't wait to wrap yourself in on a chilly morning. As with most all the Greeks I've met, they are happy, infused with an ebullience I find immensely appealing. They live with such joy and enthusiasm! ENTHUSIASM. ORIGIN: Greek, from enthousiazein, To be inspired.
Carnivale, or the Patras interpretation if it, was in full swing when I arrived. Huge crazily dressed statues stood like sentries on each corner of the square where my hotel was located. Vendors selling balloons and glow sticks roamed the streets and folks were dressed in wild costumes. 
It was fun to watch the festivities as I walked through town to buy my ferry ticket. They partied all night long under my hotel window - I was on the sixth floor - and I was grateful I wasn't on the ground floor! 
The view from my balcony
As I was getting off the bus at the port the next afternoon, I turned to say goodbye to Patras behind me and was greeted by a beautiful rainbow over the city. 
I was the first person on the ferry! I found my room and discovered I'd have the entire thing to myself - the joys of traveling in low season! 
I wandered around the ship as it wouldn't be leaving port for an hour. I bought a bottle of water at the lounge
 and then told the bartender that I was leaving Greece and hadn't tried Ouzo and I needed to! He threw his hands up and told me it was a TRADITION to drink Ouzo while in Greece and he grabbed a bottle off the top shelf and poured a bit in a small paper cup which he handed to me with a flourish. I slugged it back and immediately ordered one. I pretty much knew I'd love it as the flavors of fennel and anise are favorites of mine (I even use fennel toothpaste!). I took a seat in the lounge and the waiter brought me a tall glass half full of Ouzo and another glass half full of ice water. The bartender called over for me to mix the two (better me than him...what would you think if you saw a bartender water down a drink?) and my clear glass of Ouzo immediately turned milky. I enjoyed the tradition as I watched the passengers slowly board the ferry.
It was an uneventful night and when I went into the lounge the next morning to get coffee, the waiter looked at me and cried out, "Ouzo!" and came over and took my hand (?).
I landed in Bari, Italy around 10 a.m., hopped in a taxi and made it to the hostel soon after. Check in wasn't until mid afternoon, but they let me check in early and choose my bed, a bottom bunk in the corner of a 6 bunk room. One other bed was occupied and David, the hostel manager, told me it was another American! David provided me with a map of the city and suggested a few places to check out and some possibilities for lunch. I headed to the train station first to purchase my ticket to Milan for the next day. Then off to Old Town, the walled part of the city where, for the most part, time stood still. Stepping through the stone arches into Old Town was like entering another era. The streets were all cobblestone and not much more than narrow alleyways. Small ground floor storefronts in tall stucco and rock buildings. A few apartments had flat screened boxes set outside filled with drying freshly made orecchiette pasta. 
I found the Osteria David had recommended and I ordered Local Orecchiette with Turnip Tops and Mussels. 
The mussels were plump and briny, the turnip greens sauce was fabulous and filled the hollows of the al dente pasta. What sauce was left in the bowl I mopped up with thick slabs of bread.
On my way back to the hostel, I watched a woman walking a half block ahead of me. I sensed she was American although I don't know why. When I walked into the room at the hostel, there she sat on the bottom bunk across the room! The hostel filled up quickly and we visited in the hallways and the kitchen - guests from Holland, Korea, Poland, Germany, Australia, the States and of course Italy. 
The next morning I was up early to pack The Beast and head out to the train station. Since The Beast is heavy and bulky, I tend to plow through doorways driven by pure momentum - there are no quick stops! As I was leaving the hostel I whipped out the door, made a hard right turn and an attractive older gentleman was on the sidewalk in front of me and I almost slammed into him! He grabbed my shoulders and squared me up as the rapid stop almost toppled me! We were face to face and he had the sweetest, most kind eyes and a big smile on his face. "Well good morning!" I said to him in English (?), "So wonderful to see you!" He looked at me like he was thrilled to find his long lost daughter and I put my gloved hand to his cheek (my default action when I am taken with someone). We both leaned in, did the left cheek/right cheek kiss, held hands for a moment, shared one last smile and walked our separate ways. A block away I was still glowing from the chance meeting. What a way to start my day! 
The 8 hour train to Milan was a chance to catch up on reading and nap a bit. I arrived in Milan at 6 p.m. to a rainstorm, so I put up the hood on my raincoat and slogged the mile to the hostel. I claimed my bed in a 4 bunk room, cleaned up and headed out for dinner. I was told the best pizza in the area was a half block away so I headed there. I ordered a prosciutto and mushroom pizza and was brought a massive, paper thin crust pie. It was unsliced, so I grabbed my knife, cut a wedge, folded it in half and dug in. After I ate a few slices I started noticing other patrons eating their pizza with a knife and fork! No kidding - cutting off small pieces and forking them into their mouths! I followed suit, but wondered if this is a northern Italian thing? I don't think I've ever seen anyone eat pizza with a knife and fork!
This morning I got up early and checked the time on my phone - 5:36 - so I stayed in bed a while longer not wanting to wake my roomate. It was after six when I got up and padded into the kitchen for a cup of coffee. I took it back to my room, crawled into bed and started to check my mail. My phone was dead. I knew it was fully charged, but no matter what I did I had a black screen. I messed with it for a full 30 minutes and couldn't get any response. It was toast. I sat quietly and considered the implications of not having a phone. I didn't panic, but felt remarkably calm. I decided I could not function without it. I have a small, $50 Amazon Fire tablet that I blog on (I figured if it got lost or stolen it wouldn't be the end of the world), but the phone is different. I went into the kitchen and there was a Greek couple in there and a young Italian guy. I asked the Italian guy if he thought any Apple stores in Milan would be open on a Sunday. He expressed doubts, but said he'd check. Five minutes later he was back and we sat on the couch with a map of Milan and a map of the metro system and he proceeded to walk me through getting to the store that could (maybe) fix my phone. I wasn't encouraged when he started off by saying, "This is very far away. Not even in Milan!" It involved walking to the correct metro stop, buying a day pass from the machine, getting on the correct metro train, getting off at the correct stop, walking to the tram, getting on the correct tram, getting off at the correct stop, then walking 10 minutes to the Centro Commerciale Fiordaliso, whatever the hell that was! That's a lot of things for this directionally challenged gal to do correct! As I got ready to head out on this trip, the biggest challenge I've faced in my 5 weeks of traveling (I know, I know, it's been pretty easy on me so far), I kept feeling like this was a test and I had no choice but to give it my best shot. I felt so calm it freaked me out a bit! I walked to the metro and proceeded to nail it, step by step until I stepped off Tram 15 and across the highway I saw this:
It was a freaking shopping center!!! I made it over there and just spent 10 minutes walking around amazed. I found the Apple store and walked up to a couple guys in Apple shirts standing around and asked if they spoke English. One of them said, "A little..." and held his thumb and forefinger a quarter of an inch apart. I handed him my phone and started telling him my tale of woe and within 30 seconds he handed it back to me fully functional. I asked him what he did and he told me, but it was what I'd been doing all morning and I told him so. "It must be the magic of the Apple store, right?" I asked him. He laughed and agreed. I asked what I owed him and he answered, "Nothing at all." I offered my first born, but he declined (Sorry Sage, but I knew he wouldn't take me up on it...). I walked out of the store with tears in my eyes, honestly. To celebrate, I walked to a cafe and got an espresso and a croissant, then picked up a few groceries at a huge market, smiling the entire time. And know what? I nailed it coming back, too.