Thursday, March 15, 2018

3 Days in Portugal

So - for our first real getaway and my birthday trip, we decided to spend a long weekend in Lisbon. We wanted to go as far south as possible to get away from an unusually snowy week in London. We'd  previously been to Spain and loved it - and figured Portugal would be similar but new - so I found cheap tickets and booked them!

Prep and the Literature Project
So once the tickets were booked, I made a major effort to plan the hell out of this short trip. I bought a small pocket travel book which was very helpful, and watched a bunch of travel videos on YouTube to get a sense of the must-see and must-does in town. To get acquainted with the culture, I bought The Book of Disquiet,  the most famous book by Fernando Pessoa, who is one of the most famous Portuguese authors. He apparently didn't write under pseudonyms, but under a dozen of what he called "heteronyms" which were entire different identities he created. It's a huge book - so let me be clear that I didn't get all the way through it - but I feel like chapter 60 pretty much sums it up: "Should you ask me if I'm happy, I'll answer that I'm not." The other super famous Portuguese author is Jose Saramago, who won the Nobel in 1998. His most famous books are Blindness and The Gospel According to Jesus Christ - both of which I'd read a few years back. Both are excellent, but also a bit odd. I started getting the sense of Portuguese suadade - which means something like sadness or longing.
Pessoa graffiti on the wall - they really love this guy. 

A Chronological Summary
We caught evening flights out on a Thursday, and arrived at our AirBNB late that night.

  • Day One: We woke up to pouring rain. We had a few breakfast pastries in the room while watching Moana, and then when the rain finally stopped we left for lunch and a quick trip up to the Castelo da Sao Jorge - which is super old (7th century BC), mostly in ruins, but has great views down on the city. Then we went back to the house for a quick naptime/happy hour break, and back out again to walk through the main plaza, Praca do Comercio to find dinner. 
exploring the castle

views of the city below
  • Day Two: We grabbed some pastries on the way to catch a street car to the west side of town, Belem, to visit an old monastery, Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, which was ridiculously ornate and beautiful, especially since the sun had really come out. We stopped over at the Tower of Belem nearby, an old fort on the river that may be the inspiration for the chess rook (or maybe I misheard that). Back home for nap time/happy hour on the patio in the sun (which is why we picked the airbnb in the first place). We went out that night hoping to find Fado, the classic Portuguese music, but failed - and just had some lovely tapas for dinner and called it a night. 
The Mosteiro dos Jeronimos

the Tower of Belem

Day Three: We started the morning on the Tram 28 - Lisbon's most famous streetcar that winds through the most scenic parts of the city.  Then we hopped off at a market that I was pretty sure Spouso would enjoy - he did - and then we trekked back towards the house. On the way, we stopped for a quick shot of Ginjinha, this cherry liquor that is apparently very classically Portuguese. We checked out of our hotel, meaning that we then had our bags in tow, so we took a cab to the aquarium where we hung out until we could head to the airport. Thankfully, at some point the kid finally crashed and got a quick nap in one of the quieter parts of the aquarium. 

catching the streetcar

cone of meat at the market

at the aquarium

finally taking a nap

Thoughts by Topic
  • Food: So Portugal is known for having great food, but I was not super impressed. Then again, I don't really like fish, so it's probably my fault. We had super fresh fish the first night which was good, but then the rest was not great. Their classic dish is Bacalhau - which is dried salted cod (like fish jerky), that's been rehydrated. It tastes like you can imagine it would, and it's everywhere. One of my favorite foods in Spain was their croquettes - little fried balls of yummy things. In Portugal, the croquettes are bigger,  but sometimes filled with Bacalhau- which is not a fun surprise. The other food they are really known for is their pastries - these people have a serious sweet tooth. The Pasteis de Nata is a custard-filled tart thing, which is absolutely everywhere. It's fine - but often left my stomach feeling a little off afterwards. 

trying the official Portuguese pastry
  • Drinks:  The drinks were fabulous. I already mentioned the super-sweet Ginjinha, which they actually served in a chocolate cup, as if it weren't already sweet enough. Other than that, the wine was fabulous, and the port was particularly fabulous. Happy hour was the highlight of the day. 

  • The Earthquake and Architecture: Lisbon's architecture is really defined by the earthquake/fire/tsunami that destroyed over half of the city in 1755. The parts of the city that weren't destroyed, like our neighborhood the Alfama, have narrow, twisty streets that often just turn into stair cases. The parts that were destroyed, were rebuilt on a grid with wide open boulevards - it's strikingly different. 
wide boulevards in the rebuilt part of the city
  • Hills and Trains: Lisbon was built on 7 hills, and is super steep. To get up and down the roads, there are huge staircases everywhere - quite a workout when you're also carrying a kid - but there are also streetcars and funiculars. We didn't get a chance to ride a funicular, but the streetcars are awesome. 

  • Cheap Travel vs Good Flights: As this was our first real trip, we were experimenting with the idea that we could hop over to another country for the weekend, cheaply and easily. Because we booked pretty last minute, the only reasonable flights didn't leave until 8pm on Sunday. That was a disaster on both ends. Even with a late check out, we were out of the hotel by 1pm, which meant we had 7 hours to kill while hauling around our suitcases. We went to the aquarium, mostly because we knew we could dump our bags in a locker. By the time we could finally go to the airport, everyone was done. Then, our flight got delayed, so instead of arriving at 11pm, which would've been late enough, we missed the last train, had to catch a very expensive cab back to the city, and didn't get home until nearly 3am. So - I think lesson learned - book early, insist on return flights in the afternoon. 

  • Telework:  The trip was also an experiment to see if we could make a 3-day trip without taking leave by teleworking on Friday. I had planned to take the kid around Friday while Spouso was working from the hotel - but when the rain finally stopped and we could go - he didn't want to miss out and came along. I hauled my laptop around but then didn't want to open it - because hey - we're in Portugal - so I really didn't get much of anything done. So - not sure - I think we could make it work with a little more discipline - but probably shouldn't assume it's a full work day if we try this again. 

  • The Kiddo: So the kid mostly did great, considering how much we were throwing off his usual schedule. We tried to get home for a regular nap time, but were often pretty late, which really threw him off. He got tired very quickly, so we did a lot of carrying him around - until my back was just breaking, and I would try to put him down - which ended in a huge tantrum, and me picking him back up. He of course loved the pastries, but didn't try much of the rest of the food - so we need a better food plan for him next time. We did definitely plan to see sights that he would like - interspersing train rides whenever possible and avoiding museums - so he was very excited to see things. He was also really good in the cathedrals and learned to whisper - which I was pretty proud of. Obviously - traveling with a toddler is not the same as traveling with adults - so we missed about half of the schedule I had planned. We also didn't get a chance to go out for music, as I really wanted, so instead, I bought an album by Amalia Rodrigues, the Queen of Fado, which we listened to during nap time happy hours - which worked out ok. I keep reminding myself that maybe it's not the same as traveling with just adults, but it's still better than nothing. 
quick family selfie in front of classic Portuguese wall tiles

So - with all that in mind - back by popular demand - a short travel film from our journey: 

Friday, February 23, 2018

A Leisurely Week

Our 7th week here (I'm beginning to lose count) was markedly different than the previous 6. We are continuing to make progress on settling in - trying to get some Amazon orders, throwing out trash left by the previous tenant, getting rid of the last of the piles of stuff, etc. But- the biggest difference was that the Kiddo started daycare full-time this week, meaning that I suddenly had the whole day to myself.

a quiet house for the first time in a while

So firstly - let's talk about the new daycare. We picked it because it's just around the corner from the house, making it super easy for drop-offs and pick ups - so much better than my old hour-long commute on the metro with him. There are a few things we're not thrilled about already - he seems to have ice cream after lunch most days, and they feed him a full meal called "tea" around 4pm, so he's not hungry for dinner most nights. They also keep him on a shorter nap than he's used to, so he's been just exhausted every night. There are a few things that are much better than the old school though. They have a different activity every day of the week, yoga, music, dance, sports - and one day is devoted to getting covered up in rain pants and boots and playing in the mud (it really rains a lot here).  I think it's pretty awesome - he's still deciding. He seems a little tenuous about the whole thing and is still asking about his old school, but it sounds like he already has a couple friends there - so he'll be fine soon. 

heading off to his first day at the new school

One of my new year's resolutions was to spend more time back in the kitchen after not cooking basically all of last year due to the commute. I'm really trying to make an effort at dinner each night, so I've been working through a couple new cookbooks. I realized that I never learned a lot of techniques, and tended to just make the same few dishes over and over - so I'm trying hard to pick up new things. We've had some misfires - like an entire roast that was horribly undercooked for Valentines and got thrown away - but I think I'm making progress.

this was a stuffed pork loin with pomegranates

a roast beef with polenta, squash, and cauliflower that took me 4 hours. 

With all this free time, I've started picking up some old hobbies again. I've been poking around at the kiddo's ukulele - I have a couple cords now and can play Twinkle Twinkle. I'm thinking about learning my guitar or renting a cello again maybe (I last tried the cello in 2005). Also toying with the idea of joining a pottery class again - another thing I haven't done since he was born.

The Gym
Similarly - I joined an expensive gym that I can only justify if I go every day - so I went every day. Everything's hurting right now - so that must be a good sign.  My favorite part is pool because it justifies the hot tub.

everyone needs some exercise around here. 

I'll just mention briefly that I am actually employed, even though I know it doesn't sound that way. My old job kept me on board through mid February, and just asked to extend me through the end of March. It's awkward in a lot of ways because of the time change - but also working out nicely this week. I have all morning to myself. Then when they start waking up in my afternoon, I answer a few emails and take a few calls, but nothing's too intense. It's been just enough to feel worthwhile without a lot of stress. That's all changing soon when things will get really busy, but at least this week was kind of perfect. 

British Literature Project
So last weekend on the Bath/Stonehenge trip - our tour guide made a number of references to classic British literature - we drove by Jane Austen's dad's grave, and a pub where I think Dickens maybe ate once - huge landmarks - which made me appreciate the importance of British literature and its connection to the country - so I started a new goal to read up on the classics. I either didn't read these in school, or just forgot them all. The BBC has a list of the top 200 - so I bought a few off of the list and started a new literature shelf in the living room.

my new British literature and travel sections

My first pick was The Remains of the Day - which wasn't at all what I was expecting but was pretty perfect for this week.  It's a story about a butler who has given his life to the service of a great Lord, and basically let his own life pass by.  As he takes essentially his first vacation, driving across the country, he's thinking back about his career, and beginning to question if the Lord was really that great at all, and whether the whole thing was in fact worth it. I'm looking forward to watching the movie to see how this story could be made into a movie at all. It's really gotten me thinking about work-life balance. Clearly this week was overly leisurely, and I'm thinking my old job was too far to the other side. Not sure what the right balance is or how to get it - but I'm hoping to even it out whenever I get a new job.

feeling good after a much-needed haircut

This week was actually rather busy - but for the first time in a while, my schedule was all my own. Being able to choose how to spend my time is awesome, and has given me back a little of my zen - feeling a bit like my old self.  I know this whole post sounds pretty selfish - but I guess that's the point. I would like to remember in the future when work gets busy again or whatever - the importance of taking time for myself. I know our Vienna contingent has been making this point for a while - but I feel like I just finally understand. Now we just need to figure out the babysitter situation and plan a date night.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Stonehenge and Bath

So Week 6 was more unpacking, putting things away and up on walls, rearranging cabinets, and getting settled. We stocked the pantry (free grocery delivery here!!) and started cooking again, and tried to order some of the things we were missing, like all the lamps and hair dryers we had just gotten rid of. We also started to transition into daycare (called nursery here), which went mostly smoothly, though he already has a runny nose. All in all, it was another week of getting settled into the house, which meant that by the weekend - I was desperate to get out of the house. So, after a little research, we decided to try our first day trip to see Stonehenge and Bath, which are located near each other in southwest England. 

The Bus
Stonehenge is about 2 hours from London, and Bath is about 3 hours from London. I looked into trains, but to get the timing to work out - it would have required us to stretch the trip across two days, with some wasted time waiting for trains to arrive. So we somewhat begrudgingly decided to take a tour bus -  which would be faster and much cheaper, allowing us to hit both sites in one day.

We picked up the bus at 8am after a quick tube ride to the station. The kiddo was free (which is nice), but that meant that he was sitting on our laps the whole time. Surprisingly, the bus was completely packed, with both a top and bottom level and a second bus leaving at the same time. I didn't expect that many people in February. Thankfully, we brought the iPad , so he mostly watched paw patrol while I enjoyed the drive. 

squished up against the window 

After a quick 2 hour drive through some nice countryside, we arrived at the Stonehenge visitors center, where we picked up a shuttle bus to drive to the stones. Even though there were a lot of people there - it didn't seem very crowded because there's a wide circular path you follow to walk around the rocks. As we walked, we could use our little audio devices to listen to bit of info about them, even though really they don't know much about them at all. I had the idea that we should come for the lunar new year - but I was totally off. There are a bunch of theories about why the stones were placed here, but apparently no one thinks this has anything to do with the moon. The most accepted theory is that it was a seasonal calendar, because the sun rises exactly in one of the arches during the summer equinox and another in the winter equinox - but that doesn't make a lot of sense to me. Seems like you could've built something much smaller with easily available stones for the same function. Anyhoo.

The path was pretty muddy and long, so a stroller or scooter would not have even been an option and the boy tired out quickly from walking - so inevitably we ended up carrying him. He is literally filling his pockets with rocks these days - so everyone's backs were hurting quickly.  The stones are really impressive and beautiful, and we were lucky to get a really clear sky and a beautiful day - which is really rare right now-  so we used the excuse to take lots of pictures and give our backs a break. 

walking towards them

Stonehenge had a new visitors center, which looked like it had some nice things to see- but there was no time for that. The bus kept a very tight schedule and actually drove off without a few people, who chased after us. We had a short 1 hour drive, so the boy took a quick nap.

Then we arrived in Bath just around lunchtime. Bath is located on a natural hot spring, so the Romans built a whole vacation destination city here, with a remaining bath house still in good shape. In the 1600s, the Georgians (who had really nice architecture) built up the city also as a vacation spot for the wealthy, using this yellow stone from a nearby quarry, resulting in a very tidy and lovely little village.  We quickly ditched the group, walked around town a bit, and found lunch.

still sleepy

bridge over the river

high street

spire of the abbey

the abbey and front of bath house

The Baths
Then we met up the group again to go into the bath museum. It had a few exhibits about the Romans and their structure, but it was really all about the main bath itself. Of course, as a historical site, you aren't allowed to go in the water, which was very confusing for the boy who kept pointing out that it was warm water and would be a good bath tub (though it was so full of algae). With the abbey just behind it - it was just beautiful.

view from the top level

view from the lower level 

explaining why he can't go in

tasting the water at the end of the tour (supposed to have magical medicinal powers)

Quick Walk around Town
Then we did a quick snack break and were lucky to catch a violinist in one of the squares near the abbey. It was just a beautiful town and would've been nice to spend a bit more time in - but we had to get back to the bus for the 3 hour drive back to London.

we don't know how to travel without pastries

going up to give change all by himself!

So I think we're still undecided on the bus tour thing. On the one hand - it was nicely timed to allow us just enough time to see the big sites all in one day. Our bus fare covered admission into both sites as well, so it was both easy and much cheaper than the train would have been. Unlike a car, they did all the driving, so we didn't have to navigate or anything and could play with our phones on the way. On the other hand- we were really tied to their schedule which was tight - so there was no way to stay a bit longer if we wanted. Most importantly, on the ride home, the boy was exhausted and decided to just melt down.  There was no place to take him - so I just felt mortified for our neighbors. At least a train is a bit bigger, and we could've taken him for a walk to another car or something. Also - even though it was easy to ditch the group off of the bus - on the bus we were completely stuck. So when our tour guide wanted to just talk for hours on end - we couldn't escape him. I'm thinking we might want to try renting a car or taking the train for our next trips - but we'll keep the bus tour as an option. All in all, it was a nice getaway from the city.