360 Degrees of Beauty in Dubrovnik – Day 2

It is already 88 degrees in Dubrovnik and it is only 10:30 in the morning.  We are standing at King’s Landing in the Old City of Dubrovnik.  In front of us, workers are loading a dark brown pirate ship with explosives.  They will blow the ship to smitherines in a few days as part of a historic film.  Behind the ship are the towers of the wall and large jagged rocks.  We are about to circumnavigate the island of Lorkum in sea kayaks with Adventure Dubrovnik.

Kayaking is a lot harder than it looks.  In a few strokes, Claudia and I are in last place.  Claudia is sitting in the back as the “engine” and I am in front as the captain.  Kayaking takes great cooperation, something that is sometimes difficult for mothers and adult daughters to do.  We glide out towards the island.  The breeze from the Adriatic and the cool water splashing into the kayak finally stops the stream of sweat that has been pouring off my body for the past twenty-four hours.


Lorkum rises above the sea with a sheer wall of tan colored rocks topped by a layer of green trees.  Darijo, our guide, stops us when we reach the island and tells us of its curse. The Benedict Monks had a monastary on the island.  One day, Archduke Maximilian Ferdinand of Habsburg came to the island and fell in love with it.   The spoiled Archduke ordered the monks to leave.  On the last night, the monks walked around the island three times with their candles held upside down so that the wax dropped on the ground.  They cursed the island so that anyone who acquired the island for their own personal pleasure would meet personal and financial doom.  After Maximilian moved his family onto the island, he was assasinated in Mexico, his wife driven insane and his son bankrupt.  Now the people believe that anyone who spends more than three nights on the island will suffer a similar fate.  Today,  the only creatures that live on the island are the peacocks and the bunnies.  The island is covered with them as well as tourists and naked sun bathers during the day who come to visit the gardens and the ruins.

We continue our circle of the island.  On the far side, we head towards a large cave in the coast line of the mainland.  He stops again for another story.  Darijo points to a large rectangular building just to the right of the Old City.  He explains that this building is the Lazareti, the ancient quarantine building used by the Republic of Dubrovnik to prevent sickly visitors from coming into their community.  Visitors would have to spend forty days in the Lazareti before they were allowed into the Old City.  During this time, doctors would monitor them for signs of illness.  It was with this method that Dubrovnik was able to avoid the Plague.

Darijo points to the tall mountain that rises above Dubrovnik, Sdr.  He tells us that in 1991, when the Yugoslavian Army attacked Dubrovnik, it was from this mountain that the people of Dubrovnik were able to successfully defend themselves.   Darijo tells us that he was only eights years old, so he remembers this seven month siege from the perspective of a child.  On the plus side, there was no school.  On the down side, there was no chocolate nor bananas.  He remembers hiding in the basement with his school friends.  Darijo is a young man.  Hearing that he was eight when this attack took place reminds me that it happened in the not so distance past.  As most of the people we met in Dubrovnik were born there, It dawns on me that most of the population must carry memories like these in their psyche.  What also strikes me is the commitment and loyalty that the people of Dubrovnik have to their city, staying in the city with their families for seven long months, refusing to be intimidated as the roofs of the homes are being systematically bombed away.  Today, they remain, their roofs perfectly maintained red tiles, rebuilt by decree of the mayor.


We complete our trip by snorkeling in a cave and munching on sandwiches.  Darijo wears the word “sve” tattooed over his heart.  Sve means “all” in Croatian.  Claudia asks him “Does this mean you love everyone?” “It means I love everything.   It is a life philosophy.”  When we return to King’s Landing, I have a new perspective of Dubrovnik, from heart and sea.


At sunset, we catch the cable car to the top of Sdr.  Just to the left around the fort is an outcropping of rocks.  On the top of the rocks sits a simple, small cross.  Couples sit close together, dangling their legs over the edge.  The top of Sdr offers a 360 degree view of Dubrovnik and the jagged range of mountains just to the East.  To the Northwest, I can see the islands off the coast start to glimmer as the sun throws stripes of red and pink across the sky.  I wear the word “Mir” which means “Peace” in Croatian around my neck on a small blue medallion.  Being here at this moment seeing all that the people of Dubrovnik held so dear gives me another perspective, a higher one.


We descend into Old Town and dine at Restoran 360, the only restaurant in the Old City with a rooftop that offers a 360 degree view of the Old City of Dubrovnik.  Darijo has told us that the chef is the best in Dubrovnik.  We take a chance and see if we can get same-day reservations.  At first, the young woman tells us “no.”  She had just finished dealing with a group of very snobby demanding American woman who were acting like her perfect English was incomprehensible.  I say “Dobar dan. Imate li stol za večeras?” (Good day.  Do you have a table for tonight?)  At first she says no, then she says, “I do have one.  Let me show it to you and see if you like it.”  Speaking a little Croatian has just helped me get reservations in Dubrovnik’s most exclusive restaurant.  The table she shows us is on a raised platform set back from the edge.  It has cushions and bench seats.  It looks very VIP to me.  She explains that it is the walk in table, but she will reserve it for us.

Our culinary experience at 360 is unparalleled. The butter is infused with truffles.  The oysters float in a sea of green sauce. We have tartar, scampi, and sea bass.  Each plate is more delicious that the next.  The Chef sends out surprise complimentary treats.  The wines are all Croatian and perfectly paired.  We have several waiters, each one stopping to explain the ingredients of each course in exquisite detail.  When the bill arrives, I am amazed that the whole thing only cost the equivalent of $230 US dollars.  In San Francisco, a dinner of this caliber would have easily cost four times as much.

After dinner, we walk to the end of the pier just past the Ploce gate.  Even though it is midnight, it is warm and the wind feels wonderful.  Sve u radu. (Everything is great).

Life is an adventure, not a destination. Find your sve by looking at life with a 360 degree perspective.

Note to all my friends, Alexandra at Adventure Dubrovnik tells me that she will offer you a 10% discount if you mention that Elizabeth referred you.



Heat, Heights and Heaven in Dubrovnik

It is the hottest day of the year and we decide to ascend the steep stone stairs so we can walk the walls that surround Dubrovnik’s Old Town.  It is just past one o’oclock at the hottest time of the day.  It is 90 degrees Fahrenheit.  At the top, the narrow walkway is almost deserted.  Only a few panting tourists cling to small slivers of shade in the corners of the winding way.  The heat is merciless.


From the top of the wall, the view is as spectacular as the heat is ruthless.   Sweat pours down my back, soaking me shirt.  Claudia’s shorts have a “v” outlined in water just below her waist. We cannot rush this promenade.  Every few feet, there is a photo begging to be taken.  The domes, the orange tile roofs and the grey granite stone creates new intricate puzzle piece mosaics below as the Adriatic sparkles beyond the walls.  Dubrovnik is magical.  Walking through the gates is like walking through a time portal.

This morning did not start off well at all.  I wake up feeling weak and nauseous.  My stomach clenches in painful cramps.  At breakfast I order an “omlet” (omelette in Croatian) but it sits there looking wilted in the heat.  I cannot eat it.  I cannot even speak English let alone Croatian.  I wonder why I traveled over 20 hours to be in this horrendous heat.  The nice waitress is concerned and brings a free bottle of water to me in the bathroom after I pay the check.  This act of kindness is the first of many that we experience today in Dubrovnik.

We go to the Farmacia and speak with a woman behind the counter.  I only know how to say “Ja nisam dobra” (I am not fine) as I point to my stomach.  She does not speak much English, however, I understand enough to respond “sve” (all) when she asks me my symptoms.  She gives me a box of pills and tells me to take no more than 2 per day.  I immediately pop 2 in my mouth.  Thirty minutes “sve u radu” (everything is good).  We go the the port and buy our ferry tickets for our next 3 stops, Korčula, Hvar and Split at Jadrolinja at the old port.


Now, I sit on a rock one hundred stairs below St. Jakov’s Church.  We accidentally miss the first set of stairs.  Instead we walk past a sign that reads “private property, enter at your own risk.”  We pass a grafiti covered abandoned building serving as a moped parking shelter.  To the right and down the stairs, young men play soccer barefoot in an abandoned amphitheater, all in ruins except the pristine newly painted floor.  At the bottom of the stairs a silver ladder connects the rocks to the water.  The sun is sending a sparkling path of light across the crystal clear waters to my feet.  A radio is playing American pop music.  To our left, one of the young men suddenly flies off a rock and into the water.

Claudia and I slide into the Adriatic.  It is so clear and so cool.  It immediately resets my body temperature to normal.  A local befriends Claudia and they disappear under the water to swim through an opening in the wall to a hidden cave.  Claudia returns exhilirated “Come on mom.” I try, but I cannot work up the nerve.


We go back up the stairs to the road and find the right set of stairs that descend at the end of the parking lot just behind St. Jakov’s Church. We find a beach with chairs, umbrellas, a shower, toilets and a restaurant.  We eat lignje na žaru on the terrace as we watch the sun set just to the right of the old town.  My bottle of Jana water says “Slušam svoje srce u svemu što činim” (I listen to my heart in all I do.}  Ahh, I am in heaven.  This is why I traveled for over twenty hours.  Is my first day in Dubrovnik already over?  Is my glass of wine already empty? Šteta (pity).

Life is an adventure, not a destination.  Listen to your heart and you will find your heaven.


And We Are Off – Virgin Flight on Virgin Atlantic

A British accent just makes everyone seem so polite.  It softens the jagged edges of the two-hour delay.  Even when the flight attendant is telling us to get back in our seats because of the turbulence, she says very politely “Do return to your seats please.” In America, the flight attendant would have said, “What’s wrong with you? Didn’t you see the sign? Get back in your seat, now!”  Well maybe not that harsh, but the tone would have been seeping with annoyance, not dripping with honey.

The flight attendants glow with pleasant expressions, their hair and make-up done up to look like 1950’s pin-up models. Their voices sooth as they drop hot towels into our outstretched hands or pull complimentary bottles of wine from their carts.

Inside the pocket of my seat I pull out a goodie bag; travel trinkets designed to make the trip more pleasant.  There is an eye mask, ear plugs, socks, a pen, a toothbrush and tooth paste, all in the signature Virgin scarlet red  Also tucked away is a bottle of water and sturdy head phones as if a thoughtful mom packed my seat for me so my trip would be just right.

A small red menu announces our meal choices.   It labels breakfast “Wakey Wakey.”  After a nice six-hour snooze, the lights in the cabin turn on just two hours shy of London.  A cheerful young woman with a round fresh face and curly brown hair cheerfully calls out “good morning” to each passenger as she hands them their Wakey Wakey.  I feel like Mary Poppins has whisked my away to a magic fairyland of pleasantry.  My virgin voyage with Virgin Atlantic is a jolly good success.


Next stop Zagreb…..then, Dubrovnik

Branka the Brilliant Croatian Tutor’s Travel Advice

Finding a Croatian tutor was a challenge.  Unlike more popular languages like Spanish, French or Mandarin, there are no language schools for Croatian in San Francisco.   There is no Alliance Française de San Francisco or Casa Hispana were lessons and tutors abound.  Rosetta Stone and Duolingo do not have a Croatian course.  I look through all of the Meet Ups and cannot find one for Croatian Language Lovers.   Finally, I stumble on a website, UniversityTutor.com.  I fill out a questionnaire, enter my contact information and wait.  In less than two days, I am contacted by Branka.

Branka and I speak on the phone and she agrees to tutor me once a week.  She also graciously agrees to come to my office.  At the first meeting, she arrives early.  Branka is smartly dressed in a rose colored twin set and pearls, her dark hair cut short and stylish.  I soon realize that Branka is brilliant.  Each lesson is a mini cultural lesson filled with wonderful advice and tips for my upcoming trip to Croatia.  Her zest for life and her fiery spirit make me feel like I have found a kindred spirit.  Each lesson, I make notes for my upcoming trip.  I have put together a list of her advice.  Here are Branka’s top nine travel tips for a visit to Croatia.

  1. When in Croatia Toast to Life

Branka’s tells me that when I am in a bar or a restaurant in Croatia, I must lift my glass high and toast “Živjeli” which, roughly translated, means “to life.”  Branka explains that many people in Croatia used to make home-made brandy from plums.  This alcohol was very strong and widely used for medicinal purposes.  When the Croatian people toast to life or to health (nazdravlje) it is in reference to this early practice of using alcohol as medicine.  Branka said that if I do this, I should look squarely into the eyes of the bartender who will immediately raise his glass and respond in kind.

2. Visit Nikola Tesla’s Childhood Home

In the small town of Smiljan in a simple white house, the inventor genius Nikola Tesla was born and raised.   Branka folds her hands smartly in her lap as she tells me, “Many Americans think that Thomas Edison invented electricity.  However, Edison stole many of Tesla’s ideas.  Tesla was a true gentleman.”

As it turns out, Tesla and Edison were fierce rivals.  Tesla did work for Edison.  Tesla originally came to the United States because he was offered a job by Edison.  Edison promised Tesla $50,000 if Tesla could increase the efficiency of Edison’s prototypical dynamos.  When Tesla succeeded and returned for his reward, Edison responded, “When you become a full-fledged American, you will appreciate an American joke.” Tesla quit.  At this point Tesla and Edison became embroiled in a competition for domination of the electric world.  This conflict was called the “War of the Currents.”   Ultimately, Tesla’s invention of alternating currents (AC) won the day over Edison’s direct current (DC) as the standard for the delivery of electricity in modern electric companies.

Branka loves Tesla.  She has read everything she can get her hands on about this brilliant inventor.  Branka suggests I wander in the fields near Tesla’s home so I can feel the environment that fueled Tesla’s inspiration.  Branka tells me that when Tesla was a boy, he could sense magnetic fields in the area surrounding his home.  Branka herself braved warnings of hidden land mines in order to walk bare foot in the grass near Tesla’s home.  “Obviously, I survived,” she chuckles as she finishes telling me her story.


3.  Buy Lavender Oil in Hvar

Hvar is a beautiful island surrounded by the clear turquoise waters of the Adriatic.  Hvar will be the third stop on our trip.  In June and July, the island is filled with the color and aroma of lavender (lavanda).  In the end of June, the island of Hvar celebrates this flower with the Lavender Festival held in the town of Velo Grablje.  This year, the Lavender Festival is scheduled for June 24 and 25, 2016.   We will arrive in Hvar at the tail end of the festival.  Branka recommends buying the lavender oil as a lovely scented souvenir.

4.  Visit James Joyce Café in Pula

Although James Joyce was an Irishman from Dublin, he has his own café in Pula, a town in the Istria region in Croatia.   Joyce eloped from Ireland to the mainland of Europe when he was 22 years old with his girlfriend, Nora Barnacle.  When Joyce got a job with the Berlitz English-language schools, the organization sent him to Pula to teach the English language to naval officers.   Sadly, Joyce hated Pula. However, Joyce wrote much of A Potrait of the Artist as a Young Man in Pula.  Now, you can sit on the terrace of the café  and have coffee with a life size sculpture of Joyce.  The café  is called Uliks, or Ulysses in Croatian.

5.  Tour the Viennese Opera House in Zagreb

The Croatian National Theater in Zagreb is known as HNK (Hrvatsko narodno kazalište u Zagrebu).   The theater was designed and built by famed Viennese architects  Ferdinand Fellner and Herman Helmer whose firm had built several theaters in Vienna.   The theater was officially opened in 1895 in a ceremony where Austro-Hungarian emperor Franz Joseph I symbolically performed the final blow with a silver hammer that was sculpted for that occasion by Robert Franges Mihanovic. The hammer is still on display in the theater.

Today, the theater provides a venue for opera, theater and ballet.  Branka recommends that we not only tour the theater, but also attend a performance.  I am thrilled to discover that on July 4, 2016, the day we arrive in Zagreb, the Zagreb ballet ensemble will be performing Petar Pan, a new ballet by Italian choreographer Georgio Madia.  I immediately purchase tickets on-line.


6.  Eat Lignje na žaru

This Croatian seafood delicacy consists of an entire squid grilled to perfection. You can order it with French fries (pomfrit) or chard and potatoes (blitva).  Branka says that blitva as a side dish is fantastic.

7.  Buy Candy at Kraš

Kraš is a sweet shop that can trace its beginnings to the first chocolate shop in Zagreb founded in 1911.   Today, according to Branka, it is the high quality sweet that Croats give each other on special occasions.  Branka recommends buying a box of bajaderas or a bar of rum pločice.  Bajaderas are nugget desserts made with almonds and hazelnuts.  The name bajadera comes from the word Bayadera, the elegant temple dancers in India.  La Bayadère, the ballet choreographed by Marius Petipa, is named for these same beautiful dancers.  The other famous confection from Kraš is the  rum pločice, a chocolate rum candy bar.

8.  Eat Palačinke for Dessert

A palačinke is the Croatian version of a crêpe.  They can be sweet or savory.  You can ask for them with sweet cheese, chocolate or frui, whatever your pleasure.  Branka says that the best palačinke is filled with walnuts.  Branka also recommends eating cherry strudel (štrudla za trešnja) for dessert.  This dessert is made from the Marasca cherry, a small sour cherry that grows in coastal Croatia.

9.  Swim Naked

“You will rent a car so you can drive along the coast?” Branka looks at me.  I can see mischief in her eyes,  “Yes,” I respond.  “Let me explain something.” She smooths her pants with her elegant hands. “In Croatia, it is perfectly legal to swim naked.”  My eyes go wide with surprise.  I laugh with delight.  I am not expecting this pronouncement, but I love this woman’s spirit.  Branka explains that I should drive along the coast until I find a beautiful, secluded spot. Then I should strip down and swim naked.  “It is a wonderful way to commune with nature.”  I love the idea.  Let’s see if I can work up the nerve.  I will have to channel Branka’s fearless spirit.  However, I am definitely not going to be posting any selfies of that experience!

Life is an adventure, not a destination.  Live it with the insight of a local and the fearless spirit of Branka.




Lost and Found in Venice

The Storm Clouds Gather

The storm clouds in the evening light remind me of Hawaii.  As I look out the airport window, the hill to my left is lush and green from this Spring’s rain.  Unusual for San Francisco where the hills are usually the color of yellow straw.

Terminal 100 is quiet.  Everyone seems remarkably calm for people waiting to fly to Europe.  I am so excited I want to jump up and do the happy dance in the middle of the terminal while chanting “I am going to Venice!”

It is funny how the more I travel, the more I crave it.  Today, I re-did my list of places to visit.  I am now up to 21.  If I travel to a different destination every year, I will not finish my list until I am 65!

Claudia, my seventeen year old daughter, finally got excited today. What started as another mother-daughter trip has become darker and more urgent.  “Clinical depression.”  I look at the young, pretty counselor in her office at Kaiser.  “Are you sure?”  “Hide all your knives and your pills,” she tells me matter-of-factly as she goes through her check list on what to tell parents when their child is diagnosed with depression.  “Are you serious?  Even the vitamins?”  My father’s ghost has come back to haunt me.  It is funny.  I thought my son Max was the one who brought his spirit back into the world with the same big blue eyes.  But it is in Claudia where my father ‘s tragic sadness lurks.

I cannot think about it for too long before a lump of panic sticks in my throat.  All I know is that I must be strong, very strong, and reach out to pull her back from the edge.  I will not lose her, not to depression, not like I lost my father.  Life is too beautiful, too much of a great big adventure to not be seen to its completion.

So we embark on another adventure.  This time to Venice, the city of falling angels.


Suspicious Characters

In the bathroom in the Marco Polo Airport in Venice, I brush my hair, and touch up my makeup.  Next to me Claudia does the same.  We straighten what has been crumpled after 12 hours on a plane.

By the time we reach the baggage claim, our luggage looks lonely and abandoned as they slowly circle, left all alone on the metal carousel.  We laugh and grab our suitcases, small and compact.  We have learned to pack light since dragging our humongous bags up and down the narrow stairs of Paris.

As we try to leave, a small woman approaches us.  She asks me if I speak Italian.  I am confused by her question.  I tell her in Italian “Sono Americana” (I am American).  I think she is a tour guide or a bus driver. But for the I.D. around her neck, she is dressed casually in jeans.  She curtly gestures for us to follow her.  She directs us to place our suitcases on a table.  Without explanation, a uniformed guard searches brusquely through our luggage.  All of my carefully rolled clothing is disrupted and undone.   Of course, everything is in order and we are free to leave.

As we are handed our small suitcases, I ask “Dov’è la fermata dell’autobus.”  She looks surprised and then suspicious.  She points just outside of the entrance of the airport.  As Claudia and I head towards the waiting bus, I hear her mutter to the guard, “Sapevo che era italiana (I knew she was Italian.)”  


Hansel and Gretel

Our guide has deposited us at our apartment in Venice.  She led us on the short walk from Piazza Roma to our little one bedroom apartment in Ca’Marin.  I try to memorize the way to the apartment by counting the turns and the bridges.  But, soon, I am just a rat hopelessly lost in the maze.  She gives us a map and sketches out a path to a Campo Santa Margarita which she promises is filled with restaurants and night life.


At the door, we feel like Hansel and Gretel.  I want to leave a trail of bread crumbs or tie a string to the door so we can find our way home. Venice is a maze of streets.  I have no sense of direction because the streets are narrow and seem to twist back on themselves.  I look at the map.  It is useless because what I see before me does not match the wavy lines on the map.  I stand at the door panicking.  It is dark. We are alone.  However, I am hungry and the warm night beckons us.   We plunge into the labyrinth.


We wander aimlessly in the beautiful, clear night.  Venice, the carless city, is so quiet.  I can hear the water from the canals rhythmically lap against the walls.  We find a restaurants with purple wisteria clinging to the lattice above the entrance.  I can smell their perfume in the night air.   We cannot find Campo Santa Margarita, but this restaurant looks inviting.  We stop and eat.  Somehow, my head fuzzy with wine, we find our way home.



We island hop from Venice to Murano to Burano.  When we arrive at the vaporetta stop, I think I am being smart to jump on the 4 instead of the 42 to Murano.  Both lines go to Murano, but the line for the 4 is much shorter.  I soon realize that although both lines go to Murano, one goes clockwise around Venice and the other counterclockwise.   We got on the boat going the wrong way around the clock.  We basically travel from 3 to 12 when we just needed to go from 12 to 3.

As we wind all the way around Venice in our circular detour to Murano, we pass by the Castello side of the island.  This side is the tail of the Venetian fish.  It is the working class district.  The back stage view of the glamorous Venetian show.


On Murano, for 3 Euros, we watch a man shape a horse out of hot glass.  He looks likes Zeus shaping the creatures of the earth from molten lava.  At the end of the show, he blows a giant bubble of glass that teeters on the end of his blow pipe and pops into a mighty explosions of glass shards that makes the audience jump.


We arrive on Burano in the late afternoon.  Burano is a beautiful, festive island.  Each house is painted a bright color.  These brightly colored houses line the canal.  They look like beautiful girls at a party.  Burano is Venice with a fresh coat of paint.

Burano is filled with families all in their Sunday best.  It is Easter Sunday.  The children still have on their miniature suits and ball gowns.  This is the island of lace with small shops displaying table clothes, baby dresses and scarfs.

We can see Torcello, its ancient church standing all alone in the middle of the flat, grassy island not far from Burano.  It looks so sad and isolated compared to the cheery fairyland of Burano.


Saint Mark’s Day

Today is St. Mark’s Day, a holiday unique to Venice.  St. Mark is the patron saint of Venice.  Claudia runs to a man carrying a bunch of red roses and buys me one.  This rose is called a bucola.  On St. Mark’s Day, a man gives a bucola to the woman he loves.  Claudia is smiling which makes me very happy.

We wander the streets of Venice, trying to follow a walking tour. Periodically, we stop to examine the map and realize that we made a wrong turn.  We double back and try again.  We tour San Giorgi Church and peer at the view of St. Mark’s Square across the Grand Canal from its bell tower.  We drop a 50 cent euro in a box so that the light will illuminate the painting of the Last Supper.


We tour the Fernice, the opera house of Venice that was burned in 1998.  It has been completely restored and offers guided tours.  After the tour, we eat lunch in the square directly in front of the Fernice.  The sun shines brightly but the storm clouds are gathering in Claudia’s mind.  I can see her visibly withdraw.  After lunch, she is impatient and does not want to walk with me.  I try to show her that we are going the wrong way.   She rushes ahead.  When I finally get her to stop, I realize that we are accidentally, unexpectedly and fortunately standing right in front of our apartment.  We go inside.  I can hear her in the other room sobbing.  She falls asleep.

After her nap, Claudia is Claudia again.  The storm clouds have lifted. It is early evening.  We decide to take a gondola ride.  Of course, we have to take a gondola ride in Venice.  What I did not expect was how comforting it would be.   The lagoon gently rocks us in the gondola like a mother rocking a giant cradle.  We succumb to a calm meditation as we glide under low, arched bridges.  A moment of reflection. Accidentally, we find exactly where we want to go.


Lost and Found in Venice

The calming, hypnotic effect of Venice has put me in a trace.  It has cleared the storms clouds from Claudia’s mind and restored a serenity in her.

This morning, as we walk to Piazza Roma, we walk slower, smiling in the sun as the light breeze snows down flowers from the trees.  I feel like everything is moving in slow motion.  On the vaporetto, I tell Claudia to follow me.  We go all the way to the back of the boat and sit outside, rather than in the crowded, interior seats.  The difference is striking. The cool breeze helps lift the heat off the canal.  The sound of the motor of the vaporetto is muted and less intrusive.  The traffic of the Grand Canal bobs and bounces by the boat.  Each gondola, vaporetta and motor taxi miraculously missing a near collision with the other.


We walk the streets of Venice on our last night.  The water rhythmically lapping on the stairs and the boats is hypnotic. The lagoon rocks the entire city of Venice to sleep.  In the piazza next to the Scuola Rocco a violinist plays the same measures over and over.  We pause to enjoy the yearning, melancholy  sounds.

We wander, not trying to follow a map or find a particular destination. We have surrendered ourselves to the maze.  In this surrender is a trust that although we may not know where we are going, we will eventually arrive where we need to be.

We emerge from a narrow path into a large square filled with strings of lights, cafe tables and people laughing.   Claudia stops to talk to a group of teenagers who she recognizes from a few days ago.  She laughs and visits, a normal teenager happy to meet other teenagers on her Spring Break vacation.  This is the Campo Santa Margarita, the square we set out to find out first night.  Again, accidentally, we find ourselves exactly where we want to go.

Life is an adventure, not a destination.  Surrender yourself to the labyrinth and see the journey to its completion.  Never, ever cut your journey short because the best part may be just around the bend.

This story is dedicated to Claudia Rodriguez, my beautiful daughter and epic travel companion.







The Monkeys are Coming – Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

Mangoes are falling.  Branches shake in the trees high above me, moved by invisible hands.  The monkeys are coming.  I can hear chirps that sound like high-pitch dolphin calls.  Soon a parade of monkeys jumps from tree to tree above our porch at Villa Titi.   I sit frozen, afraid to even sip my coffee.  I do not want to scare them away.  It is early in the morning on our first day in Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica.  I am enjoying the fresh air of the soon to be humid and hot day on the porch of our rented villa.

As if by magic, I am suddenly surrounded by monkeys.  There must be at least twenty of them in the large mango tree that grows above our villa.  These are the squirrel monkeys; tiny, delicate, light tan monkeys with soft white faces.  My eight year old son Max has come to the door. I slowly gesture him to stop.   Max stares at our tiny guests who beam at us with small intense eyes. They are so close I tingle with excitement.  I have never been this close to monkeys without a fence separating us.  A baby clings to its mother’s back staring back at us in wide-eyed wonder.

After a pause, the monkeys begin the business that brought them to our tree.  It is breakfast time.  They begin their morning routine.  They seem to have forgotten us completely.   They throw the mangoes down from the tree. They run down to the ground to retrieve their fallen treasures.  On the ground, they take a few thoughtful test bites before they carry the mango back up into the tree.  Max and I watch with silly grins on our faces.   As suddenly as they arrive, as if by mutual agreement, they all leave.  The shaking branches and fading chirps mark their retreat.

Villa Titi

Max notices a giant iguana peeking at us from the bottom of the steps.  When Max goes closer to inspect, the iguana retreats into a large drain pipe leaving only the tip of his tail sticking out.  The humming birds are out too. I can hear them fussing at each other, a different style of high-pitched chirps.  They sound like they are scolding each other.

Max Manuel Antonio

Tourist Central – Playa Espadilla Norte

Now, we are seated in a cafe opposite the beach, Playa Espadilla Norte, waiting to eat breakfast. It is very hot here. What a big change from the cool cloud forest of Monteverde.   This beach with its strip of restaurants across the road is tourist central.   All the locals run forward to rent us a chair, a surf board, passes to the park. I guess I look too tame with an eight year old in tow.  The locals do not offer me other more lascivious delicacies. Perhaps my friends who have visited Manual Antonio have exaggerated the outrageous offers for sex and drugs they received here.

Earlier, when we parked our rental car in the lot near the public beach, a man came over and demanded payment.  My husband waved him off, “why should I pay for free parking?”  The man looked perturbed but did not pursue us.   Claudia asked a local teenager standing nearby “Is it free public parking?”  The young man nodded.

The beach has an excellent beginner spot for surfers.  The wave breaks in a long, clean, languid line.  The beach curves around to create a little cove. Rock islands topped with green vegetation are scattered at the entrance to the cove. The beach is narrow and lined with palm trees. The sand is brown.  Para gliders fling themselves out over the waves at regular intervals.  Surf instructors line up tourists like little ducks and push them into the waves.  A few students manage to stand on teetering legs.

When it gets really hot, we stop a girl and her father who are pushing a cart filled with ice blocks along the beach.  They shave us fresh ice and pour flavors into the cone-shaped cups.  I like the coconut flavor the best

Manuel Antonio beach

Natural Beauty – Playa Espadilla Sur

The next day we pay the entrance fee to Manuel Antonio Park.  The entrance fee is $16 per adult and free for children under 12.  Make sure to bring your passport or you will not be able to purchase a ticket at the entrance.

Inside the park of Manuel Antonio, there are other more secluded beaches.  The walk to the beach is a beautiful and filled with more monkeys.  This time, we see a howler monkey with a baby.  The male howler monkey announces his presence with a loud reverberating call that sounds like Prince at the climax of one of his songs.

Monkey and mamma

The best beach in Manuel Antonio Park is not the first one you reach. Keep walking through the mangroves where the tiny crabs back into holes between the roots.  The next beach is the small cove of Playa Espadilla Sur.   Here the surf pounds hard on the tan smooth sand and the undertow will knock you off your feet.  However, this beach is quiet.  It is free of vendors, para gliders and ladrones crouching under the trees waiting for unsuspecting tourists to abandon their belongings for the turbulent surf.

Claudia does her best monkey imitation and climbs a tree near the beach.  She makes herself comfortable and reads her book.  Below, iguanas slowly creep towards unguarded picnics.  This beach is Costa Rica at its finest.  I am glad I did not learn about the salt water crocodiles that make this cove their home until after I returned home.

Claudia in a tree

close up Iguana

Life is an adventure, not a destination.  In this year of the monkey, may your year be a playful, mischievous  and unpredictable adventure.


Sunset at Quepos, photo by Claudia Rodriguez


Croatian Line Dancing on Valentine’s Day

“Please don’t make me go, please don’t make me go.”  It is Valentine’s Day.   I have on a bright red blouse to match the red purse my husband Frank gave me this morning.  My eight year old son is in the back seat of our Mazda.  We are arriving at the Croatian Cultural Center on Onondaga Avenue just at the corner of Alemany Boulevard in San Francisco.

This neighborhood is old San Francisco.  It is a neighborhood filled with small, compact, single family homes.  The living rooms perch on top of the garages, peering out at the street through their wide windows.  The driveways divide up the street inefficiently, not leaving enough room for street parking between the dipped curbs.  The colors of the house looks like a crayon box on Easter, pastel blue, peach and pink.  An outlier has painted one house bright blue like the dome roofs of Santorini.  This neighborhood remains untouched by San Francisco’s tech explosion.  There are no throngs of twenty somethings, beer gardens, overpriced lattes or fishbowl condos.  In this untouched corner lies the heart of San Francisco’s Croatian culture. Today is the Tamburitza Festival at the Croatian Cultural Center.

“Please.  I feel like we are crashing someone’s birthday party.”  It is not my son who is resisting my plan to crash this festival, it is my husband.  We drive around the block.  I too feel nervous anxiety about barging into a new place filled with people I do not know just so I can satisfy my cultural curiosity.  I am on the verge of being talked out of this crazy plan.  “I promise we can leave if it sucks.”


At the front door, we peer into a large room.  Ponoć is playing.  Ponoć is a  tamburitza band.  Five young men dressed causally in jeans are playing guitars, a mandolin and a bass.  I like the music. It has a lively beat that makes me smile from ear to ear.  The lead singer’s voice has a beautifully smooth quality like an opera singer’s.  The music accelerates with the repetition of each verse.  The crowd begins to clap.  I want to stay.

I tell the nice lady with the welcoming smile, “three please.”  As she hands me my change, she asks “Are you Croatian?”  “No,” I reply, “I am traveling to Croatia this summer.”  “Ah, you are here to learn about our culture.”  She is delighted.  My anxiety subsides as I feel her acceptance of our intentions.


I pick up some papers at the entrance table.  One paper tells of the history of the Croatian Cultural Center in San Francisco.  The Slavonic Mutual and Benevolent Society was founded in San Francisco in 1857 by Croatian immigrants.  In 1975, they let women join their group.  In the early years, the majority of Croatians who migrated to San Francisco were from the Dalmatian coast.  I was surprised to learn that in 1875, at least forty percent of the coffee houses and twenty percent of the restaurants on the Waterfront were owned by Croatians.   In 1979, the building that we are standing in opened its doors as the physical home for this society.

Another leaflet explains  the history of tamburitza music in San Francisco.  A carpenter by the name of Ilar Spilrtak founded the first tamburitza ensemble in San Francisco in 1902.  He called his ensemble the Tamburica Orkestar “Zvonimir.”


After Ponoć completes their set, the Kolo Festival Band begins to play.  A group of seniors dressed in bright reds, melons and  cobalt blues, form a line.  They stand shoulder to shoulder, braiding their arms across each other so that they look like a human lattice.  The footwork pattern in complicated and lively.  As the line grows, the leader snakes the line around the dance floor.  The man leading the line adds flourishes with his hands, letting go of the line periodically to pirouette.  During one dance, the line grows so long that it winds throughout the audience and around the entire banquet hall like a Croatian conga line.

My husband is being mischievous.  “Do you think I could request Losing My Religion?  It has a mandolin.”  He makes me giggle.  Max lights up when he sees a table covered with paper plates filled with cookies and cupcakes.  I buy him a plate.  He munches on his treat and watches soccer videos on Frank’s phone.  A little boy comes over with his IPad.  “I’m Sebastian. I’m six.”  His eyes are deep set and brown. “Do you speak Croatian?” I ask.  “No, but I know how to do Croatian dance.”  He stands up and performs a few high knee lifts as he claps his hands together under his raised knees.

Ponoć takes the stage again.  My husband tells me, “I am trying to figure out what the words sound like.  This song sounds like they are singing ‘That’s my carrot.'”  The lead singer sings the verse and now all I hear is “that’s my carrot.”  I giggle so hard that I can feel tears oozing from the corners of my eyes.  This is not the appropriate way to learn Croatian. The lead singer begins to strum a solo on his mandolin.  It has a Devil Goes Down to Georgia quality with the speed of the fingering and the increasing octave of the scales.  The rhythm is infectious.  My toe cannot stop tapping.  Happy music for a happy day.  Happy Valentine’s Day.


Life is an adventure, not a destination.  Never be afraid to crash a party.

Greek Sushi

“Are you Greek?”  I shake my head.  “is your husband Greek?”  Again I shake my head.  “Your parents?”  “Όχι” (no) I respond.  “How do you know how to speak Greek?” asks the man working behind the coffee cart.  He is making me a φραπέ, an iced coffee drink with condensed milk and Nescafe.  “I learned Greek for this vacation.  It is a hobby of mine.”  He whistles through his teeth and adds a complementary cookie to my order.  He winks at me as he hands me my change.

Learning a language and then going on a vacation to a place where that language is spoken has been my hobby for the past eight years.  I am not a linguist, just a geek.  I love to talk, so adding more languages just seemed to be a natural extension of my gregarious nature.  In June of 2009, on the day that the Euro hit an all time low and Greece was in the midst of beginning of the debt crisis, my family traveled to Greece.  For twelve months prior to our departure, I taught myself Greek.

sun through the door

Crack the Code with Rosetta Stone

My first experience with Rosetta Stone began when I decided to learn Greek. I first bought Teach Yourself Greek from Amazon. This book comes with an audio companion. I started practicing the Greek alphabet. For Christmas my husband gave me Rosetta Stone Greek Level 2. I loved it. Immediately I became a Rosetta Stone junkie. This was 7 years ago and Rosetta Stone has evolved significantly since them.

Rosetta Stone is a great way to learn to read and write in Greek because all of the lessons are written in Greek. Today you can buy an online subscription which gives you access to all levels. The online subscription also gives you access to what I think is the best part of the program, the studio sessions. These studio sessions are thirty minute on-line sessions lead by a native speaker. The studio sessions really help reinforce the vocabulary.

I also like Rosetta Stone because it teaches you whole phrases to use in various situations you will likely find yourself in while traveling. Unlike memorizing a stack of flash cards, with a catalog of sentences committed to memory, I can walk up to a stranger and say “Με συγχωρείτε. Υπάρχει ένα εστιατόριο κοντά; (Excuse me? Is there a restaurant nearby?) Rosetta Stone also great for perfecting your pronunciation by giving you feedback during the speaking exercises.

Learning to read Greek is probably my favorite accomplishment.  At first, words written in Greek would look strange and unpronounceable. However, once I learned the secret code it was easy to figure out the pronunciation because Greek is a phonetic language.

Take the word μπαρ for example.  To an English speaker, you may want to pronounce this word as map, not quite sure what to do with the extra strange looking letter.  However, let’s crack the code.  The letter combination “μπ” is pronounced like a “b,” and “ρ” is pronounced like the English “r.” So “μπαρ” is pronounced “bar” which is exactly was it is in English.  Learning to read Greek is like getting the ultimate decoder ring in a Cracker Jack box.


It’s All Greek to Me

After a five hour ferry ride from Santorini, we arrive at Piraeus, the port of Athens.  It is the largest port in Europe servicing 20 million passengers annually. Greece has 6,000 Islands and boats from these islands arrive everyday at Piraeus. Needless to say, Piraeus is a gigantic, hugely busy place.  Once we land in Piraeus, we must find our way to the airport where we are going to spend the night at the Sofitel Hotel before flying home the next day.

Athens has a Metro that connects Piraeus to the airport. However, depending on which dock your ferry deposit you, you may have a very long trek ahead of you weighed down by luggage and weary legs.

As we walk off the ferry I look up and I see a sign written in Greek “αεροδρόμιο στάση λεωφορείουbus” (bus stop to airport) with an arrow pointing straight ahead to what looks like a truck stop.  All I can see are giant 18-wheelers parked about 8 trucks deep and no bus stop. “This way,” I say confidently. “There is a bus stop to the airport bus this way.” A few of the other Western travelers hear me and follow us as well.  We weave through the giant, slumbering trucks. Just on the other side of the sea of cargo on wheels is a bus stop with an empty bus happily waiting at the stop. For only 3 euros a piece we are on our way to the airport. Forty minutes later without any stops in between the bus deposits us in front of the Sofitel Hotel directly across the street from the airport.

max and more icecream

Εντάξει Means Okay

Εντάξει is a great Greek word to know.  It means “okay. ” It is a word that means “I’m good,” “I agree,” or “go ahead.” It is a word of encouragement. “Do you want to go with us?” “Εντάξει.”  This word makes hotel workers and restaurant servers smile at you when you use it.

Another good word to know is “Υγεία σας.”  This literally means “health to you.”  It is a very common greeting in Greece.  Max soon discovers the benefit of greeting the shop keepers with Υγεία σας.  His little two-year old body waddles into a shop.  He looks up at the lady shop keeper, his big blue eyes melting her immediately.  He coos  “Υγεία σας” in his cute little baby talk way.  The lady shop keeper cannot resist his charm.  She showers him with free καραμέλα (candy) and παγωτό (ice cream).   “Ευχαριστώ πολύ (thank you very much)” responds Max enthusiastically, his face smeared with chocolate ice cream.

Claudia in Greece

Greek sushi

My daughter Claudia memorizes a few Greek phrases which she utters at breakneck speed with no pauses in between. “Τοόνομάμου είναιClaudiaΑπόπουείσαι.” ( MynameisClaudiaWhereareyoufrom?)

This phrase serves her well when we spend the day at a beach in Hydra. She makes friends with a group of local teenagers who do not speak any English at all. However, with her memorized phrase, they all quickly learn her name. Soon she is sunbathing in the middle of the cove on top of a floating dock. One girl dives into the water and brings up a golf ball sized sea urchin; a deep red globe of spines. Much to Claudia’s dismay, the girl begins smashing the sea urchin onto the hard surface of the dock. Claudia cries out, but the girl smiles and opens the urchin to reveal the shiny neon orange meat inside. The girl places of piece in her mouth and hands Claudia a piece. Claudia smiles with understanding and eats it. Θαυμάσιος (wonderful); Greek sushi.

Paros castleLife is an adventure, not a destination.  Travel to faraway places or places “by the devil’s mother” (στου διαὀλου την μἀνα) as the Greek idiom says.

How Learning a New Language Can Set Your Theme for 2016

Every year, I make New Year’s resolutions.  Resolutions to exercise more, pay off my debt, watch what I eat and save more money.  I know some people who make resolutions and some who do  not.  But at the end of the day, don’t these resolutions end up sounding pretty generic? They are more like declarations of values versus something new and exciting.  Last year’s resolutions blur into the previous year’s.

So instead of making resolutions, why not pick a Theme for the year.  Project Based Learning is all the rage now in early education.  PBL is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge.  Cool.  Here’s how you pick your 2016 Theme PBL style.   Pick a country where they do not speak your language, pick a language and plan a trip.  There you go, you have a theme.  For me, my theme for 2016 is half Croatian/ half Vietnamese.  Kinda sounds like a San Francisco food truck.  The plan is Croatia in June and then Vietnam next year.

So now that you have a theme, here are all the fun things that you can spend your year doing.


Number One – Learning the Language

Learning a language is not a last minute afterthought.  I am not talking about cramming by reading a Lonely Planet phrase book on your international flight to your destination.  Learning a language requires time, committment and advance planning.  Whether you purchase an on-line course like Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur’s audio CD to listen to during your commute or you hire a private tutor, you need to start at least six months in advance.  Set out twenty to thirty minutes every day to practice your language.  Make sure that you have chosen a method that gets you talking.

My personal favorite is Rosetta Stone.  I have used it for French, Spanish, Italian, Greek and Mandarin.  My first experience with Rosetta Stone began when I decided to learn Greek. For Christmas in 2009 my husband gave me Rosetta Stone Greek Level 2. I loved it. Immediately I became a Rosetta Stone junkie. That was 7 years ago and Rosetta Stone has evolved. Rosetta Stone is a great way to learn to read and write in Greek because all of the lessons are written in Greek.

Today you can buy an online subscription which gives you access to all levels. The online subscription also gives you access to what I think is the best part, the studio sessions. These studio sessions are thirty minute on-line sessions led by a native speaker. The native speaker takes you and two other learners through scenarios based on the different lessons at various levels. It really helps cement your understanding of the vocabulary. I also like Rosetta Stone because it teaches you whole phrases to use in situations you will likely find yourself in while traveling. Unlike memorizing a stack of flash cards, with a catalog of sentences committed to memory, I can walk up to a stranger and say “Με συγχωρείτε. Υπάρχει ένα εστιατόριο κοντά; (Excuse me? Is there a restaurant nearby?) Rosetta Stone is also great for perfecting your pronunciation by giving you feedback during the speaking exercises.  You should know that in order to make Rosetta Stone work for you, you need a computer, wi-fi and the headphones with a microphone.

If you want a more portable learning experience, Pimsleur is a good option.  I just finished all 30 lessons of Pimsleur’s complete Croatian course.  I pop the audio CD’s in my car and, during my commute, I do my lesson.  It does require lots of verbal repetition, so I look pretty crazy talking to myself in the car.  The down side to this method is the lack of visual reading and writing activities.  Also, there are only 30 lessons, not enough, in my opinion, to reach the level of fluency I want.

Which brings me to the third option, tutors.  This option may not be as pricey as you might imagine if you get creative.  I once traded legal advice for Greek lessons.  Often times you can find someone willing to offer low cost tutoring by joining a Meet Up in your area.  The Greek Meet Up in San Francisco has a Greek conversation group that meets monthly.  The organizer of that group is going to  Skype in Greek lessons by her mother from Greece.

No matter what you decide, make a committment to start learning.


Number Two – Make It a Family Affair

Yes, I bribed my son to learn Spanish.  I signed him up for the Spanish club at school.  He moaned and groaned and informed me he was the only third grade boy in the group.  I guess it will be another few years before he graspes the benefits of this situation.  I had to buy him Messi cleats, a Ronaldo Real Madrid jersey and an Xbox 360.

Look, it work for a living.  I do not have a story in my “About Me” that says I quit my day job, gave up being an attorney and started traveling the world.  I wish.  I live in San Francisco which is getting really expensive of late. I have a mortgage, a daughter in college and a young son who is convinced he will be the next Messi.  I got bills.   I work hard for my money as a public defender.  But for four glorious weeks every year, I am a carefree, adventurous, silver-tongued traveler.  And yes, I drag everyone with me. I firmly believe that one day, my son will thank me that I forced him to learn Spanish.  It was pretty cool to watch him go up to the locals in Costa Rica and start a pick up soccer game by saying “Quieres jugar futbol conmigo?”   So I get creative. I got the Xbox 360 for free from a co-worker.

So whether you plan your trip with you kids, your partner or your friends, rope them into learning the language too.  They may groan, but they will thank you in the end.

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Number Three – Explore Your Local Cultural Connections

This part is perhaps my favorite.  Living in San Francisco, there are so many different cultures and communities right under my nose.  Some of those communities are well known like the Italians of North Beach or the Asian communities in Chinatown and Japantown.  However,  researching the language and culture you are learning sometimes uncovers some unexpected facts.  For example, I learned that the oldest restaurant in San Francisco, the Tadich Grill, was started by a Croatian man.  I also learned that the style of California cuisine in which the restaurant has a kitchen open to public viewing is of Croatian origin.  Apparently, a huge wave of Croatian immigrants flocked to San Francisco in the 1840’s during the Gold Rush era.  There is also a Croatian Cultural Center in San Francisco which hosts an annual Croatian festival and other cultural event.  Attending some of these events and dining at Tadich Grill will be on my list of things to do in 2016.  Maybe I will even get to practice Croatian.

Explore the cultural connections in your area.  Go to a restaurant and order in the language you are learning.  Find a cultural center and crash their festival.  Adventures in fluency can often happen without even leaving your home town.


Number Four – Watch the Movies

My family always knows where we are going when the Netflix envelopes start arriving.  Perhaps my favorite part of learning a new language is going through Netflix and finding all the movies I can in that language. It is not only a great way to train your ear but also an educational way to learn about the culture.  Before going to Venice, I watched the Fellini classics, La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2.   I saw the streets of Venice in Silvio Soldini’s Bread and Tulips before I saw them in person.   Before France, we watched Claude Berri’s Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources.  Prior to Barcelona, I saw the Palace of Catalan Music in Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother.

Many places also have international film festivals.  In San Francisco in 2016, we have the International Film Festival in April, the Greek Film Festival in October, and New Hong Kong cinema in November just to name a few.

So whether you like to go out to the movies or snuggle up at home, watch some foreign films.

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Number Five – Let Your Language Inspire a New Hobby

So much of culture is experienced not only through language but also through movement, through music or through cooking.  Before I went to Spain, I studied flamenco for a year with La Tania.  I have always enjoyed watching Flamenco, but to learn to dance it was different.

Flamenco is a dance of protest, of anguish, of deeply held frustration.  I felt the guttural feeling of the dance one night after a particularly difficult day at work.  I was a trial with a young client.  He was facing more years in prison than he had been on this planet.  I was feeling overwhelmed, helpless and defeated.  We started the footwork warm up.  As I started stomping my feet and pounding my heels, I felt the anger and frustration rising up in me like a sob.  The frenzy built as I stomped harder and harder.  The feeling of anger that knotted in my chest flowed out of my feet into the ground.   I imagined the gypsies of Spain releasing their anguish and frustration at the oppression they experienced by day in a nightly ritual of music and dance.  This is not a dance of joy.  It is a dance of catharsis; a release of passion, anger, frustration and tension.  It is a reclamation of power by the helpless and the oppressed.  It is the dance of those wishing to overcome injustice.  Only by studying this dance could I truly understand.

So let your language guide you to a new hobby for 2016.


Number 6 – The Trip, Of Course

Finally we come to the climax of this project, the journey, the adventure in fluency.  You have learned the language, you have picked up a new hobby, you have seen the movies, learned about the cultural connections in your community and you have perhaps inspired or bribed your co-travels to join you.  You step off the plane, your ears fill with the sounds of those around you.  At first, it is like listening to a radio that is not tuned in.  The words are hard to make out.  You panic.  But be patient.  Soon, as if by magic, the words will pop out at you.  You will start to understand more and more.  You will be speaking, and maybe even dreaming, in a whole new language.  And that is the best part.

Life is an adventure not a destination.   What will be your Theme for 2016?


Catalan – The Language of Resilience in Barcelona

Dancing the Sardana on Easter Sunday

We are standing in front of the Barcelona’s La Seu cathedral in the Ciutat Vella (old city) of Barcelona.  It is Easter Sunday.  Less than a half an hour earlier, I drag Claudia from her bed and we rush through the cobblestone maze of  alleys from La Rambla to arrive in time.   I do not want to be late.  Already, a large crowd has formed in the plaza in front of the church.  I push ahead in the crowd, not quite sure where the performance will begin.

It starts to happen.  As if by silent cue, a few old ladies and old men solemnly place their belongings in a pile together.  They join hands and back up, creating a circle with the items that they have placed together in the center.  The placing of all of their belongings together symbolizes trust and community.  Similar groups simultaneously begin to pile up their belongings and join hands.  All around us, the crowd is now more filled with participants than it is with spectators.  The circles, like ripples in a pond during a rain storm, are forming all around us.  We are in the center.  I can feel an electricity of anticipation.  I see young and old, men and women, traditionally dressed and in jeans, join together in circles.  As the music begins, slowly at first, the dancers execute little hop-touch steps.  As the music accelerates, the dancers raise their hands, their faces fill with pride and emotion.


This is the Sardana, a traditional dance of Catalonia.  A dance that, every Sunday,  the people of Barcelona join hands and dance in front of the cathedral.  I imagine that for some of the older participants, this dance is more than just a tradition, it is a dance of freedom.  As I look at their faces raised to the morning sunshine, I imagine  that they are remembering a time when this dance was outlawed.  For 35 long years from 1940 to 1975, Franco, the Spanish dictator, banned the Sardana.  But today on this sunny Easter Sunday, my daughter Claudia and I stand in the center of the plaza with dozens of circles of dancing Catalonians swirling around us to the music.

Speak Catalan

When I first decide to visit Barcelona, I decide to strengthen my Spanish by completing all five levels of Rosetta Stone.  I purchase the Spain version and practice nightly.  I learn that in Spain you drink zuma, not jugo (juice).   I sign with a bolígrafo not a pluma (pen).  I learn to use vosotros instead of ustedes.  I learn to soften the z’s in my words with the lisping “th” sound of the Spanish accent.

I thought I was ready to navigate my way around Barcelona, but I soon discover that I had studied the wrong language.  I have learned Castellano (Castilian Spanish).  I should have learned Catalan.

Just as Franco had banned the Sardana during his dictatorship, Franco also banned the speaking of Catalan.  Franco had hoped to oppress the people of Barcelona by killing their language and strangling their culture.  However, today, Catalan is taught in the schools of Barcelona as the primary language.  It is proudly spoken by the inhabitants of Barcelona.

When my daughter and I flop into the taxi at the airport after our long flight from San Francisco, I greet the driver in Spanish.  His face turns sour and he drives us to our rented apartment in La Ramblas.  I am confused by his reaction.  Usually when I travel and I try to speak the language, I am greeted with enthusiasm and appreciation.  Although I may be far from fluent, people tend to appreciate that a tourist, especially an American tourist, would take the time to learn their language.  As the days pass and I see this reaction repeat itself as I speak Spanish to various taxi drivers, waiters and others in Barcelona.  It is a subtle reaction, barely noticeable.   It usually passes like a shadow and then the interaction is friendly and kind.  As the days in Barcelona pass, I realize that I am speaking the wrong language.  I am speaking a language they understand, but not the language that they love.  The more that I learn about Barcelona, the more I wish that I had learned Catalan.

I am, after all, a public defender.  I fight for the underdog as a living.  I am moved by stories of perseverance.  I naturally align myself with those who fight against oppression.  Throughout our week in Barcelona, as I encounter the echos of those oppressive Franco years, I am moved by the fierce independent spirit of the Catalonian people.  My desire to connect with them in their own language intensifies.

Bullet Holes in Church Walls

We wander through the narrow maze of the Barri Gòtic, the old section of Barcelona.  We emerge in a courtyard with an octagon shaped fountain in the center.   The large trees reach dark skeletons arms to the sky.  The square is empty.  The fountain is dry.  The walls are scarred.

This is the Església de Sant Felip Neri church.   There was a time when the walls were smooth and white.  A time when the cries of playing children mixed with the bubbling trickle of the fountain.  During the civil war the convent of this church was used as a home for evacuated children. On January 30, 1938, the first bomb exploded, killing 30 of the children who were sheltering inside.  The second bomb killed 12 more people who were trying to rescue survivors.  These bombs were dropped by Franco’s air force.


Attached to the wall a small plaque written in only Catalan reads “En memòria de les víctimes del bombardeig de Sant Felip Neri.  Aquí varen morir 42 persones la majoria infants – per l’acció de l’aviació franquista el 30 gener de 1938.”

bullet holes

I cannot understand the meaning of the plaque at first because it is written only in Catalan.  I look it up in my travel guide.  “In memory of the victims of the bombardment of Sant Felip Neri.  Here died 42 people – the majority children – due to the actions of Franco’s airforce on the 30th of January 1938.”  I put my hand on the pocked marked wall and stand for a moment of silent sadness.

The Castle of Death

Before we visit the Castell de Montjuïc, the castle that overlooks Barcelona, I read about its history.  The horrors of Franco’s oppression cast a shadow on this landmark as well.   The Castell became a symbol of oppression under Franco.  Between 1936 and 1938 alone, 173 people were executed at the Castell.  Perhaps the most famous victim was the president of the Generalitat de Cataluny, Lluís Companys, who was executed on October 15, 1940.  The Castell continued to serve as a military prison until 1960.  On June 15, 2008, the Castell was officially handed over to the city of Barcelona as a cultural site.

cable car viewClaudia and I ride up the mountain of Montjuïc in the cable car.  The view is breath-taking.   The sheer walls around the base gives me really bad acrophobia.  The teenagers sit on the walls, dangling their legs over the edge.  They lean forward to yell jokingly at their friends below.  I vaguely wonder if people have died at the castle from falling over the edge.   Sadly, I realize that more people have probably died by execution here than by falling.

the satle interior of castel castle entranceMake a Wish

Claudia and I walk into an art exhibit in the CaixaForum, a textile factory designed by Josep Puig i Cadafalch.  This old factory has been converted into an art center.  The room is filled from floor to ceiling with tiny ribbons.  The ribbons are the kind that are tied to Mexican recuerdos passed out at Mexican weddings.  The kind of ribbons that bear the names of the bride and groom and their wedding date.  The ribbons are hanging from the walls, each with a message printed on them.

Claudia and I read the instructions on the wall at the entrance to the room.  The instructions tell us to take a ribbon and our wish will come true.  At the far end of the exhibit, I see a worker restocking the wall of ribbons.  Claudia leans in closely.  She is going to make a careful selection.  We begin to examine the ribbons.  The messages are written in English, Spanish and Catalan.  I find my wish.  I carefully draw out my ribbon.  My wish is written in both English and Catalan.  My wish is to someday be fluent in Catalan.

wishes wishes ClaudiaI have a very strong feeling that I will return to Barcelona.  When I learn the language before I travel, my goal is to reach a greater understanding of the community and the culture by connecting to the people through their language.  My goal is not perfection, but connection.  In my visit to Barcelona, I failed somewhat and succeeded somewhat.  I now understand that Barcelona is Catalonia.  The true language of its people is Catalan, not Spanish.  It is a city filled with dragons, brilliant mosaics and proud people whose language and culture cannot and will not be extinguished by oppression.

I am reminded of Nelson Mandela’s quote:

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

Barcelona, I will be back, this time fluent in Catalan because you promised me that my wish will come true.


Life is an adventure, not a destination.  Live it with the belief that all your wishes will come true.

Connecting to the world through travel and language.