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Ho ho ho!

2 Jan

Excuse our absence…we’ve been busy removing squeakers from our new toys.  Hopefully your holidays were merry and bright!

Stockings for doggies Jordan Haley


A Spanish superstition you won’t believe

27 Sep

I’ve come across some superstitions in Spain similar to those I grew up with – for example, knocking on wood for good luck (tocar madera) to avoid having bad luck and finding a four-leaf clover (encontrarse un trébol de cuatro hojas) for good luck.

Imagine my surprise when during Spanish class yesterday I learned that stepping in excrement brings good luck.  

I nearly fell off the chair – I must be misunderstanding…but no!  I suspect that whoever came up with this mistakenly thought the “good luck” was any improvement that came after the serious bad luck of landing in a pile of disgustingness.

I think I finally understand why I see piles of it on the street, although in some fairness, there are doggie bags available on many corners here in Madrid, and I have seen some of my neighbors doing their duty.  Hopefully, people are moving beyond this ridiculous superstition and realize that polluted waterways and diseases carried by bacteria, parasites and viruses that are present in excrement are in no way lucky.


Apparently, the Swedes don’t share this superstition.

Porto, Portugal – old and new worlds

7 Aug

Last month, we finished our jump across the Atlantic in our sailboat, Shearwater, in Porto, Portugal.  For the time being, the boat will stay there, as we have been very impressed with the marina, as well as the city.  Technically, the marina is across the River Douro from Porto, in Vila Nova de Gaia, but Porto is just a stone’s throw away, really.  This past weekend, we drove back to fetch dirty laundry and food from the boat (a five hours’ drive).  We also brought our dogs, Jordan and Haley, who have never been on a boat before.  Luckily, as with most other things that they’ve accompanied us on, they seemed to be happy enough getting to come along and check out new things.  In fact, Haley had no issues going up our very steep, ladder-like stairs into the cockpit!

Our aspirations to get them to sleep in the quarterberth at the back of the boat were dashed immediately, as they were quite content to dog pile into the v-berth where we sleep.  Cuteness trumps rationale, I guess.

This is Jordan in our v-berth…errr, her v-berth on the boat.

They tolerated the life jackets, only because they were cool.

One of the highlights of our weekend was a visit to one of the casas de Vinho do Porto, where we sampled several of the famous port wines from the region.  With the wine, we also ordered a few food tidbits, including something we thought was almonds from the picture on the wall, but ended up being something quite different – tremoços, a small yellow legume of sorts.  The woman who brought our tasting samples came back with a single tremoço to demonstrate how to eat it: use your teeth to break the skin of the tremoço and then use your fingers to shoot it into your mouth (well, maybe she didn’t exactly tell us to “shoot it” but we entertained ourselves by eating these this way)!  They were cold beans, but a bit tastier than you might think.

Tremoços – an interesting cold legume that requires you to remove the skin before eating the bean. We bit into the bean to break the skin, and then we used our fingers to shoot the bean through the skin into our mouth. A fun food!

We could quite happily become port wine aficionados!

Our quick weekend included lots of meandering walks with our dogs, and a bit of work on the boat that ended up in a minor disaster that we’re still working through (we’ll share more of that excitement on our Shearwater blog).  We are definitely looking forward to spending more time getting to know Portugal.

The city of Porto, along the banks of the River Douro. Historically, vinhos do Porto were brought to Porto from wineries upriver via boat.

Enjoying the sunset along the beach.

The Atlantic lies just outside the breakwater to the River Douro.

Urban hiking – Parque Juan Carlos I

9 Oct

We’ve been decompressing this week – trying not to be sick after the toll that travelling and stress tend to take out on one’s body.  Yesterday morning, we woke up and decided that it was the perfect day to take the girls to Parque Juan Carlos I.

This park is in the northeast part of the city, approximately 2.5 miles away from our apartment.  Given the appearance of perfect fall weather – cool fifties and bright sun, we high-tailed it to the park, traversing through several other smaller parks along the way.  It was an amazing day – fall has always felt like a new beginning to me, whether the beginning of the school year or the mark of a new season – it’s inspiring and invigorating.  The dogs were ecstatic, and so were we.  It was the perfect day for what amounted to an eight-mile urban hike.

One of the interesting sculptures in Parque Juan Carlos I - the fingers actually had fingerprints!

One of those amazing fall days.

Sailing in Madrid! We enjoyed watching the racers - the boats were pretty impressive in the blustery wind.

Switzerland – green and clean…and expensive

29 Jul

We were able to get a bit of a headstart on our drive back to Madrid on Friday afternoon (instead of a grueling two-day drive to Spain) – our goal was to make it to Basel, Switzerland by the early evening.  The drive through southern Germany was a little more stressful than we had hoped, as apparently lots of other people were getting a jump on the weekend, too.  We had stop-and-go traffic out of Düsseldorf and then right before a major turnoff for Münich that probably tacked on an extra hour for our drive time – it wasn’t too bad, though, and we channel-surfed the radio channels between German news (where we learned there was a “stress test” in Stüttgart) and the Air Force Eagle radio channel out of Wiesbaden (where we heard the weather in Fahrenheit and listened to classic rock).

We made it to Basel with no issues after many kilometers of rolling Autobahn, as we began to approach the real mountains.  The Swiss border crossing was another non-issue since even though Switzerland is not a member of the European Union, they are a party to the Schengen accords which allows (for Americans) a 90-day entrance – no need to show passports at all.  For the most part, the borders continue to be nearly nonexistent!  Switzerland does require that all vehicles entering the country pay a one-time toll that earns you a window sticker for 40 Swiss francs (~30€/$42 unless you are like us and decide too quickly to take the quick pay in cash option that gives you a bad exchange rate, rather than the wait in line option that allows you to pay with a credit card to get the best exchange rate).

When driving through Switzerland - "bucolic" comes to mind.

This was at a Swiss rest stop. Really.

We had decided to book a room at the Best Western in Basel’s Stücki area because of the price and their “no restrictions” on pets policy (we still paid 12€/$17 per dog, but that seems okay to me because we don’t have to smuggle two 50+ lb. dogs into the room under wriggling blankets through the well-lit, open lobby).  The room was fantastic, as it should be for the low-low price of ~150 Swiss francs ($191).  Outside, a lovely walking area along a river was festooned with trash cans every 15 feet with “Bravo” dog bags to clean up after your furry friend.  We were stopped by a chatty Swiss German woman who wanted to pet the girls and who was happy to talk a bit with us – I hope I never get tired of the thrill of understanding and being understood in another language, as it is one of my favorite parts of being in Europe.

We also came across a woman with three old, little dogs; one was quite happy to follow Haley at a short distance, sniff at wherever she had been and pee.  Haley gave no notice of her groupie.  The next morning, when we came upon the same small army, Jordan obliterated whatever connection had been there before with some pre-emptive barking, and we woke up the whole city block with four dogs in an excalating frenzy, with Haley again paying no heed.  As irritating as it can be sometimes with the lovely quiet of the dawn is broken, dogs and their ways are highly entertaining to watch.

Our meals in Switzerland were good – funny enough, we opted for Italian for both Friday’s dinner in Basel and Saturday’s lunch in Geneva (it’s a fair choice given the proximity to Italy!).  Lunch in Geneva in the premier shopping district only set us back about $70, but it was good and the dogs sat at the table with us again.

Our $70 lunch of pizza and pasta - it was good, but the dogs thought it was a rip-off because there were no biscuits for them.

Sampling Swiss brew - this was a dark Hefeweizen.

A couple of fun facts you may not have known about Switzerland:

  • German, French, Italian and Romansh are all recognized languages in Switzerland.
  • It only takes 12 years of living in Switzerland before you can apply for naturalization and become a Swiss citizen.
  • The Swiss have reputedly the highest rate of chocolate consumption.

Expensive? Maybe just a little.

Jordan & Haley’s travel tips

24 Jul

Our dogs are no strangers to road trips.  They’ve been with us on long rides to Arkansas to visit Justin’s parents; on our national park tour last year that looped through Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado; and on their recent journey from Texas to New Jersey in preparation for their flight to Madrid.

Jordan and Haley are pretty tolerant of most things, but we do find that letting them out of the car regularly to stretch their legs is very much appreciated – the dogs can release some of their pent-up energy, relieve themselves and check pee-mail.  When it’s time to go again, they seem happy enough to pile in the car and be off to the next place.  We always have fewer of Jordan’s sit-down strikes (these require our intervention to “help” her back into the car) when we stop more.

I thought I would mention a things that we’ve learned that make traveling with our dogs easier, both in Europe so far and back in the states:

  • Bringing our own sheet for the dogs to sit or lay on:  we have been renting a lot of cars lately, and the last thing we want to deal with is a rental car company who is unhappy with the dog hair that impales itself onto anything and everything within 10 feet of our dogs.  We use the sheet for rental cars as well as to protect the typical, bright-white comforters that hotels love to use since our dogs have always been allowed to make themselves at home on furniture at home (and they won’t be told otherwise while traveling).
  • Child’s mattress from IKEA: we have not yet found a place in Madrid to buy dog beds, so we did an impulse buy at IKEA last week and purchased a small mattress for about $45.  This mattress has made our road trip from Madrid to Düsseldorf really comfortable for the dogs.  We laid it across the backseat, so they had a flat, cushy surface to stretch out on.  It also raised them up a little higher so that they could see out the front windshield easier, as well as out of the back windows.  Compared to other road trips we have taken with the dogs, they seem much more content – even languid!
  • Pet passports: we made a special appointment last week to get our dogs their EU pet passports.  Of course, in the chaos of moving apartments on Friday and then preparing for the road trip, I managed to leave the pet passports at home!  I do have all of the vet records with me, in case they are required, but in all actuality, crossing borders has been almost imperceptible – leaving Spain and France was marked by a toll booth (both countries want you to pay your share for traveling on their roads!), but we almost missed crossing into both Luxembourg and Germany except for noting that the language on the signs changed from French to German for Luxembourg, and in Germany, the sign formats changed a little bit.  However, we will be bringing the pet passports in the future.
  • Plastic doggie bags:  we discovered special trashcans in Madrid with secret dog poop bags hidden in a crevice, so we’ve been able to use these bags to do our part to keep the grass in Spain free from the mierda de nuestros perros.  We have not yet discovered poop bags in Germany, so it has been good for us to bring our own supply along.
  • Treats:  Jordan and Haley requested that I add “treats” to the list of essential items to bring when traveling with them.

Road-tripping with the dogs. They're quite comfortable on their IKEA mattress.

Occasionally Jordan wants to sit under the IKEA mattress.

One of the biggest challenges we have faced, though, is acclimatizing our dogs to a much more urban environment than they are used to.  Prior to Madrid, everywhere else we have lived has had “green” areas very close – grass was never far away.  Both in Madrid’s and now Düsseldorf’s city centers, it has been more of a challenge to find “appropriate” grass for our dogs.  When we finally arrived in Düsseldorf on Sunday a little after 8pm, Justin unloaded the car while I took both dogs out to find an area where they could relieve themselves.  A half-hour later, I was back at the hotel to find Justin so he didn’t think we had wandered to Belgium, to tell him we needed to keep walking because Jordan was having none of the “piss on that leaf” argument that I proposed.  I was in a bit of a foul mood, as I thought I had found a green area for the dogs, but it turned out to be the tram tracks (and I had a bit of an unpleasant surprise when the tram showed up and freaked me out!).

Lesson learned - this grass is not for pissing!

We’re slowly figuring things out, though, and I think the dogs are, too.  Haley’s decided that the pavement works in a pinch if she really has to go, and we’re trying to give the dogs ample opportunity to explore, including coming to dinner when restaurants allow it, since we really like spending time with them.

Road trip!

20 Jul

Justin’s company is headquartered in Germany, in Düsseldorf.  We expected to head to Germany in a few weeks and had started thinking about a road trip, but Justin just found out he needs to attend a meeting next week in Düsseldorf, so we’re heading out on Saturday!

Since we’re effectively living out of suitcases, anyway, we’re rolling with it – our plan is to move into our new apartment Friday after work, when Justin picks up a rental car to move the bikes, dog kennels, dogs and our stuff.  We’ll then return that car by 7:30pm and pick up a slightly smaller, more fuel-efficient car at that time so that we can head out early in the morning.  The dogs have their passports and we have ours, so our European travels start this weekend!

Madrid to Düsseldorf should be ~1,830 kilometers ( 1,137 miles); since we’ll both drive, it should hopefully be a 20-hour trip (maybe a little longer to allow the dogs more time to stretch their legs and account for the potential of getting distracted in Paris on Sunday when the Tour of France ends…).  The plan is to take a route like the following:

Our planned route to Germany, courtesy of Google Maps.

We’ve made reservations to stay in La Rochelle, France on Saturday night, and we should be in Düsseldorf for Sunday night.  Although we’ve heard that the French and Spanish welcome dogs, we had a bit of a struggle finding dog-friendly hotels for our night in France, but we’ve been able to confirm that a Best Western will accommodate the pups.  Germany was no problem at all – Justin called the hotel we wanted to stay at and was able to communicate that our dogs are “nice”, so the lady at the hotel said it would be fine if they came along.

This trip is a big deal for me – I’ve twice made plans to be an exchange student in Germany and twice had reasons not to go, so I am very much looking forward to finally going to Deutschland.  I’ve taken a lot of foreign language in high school and college (8 years of German, 4 years of French, 2 years of Japanese, an intensive semester of Spanish and a quarter of Danish), but as much as I loved learning language, I’ve not taken the opportunities I should have to go abroad and use the languages I’ve learned.  So, in my mind, I’ve been more of an “appreciator” of languages than a “speaker”.  Not anymore, though.

Side note – here’s a fun summary of how different cultures represent dog barks in various languages (Jordan and Haley appear to have it much easier for this trip than Justin and I do when communicating with the locals):

USA – woof, woof

Spain (Castilian) – guau-guau; gua, gua; jau, jau

Spain (Catalon) – bau, bau; bub, bub

France – wuff, wuff; wau, wau; rawrau, rawrau

Germany – wuff, wuff; wau, wau; rawrau, rawrau

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