Monday, June 17, 2013


Okay, so, last Thursday, I'm sitting at my computer working.  My wife comes up to me and says "I want to do a sprint triathlon this Saturday.  For exact reasons unknown to me, I said "Sure, I'll do it with you".  Anna was both surprised and excited, so I knew at that point, there was no backing out.  Well, almost no backing out.  We discovered that the water was going to be around 17.7 C, and we didn't actually know how cold that was (64 F) in terms of comfort level.  Some preliminary googling suggested a wetsuit might be in order, however, after consulting with friends on Facebook, it was determined that a wetsuit was not absolutely necessary (which was good, since getting a wetsuit at the last minute was going to be inconvenient).  So, with no more excuses, we got ready for the sprint triathlon.

What I hadn't realized, was that I was also committing myself to getting TO the triathlon.  We don't have a car.  Well, actually we do, but it's in Minnesota, so it does not do us much good for getting to things here in Germany.  So we took a train part way, and then rode the remaining 10km to the triathlon start.  From there it was just a matter of signing in, and trying to decipher where to go, and what the rules actually were (I'd never actually done one of these before, and it turns out there are all kinds of little details, like what do you actually want to wear for each bit?  Where do you put your stuff?  Do you wear the little chip thingy on your ankle or on your wrist?)
Me running so fast the photo is blurry

It was fun.  I definitely could have done better on the swimming - I managed to get behind some rather slow people, and was a little slow in figuring out the best way to pass them.  In the bike ride, I actually managed to pass someone (okay, so I'm not the fastest out there.  In fact, I got beaten by a 75+ year old.  By 8 minutes).
Someone much fitter than me in the process of leaving me behind
I was consoling myself that when one is in last place (or almost last place), at least there's no one left to pass you.  And then the second wave started passing me.  Near the front of these was my wonderful wife, who said hi as she left me in her dust.

Triathlons in Germany seem to have some distinctive features.  One of these is that you might find beer in the water bottle holders of very expensive bikes post-race (or maybe it was there during the race...)

This was also the first race in which my wife won a sausage.  Literally.
Anna pondering what do do with the sausage
The winners with their sausages

Only the best get the wurst
So, that was my first triathlon experience.  It was a lot of fun, and I think I'll probably do another one sometime.  Actually, given that Anna has already pulled up the schedule of when every other triathlon in the state of Hessen is (our state), I give it really high odds that I will be doing another one in the not too distant future.

Actually, there's one more part of the triathlon experience.  And that is that we didn't want to take the train home...  So we biked the 30 km back to Marburg, with all our stuff on our backs.  Which meant we covered a greater distance getting to and from the triathlon (40 km) than we did actually racing it (25.5 km).
On the bike ride home.  Note the Pringles can in my right backpack pocket.  If your vehicle is a car, it might not be a bad idea, but when everything you bring is riding home with you on a bike, packing light takes on a new, and previously under-appreciated-by-me level of importance.  The full-sized beach towel will also stay at home next time...

Editor's note (aka Anna): what Sasha is modestly failing to point out is that this is his first race since approximately middle school and a year ago he couldn't run 5km without walking, so I am VERY impressed that he did the running AND swimming and biking and riding home!!  Yay Sasha!!!  And in case that wasn't enough exclamation points, !!!!!!!!!!!

Monday, June 10, 2013

Spanish food is delicious

OK, so I promised my family that I’d write about the food in Spain, and here it is. I’m not going to give you a report of everything we ate in Spain, just some of the highlights.

Probably the most ubiquitous things we ate in Spain were green olives (usually marinated with garlic and/or seasonings and on the table before any other food at every restaurant we ate at) and tortilla.  I don’t mean the flat disks of corn or wheat dough that anyone who has eaten Mexican food is probably thinking of, but instead, what is usually translated on the English versions of the menus as “Spanish omelette”.  They are both simple and delicious, and consist of some sort of fried potato with onion that is then mixed with whipped egg and cooked until it is golden-brown on both sides and solid-ish all the way through. Since I have recently had a tortilla making lesson from Nuria, perhaps I will give you a step-by-step tortilla lesson later on, but for now, you can just take my word for it that tortilla sounds simple from its ingredient list (eggs, potato, onion, olive oil, salt and pepper…that’s it) but is very satisfying to eat.  It is also a staple on tapas menus and we ate them many times during our travels.
Tapas in Madrid, the plate that's mostly empty had held the tortilla, the other things are albondigas (meatballs, left) croquettas (filled with meat and bechamel, middle) and bread (far right) and peach juice. Yum.

I was kind of expecting to eat Tapas most evenings for dinner because they are served earlier and are often cheaper than full-meals, but the problem is that most tapas places at least in the big cities seem to be small hole-in-the-wall places, and it’s just too hard to figure out which ones are “amazing find” holes in the wall, and which are “disappointing and/or sketchy” places, so we mostly were boring and ate at places in our guidebook.  Also, I realized that in a new town, particularly if I can’t read enough of the menu, I tend to pick places by a combination of the number of people eating there and by the look of the food that those people are eating.  That’s an OK strategy (yes, I realize that in tourist towns, the fact that many people use that strategy could lead to weird positive feedback loops on any given night but so be it) but had a problem this trip because most restaurants were empty when we wanted to eat. Yes, the Spanish meal hour could have played a role, but my hypothesis is that given the economic crisis, many people just aren’t eating out very often in Spain.  There’s what, 20% unemployment, and then even many employed people are just not getting paid for their work some months.  I wouldn’t go out to eat often if that were the case for me.

But, back to the food.  We had a delicious dinner in Merida, but the first amusing food story is from the night we were staying in El Rocio.  I voted to go to the Atlantic for dinner, and I wanted fish, so after watching the sun set over the ocean, we found a place that said it did fried fish (not in our book) and then promptly had a problem. I don’t know Spanish, and while Sasha can say many things (including basically everything you need to get hotel rooms, rental cars, etc.) he doesn’t know the Spanish name for most species of fish.  So we ordered non-fried shrimp (no problem, even I knew the word for shrimp) then wanted some fried fish and asked the waitress for a recommendation, and she recommended something that started with a B.  She said they were delicious, so we were excited, but then we got a pile of lightly breaded and fried fish that were maybe two inches long and were gutted but still had heads, tails and skin on…Hmmm… we had to ask how we were supposed to eat them, and (we think) we were told to leave the heads and tails and just eat the skin and meat off the backbone.  Maybe you could eat the whole things, but the tails and spines seemed a bit poke-y and the heads just didn't seem appealing.  They were good, if a bit of work.
How often does dinner require instructions from the waitress?

The fish. Still don't know what they were. Not that I've tried to figure it out.

The shrimp and the olives. We knew how to eat these.
The next night, we ate right at our hotel and the food was fine and the Sangria was also fine.  Mmmm....sangria...

Then came the best meal of the trip.  We ate lunch with Nuria and her family, and I think they were excited to have foreign guests, so served us a whole slew of amazing things.  First, we had slices of jamon (spanish for ham, but it is a different thing from your average US grocery store ham; closer to prosciutto) and sausage and tuna mixed with roasted, olive-oil soaked peppers, and bread and delicious tomatoes.  We could really have stopped there and been satisfied, but then, there was stew called puchero (I think it can also be called cocido) that contained several different types of meat and chickpeas and carrots and potatoes and we first ate a bowl of the soup part. It had the color of chicken noodle soup, maybe a bit more golden, but it had such a complex flavor it was amazing (apparently you need to use 2 very specific types of salt-cured bones to get it to taste right), and the whole thing was cooked in a pressure cooker, so the chick peas were silken almost, which was also delicious.  Then, we took bits of the meat that had been cooking in the soup and mixed in a small amount of pork fat that had been cooking with it (we used just a bit of the fat, but were told that it needed it to be authentic) and the meat was so tender and the fat infused it with richness, etc. that it was also amazing.  OK, that would have also been enough, but THEN Nuria’s sister had made a soup called Salmorejo that is usually tomatoes and garlic and bread that’s then blended to be smooth (like gazpacho but not quite the same) but apparently her sister roasts the garlic and tomatoes first, so the soup was still a creamy smooth pink, but the flavor was, well, more nuanced and rounder like you’d expect from roasted ingredients. Wow.  I love food, and that was an amazing, amazing meal. Yum.  Nuria half-jokes that maybe if she can’t figure out what to do after this post-doc in science, she should open up a restaurant.  I think she’s also a good scientist, but if she goes the restaurant route, I’ll try to be the first in line when it opens!

That evening, we went out to a delicious tapas place.  We had a bunch of things since there were 4 of us, and they were all great, from favas with ham, to these delicious guys:
I think they were cuttlefish, but I know they were delicious, as does Marek (posing in the picture)

The last thing I want to particularly talk about are churros. I remember having churros at the roller rink where we had skating parties in elementary school, and I remember ridged things fried and dipped in cinnamon and sugar.  Maybe those are more like the Mexican verison, but the Spanish ones that we ate were smooth on the outside and are extruded by a fancy machine right into hot oil in long ropes, which are then cut and served to you while still quite hot.  We had them in Tarifa and got them to go, so just emptied a few packs of sugar into the paper bag and shook it to coat them with sugar (and ate them sitting on a stone wall watching a kite surfer playing) 
OK, so we started sampling them before reaching the beach

but then we had them in Madrid in true Madrid fashion, with a cup of hot chocolate (not hot chocolate like you drink, but something that is much thicker, think melted chocolate bar) to dip them in before every bite.  Yum. AND, they had this nifty orange juice machine where they could push a button and the oranges would get automatically cut in half and squeezed.  That was some of the best orange juice, and was the perfect beverage to counteract the intensity of the chocolate and the grease of the churros; I had 2 glasses.  If you are going to Madrid, make sure you have such a meal.  We ate at Chocolateria Valor because our book said it was the best in town, but if you find a better one, please let us know and we’ll have an excuse to go back to Spain.    
Best. Breakfast. Ever. (or at least one of them)

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Granada and Madrid

Hi folks!

I have been distracted by 2 more recent trips (posts to follow) so I’ll keep the final report on our Spain travels short.  After leaving Gibraltar, we headed to Granada and then Madrid.  The birding part of our trip was over, and now we were on to cultural experiences.  Our arrival to Granada was a bit traumatic.  We were trying to get to our hotel and just couldn’t figure out how to get to it, despite all indications from the GPS that we were almost there.  Finally, we found a garage and walked to the hotel and then realized our trouble; our hotel was in a pedestrian-only area; there was NO chance of driving within a few blocks of our hotel.  They had a deal with a different garage for parking, so we had to go move the car; here is the map that was drawn for us to get from garage A to garage B….looking somewhat like one of those Family Circus cartoons mapping out Billy’s perambulations.  In fact, maybe the explanation for his lines is that he’s applying the “ancient European city by car” method of navigation…

Try to minimize driving in Granada...unless you want to feel like little Billy
Anyway, that taken care of, we located for ourselves a delicious Lebanese dinner, and then prepared for a very early morning.  There is a UNESCO World Heritage Site fortress in Granada called the Alhambra, and it is very popular, they give out up to 6,000 tickets a day and they often sell out, and since we wanted to tour the whole thing including the most famous (and beautiful) palace, even ordering our tickets on-line in advance, we were stuck with the 8:30am entry time into the palace...which doesn’t sound horribly early, but add in the eating dinner on Spanish time, needing to check out of the hotel in the morning, and needing to figure out how to get up there and into the general fortress area and into the waiting line, it seemed like a ridiculously early morning.  BUT, the Palacio Nazaries (and the rest of the Alhambra) are really spectacular, and it turns out, much less crowded early in the morning, so it was all good, ultimately.  The Alhambra is a huge site, and it’s full of palaces from a variety of periods, mostly Islamic.  The architecture and details on the palace were impressive,  the Alcazaba (another medieval Islamic fort) had some great views and towers to climb up, and then there were gardens and roses everywhere, so I’d definitely recommend it if you are going to be anywhere nearby.  Just figure out somewhere easy to leave your car if you do.  I could spend about 3 posts just describing the palace, but instead, I'll merely tempt you with a few photos that hardly do it justice.

the Nazrid palace was a set of courtyards filled with gardens, fountains, etc.

And each of them was surrounded by intricate architecture and suites of rooms, effectively making up a warren of smaller palaces, each with its own unique style and representing a different time of construction

From the Alcazaba, we could see the snowy Sierra Nevada

And were impressed by Granada's beauty...I think Sasha would go back tomorrow if we could afford it.
By noon, we’d seen about everything we wanted to see at the Alhambra, and the place was getting pretty crowded, so we went back down the hill into town.  We poked our heads into the Cathedral, right near where we’d been staying, picked our luggage up from the hotel, and then spent a very nice hour and a half in an Islamic bath called a Hammam.  That was yet another highlight for the trip.  The bath consists of a set of pools of various temperatures, warm, hot (but not scalding), cold, a sitting area where they keep bringing out fresh pots of sweetened mint tea (which is delicious), and you go from the warm pool to the hot pool, to the cold pool, back to the hot pool, to drink a few glasses of tea, back to the warm pool, to get a massage, etc. and by the end, well, if you are the kind of person who finds warm water nice, you know how relaxed and happy you’d be by the end of that…I would go back to Granada again just to visit another Hammam.
It was steamy, and made my camera lens steam, but I wish every town I live in from here on out has one of these.

But, we had to go return the rental car, so we couldn’t stay all afternoon.  After our experiences in Granada, we decided not to bother with the car in Madrid, so we dropped the car back off, left all of our luggage in lockers right at the airport except for small daypacks.  This is the best thing ever, having locker areas at the airport; I wish this were common in the states, it makes travel SO much easier, although I’m sure with the state-encouraged paranoia in the states, it is probably illegal or something, but anyway, it was nice to be able to travel around Madrid without having to drag our luggage.

We didn’t do much that first evening, but then on our final day in Spain, we spent the morning wandering around Madrid, checking out some of the more famous plazas, and then after lunch, went to the Prado museum to look at art.   

A road leading out of the Plaza Mayor

I have come to realize that as much as any museum, I just love wandering the streets of any city, getting a sense of local life and window looked like they make your shoes to order in here, or I would have bought one of each ;-)
There are 3 really famous art museums in Madrid, and the Prado is the one full of mostly Spanish paintings by folks including El Greco, Goya, and other folks that you’d read about in an art history class.  Not everything was from my favorite eras of painting, but there were some really pretty works, as well as some interesting but bizarre ones (including a few bizarrely disturbing ones by Hieronomous Bosch; every time I see his work, it seems even more strange and more odd given how old the paintings are).  After that, we walked through a lovely park on our way back to the airport, getting home to Marburg in a long but uneventful fashion.
I hope we'll make it back to Spain at some point, there are still so many things to do. We could even do exactly the same trip over again and not feel bored.