“We ought to do good to others as simply as a horse runs, or a bee makes honey, or a vine bears grapes season after season without thinking of the grapes it has borne.”
Right now, in pride of place on my refrigerator, I’ve stuck a printout from a site called Lily’s Legacy, on which I’ve scrawled, in large red letters, “We are doing this!”
Lily’s is a California sanctuary for older dogs who find themselves alone in the world. And while founder Alice Mayn is busy trying to get them adopted, neighborhood volunteers in the “Cuddle Club” spend time on her comfy couches, petting these sweet old animals and letting them know they are still loved. When Rich and I return to California next month for a long visit, one of the first things we’re doing is signing up for that job.
In theory, of course, it’s for the dogs’ benefit. But frankly, I think we’ll be the ones getting the better deal here. For a start, it’s a chance to deploy our siesta skills, honed during fifteen years of living in Seville. Rich is particularly gifted at dropping off to sleep anywhere, and I foresee he’ll be doing some deep, cozy snoozing with the beasts. And then there are all those tremendous health benefits that come from hanging out with dogs, including boosting our immune system, strengthening our hearts, lowering our cholesterol, making us more allergy resistant, and reducing the modern world’s pervasive sense of isolation and depression. I wouldn’t be surprised if Lily’s Legacy added many dog years to our lives.
One of the great things about community service is that it comes in all shapes and sizes: soup kitchens, hospice, or just cherishing an abandoned animal. And the benefits tend to flow freely in both directions. These days, I get the impression some think that working for the common good is an old-fashioned virtue, if not an outright sign of weakness, but I am convinced it makes us stronger, as individuals and a community. Studies have shown that just witnessing acts of kindness and compassion gives us a high known as “moral elevation” that boosts our optimism and inspires us to more altruistic behavior. If we start an upward spiral of altruism, there’s no telling what might happen.
More good news: you don’t need to be a saint to indulge in altruistic behavior. In fact, you don’t even need to be human. (Although if you are reading this right now, I suspect you probably are.) Take the story of Odin, a Great Pyrenees dog that refused emergency evacuation during California’s devastating Tubbs Fire of 2017.
“Despite the sounds of exploding propane tanks, twisting metal, and the hot swirling winds, Odin refused to leave our family of eight bottle-fed rescue goats,” said his owner Roland Hendel. “He was determined to stay with the goats and I had to let him do it.” He added, “I was sure I had sentenced them to a horrific and agonizing death.”
Incredibly, all the animals all survived. Oden emerged with a singed coat, melted whiskers, and a limp, but he’d stood fast, protecting the goats and a few terrified baby deer who joined the little flock. Hailed as a hero by his family, Odin will, I suspect, be fed steak dinners for the rest of his life.
There have been countless human heroes in the Californian wildfires, too, including nurse Allyn Pierce, who in 2018 drove straight through the Camp Fire inferno to rescue patients in the intensive care unit he manages. Eventually, after two trips through the flames, he and other first responders got everyone to safety. “I just kept thinking, ‘I’m going to die in melting plastic,’” Pierce recalls. He posted this photo of his truck, toasted to a color he now refers to as “Custom Campfire Marshmallow.”
I don’t think any of us knows what we’re capable of in a truly desperate situation, and sometimes an entire nation can astonish you. I particularly love the story of young King Zog, the first and only monarch of Albania, who came to the throne in the turbulent run-up to World War II. As leader of a small, beleaguered nation with a population that was three-quarters Muslim, King Zog had plenty on his plate already. But he quietly let it be known that the entire population of Albania stood ready to help European Jews who were fleeing for their lives. Why? Because the Albanians have an ancient code of honor that forms the backbone of the national character, and one of its key concepts is besa, offering shelter to those in need. For the Albanians, it would have been unthinkable to do anything except welcome and protect their desperate neighbors.
“Jews, who had escaped from other countries and who had literally been branded on the forehead with a J, were astonished to learn that the local population was jostling amongst themselves for the honour of sheltering them, for the honour of saving their lives,” wrote the publication Diplomat. “Neighbours even shared the privilege, based on their ability to contribute to the welfare of their ‘guest.’ In one case, a rich neighbour fed the people in their care, while a poor neighbour gave them a bed to sleep in each night. No threats of punishment or death could cause these people to waver in their commitment.” Albania was the only country in Europe whose Jewish population grew tenfold during World War II.
This chapter of Albanian history remained largely unknown until an American photographer named Norman H. Gershman stumbled on the story and began photographing those who had hidden Jewish families — in some cases housing them in the attic while German soldiers were billeted downstairs.
“How many people,” asks the film, “would lay down their lives for a stranger?” Most of us (thank God) will never be called on to make that kind of sacrifice. But there are plenty of smaller ways to show our decency and compassion. Often they’re nothing noble, or even particularly dignified — bringing a meal to a sick friend, buying the person in line behind you a cup of coffee, sprawling on a couch with a drooling Labrador and trying not to wonder if it has fleas. Sometimes it’s a simple as a thoughtful message on social media.
Five minutes ago, as I was putting the finishing touches on this article, I learned that yesterday, February 17, was Random Acts of Kindness Day. For a moment, I felt a pang of regret that I’d missed it. Then I realized I was looking at it all wrong. I now have 364 days to pay it forward in preparation for the next one.
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Show of hands: how many of you actually like going to the dentist? Anyone? I certainly don’t. In fact, I pretty much need a shot of novocaine just to call and make the appointment, especially if I’m trying out a new dental practice. And that goes double in a foreign country. I’m such a coward that until now, I’ve always managed to be in America when it was time for dental maintenance. But last week, seriously overdue a cleaning, I gritted my teeth and booked an appointment with a Seville dentist. He came highly recommended by a friend, who mentioned — in some detail — his vivid good looks and luxurious hair. No, sorry, I don’t have any photos to share. You’ll just have to use your imagination.
But the really striking thing about my visit to his dental practice was how efficient and painless everything was. If you’ve ever suffered through x-rays taken via a series of uncomfortable vinyl-clad carboard inserts jammed into your cheeks, you’ll appreciate that I simply rested my chin on a support and the machine rotated around me like something out of Star Trek. The cleaning was all done via water pressure, without a single jab to the gums with a sharp metal implement. Before I knew it I was back out on the street with a brighter smile and a couple of complimentary bamboo toothbrushes.
It’s natural to be nervous about health care in a foreign country, and you're wise to be cautious, do your research, and seek the best available care. With a bit of luck, you just might find yourself pleasantly surprised by the whole experience.
For instance, last April, just before starting our five-month Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour, Rich underwent a very minor medical procedure and was told to have the dressings changed, by health professionals, every other day for the next month. Our first stop was a clinic in Heraklion, Crete. Having emailed ahead to discuss his case — and his willingness to pay full price in cash — Rich was greeted with considerable enthusiasm. He was whisked to the head of the line and a neurosurgeon was summoned to change the bandage. It was all very gratifying, and the care could not have been better. Eventually Rich decided to try the free public health facilities, which turned out to be equally as clean, professional, and competent. And did I mention they were free?
Two weeks ago here in Seville, I dropped in to see an 87-year-old friend and found her fretting about an earache. I walked five blocks to the nearest public health center and made an appointment for later that same day. The doctor — thanks to the universal medical records system — had my friend’s full history at his fingertips. Unlike the US, they don’t make you undress and get into a paper gown every time you visit, nor do they send in a nurse to take all your vitals. The doctor determines what body parts need to be examined and focuses on those. In this case, he peered into my friend’s ear and checked her blood pressure, which has been problematic in the past, but was OK now.
He tapped a few keys on his computer and told me he’d prescribed a mild pain killer. When I asked what pharmacy he’d sent the prescription to, he looked at me strangely. “All of them,” he said. You’ve got to love the efficiency!
Not being a Spanish citizen, I don’t qualify for the public medical system and I’m required to have private health insurance. Rich and I pay 2,600€ ($2845) a year for outpatient coverage for both of us with Sanitas, a private carrier geared to expats. We get unlimited office visits and (brace yourself) house calls. And they reimburse us for 80% of any costs we incur — for instance, those fees from the private clinics in Crete.
My Sanitas insurance doesn’t cover prescriptions, but that’s OK because the meds I take are affordable here. For example, in the US a 90-day supply of thyroid tablets retails for $132; my drug benefits reduce it to $9.93. In Spain I pay just 3.85€ ($4.21) for the same Merck pharmaceuticals. This insurance doesn’t cover dental either, but like the meds, these services are reasonably priced. I paid 50€ ($55) for x-rays and teeth cleaning; in the US those services typically run $200 to $300. I’ve read that in Los Angeles, these services can cost up to $3,800; I can only assume that to justify those prices, the cleanings are done by actor Ed Helms, reprising his role as Stu the Dentist in the movie Hangover.
Sometimes our concerns about foreign medical care make us do extraordinarily foolish things. When an American nurse I know got food poisoning in England, she insisted on immediately flying back to the US rather than getting treatment from local providers. I don’t even want to imagine what that flight was like for her, her husband, or anyone else in the vicinity.
Why would she put herself through that kind of suffering? Because she believed the American health care industry, which has spent billions of dollars trying to convince us that they provide the only decent medical care on the planet. And that any health services outside our borders will be so medieval we’ll wind up with something worse than whatever we walked in with. None of that is true. The World Health Organization’s 2020 rankings place the quality of healthcare in the US at number 37 — well below, for instance, France (1), Spain (7), Greece (14), Columbia (22), and Morocco (29). Yes, below Morocco, folks! The UK is ranked a healthy 18, suggesting my friend could have received better care there than in her own country.
The World Health Organization ranked countries by the care process (preventative care measures, safe care, coordinated care, and engagement and patient preferences), access (affordability and timeliness), administrative efficiency, equity, and healthcare outcomes (population health, mortality amenable to healthcare, and disease-specific health outcomes).
Of course, for major issues, flying home may prove sensible. It’s easier to navigate a known medical system, with familiar doctors who speak your language and specialize in precisely what ails you. And if you’re traveling in a poor, rural region known for substandard medical care, you'll want to head to the nearest city. But most of the time, our health issues can be dealt with locally. Rich’s legendary first aid kit is our first line of defense, a visit to the pharmacy comes next, and, if necessary, we research local clinics online. You can also check with the nearest US embassy or consulate; they often have lists of English-speaking doctors. Sadly, not all providers have been as handsome as my dentist — indeed, many look more like Elmer Fudd or Margaret Thatcher — but they’ve all proved to be competent professionals who took good care of us in our hour of need.
Journalist Bill Moyars once said, “When I learn something new — and it happens every day — I feel a little more at home in this universe, a little more comfortable in the nest.” The more I learn about healthcare in other countries, the less anxious I feel about what would happen if I got sick on the road, and the more comfortable I am about moving freely around the world.
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Lots of us dream about taking a job overseas, and when I heard that Jo Maeder, bestselling author and former top New York DJ, actually took the plunge, I wanted to know how she did it. We’d met up in Seville, and the conversation turned to travel with a purpose and the many ways that having a focus for our journeys offers opportunities to dig deeper and learn more about other cultures — and ourselves.
What inspired you to work abroad?
It was June 2017 and oppressively hot in North Carolina. I had to get away. I used to travel every year. Somehow it had been nine since my last real trip. I’d fallen into The Freelancer’s Quandary: when you have the time to travel, you don’t want to spend the money because you’re not working. When you have the money you don’t have the time because you’re working.
I was determined to hack at least two weeks in France, in a nice place, for under $2,000 including airfare. If I could make the trip a résumé builder it would be guilt-free, though I didn’t want it too work-related or it wouldn’t feel like a vacation.
How did you find your overseas job?
I Googled “travel work exchange” hoping to find a small business with no time to do social media and update their website. Based on reviews, I narrowed the choices of “cultural exchange” sites to HelpX.net and Workaway.info. You’re expected to work five hours a day, five days a week in exchange for room and board. You pay your travel expenses. Some hosts offer a small stipend. They’re rare. There were opportunities all over the world from farms to child care to remodeling. I used keywords related to the freelance marketing work I did.
Like online dating, you can only do so much for free on these sites. To connect with a host you have to create a profile and pay a membership fee. HelpX is €20 for two years. Workaway is $42 a year for one person, $54 for a couple/friends. HelpX is where I found my incredible match at the Hotel de Cours de Thomazeau in Castillonnès, France.
What kind of work did you find?
I was nervous because it seemed too good to be true. Would I end up scrubbing floors? It was an 18th century hôtel particulier [château] in southwest France near Bergerac owned by Jennie and Ron Whetton, a British couple (so no language issues). They had used only one other HelpXer, however her review of them was full of superlatives — always a good sign.
Jennie and I worked out that I would help with online marketing, social media, and their website. I still wasn’t sure about this and only signed on for two weeks. Then my wanderlust exploded and I figured as long as I was there, I’d see friends in Toulouse and Provence. My entire time away was 24 days.
How much did you pack for the trip?
I was reading your blog at this point and challenged myself to do the whole visit with one carry-on bag. It would not only eliminate the baggage time-waster when switching flights, it would give me hope that I was becoming the Minimalist I longed to be. (My mother was a Category 5 hoarder. I'm eternally afraid the apple won't fall far from the tree.) I used my trusty 20-year-old Travelpro carry-on and a roller "briefcase" for my computer.
How did you get along with your hosts?
Jennie and I were about the same age. She loved that I wasn’t a gap-year kid who had to be continually managed (not that the previous HelperXer was, but that was her biggest fear with outside help). I was so focused on my work for her that she often pulled me off the PC. “You can’t work all the time!” she’d say, then take me to an antique brocante (second-hand market) in another quaint town, to visit a friend, or to see a photo exhibit in a medieval church.
How were your living accommodations?
Need I say more?
What did you learn from this journey?
I would never wait another nine years to travel again. I would do this over and over in a heartbeat. I came back happier and more confident. I had no idea my life was about to change dramatically in many ways.
A sad part of my trip was that, right before I left North Carolina, I learned my beloved brother had not conquered his prostate cancer as we had thought. It had spread to his bones. It made me realize how quickly it all can change; how short our time is here. I made a trip to Lourdes and brought back a bottle of water for him. I had an experience there I’ll never forget. I went into a small room that had a statue of Mary. I lit a candle and prayed for my brother. It wasn’t the first time I had done this on the trip, but I felt something, a reverberation in the room, when I lit that one. It was like God put his hand on my shoulder and said “All will be fine.”
My brother lived almost another eight months. When he passed, I was heartbroken, naturally, but I knew he was finally at peace and not suffering. It was the same feeling I had at Lourdes.
A few months after my return, it was discovered by accident that I had an extremely rare non-cancerous tumor in one of my adrenal glands that had been pumping out ten times too much adrenalin on and off for years. I was at high risk for a stroke or heart attack. It was a miracle it was found. I’m a new person since it was removed. I’ve never felt this good! Would they have found it had I not gone to Lourdes? It depends on what you believe. It certainly didn’t hurt that I went there.
What I do know is that all that worrying about money and not enjoying life could very well have been killing me. It was also no wonder I’d been unmarried for 30 years despite wanting to be remarried and trying, trying, trying to find The One. It was now clear I could barely live with myself much less someone else.
I stopped coloring my hair and embraced a “this is me, take it or leave it” perspective. I changed careers and became a charity fundraiser and auctioneer. It’s lucrative, seasonal, highly gratifying work that leaves plenty of time to travel. I fell in love with a wonderful man who craves travel too and has plenty of time for it. We met — where else? — online. I said in my profile that with the right person, 1+1=3. He’s a mathematician. At last, I’m a “we” instead of a “me”. My sojourns are fulfilling in ways I never imagined possible.
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“People say that what we're all seeking is a meaning for life.… I think that what we're seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”
For me, the true purpose of travel is to feel “the rapture of being alive” that Joseph Campbell talked about. In the chaos and haste of our everyday lives, we survive by falling back on habitual ways of thinking and doing. Leaving all that behind and venturing into the unknown on a physical level, we open our hearts and minds to the world in fresh and vigorous ways. That’s when our inner and outer perspectives begin to align, and we feel the first stirrings of joy. And this is where things get interesting.
“The point of travel is to help us in our inner evolution,” says The Point of Travel video. “Every location in the world contains qualities that could support some kind of beneficial change inside a person.” Often that change is a simple one, such as feeling more rested or getting away from the office while we still cling to a few shreds of sanity and are able to refrain from throwing the stapler at the wall — or a colleague. In these uncertain times, we may need to refresh our souls by looking at objects of surpassing beauty that have endured for centuries so we can reconnect with our own resilience and sense of wonder
On my journeys, the most powerful transcendent moments happen when I connect with people. And that happens far more easily when I am traveling with a purpose. What kind of purpose? That’s different for everyone, of course, and it certainly doesn't need to be anything too grand or complicated. You might want to learn a little conversational Spanish, do volunteer work, or visit some of the dive bars you frequented in your misspent youth. Whatever your goal, you’ll find having one opens doors and creates conversations you’d never expect. During last summer’s Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour, everyone I met wanted to tell me about the traditional dishes of their childhood. Cooks invited me into their kitchens, introduced me to their families, and shared stories, recipes, and dreams.
One of the best ways to plunge into a culture is through work, whether paid or unpaid. Twenty-three years ago, Rich and I started volunteering with a couple of organizations that sent us to the Republic of Georgia, El Salvador, Kenya, Mexico, and Bosnia. Our goal was to provide basic business advice to struggling microenterprises. We’d spend weeks or months working with post-Soviet medical groups trying to navigate the transition to a capitalist system or assisting sewing collectives struggling to survive as cheap Chinese imports flooded into town. In the off hours, we’d get to know our hosts, their families, and their communities, enjoying many convivial evenings swapping stories and learning local drinking customs.
The organizations that we worked for no longer have active volunteer programs, but there are plenty of others on the lookout for an extra pair of hands. For instance, Habitat for Humanity, which helps people in disadvantaged neighborhoods build new homes for their families, now operates in 70 countries. Last summer, Rich and I spent a day working at a soup kitchen in Athens operated by the worldwide Catholic relief organization Caritas. If you Google volunteer programs, you’ll find countless listings, many of which provide excellent opportunities. But of course, you’ll want to use your consumer skepticism to investigate them thoroughly. Some charge a participation fee, and you certainly don’t want to pay big bucks to spend your time on a project of dubious utility.
Not all purposes have to be serious or even sensible. Rich has (and I say this lovingly) a peculiar and deep-seated obsession with luggage-free travel. He adores the feeling of freedom that comes from moving through the world unencumbered. And although it took him twenty years to convince me to try it, I find I like it, too, for shorter journeys. So far we’ve made luggage-free trips to France, Kosovo, Albania, and a haunted hotel in Santa Rosa, California, and I don’t have to be a psychic to predict there are more coming up in my future.
And speaking of the future, just this morning I stumbled across an alarming article that said, “Purpose is the latest business buzzword and it appears to be driving genuine change in the tourism industry.” Oh dear God, I thought. What fresh hell is this? Even our spiritual goals are being prepackaged and turned into marketable commodities by the tourism industry? Yep, apparently so. “This prompted travel brands to reposition themselves as organizations working to contribute to create a better world, rather than exploit it. Their focus is now about Purpose, with a capital ‘P.’” So there you have it, my friends. Super savvy industry marketers, knowing the number of international tourists is projected to hit 2 billion this year, are poised to compete for your purpose-driven travel dollars. Read the fine print and reviews Carefully, with a capital “C.”
No one knows what the future will bring, and in these days of alarming headlines and the commercialization of everything, it’s more important than ever to find honest, meaningful ways to embrace the world and love the human race, looney as it is. As a traveler, you shape the quality of your inner and outer journeys. “The big question,” said Joseph Campbell, “is whether you’re going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure.”
After I published this, a reader named Debbi wrote to ask if I'd share Carlotta's video. Here it is! It's one of my faves. You can almost smell that sausage risotto cooking...
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“One can't believe impossible things," Alice said in Through the Looking Glass (the sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland).
"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
That Queen would have felt right at home in Seville, where my credulity is constantly strained — and my funny bone tickled — by the myths and legends people have passed on to me as gospel truth. Here are six impossible things, and I hope you’ll manage to swallow all of them before breakfast.
Hercules Founded Seville.
Having your city established by an actual god conveys certain bragging rights, and to make certain nobody missed this point, in 1574 city officials built a vast public garden — Europe’s first — and named it the Alameda de Hercules. For decoration they chose six Roman columns that had stood on the other side of town for 14 centuries. Hauling ancient, 30-foot stone columns across a busy city by wagon; what could possibly go wrong? Incredibly, two made it safely to the new garden before one managed to roll off and shatter spectacularly in the faces of horrified onlookers.
No doubt a few heads rolled —possibly literally — over that snafu, and suddenly no one wanted the job of chief pillar transporter. The two surviving columns, topped with statues of Hercules and Julius Cesar respectively, stand at the southern end of the Alameda, their off-center alignment reflecting space left for the third. The other three columns are aging gracefully in the Calle Mármoles (Marbles Street).
When I went to Calle Mármoles today for a shot of the columns, I found this tour listening to a guide telling absolute whoppers about how the column was broken in transit to the Alcazar (Seville's Royal Palace) instead of the Alameda. But of course, when it comes to legends, who can be sure what's true?
A Crocodile Was Sent to Woo a Spanish Princess.
In 1260 the Sultan of Egypt sent a delegation laden with exotic gifts to ask for the hand of Princess Berenguela, King Alfonso X’s daughter. The gifts included a live crocodile, a domesticated giraffe, an elephant tusk, and a wizard’s wand. (I know, right? And nowadays guys get away with bringing us flowers and chocolates!) The king rejected the proposal but kept the gifts; the crocodile thrilled the populace for years.
When the beast had breathed its last, the king had its body stuffed and hung up in the cathedral along with the tusk, the wand, and the giraffe’s bridle bit. When the crocodile’s body eventually crumbled, a wooden replica was hung in its place, where it remains today, on the ceiling by the exit onto the Patio de los Naranjos (Patio of the Orange Trees).
Pedro the Cruel Nailed His Own Head to the Wall.
One dark night in the fourteenth century, young King Pedro the Cruel (known to his friends as “the Just”) was waylaid on a back street in my very neighborhood. The clash of swords caused an old woman to lean out an upstairs window. She didn’t see the king or his fatal thrust, but as he tiptoed away from his attacker’s corpse, she heard the telltale squeak of his knee from an old injury, a sound known to everyone in the city.
The dead man’s family showed up at the palace demanding the killer be found and brought to justice. The king, thinking no one knew the truth, promised a reward — which the old woman’s son came to claim. He took the king aside, pretending to point out the window, but actually pointing to a small mirror. The king rewarded him and announced that the next day the killer’s head would be nailed to the wall at the scene of the crime. (This was before we had all those pesky laws about due process, evidentiary hearings, etc.)
Naturally everyone in the city showed up, agog to know whodunnit. The king arrived with a large box containing, he said, the killer’s head; the identity would remain a secret to avoid sparking a blood feud. The box was nailed to the wall, secured with iron bands, and kept under guard day and night. Years later, when his enemies finally bumped Pedro off, they immediately opened the box. Inside, they found a marble bust of Pedro’s head. It’s still on that wall (without the box) on Calle Cabeza del Rey Don Pedro (Head of King Pedro Street).
Doña María Coronel’s Body is Miraculously Preserved.
Actually, her corpse is not so much preserved as mummified. And it’s probably just as well that we can’t see her features too clearly, as she was famously disfigured in a gruesome encounter with our old friend, Pedro the Cruel. Infatuated with her beauty, he chased her all over the city for months. When he finally cornered her in the kitchen of a convent (brace yourself, this bit’s ghastly) she dashed a pan of boiling oil in her own face to make herself unattractive to her pursuer. Incredibly she not only survived but went on the found the Santa Inéz Convent and lived to the age of 77. Her distinctly creepy remains are occasionally put on display at the convent on Calle Doña María Cornel Street.
They Killed the Mother of the Bull that Gored Manolete.
“And this is Islera,” said my guide on the bullring tour, with the profound loathing usually reserved for mentioning Hitler or Vlad the Impaler. “The bull that killed the great bullfighter Manolete in 1947. Islera was, of course, killed. And afterwards, they went and found his mother and killed her too, so that she never again produced another murderer.” Now does that seem sporting?
A Murder Inspired the “Puppy” Statue of Jesus.
"This statue was modeled after the gypsy El Cachorro," a Spanish friend told me. El Cachorro means Puppy and may have referred to the man's reputation as a bit of a hound dog. He was coming home from a tryst with a noble lady when he was murdered on the Isabel II Bridge by her husband. Some claim the woman’s lover was really El Cachorro’s bastard brother, and it was all a terrible mistake. Be that as it may, sculptor Francisco Ruiz de Gijón happened to be on the scene, roaming the city in search of inspiration for the statue of Christ he’d been commissioned to carve. Seeing El Cahcorro breathe his last, the sculptor knew he had found the perfect image. “Expiring Christ,” better known as “El Cachorro,” is one of the highlights of Holy Week processions. In the off season, it can be viewed in the Basílica del Cristo de la Expiración on Calle Castilla in Triana.
I don’t know about you, but I find all of these tales completely plausible and don’t doubt for a minute that every detail is accurate. But even if I didn’t, I’d love the drama they add to the streets, bridges, and buildings that make up the landscape of my life. One man collected many of these tales into a book, but when I showed it to a Spanish friend, she sniffed. “Well, I wouldn’t trust a word he says. Everyone knows he’s the biggest liar in town.” Hmmm, I sense another legend right there in the making. I’ll keep you posted.
Thirty-three years ago Rich and I inconvenienced our nearest and dearest by getting married two days after Christmas, requiring them to make all sorts of awkward travel arrangements just when everyone really wanted to be home by the fire playing with their new toys. Ever since then, our anniversary has been squeezed into a social calendar revolving around Yuletide celebrations, New Year’s Eve, and Spain's grand finale on January 6: Three Kings Day, which in Seville involves a spectacular parade as a prelude to exchanging gifts.
In the midst of so much revelry, our anniversary celebrations tend to be modest. Researching traditional gifts, I discovered the US and UK don’t even list anything for the 33rd anniversary; apparently so few hit that benchmark nobody could be bothered. Spain, Italy, and Germany observe the occasion with tin, which didn’t help. A can of tuna? A couple of Budweisers? A tin cup? One website suggested a spiritual-themed gift. Why? “33 is an important religious number; it’s the numerical equivalent of AMEN, i.e., 1+13+5+14=33; it’s the age of Christ and also the number of miracles that he performed and it’s also the numerical representation of the star of David.” Sorry, still not inspired. A tin crucifix somehow didn't strike the right note.
Luckily Rich had a better idea: a train trip to Valencia on Spain’s east coast. He found a trendy yet cozy hotel called Maria Berger, which on arrival we learned had just opened the day before. As you can imagine, everything was sparkling clean and I could probably have eaten off of any surface in the room, including the TV remote control (although I did not put this to the test). When Rich mentioned we were celebrating our anniversary, the desk clerk immediately sent a bottle of cava to our room. “I could get used to this,” I said.
As it happened, Valencia’s Fine Arts Museum was having an exhibition of one of my favorite painters, Joaquín Sorolla. A hundred and twenty years ago he was breaking all the rules by painting everyday subjects in this fluid, colorful style:
That one wasn’t in the exhibition, but lots of wonderful works were, and I was ambling around admiring Sarolla’s brushwork when this one stopped me in my tracks.
The painting isn’t all that remarkable, but the subject was the stuff of family legend.
When I was a teenager, my Aunt Beverly stunned everyone by packing up her family and moving to Valencia, Spain. Her letters home were eagerly anticipated and read aloud; everything, including cooking a holiday dinner, became an epic drama. For instance, when she wanted to serve a roast turkey, Aunt Beverly consulted the girls from the village who helped her around the house. They said they knew where to get one and returned the next day — with a living bird. My aunt, whose softhearted attitude to animals made St. Francis of Assisi look like Cruella de Vil, instantly bonded with the turkey and refused to consider cooking and eating her new pal.
An uproar naturally ensued. The family demanded their dinner. Aunt Beverly stood firm. Eventually, as it was five forceful personalities to one, she gave in — but she refused to participate directly. Standing outside the kitchen door, she called out instructions for stuffing and roasting the creature, all the while weeping for its fate. I’m not sure, but that may have been the year she became a vegetarian for life. The story took its place in our family lore, and I suspect the villagers are still telling the tale of the crazy American who didn’t want to eat a turkey because it was her amigo.
Seeing Aunt Beverly’s legendary Spanish turkey in a Sarolla painting wasn’t the only astonishing discovery of the trip. Although I had visited Valencia twice in the past, somehow it had escaped my notice that its cathedral housed the Holy Grail — yes, the actual cup used during the Last Supper.
Some naysayers question the authenticity of Valencia's Grail, pointing to the 200 other claimants to the title scattered across the globe. But this one has better credentials than most, being very old and very simple, made of carved agate polished with myrrh —a carpenter’s cup. Of course, no records exists of its early years; all we really know is that it was taken from the Holy Land, passed on to the Pope in Rome, and later given to Spanish royalty for safekeeping in turbulent times.
Is this the real deal? Every Catholic church contains holy relics, sacred remnants of saints’ bodies or personal possessions, which the faithful believe can work miracles. In medieval times high-profile relics were sold for fabulous sums, and not surprisingly, many have now turned out to be very dubious indeed.
I’m no expert, but having seen the right hand of John the Baptist in Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace, I had to wonder how his right hand could also be on display in the Serbian Orthodox Cetinje Monastery in Montenegro and the Romanian Monastery of the Forerunner. In other news, John the Baptist's six heads are displayed in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, San Silvestro in Capite in Rome, the Residenz Museum in Munich, Amiens Cathedral in France, Antioch, Turkey, and in a parish church in Tenterden, Kent. How many skulls and right hands can one man have?
Amiens Cathedral displays the actual skull of John the Baptist — or does it? In the famous Bible story, Herod's stepdaughter demanded John's head on a platter. But we know this isn't the actual platter because that's in Genoa's cathedral — or maybe not. Thanks to Wikicommons' Wi1234 for this picture.
No one will ever be able to prove the cup in Valencia is — or isn’t — the genuine Holy Grail. But the sight of such a revered object makes even the most time-pressed tourist slow down and fall into respectful silence, while confirmed skeptics like myself pause to consider the nature of truth. In the end, I’m not sure how much its authenticity really matters. For the faithful of Valencia, possession of this treasure is a miracle in itself, and to be in its presence is to be touched by glory.
Growing up Catholic, I accepted saints and relics and miracles as part of everyday life. And while time, experience, and John the Baptist's six heads have made me question everything I was told as a child, I understand that the universe is entirely too big and complicated for me to define the limits of its possibilities. Sometimes, as the nuns used to tell us, you just have to live with the mystery.
One thing I do know for certain: the excursion to Valencia was a wonderful way to celebrate our 33rd anniversary. Perhaps that website’s suggestion of a spiritual-themed gift wasn’t so far off the mark after all. Our time in Valencia made me laugh, and think, and contemplate the nature of reality. And I think we can all agree, that’s a lot better gift than a can of tuna or a tin cup.
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One of the oddest aspects of being a blogger is that strangers meeting my husband for the first time tend to say things like, “I feel I know you already, and I really share your love of duct tape and ice cream.” If you're new to my blog, don't be alarmed, I’m not revealing some sort of kinky sexual fetish, these just happen to be things Rich considers indispensable for civilized journeys. Having spent a lifetime studying the art of adventure, he always has some new nugget of practical advice up one sleeve and an outlandish travel idea up the other. Moving to Spain, luggage-free vacations, an Albanian restaurant where your lunch is delivered on horseback — I never know what he’s going to spring on me at the breakfast table.
Are these random brainstorms or is there an underlying logic, however quirky, to his madness? I decided to ask the man himself.
Karen: When I first met you, my idea of a big vacation was a week at the beach. Now we’re galivanting all over the world, most recently on our five-month Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour of 2019. Why are you so addicted to long-term travel?
Rich: I need a sense of adventure in my life. Actress Regina King likes to say, “Your comfort zone is where dreams go to die.” Travel is all about dreaming up new possibilities and looking forward to the future.
Karen: It took you twenty years to convince me to try luggage-free travel. And OK, I’ll admit it’s fun — once in a while, for short jaunts. What sparked your obsession with this crazy form of travel?
Rich: First, because nobody thinks you can do it. But mainly, I like luggage-free travel because it gives a great amount of freedom — freedom from worry about where the bags are, how you’re going to transport them, what you’re going to wear tomorrow. These days a lot of us are embracing a more minimalist approach to life. Luggage-free travel is the ultimate minimalist way to go.
Karen: Travel writer Pico Iyer said, “Serendipity was my tour guide, assisted by caprice.” And that’s you all over. You’re an incredibly organized person yet you hate advance planning when we're on the road.
Rich: Too much advance planning locks you in; it kills spontaneity. Some people think that not having lined up a whole series of advance reservations would make you more uptight, when — for me at least — the reverse is true; it makes me more relaxed. If I like a place, I can stay longer; if I don't, I get to move on. I’ve never come into a town where I couldn’t find a place to stay — even hot tourist destinations at the height of the season. And when you’re flexible, you walk into things you had never anticipated. As you know, some of our best stories come from unplanned excursions and last-minute detours.
Karen: You turned 75 this summer while we were in Thessaloniki, Greece. Did that inspire any profound thoughts about life or travel?
Rich: I still want ice cream on my birthday.
Karen: Obviously, that’s a given. And I always make sure you get it!
Rich: Aside from that, has age changed the way I travel? Yes, to some extent. I still need a sense of adventure; mentally it challenges me to stay sharp and pay attention. Recently I have become more aware of my physical limitations. Heat gets to me more, so I try not to go out at the hottest time of day — which made extra sense last year, during the most sizzling summer in Europe’s history. I no longer climb mountains, volcanos, the highest castle parapets, or the towers of cathedrals. I did walk 750 miles during our five month trip, about five miles most days, which is still pretty easy for me. And I do a half hour of yoga every day.
Karen: When we got back, everyone seemed astonished that we’d spent five months eating our way around the Mediterranean rim but somehow failed to gain any weight.
Rich: Mostly that was the walking and the yoga. And the fact that we told everybody up front that we were light eaters; people respected that. When we were filming someone making incredibly rich food — that moussaka in Thessaloniki comes to mind — afterwards we split a portion. Which, as you will recall, was more than enough!
Karen: I can’t tell you how many people have said to me, “I couldn’t travel with my spouse for more than a week without wanting to kill them.” Any advice for those folks about how to get along on the road?
Rich: I believe the key is to stay flexible. Remember you’re both in unfamiliar territory and doing the best you can. Talk stuff out. Be courteous. And be very forgiving if the other person has a bad day or a meltdown. Not that you would ever do that, Karen.
Karen: Me? Of course not. But speaking hypothetically … ?
Rich: One time when I was skiing, I watched a couple having this huge fight, and he ended up throwing her skis over the railing of the outdoor bar at the ski lodge. I kept thinking, “What are you actually accomplishing? In what way is throwing her skis over the railing going to resolve your issues? You think that’s going to de-pressurize the situation? Show a little common sense!”
Karen: Any big ideas for travel in 2020?
Rich: I've had this thought rattling around in my head: anybody can go to France, Italy, or Spain. But what about those experimental micro-countries that were born from some outlandish philosophy, flourished for a brief, shining moment, and disappeared into oblivion. Like the Republike Peščenice, created twenty years ago in a suburb of Zagreb, Croatia by irreverent comedian željko Malnar. Last August we were lucky enough to meet one of his compatriots in the car wash that served as the mini-nation's capital. There are dozens of lost countries like this all over the world. Why not visit them and see if we could become ambassadors?
Karen: If I’ve learned anything in 33 years of marriage, it’s that Kurt Vonnegut was right when he said, “Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.” I think these dancing lessons occur all the time, wherever we are, whatever we're doing — and we’re wise to be on the alert so these transcendent moments don't slip by unnoticed. To quote Kurt Vonnegut again: “So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is. So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”
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Greetings from Seville! As the holidays are reaching fever pitch, I figure most of my readers are too busy and distracted to read much this week. I was looking back over past posts for inspiration, and realized this one, which I wrote back in 2012, really says it all. So I’m recycling this nice, short piece, leaving me more time to wrap presents, organize our annual pot-luck feast, and prepare for our 33rd wedding anniversary, which falls on December 27. We're off for a romantic weekend in Valencia — just Rich, me, a cozy hotel room, and the world’s best paella. It doesn’t get better than that. I’ll post again in January. Happy holidays, everyone!
“I’ve got something to show you,” said Rich. “Got your camera?”
We were out for a stroll, threading our way through the crowded labyrinth of pedestrian streets and alleys that make up Seville’s downtown shopping area. “You bet,” I said. He steered me into the Centro Mercantile, an old club that often houses exhibitions of dubious modern paintings and gorgeous old religious art. I took three steps into the gallery and stopped, gobsmacked by the sight of the entire town of Bethlehem fashioned from 1500 kilos of chocolate, with a river of honey running through it.
This is what’s so great about the holidays: people can let their imaginations run wild. Some of my friends have criticized Seville’s downtown lighting display as being too gaudy. But isn’t that what the year-end festivities are all about – creating a sense of wonder and magic?
I can remember being a small child, dazzled by the sudden appearance of holiday lights, entranced by the smells of pine and chocolate and wood fires, electrified with anticipation of the treats in store for us.
Today, I live thousands of miles from my relatives and many others who are dear to me; they’re scattered around the globe from the Americas to Asia to Europe to Down Under. I’ll never again see everyone I love gathered under one roof. At holiday celebrations I sometimes feel a pang about the faces I don’t see around my table.
But I am deeply grateful that I live in an age where I can stay in close contact with those who are far away. We email, we talk on Skype, and when the stars align, we meet up somewhere and enjoy each other’s company. My social circle is no longer geographically defined. It’s a bit like iCloud; my friends are not always physically on hand, but they seem to appear when I need them most.
Having friends all over the planet keeps life interesting and makes me feel that I’m a citizen of the world. And that means wherever I am at this time of year, I’m home for the holidays.
Gift giving has always been a tricky business. In the 1930s, when future Hollywood star David Niven was an impoverished young actor, he spent the holidays merrily regifting stuff he’d received — until one day he accidentally sent someone back the leather wallet that he’d sent to Niven … engraved with Niven’s initials. Oops! A few years later, when Niven was involved in the early stages of a romance, he presented the lady with a set of beautifully embroidered handkerchiefs, and she gave him a car. Awkward!
The equation gets considerably more complicated these days, when many of us are attempting to be more careful and conscious consumers. I’m in total agreement with the principle, but let’s face it, finding nothing under the tree but long-lasting lightbulbs and biodegradable composting bags isn’t going to make the day feel very jolly. So how do we shop responsibly and festively?
Many years ago Rich and I realized that while we love the tradition of opening packages on December 25th, the presents themselves didn’t need to be fancy or expensive. So we agreed that when buying for each other, we’d stick to a modest fixed budget, and buy or make seven small gifts to put under the tree. I can’t tell you what a relief it was to lower the bar on gift-giving and just settle in for a little silly fun.
Like what? Well, last year I gave Rich a singing flamingo I found a discount store. (In the video below, it’s shown with a couple of flamingo hats left over from a previous holiday season. They seemed to enjoy the singing, too.)
When friends arrived for our holiday feast, everyone fell in love with that singing flamingo. All afternoon I kept noticing various guests wandering about with it tucked under one arm, sitting with it in their laps, or nestling cozily with it on the sofa, as if it was pet, or an honored guest. As I suppose it was.
Rich’s best ever gift to me was a couple of snails. It all started six years ago, when I was walking past an old woman selling wild asparagus and live snails, one of which had managed to escape. It was proceeding down the sidewalk with all the determination and speed of which a small gastropod is capable. I mentally cheered it on, and barely remembered to mention the incident to Rich. A month later I found a small package under the tree labeled, “What do we want? Freedom! When do we want it? Now!” Utterly mystified, I opened the box to find a pair of confused snails staring up at me.
“You can release them back into the wild,” Rich explained. “It’s like the pardoning of the turkeys at Thanksgiving. How many people get to save a life at the holidays?”
Word of this unique gift got around, and pretty soon some friends gave us a family of snails made by their kids from play-dough, launching a tradition of snail-themed gifts that eventually led me to establish my Snail Museum (the only one like it in the world!). Each year Rich crafts something new for the collection.
Perhaps a true minimalist would object to my snail collection as not having any practical value. But I say bringing a little more joy and laughter into the world is always worthy of us.
In addition to buying less, I try to buy smarter. I cast a suspicious eye on all products, including — perhaps especially — those that claim to be “ecofriendly.” Take the ad I just saw for a bamboo toothbrush subscription that involves sending you a new bamboo toothbrush every month. The manufacturer encourages you to toss the bamboo handle into the compost, advising you not to worry about the non-biodegradable nylon bristles because you simply pull them out with pliers. Like that’s going to happen. Show of hands: how many of you out there actively compost your waste? That would be 16% of you. How many of you would take time to find the pliers and extract the bristles every month? Anyone?
Actually, it’s the “every month” part that really bothers me. We don’t need new toothbrushes every 30 days. The American Dental Association and manufacturers such as Oral-B, who desperately want you to buy more of their products, only recommend replacing toothbrushes every three to four months, and I suspect it’s a lot longer than that for many of us. There’s nothing wrong with a bamboo toothbrush; clearly it’s better for the planet than a plastic one. But these so-called “ecofriendly” manufacturers are trying to convince us to look at toothbrushes as disposable items to be tossed out while they’re still perfectly serviceable, only a quarter of the way to retirement age.
No doubt they got the idea from the clothing industry. As you may have heard, there’s such a glut of cheap clothing around the world that 85% of all unwanted garments end up in a landfill — yes, including most of those you donate to charity and many new items that have been returned unworn.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t buy reasonably priced clothes; on my holiday budget, it’s all I can afford for Rich, who luckily likes anything made from plaid flannel and never looks at labels. But if your family has a tradition, say, of giving each other joke gifts of hideous holiday sweaters every year, with the virtuous intention of donating them to charities afterwards, it might be time to come up with an alternative. For instance, you could circulate photos of the most ghastly holiday clothes online and make snarky remarks about them. Here are a few of my faves. You can provide your own snarky remarks in the comments section below this post.
I’ve read the tradition of gift giving at the winter holidays didn’t reach the USA until the nineteenth century, and that in those days, the gifts tended to be gimcrack — cheap and cheerful little knickknacks. I say let’s bring back gimcrack! We can stop filling corporate coffers and municipal landfills — and still have the fun of pardoning snails, singing along with flamingos, and spending more time and less money celebrating with people we love. And I believe our lives will be the richer for it.
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Only 66% of millennials believe the earth is round, according to one poll*, which (for those of us who still place our faith in math) means 34% of young Americans suspect or "know" our home planet is flat. In 2017 rapper and conspiracy theorist B.o.B. tweeted he was crowdfunding his own satellites to go up in space and prove his flat-earth theories. NBA star Kyrie Irving said, “This is not even a conspiracy theory. The Earth is flat. It’s right in front of our faces. I’m telling you, it’s right in front of our faces. They lie to us.” (I’m not even going to get into the irony of incorporating the phrases “This is not even a conspiracy theory” and “They lie to us” in the same rant.) Photos of the earth from space are dismissed as fakes, part of a government plot to fool us all.
Apparently the flat-earthers haven’t caught up on the news from 500 years ago. In 1519 Ferdinand Magellan assembled a fleet of five ships and set off from Seville, Spain. The fleet headed steadily west for four years until eventually, with Magellan and most of his crew dead, three ships lost and one deserted, the sole remaining ship limped into Seville’s port — proving (sorry B.o.B. and Kyrie Irving) that the earth is round. The story of this extraordinary voyage is the subject of a marvelous new exhibition on display in Seville’s Archives of the Indies — a must-see for anyone (and especially you, flat-earthers!) coming to town between now and February 23, 2020.
Magellan was a spectacular navigator and an abominable diplomat. He quarreled with his own ruler, King Manuel I of Portugal, and had to resort to petitioning Portugal’s archrival, the King of Spain, who grudgingly financed the voyage in hopes of putting one over on the Portuguese by finding a better route to lands rich in expensive spices. Magellan’s Spanish crew hated him for being Portuguese, for being kind of a jerk, and for withholding key information about the voyage. Magellan had a big secret: earlier explorers had told him about a passageway cutting through the tip of South America.
This passage, now knows as the Strait of Magellan, would not only make the journey shorter, it would avoid one of the most violent and hazardous seas on the planet, running between Cape Horn and the Antarctic Peninsula.
How bad was it? I’m not sure, but here’s what they knew to expect crossing the Atlantic.
I know, right? Who would be crazy enough even to think of spending months crossing water like this in a ship 20 meters long?
With everyone’s life constantly in jeopardy, it’s not surprising the story of this voyage is full of conflict, mutinies, heads being cut off, people left to die on desert islands, cannibalism, starvation, desertion, and Magellan’s death in a ridiculous show of bravado to impress a Filipino chief. There was plenty of macho idiocy to go around, but there was also a steely core of courage that I couldn’t help but admire.
History books refer to those days as the Age of Exploration, but never doubt that humans are still boldly going where no one has gone before. Two years ago I heard NASA scientist Amaya Davis talk about the Mars expedition planned for the 2030s. Young men and women are already in training and vying for seats on the first voyage to the Red Planet — even knowing that it is a one-way ticket. The amount of hardware and fuel they will use up to reach Mars is enormous, and they simply can’t carry enough extra to make the return journey feasible.
“Why would anyone do that?” I asked Amaya.
“They want a place in history.”
As with Magellan and his crew, I’m in awe of the courage of these future astronauts, even while thinking they have to be more than halfway nuts. Rich and I have definitely decided not to sign up for that trip. But I’m glad so many brave people have chosen to go into space, if only to be able to properly debunk the flat-earthers.
While the NASA crews are all volunteers, many of Magellan’s sailors were shanghaied, kidnapped on the streets of various ports and thrown aboard to replace crew members lost to scurvy, suicide, accidents, execution, or worse.
The kidnapped sailors had to find unexpected depths of valor to face a life-or-death struggle they never signed on for, in the most daunting circumstances imaginable.
I suspect Greta Thunberg feels much the same way. She had no hand in creating the climate crisis, everyone's existence is at stake, and we're dealing with a deck stacked in favor of failure. I can only imagine the bravery it took for her to begin her first, solitary protest vigil outside the Swedish parliament. “It is still not too late to act [to combat climate change],” she said in April. “It will take a far-reaching vision, it will take courage, it will take fierce, fierce determination.”
We know Greta has that kind of courage and determination, but do we? I guess we'll find out. Nobody wants to cope with climate change, but it turns out that we are the generation that, like the shanghaied sailors, woke up to find ourselves on a ship floundering in uncharted waters, headed for a future over which we have slim control and no guarantees of survival.
So where does a die-hard optimist like myself find room for hope? I’m heartened by the knowledge that humans have a pretty good track record of finding inner strength when they need it most. During one of Britain’s darkest hours Winston Churchill said, “It is not enough that we do our best. Sometimes we must do what is required.” A lot of people had the courage to step up then and do what was required. I believe the majority of us have the fortitude to stand up and do our bit now.
One thing inspiring Londoners in the Blitz, sailors of yore, and astronauts of the future is the clear certainty that our survival depends on working together. Our ancestors survived on the African savannas — surrounded by creatures that were bigger, fiercer, and better equipped with teeth and claws — because humans learned to cooperate with one another. And they refused to give up. Like the early explorers, like the Mars mission team, like Greta Thunberg, we know that when there is no going back, we must find a way to move forward together. And I believe we will.
*Scientific American took a hard look at the original data compiled by YouGov and found statistical discrepancies that cast doubt on the claim that only "66% of millennials believe the earth is round." In addition to inflating the percentage, the term "millennial," normally defined as those born 1981 to 1996, here refers to 18- to 24-year-olds. So there are plenty of questions about the YouGov statistic suggests. Whatever the true numbers, the fact that anybody believes the earth is flat remains deeply worrying.
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I'm an American writer living in Seville, Spain and traveling the world with my husband, Rich.
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