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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I'm an American writer living in Seville, Spain and traveling the world with my husband, Rich. We've recently completed a five-month Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour, exploring the world's favorite cuisine to discover more about European culture — and our own.
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