America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride with Team in Training 2016

On Sunday I completed the America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride (AMBBR) 100-mile bike ride around Lake Tahoe with Team in Training for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. This was my 4th event with TNT and was definitely the most special.

I started all of this (“this” = cycling) when I signed up for the DC AIDSRide in 2002. I wanted to give back to the DC HIV nonprofit organizations that were so amazing to me during the 30-day period after I got a false positive HIV test result (yes, it was really negative… yes, another story entirely). Over the course of several years I built a collection of “AIDSRide friends” who will always have a place in my heart.

When I came back to PA I started to rebuild my cycling group with Team in Training because the model was similar, and I was glad to hear that they make sure that 75% of funds raised go to the mission (not so with AIDSRide, as it turned out, and they went out of business). I’ve made some of the best friends I have now through TNT and this past weekend definitely reminded me of that.

About 5 years ago, one of our chapter’s coaches, Eric, decided to create a Facebook event for this year’s America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride, as a celebration of the remission anniversary of one of our patient heroes. A bunch of us said yes, and we actually stuck to it. Eric and I actually did our first TNT event together in 2008, so I wasn’t allowed to say no.

We had one of the biggest cycling teams ever in the Eastern PA chapter because of Eric. And the chapter might not have chosen to send a team to Tahoe this year if it hadn’t been for the fact that all these alumni bombarded them with emails about Tahoe. The final tally was around 30 people, after all was said and done with recruitment. And by this year we had not just one patient hero to honor and/or remember by doing this ride. A super awesome dude and TNT cycling friend of ours died 2 years ago of cancer, and before our last (80-mile) training ride, Coach Fred read a story about him and played a slideshow of photos that had me making an ugly-cry face. So we rode in his memory, too.

This training season was MISERABLE. It freaking rained and rained and never went above 60 degrees. Granted we started in February, but by April we were all feeling pretty demoralized by the weather. But, as coach Fred says, “nothing you’ll experience on the bike will ever be as bad as what blood cancer patients experience.” So we sallied forth. We met at ungodly hours of the morning, froze our asses off. We changed flats, we muscled through rides with broken bikes and broken bodies. We crashed. We got up. We dealt with angry motorists. We raised our fundraising minimums and more. And despite how tough it was, we always joked and had fun on the road. We were always laughing!

It turned out toward the end of training that one of our two head coaches had to be in Germany for work over event weekend. This just happened to be Eric, the guy who started this whole thing in the first place (see “Facebook event,” above). It was a huge bummer.

But we all shipped our bikes and then we flew out to Tahoe at the end of last week, including a friend who had signed up with her husband but then gotten pregnant – she supported us through the whole weekend, carrying around her future cyclist. And friends from other cities who used to ride/work with TNT in Eastern PA flew out to meet us to ride or cheer/help along the course. We all had an incredible weekend together. It’s hard to explain how close you feel to people who have this charity endurance event mindset. (Side note: I have never had so many social media notifications in my life.)

Here is a bunch of us with our sweet airbrush tats at the top of the switchbacks on practice day.
Here is a bunch of us with our sweet airbrush tats at the top of the switchbacks on practice day the day before the century.

And the LLS “inspiration dinner” the night before the event was the most moving any of us had ever been to – for me, it ranked up there with the riderless bicycle ceremony at the AIDSRide. The speakers were amazing – one woman told her story of “life minus 1” – before her husband died of leukemia he asked her to do the ride with Team in Training that they had signed up for when he was diagnosed. She and her father did the ride together on a tandem, and now she’s a TNT cycling coach. I had tears streaming down my face – and I know there were a lot of others who did, too.

And we raised a bunch of money for LLS. The largest individual fundraising amount was $174,000! He was a 4-year survivor from Ohio whose 3-year fundraising total was $550,000! The 800 cyclists for TNT – 100 of whom were survivors – raised a total of $3.6 million. I’m so impressed. It means a lot to actually meet people who have benefited from the money we’ve raised. We had 3 survivors on our team alone, and one was celebrating her 30-year remission anniversary.

So, event day finally arrived, and at 5am (thanks, Fred) we all gathered to head over to the start. The sun was still rising, we ate a few nervous mouthfuls of bagel or whatever, and rolled over to Harrah’s. And we rode 100 miles to find a cure for blood cancers. The weather was amazing, too.

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The team getting ready to hit the road on event day. They’re peeps on our heads… born in Bethlehem, PA. lol

My little ride-day “pack” consisted of my ex roommate (who I met through TNT), her Iron Man partner in crime, and another TNT hero who rode across the country last summer to raise money for Team. We added one more who dropped back from our very front group for the last half.

Poster children / the pack.
Poster children / the pack.

We saw many friends along the way, and tried to give them all a “GO TEAM” as we rode by. At lunch, our friend who used to work for Team in Training in Philly and had driven from San Diego was at the ready to help. She literally RAN across the street to get me a Coke Zero when I said I was fantasizing about it. Another ex participant ran for sunscreen. Whaaaat?! And they did this for our whole team. Like I said, these people are amazing. We laughed, we pushed, I almost died on the 7-mile uphill that is Spooner.

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This is what I look like close to death. Not so bad, eh?

We screamed down the hill after Spooner (my max = 40.1 mph – not my fastest ever, but we were braking to take in the views). We ate fruit, energy bars, trail mix, potatoes, more fruit, more potatoes. We ate lunch at King’s Island beach. We rode all the way around Lake Tahoe, with a little swoop off the NW corner to Truckee and back. My stats:

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And we all made it safely and happily across the finish line! I’m so proud of everyone. There was a TNT victory tent, and a beer tent, at the end, thankfully. As we were watching a few more teammates cross the finish line, I noticed a buzzed head and sunglasses that I recognized – I yelled, “IT’S ERIC!” He had flown directly from his meeting in Germany and driven from the airport just in time to see half his team cross the finish line. It was a really special surprise for all of us. Again, more crying.

With our surprise cameo coach!
Right after the surprise coach cameo!

It really could not have been better in any way. Oh, and get this! Two of our participants even got engaged over the weekend (Roomie: “I SO wanted someone to get engaged this weekend!”)! Thank you to all of my amazing teammates and coaches. I love you. My heart is full. And that’s saying a lot for someone who’s getting married in 6 weeks!

For good measure, here’s a video TNT produced this week after the ride (it even features one of our peeps! Also, THAT’S what those kids were doing with that drone. Duh.).

Schlepped All Over Vancouver

20160401_180827I’m here in Vancouver for work. I feel sort of bittersweet about this trip because I ended up missing a ton of important things at home this weekend, but I didn’t realize how much I’d love this city. It’s plunked down on a peninsula right in the middle of a harbor and surrounded by snow-capped mountains. It’s so beautiful.

I landed in the afternoon 2 days ago and took the opportunity to find the two walking-distance things I’d saved on TripAdvisor, the Vancouver Lookout and the steam clock. The clock was cool; it’s entirely steam powered — even the chimes are like a steam engine whistle. I also grabbed a vanilla stout at Steamworks Brewery, a fun Vancouver staple.  I actually took two trips up the lookout tower because it was a 24-hour ticket and I realized I wanted to see the sunset. It was worth it.

My afternoon was light yesterday so I got adventurous and walked across the peninsula to catch a ferry to Granville Island (just a few bucks), which was originally an industrial area that was revamped into sort of an artist colony. I checked out the public market, full of food vendors of the organic/crunchy variety and all sorts of really talented artists and artisans – I think one of my favorites was the obsidian knives. I ate lunch outside by the water. There was live music, and I overheard a musician, who was getting his stuff ready over by the boats, tell someone that the fee was really reasonable to reserve a spot on the market pier to perform on a regular basis. There were a ton of people there, so maybe it’s good exposure. I walked around the island, which has an art school and a bunch of art galleries. There was a chalk paint wall that invited you to write your thoughts about love. I heard piano music start up and peeked through a door and saw a ballet class going on. There were enormous industrial tanks painted with what looked like hipster luchadores to me. I saw a seal come up for air and dive back down under the boats. The walk itself to and from the ferry was fun (except that I felt old and slow — I’ve lost my city walk). It reminded me of being in Dupont Circle in DC. Also tons of cyclists who looked like they were not afraid for their lives.

On my hotel bartender’s recommendation, I had dinner last night at Miku, a sushi place that distinguished itself here with its “aburi” sushi, made with a flame-searing technique that didn’t sound all that awesome until I tried it. I’m actually lucky I got in; I had to show up before 6 to even catch a seat at the bar. Speaking of my hotel, I stayed at the Pinnacle Harborfront, and was very happy with everything except the gym (yikes). And the bartender there gave me a small lesson in British Columbia wines (Jackson-Triggs is a popular local wine, and I thought the chardonnay and the sauvignon blanc were pretty tasty).

Turns out yesterday I walked something like 8 miles. No wonder my feet feel like ground beef today. Anyway. Some photos are below. The photo that looks like the aftermath of a fatal car crash is actually a movie set a block from my hotel. There’s a picture of houses; I really liked the architecture of the houses in the residential areas (although apparently real estate is SUPER expensive in Vancouver – cab driver told me his house value has doubled since 2009).

The woman on the Toronto-Vancouver flight with me was also originally from Philly and moved to Vancouver with her (Canadian) husband. She spent most of the time we talked telling me I should really check out the immigration application because it’s amazing out here. Now I see what she was talking about.

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Francophile and Formula 1 Newbie Trip to Grand Prix du Canada in Montreal

If you are looking to visit Montreal for the Grand Prix du Canada Formula 1 race and you also want to fit in some sightseeing, this might help you plan.

My boyfriend and his brother have been following F1 (specifically Red Bull Racing) for a few years. Craig has talked about wanting to go see a race since we met, but he never had any actual plans to do it. That’s where I came in. His dream race destination is Circuit de Spa in Belgium, which I of course would love to do because of my love of Europe and the French language, but that wasn’t going to fit in the budget in terms of vacation time or money if we were going to go any time soon. So, since Montreal is drivable from Pennsylvania and people have said it’s a great city to visit AND they speak French there, I offered to plan a long weekend trip to the Canadian Grand Prix.

In my research for hotels I discovered that renting through VRBO or Airbnb is much cheaper than booking a hotel room, especially on F1 and Montreal Jazz Fest weekends. My requirements for location had to do with price and walkability to the metro and sightseeing. I wanted to stay in Old Montreal but that was a little too pricey and I thought Craig would prefer to stay in a more quiet neighborhood. I ended up finding a really great 2BR condo in Rosemont–La Petite-Patrie, which is a mostly residential neighborhood very close to the Montreal Botanical Gardens, for half the price of the hotels I found on TripAdvisor. And we were able to do laundry and bring groceries for breakfasts, which saved us even more.

Craig took care of the race tickets. He watched a bunch of YouTube videos posted by people attending in previous years to pick the grandstand seats he wanted. We were at an S curve where he thought we’d be able to see some good action.

So on Friday we drove up, and met the concierge for the condo by around 5 PM. We walked over to Station F on Rue Rachel for Dinner, which was AMAZING. Excellent traditional French food – liver pâté, beef cheek. I had an Ile Flottante for the first time in years! I got to dust off my French and listen to the very striking differences between “French French” and Canadian French, also called Joual. I watched a bunch of YouTube videos myself before going, so I could get my bearings and hopefully understand the accent a little better. It helped. I actually watched DododFun a bunch; they were cute. This is for French speakers who want to understand how to speak french in Canada:

There were definitely differences, like I asked for the “WC” once at the metro (short for “water closet,” meaning bathroom in France), and the woman looked at me sideways, so I tried “salle de bain” (also bathroom) and she got it. But I find that kind of stuff really interesting. It also turned out that staying in our farther out and quieter neighborhood had another benefit for me – far fewer people speaking English, so I could use my French more. I felt so useful as the official translator all weekend.

My biggest language challenge came on the first night when we arrived and I decided to pop over to a convenience store for a bottle of wine, and the woman behind the counter was Chinese and our only common language was French. I also discovered then that at some stores you can’t use American credit or debit cards, and all I had were American dollars, and I ended up overpaying because she wanted me to give her the Canadian amount. The price we pay for our wine. I thought we might have trouble with credit cards all weekend because we don’t have the chips, but everywhere else was fine.

It also took me 24 hours to remember the French word for “start.” Like I said, my French definitely needed some dusting. And we didn’t have international data, so I couldn’t use Google Translate when we were out and about.

Saturday morning was “sightseeing for Jen” time because the qualifying race was in the afternoon, so we walked over to the Montreal Biodome, which was really, really cool. There are 5 different ecosystems inside with more than 4,500 animals from 250 different species. Definitely worth a visit, and it’s connected to the Olympic Park and botanical gardens. From there we got on the metro to the racetrack and made it easily but not as quickly as we thought we would. There was a LOT of walking. I saw a bunch of women in heels and was like, NOPE. I was in flats and my feet were destroyed by the end of day 1. Then again I have terrible flat feet, but I digress.

The racetrack! There were tons of vendors selling memorabilia/clothes and lots of different food vendors. Everything was in French and English, including the commentary for the races. We had our first taste of poutine (Frite Alors!), which was delicious. And when we reached our seats in the grandstands, we discovered that the group with the block of seats next to us were from West Chester (just a few miles from us in PA). I had a mutual acquaintance with one, and another guy’s mother works with Craig! Small world. They were staying in Old Montreal and using the city’s Bixi bikes to get around – so that’s an option if you stay closer to the track, or even if you just want to tool around wherever you are.

The qualifying race was very exciting for all of us — finally seeing the F1 cars in person for the first time — but it was probably more exciting for the guys… “brought a tear to the eye,” they said. We also watched the Ferrari Challenge for a while after that, sitting in the shade under a tree on a different part of the course. We could have actually spent a lot more time at the track because our tickets were for 3 days and there were a bunch of events and different races, but, like I said, Craig and his brother agreed to spend some time touring Montreal with me.

Daniel Ricciardo - the happiest driver in all of F1
Daniel Ricciardo – the happiest driver in all of F1

Circuit Gilles Villeneuve was easy to get around once you make it to the island from the metro (but again, LOTS of walking) and even had some really pretty gardens. There’s a biosphere that was part of the Montreal World’s Fair and when we drove in to Montreal we saw an amusement park on the island where the track is, but I don’t know if that was open. There’s also a casino right next to the racetrack. Don’t plan (like I did) to hop off the island for a quick bite to eat in Old Montreal or something before seeing another race event, because the people get bottlenecked walking across the bridge from the metro station.

We ate dinner that night at Bon-D on Rue Masson. Rue Masson was walking distance from our condo, and it has a bunch of good shops and restaurants up and down the street. It seemed to be the hip hangout of the neighborhood. We had some more French food (for me, feuillete de cochon, which even had blood sausage on it).

Morning sightseeing on Sunday included a walking tour I modified from a blog post I found. We saw a good number of things listed in the post and I would recommend using that. I definitely wanted to get a taste of the old-world flavor of Montreal, and you can see it there. We also happened to run into the group of folks who had purchased the special Red Bull Racing experience tickets (WOW, the perks AND the prices of those tickets) while they were getting their photo taken by the Notre Dame Basilica. If only we could have slipped in with them … we were wearing our Red Bull shirts!

Old Montreal
Old Montreal

Then we were off to the races! The crowd was much bigger and the stands were packed. But having only been to American sporting events I was a little surprised at how not drunk the crowd was. It was very civilized. Craig brought his camera with a really great telescopic lens and he was able to take some pretty amazing photos. The cars were going a little slower where our seats were than on the straightaways, but that was good to see, too. To be able to sit in the stands was definitely worth spending the extra money. We walked the track after the race was over, too, and participated in the honored pastime of pilfering memorabilia from the course.

Expect to spend a very long time getting off the island and onto the metro. It took us probably an hour to get onto the train after leaving the track, shuffling slowly with the crowd into the station. But again, it was pretty civilized. We went back over to Old Montreal to buy stuff from a maple syrup vendor at the Bonsecours Market that we had seen before the race. He had let us taste the maple syrup and the maple butter – that stuff sells itself. We ate at Pub BreWskey, which I would definitely eat at again. Local beers and pub food with Canadian flair (like pickled vegetables with the wings and cheese curds on the nachos).

Monday morning on our way out of town we drove up to see the view from Mount Royal, which was also worth seeing (and thankfully did not require walking, although there are a lot of walking paths if you’re into that sort of thing). Getting back through the American checkpoint took about an hour, too, so factor that into your drive time if you’re driving.

MONTREAL

So that wrapped up our trip! Things I would have liked to do that we couldn’t fit in:

  • Rent Bixi bikes
  • Visit Crescent Street and Rue Sainte Catherine
  • See the modern art and fine art museums

All in all it was an amazing weekend for everyone. Montreal is really beautiful and easy to navigate, and I would like to think that the people are just as welcoming to non-French-speaking tourists as they were to us.

A Magical Musical Weekend With Voices of Namibia

This is a long overdue post about the visit that our choir hosted from a Namibian choir, Voices of Namibia (VON). They traveled from Windhoek, Namibia, to compete in the World Choir Games, which were held this year in Cincinnati. They toured the U.S. as part of their trip and one of their stops was with our choir (Pennsylvania Academy of Performing Arts). Members of our choir volunteered to provide housing to members of VON and I signed up for two women in their 30s, figuring we’d probably have the most in common. We were all nervous and excited to meet them. We did research about cultural norms in Namibia and did our best to prepare. Sherpa wanted to stock the kitchen with ingredients to make Namibian food. (For the record, we didn’t – I figured it would be like a Namibian serving me chicken fingers and french fries).

Well when they arrived they had been on the road for about 2 weeks and already won 2 silver medals at the World Choir Games. They had just traveled on the bus from Detroit and when I arrived at the church where we rehearse to meet them, they were piled on the lawn in various degrees of sleep, because they had arrived early. After everyone from our choir showed up, the magic began. They were amazing people. We all got to know each other and sang together. They all spoke English, although their everyday language is Afrikaans. Here’s a mind-blowing video of all of the basses singing one of the VON songs after a few minutes of tutorial:

The two women who stayed with us were amazing. We had a long night chatting for hours about everything – food, family, traditions, fun, friends, music.

The next day, VON took a tour of Philadelphia. That night, they held a free public concert that was packed. You can find videos of many of their performances from their U.S. tour on YouTube (for example, Alleluja).

But the crowning jewel experience, for me, was our joint performance of Elob Misa, a traditional Namibian song in a language whose name I would have never guessed the spelling of without much Googling: KhoeKhoegowab, pronounced kway-kway-koh-VAH. It’s one of the language that has clicks. During our get-to-know-you rehearsal, their African-language director taught us the voice parts, the lyrics, the clicks, and — oh, yes — the dance moves that are part of this song. We were all paralyzed by the difficulty of learning the clicks, but fortunately the VON alto that was sitting next to me was a native speaker of KhoeKhoegowab and tried her very best to tutor me. I can hardly explain how difficult it was. There were 4 different clicks we had to learn, and if you use the wrong one you’re saying a completely different word. Check out this video by a couple of Namibians explaining the clicks.

They surprised us after the rehearsal by asking us to sing the song without them. And we did it, albeit with nowhere near the booming confidence of VON, but they LOVED it. They took pictures and videos and whooped and hollered at us. Of course the Namibia men snuck around toward the back and filled in the clicks, which are a crucial part of the song because there’s a part where the song is whispering and clicking only.

Well, Sherpa got a video of our joint performance of the song during their concert. If you look for the bright white face in the front row, that’s me.

We all spent the weekend trying to click correctly and I still can barely get it. But we had an unforgettable weekend bonding with and connecting to people from across the globe through music. Our two ladies, Lydia and Helena, will forever be friends. I hope to get to Namibia and visit them. I’m so grateful I could be part of it!

 

Braving Barcelona

I am inspired to write this story because I’ve been fondly remembering it and then Sherpa decided to make paella for dinner tonight. Most often, if you ask someone who has been to Barcelona tips about the traveling there, you’ll be warned to watch your wallet. Apparently Barcelona is known as the pickpocket capital of the world. I’ve heard all sorts of horror stories. And I just Googled “pickpocketing rates Barcelona” and got 1.5 million search results. So when Sherpa and I spent a few days there, we were hypervigilant of my purse and his wallet.

We had to be even more careful when we split up for a few hours. He wanted to try gambling at the casino, and I just didn’t feel like going back (yes, we’d tried to go together the day before and they wouldn’t let us in to the table games area without passports). So, after a long hike through Parc Guell, then wine tasting, then more Gaudi tourism at the Gaudi house, then a long hike to the Miro Foundation, we parted ways on the subway. We wouldn’t be able to communicate because we assumed he wouldn’t be able to get wi-fi in the casino. We agreed to meet across town at the restaurant where we planned to have dinner in a few hours, Tapeo (which was recommended to us by the woman working at the wine shop we went to, Clos Mont-Blanc).

As soon as he was gone from the car I was like a crazy drone spy, eyeing up everyone, yet trying to pretend I belonged. Do I look Spanish? Do I look like a student? I wondered. Of course I didn’t. I looked like a 31-year-old American tourist, trying not to freak out in the Barcelona subway. I had a death grip on my purse. I made it to my stop, Fontana. I got off and walked, crazy drone spy, back to our hotel. Leg 1, SUCCESS.

Not long after I got back to the hotel, my phone buzzed with an email notification. “At casino, bored, ready to head to dinner! :)” So, I got ready and headed back to the subway. CRAZY DRONE SPY! DEATH GRIP ON PURSE! NO ONE CAN ROB ME, I AM THE SMARTEST TOURIST ON THE PLANET.

Sherpa considers letting his guard down at El Xampanyet.

I got off at my stop, Jaume, which I was already familiar with because we’d walked around the neighborhood the day before to go to the Picasso museum. I started walking to the restaurant, amidst a sea of people, and about 4 blocks from the restaurant I see walking down the street a Sherpa, walking and staring up at the street signs, looking confused. It was just the funniest feeling to run into him in the street in Barcelona. Also it was pretty funny to be watching him while he had no clue I was there. I stepped in front of him so he had to stop and recognize me, and it was quite a reunion. LEG 2, SUCCESS.

We started our night with cava at El Xampanyet, which was a really fun cava joint full of locals having a drink before dinner, and then we had dinner at Tapeo right across the street, where we had amazing wine and tapas.  Here are some of the things we ate/drank: Toro (a local Spanish red wine), pork rib with honey mustard, sausage and beans, tomatoes and fresh cheese with olive oil and balsamic, lentils, chocolate mousse, vanilla creme brulee, and great Spanish coffee. The owner, Chris, was English and we had a great time chatting with him, too. We were also glad to have someone English-speaking to relieve some stress about gluten-free dining. He was very helpful.

So, that’s that. We spent several fun-packed days in BCN and did not get robbed. We were lucky, but I hope that our vigilance actually had something to do with it.

Bacchus, God of Wine in Saint-Emilion, France

Back to stories from our trip. The last town on the itinerary in Europe was Saint-Émilion, France. I scheduled it at the end of the trip because I figured it would be a small town where we could slow down a little after the craziness of Barcelona and San Sebastian (and it turns out we did need to slow down).  We stayed at the very beautiful Château Franc-Pourret, with a lovely French vintner couple who have been making organic wines for I believe around 20 years (but winemakers going back many generations). When we arrived, Madame was not at home, and a portly man who spoke zero English answered the door. Unfortunately we did not get an actual photo of this friendly couple, but imagine Monsieur as a big jovial French winemaker wearing a heavy hand-knit sweater. (It was too cold for his toga, pictured to the right.) He welcomed us heartily but then told us that his wife deals with all of the guest-room business and he couldn’t really check us in. He showed us which of the two rooms would be ours and invited us to wait for Madame in the breakfast room. Then, sort of sheepishly, he left.

“What’s going on?” Sherpa asked. I explained, and we waited.

We found a hand-made paper calendar with a spinning wheel and symbols on it. Neither of us had any clue what it was. Monsieur popped back in to check on us and explained that it was some sort of astrological/organic winemaking calendar. He went into great detail about how it works and it all went right over our heads. Monsieur left again.

“That guy is like Bacchus!” Sherpa said. And thus his nickname was coined.

We kept waiting, which was kind of nice because there was a fire in the fireplace and it was freezing outside. I asked Sherpa to take my photo and as he was taking it, Madame walked into the room behind him. The next photo is the result, because I was making a “she’s heeeeeere…” face.

Madame was much more professional, showing us our room and giving us maps of the town. The professionalism waned when she offered us a tasting of their wine.  She opened a bottle for us by the fire in the breakfast room and explained that they were one of the first organic winemakers in Saint-Émilion. She asked Sherpa if he could understand her, and he said, as long as you keep speaking slowly. But with each sip of wine she spoke faster and faster until even I couldn’t understand her. It was great.

Madame came to me again the next day and told me that Bacchus had some questions for me. A little confused and nervous, I went downstairs and he was waiting for me with books and papers. Turns out he just wanted my American woman perspective on everything he could think of, from lymphatic massage to Native Americans. He even brought out an atlas to talk about China.  Sherpa was pretty lucky that he decided to stay in the room, because he would have been lost again, but despite the challenge of talking about difficult topics in a foreign language, I loved it.

I have to mention the breakfasts that Madame made for us – we wrote to her ahead of time about needing a gluten-free breakfast, and she said it was no problem. She went ALL OUT! She bought gluten-free cereal and she even made homemade gluten-free cookies. Everything was amazing. Homemade yogurt, fresh-baked bread and fresh crepes (!!!!, for me), an unending array of jams. We were in heaven.

To top off the Bacchus story, we stopped overnight before our flight home in Fontainebleau, just outside Paris. And the name of the restaurant on the lobby level of the hotel? Bacchus, of course.

(Image from this post via Dining with Bacchus.)

Funny in Spain

One of the best things about Spain is its very laid-back, friendly and fun culture. We made a few fast friends, for example, at a bar called Gato Negro in the Gracia neighborhood of Barcelona. We found the place when we happened on a pair of best friends while wandering the neighborhood – Sinead from Ireland and Flavia from Argentina; you can’t make this stuff up – and asked them if they knew where we could get a drink nearby. They were apparently honorary Spaniards and told us to come along with them, and when we walked through the little door the atmosphere changed from quiet residential neighborhood to happening bar scene. We had a blast chatting with everyone. There were people there from all over the world and we were all communicating in whatever way we could manage.

San Sebastian, however, is the town where we really felt welcomed. Leire, the owner of the Pension des Bellas Artes, was the friendliest and most helpful person we met on the trip. She drew us maps, gave us lots of information, and kept us chatting about everything for far too long and we loved it because of her irresistible warmth. (As an aside, it was very difficult for Sherpa to pronounce her name. The only way I could explain it to him was to tell him to say “layaway” fast and replace the W with a flipped R. So now when he refers to her, she’s just Layaway.)

Leire recommended a bunch of tapas restaurants to us, but by the end of our stay in San Sebastian, we were DESPERATE for anything but tapas. We found a really nice place named Patxi Aizpuru with real plated meals. But Spanish humor still reigns in fancy restaurants. I thought I’d share the bathroom signs from this place. ImageImage