Archive for April, 2009

East of Eden was our April book club pick – after a couple of relatively quick, fun, “modern” novels, we felt we were due for something with a bit more depth and literary merit (whatever that means).  Yes, the length of this book was daunting, and yes, there were times when I felt I had to trudge through Steinbeck’s detailed descriptions of the Salinas Valley, but there were also times when I found myself becoming completely absorbed in the lives of the characters and their constant battles between good and evil.  By the time I got to the end of the book, I really felt like I’d been on a journey with a couple of the main characters – like I’d come alongside them in their joys and struggles.  This feeling of investment is the sign of a good book to me, and so I’m giving this one 4 stars out of 5.  And it’s nice to finish a novel with a real sense of accomplishment, with the belief that I am now a more well-rounded reader.  I just wish I fully understood all of the parallels between East of Eden and the book of Genesis – where is my high school English teacher when I need him?  Mr. Huth, if you’re out there, some of this was over my head…

Every year, our church gives each community group a certain amount of money and a simple urging to “bless your neighbors”.  Our group threw lots of ideas around during our Tuesday night get-togethers, and when somebody mentioned the struggle of Nickelsville, a large Seattle homeless camp, in their mission for a land grant, I think several of us felt our heart strings being tugged. No, we didn’t have the funds to provide them with the property or the shelter they need, but we could certainly stretch our dollars and give of our time to provide them with a hot breakfast and a few hours of company.  And so we were up at the crack of dawn this morning, elbow deep in pancake batter, to begin preparations for a breakfast to feed 75+ people.  And at 8:30, we all rolled up to the South Seattle church which has allowed Nickelsville to temporarily set up camp in their adjacent empty lot.  Our trunks were laden with 300 pancakes and slices of bacon, a couple hundred sausage links, bags of fresh fruit, and 2 large jugs of coffee.  I will admit that I was anxious as I got out of the car, not knowing what to expect.  Would they be receptive to outsiders such as ourselves?  What could I possibly talk to them about?  Shame on me for my fear and anxiety. These people are not so different from us.  They are men and women that have lost jobs and been unable to pay mortgages, people that haven’t been able to find work or have faced illnesses or injuries that have knocked them off their feet, and they don’t want to be a burden to family members or friends.  Particularly in economic times such as these, circumstances like these aren’t so hard to imagine.  And the openness, gratefulness, and graciousness of this community far exceeded anything I could have expected.  We showed up at Nickelsville this morning with the intention to bless these people that have faced struggles beyond what we can understand.  But as is often the case, as I strove to bless them, I found blessings being lavished upon me in return.  Each story, each smile, each “thank you” struck at my core, and reminded me of the importance of sharing God’s love and provision.  As we were getting ready to leave, one man tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to pray for him.  He has been seven months clean from a heroin addiction, but still struggles with temptation and “could use all the prayers he could get”.  As I laid my hand on his arm and prayed that he would find God’s strength and protection, I was struck by the power of the human spirit as common ground.  Yes, this man and I have had very different life experiences, but at our cores, we are both humans, we are both sinners in desperate need of God’s grace.

And so I am infinitely grateful for what took place this morning.  I am thankful for our church, who cares deeply about the homeless community and continually encourages us to stop averting our eyes.  I am thankful for our c-group, which is full of people that are constantly amazing me with their talents, their faith, and their generosity.  These people really have become our Seattle family.  And I am thankful for the warmth and the grace of the people of Nickelsville, as they opened my eyes to their “realness” and struggles.  Please keep this amazing group of people in your prayers.

We came back to a Seattle full of vibrant colors – it seems that every day something new blooms in the neighborhood.  I love the new growth that Spring brings, along with the promise of longer days, baseball games at Safeco field, and backyard barbeques with neighbors.  Dare I bring out the flip-flops and pack away my heavy wool coat for the year?





After a rainy stroll through the Parque del Retiro and a cafe con leche at the top of the CaixaForum building, we left Madrid to head back to Paris on Friday.  Our time in Madrid had felt too short, and I had loved Portugal, but I was itching to get back to Paris.  And from the minute we popped up out of the Metro station and onto the sidewalks of the 3rd arrondisement, I was overjoyed.  So happy to hear the sound of French being spoken around me, so taken with the rooflines and wrought iron railings on the buildings facing the street, so drawn to those tiny tables on the sidewalks in front of the brasseries.  In a way, it felt like coming home, which was cool – it’s nice to know that nearly five years after living here, I still haven’t lost my knowledge of and my attachment to Paris.  We checked into our cute little room on Rue de Turbigo and then set out for dinner at Cafe Briezh – we’d been eyeing this place’s dinner crepes last week, but had never been able to get a table.  We had success at finding a spot this time and promptly ordered a buckwheat crepe with cheese, ham and mushrooms for myself and one filled with egg, cheese, and smoked filet mignon for Shane.  Paired with a pitcher of the special hard cider of the house, dinner was delicious.  We of course had left room for dessert, and ordered one crepe with bananas, caramel, and ice cream, and another with chocolate, pears, and whipped cream.  Heaven.


We spent the rest of the evening strolling through the Marais and along the Seine, stopping on Ile de la Cite to listen to the same sidewalk jazz band that we’d come across the Friday before.  We ended the night with a small carafe of wine from Les Philosophes and went to bed that night so thankful that we’d have one more day to soak in the richness of Paris.



We were thrilled to wake up to clear blue skies on Saturday morning.  The first order of business of the day was hopping on the Metro toward Montparnasse, as part of our continual quest for the perfect pain au chocolat.  Jack had read an article about a baker down there whose croissants had gotten rave reviews, and so we figured, “Why not?”  We picked up a couple of pastries and found a bench in a nearby park where we could sit and savor our buttery finds.  My pain au chocolat was pretty near perfect – crisp and flaky on the outside, soft and airy on the inside, and swirled with a ribbon of rich dark chocolate.  The breakfast of gods:


Next stop was the Fondation Cartier, a large art exhibition space and one of my favorite contemporary buildings in Paris.  I appreciate this place more and more each time I visit it – so simple, but so well-planned and special.  I noticed for the first time the amazing green wall that is growing over the entrance – nice!




We had dedicated the rest of the day to aimlessly wandering the city, lounging on park benches and sitting at cafe terraces.  And so we strolled over to the Jardin du Luxembourg to see how much blooming the flowers had done since we’d been there ten days ago.  The tulips were popping open in bright shades of orange and pink, and we grabbed a couple of chairs in front of the small pond to soak in the spring colors and watch the kids nearby push their little sailboats around in the water.




One hour, one baguette sandwich, and many rays of sun later, we were ready to peel ourselves from our lounge chairs and do some walking.  We ended up at the Jardin des Plantes, where we found more brightly blooming flowers and a park bench with our name on it.  And so we took a seat to for more people-watching, flower-gazing, and sun-soaking.  Saturday afternoons just don’t get any better than that.


And what better way to end a couple hours of park lounging than with a cold beer or a cup of espresso at a sidewalk cafe?  So we made another trip to Les Philosophes (our new favorite Marais bar) to have a drink and really “play Parisian”, as all of the terraces were crowded with French people enjoying their weekend.


For dinner that night, we checked out a cute little restaurant called Robert and Louise on Vielle du Temple.  Shane had both escargot and confit du canard for the first time, and loved them both.  The snails were smooth and buttery, and the duck leg was tender and fatty.  Mmmmm…  For dessert, we decided to head out and find a table on a sidewalk terrace.  We found such a table a couple blocks away and were soon sitting in front of a tasty little dish of creme brule, a cup of espresso, and a nice glass of Port.  We ate and drank as we watched the stylish passers-by, took in the view of the lovely Parisian streetfronts, and enjoyed the company of each other, so thankful for the memories that had been made over the past two weeks.  We ended the evening with a walk along the Seine, with its glittering reflections and beautiful bridges, and there on the Pont Neuf we said our good-byes to Paris, promising we would return again before too long.



In need of just one more chance to revel in Paris, I got up at 6 this morning to take a final walk through the city.  As I wandered the deserted streets, I was again so thankful for the chance to revisit what I have come to believe is one of the most beautiful places in the world.



We are on the plane back to Seattle now, and there were a few tears on the runway as it really sunk in that our long-anticipated trip is over, but there’s an ever-increasing part of me that is ready to be home.  I miss our house, our bed, our friends and neighbors, and my nightly cup of mint tea.  I am looking forward to seeing if our daffodils have bloomed, to cooking in our kitchen (you can only sustain a diet of pastries and cheese for so long…), and to being able to pick up the phone to call my family or my best friends without worrying about time changes or long distance charges.  Yes, on the flip side, there is a list of things I will miss about Europe as well: our morning runs to the boulangerie, speaking French (I made it through our entire time in Paris without having to use English with any French speakers!  I had forgotten how much I love that language…), having access to so much art right at my fingertips, fast and efficient public transportation, and tiny cups of espresso  But it is time to go home.  HOME.  That sounds nice.  And so, au revoir Paris…

Our second day in Madrid was a whirlwind of sight-seeing, as we tried to absorb as much as we could during our relatively short time there.  The first stop of the day was the Museo del Prado, which houses one of Spain’s most prized art collections.  It was fantastic to see in person so many paintings that I’d read about in art history books – pieces by Goya, Velazquez, and Ribera.  I was particularly taken with the brooding, somber qualities of Goya’s later work – more muted color palettes, less representational figures, dramatic brush strokes.  Shane accuses me of only liking “dark art”, and I guess my inclination towards these pieces only reinforced his point.  Who knew I had a dark side?

All of that art-seeing had us hungry, so we hopped across the street for a leisurely lunch (tapas, of course).  The sun was shining and I reveled in the warmth of our little table on the plaza.  Aaaahhh…  On the way to our next stop after lunch, we came across the CaixaForum – a totally amazing building recently completed by Herzog and deMeuron.  I was instantly taken with the outside of the building, and the super-cool green wall growing next to it.  The interior was impressive as well, with its innovative use of materials and simple, sleek forms.





After my contemporary-architecture-fix, we headed down the road for a contemporary-art-fix at the Reina Sofia.  The highlight of the museum visit was seeing Picasso’s “Guernica” – a piece famous for his representation of the horrors of war.  What a difference it makes to see a painting in person – I had glossed over this piece so many times in books, but standing there in front of it, as it filled the whole room, I understood the power of Picasso’s work.  Wow.

We said good-bye to Jack and La Verne yesterday evening as they hopped on a bus bound for southern Spain, and so Shane and I were left to our own devices for our final night in Madrid.  We took a walk through the near-by botanical gardens, enjoying the freshly bloomed flowers and the sight of so many families out for an evening stroll.


We then started our slow trek across the city center, stopping once or twice for tapas and beer along the way, and finally arrived at Madrid’s Royal Palace.  The palace was closed by the time we got there, but we were able to see the outside and spent awhile sitting on the steps of the church facing the palace, taking in the view of what has been called “Spain’s Versailles”.


From the Royal Palace, we wound our way back to the hotel, stopping once more for tapas and again for churros and chocolate – a local dessert or breakfast consisting of strips of fried dough dipped in a super-thick cup of hot chocolate.  Yes, it is just as rich and as fatty as it sounds.  But man, it tastes gooooood.  And we’re on vacation, right?  We fell into bed last night with tired feet and sore legs (and just the slightest stomach ache from our decadent dessert), but were so grateful for the chance we’d had to see so much during our short time there.  Shane has already put Spain on the “must-come-back-to” list.  No arguments here!

(This one was written on Thursday.)

We were up before dawn yesterday to catch our flight to Madrid.  After an insane cab ride to the airport (our driver sang to us in Portuguese while driving so fast that his speedometer needle had no place else to go), a short plane ride via RyanAir, and about an hour in the underground maze of Madrid’s Metro, we popped up on Paseo de Delicias and arrived at our hotel.  We were tired, but eager to drop off our things and begin our exploration of Spain.  And so the four of us headed to the train station down the street to purchase tickets to nearby Toledo, an old, beautiful city about 30 minutes south of Madrid by train.  Success was had, and by early afternoon, we were winding up the narrow cobblestone streets of Toledo on our way to the city’s cathedral, which has been termed “the best in Spain”.  The cathedral was impressive, in all its intricacy and elaborateness – it seemed that every surface of its interior was covered in fine carvings or beautiful paintings.  After our healthy dose of religious finery, we spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the town, just soaking in all that Toledo had to offer.  Sampled some local marzipan, peeked into the El Greco museum, and spent some time just hanging out on a bench in the town’s main plaza.  By the end of the afternoon, I was ready to escape the crowds of tourists and find out where Spain’s locals like to hang out, but it was a very pleasant day, all in all.







After a couple of hours back at the hotel to regain our strength and build up our appetites, we headed to Madrid’s city center to begin our much-anticipated tapas crawl.  I have come to believe that tapas may be one of my absolutely most favorite things about Spain.  You walk down nearly any street in Madrid at 10 pm and you will find at least one little hole in the wall where people whittle away the hours at the bar, snacking on small plates of local fare and throwing back impressive quantities of cerveza (beer) or vino (wine).  The look on every one’s faces seems to say, “I’ve got no place I need to be except right here”.  And so we sampled small plates of thinly sliced ham, spicy chorizo, sharp cheese, fresh clams, vinegar-soaked sardines, grilled prawns, and potatoes topped with a creamy, spicy sauce.  Five tapas bars later, we were full, satisfied with a night spent in true Spanish style.  I could so get used to this…

We have been without internet access for the past couple of days, so I’ve been unable to upload my daily posts – excuse me while I play catch-up.  (This one was written on Wednesday.)

Our last day in Portugal was full of both great adventure and perfect leisure.  We rented a car for the day to drive out of town to visit some of the nearby vineyards.  Shane was slightly nervous about driving here, as Portugal is known as one of the most auto-accident prone cities, and in the words of Rick Steves, “If you get in an accident, you will be blamed.”  Eeek!  But my ever-so-brave husband volunteered to get behind the wheel for the sake of all of us being able to see this other side of Portugal.  And so, the four of us piled into our cute little Toyota Yaris and were on our way to the vineyards.  Getting out of the city was relatively easy, as traffic was light and we were able to avoid any of Porto’s 10-foot wide, two-way roads (it’s amazing that anyone in that city still has their side-view mirrors).  The freeway was easy going as well, but once we turned off the several-lane highway way and onto the smaller roads to get to the quintas (the vineyard houses/tasting rooms), things got just a little hairy.  Trucks will come barreling around curves so quickly on roads that are so narrow that you have to be ready to hit the brakes and hug the very edge of the road with only half a second’s warning.  But Jack navigated and Shane drove like a champ, and after only a couple of wrong turns and one or two white-knuckled close calls, we rolled up to our first stop of the day, Quinta do Panascal.  And within seconds we knew that the harrowing drive was totally worth it, as vineyards unrolled before us in front of a perfect blue sky.  We were allowed to freely wander as we listened to an audio tour about the history of the quinta, and spent nearly an hour taking in the beauty of the vines and the hills and the calm little river at the base of the valley.






We then tasted a couple of the Ports, took a few more deep breaths of the fresh country air, and hopped back in the car to go get some lunch.  Jack had read about this great little restaurant on the edge of the Duoro River called D.O.C., and so we decided to check it out and treat ourselves to a really nice meal.  As soon as we were served our appetizer of small toasts topped with warm brie cheese and pepper jelly, I knew we were in for something special.  I chose the four-course menu, which consisted of cream of asparagus soup with scallop and mushroom ravioli, then octopus with potatoes and wilted greens, an intermezzo of tangerine sorbet, then braised pork cheek paired with a creamy mushroom and bread mixture, and, for dessert, warm apple pie topped with goat cheese and a dollop of olive oil ice cream.  Ooh, la, la…




The food was beautiful and amazing, the open view of the river was wonderful, and the company of good friends was such a blessing.  A perfect meal.  And so we rolled ourselves out of the restaurant, absolutely stuffed but wanting to hit a couple of more quintas before heading back to Porto.  We weren’t able to find anything quite as special as our first stop, but we still were able to taste some good Port and do some more exploring.  We hit the road back to Porto late in the afternoon in order to get the rental car back on time, sorry to say good-bye to this spectacular little corner of the world, but completely satisfied with a genuinely fantastic day.  Again, Shane handled the roads like a rock-star driver, and we made it back to the hotel incident-free.

After watching the sun set over our last night in Porto, and still full from lunch, we grabbed a few small things from the market around the corner and picnicked on the hotel patio for dinner.  It had been a full day, and it felt good to relax, to unwind, and to look forward to our upcoming adventure: next stop, Madrid!


Yesterday was the much-anticipated day of Port tasting.  The area across the river from where we’re staying is crammed full of Port houses which open their doors for tastings and tours.  And so we made the journey over the bridge, in search of the perfect glass of sweet, rich Port.  Our first stop of the day was the Kopke port house.  We placed our orders from their extensive list, took a seat in the swanky, modern tasting lounge upstairs, and began to drool as the hostess placed four glasses on Port on the table before us, each paired with perfect little piece of chocolate.  Shane and I had ordered an inexpensive white Port and a much nicer glass of 1978 Port.  The white was ok, decent but not especially memorable.  But the ’78 was amazing – complex, full of so many different flavors, nutty, rich, balanced, gooooood.


From Kopke, we hit up a retail/tasting room down the street, then headed uphill to check out Taylor, then Croft.  Had a couple of good pours, but nothing like the ’78 we’d had earlier in the day.  Darn our expensive taste…  At Taylor, we got to tour the cellar – this cobwebby photo speaks perfectly to the age of the Port in some of these barrels:


The hours flew by as we sauntered from one Port house to another, enjoying the sun, the views from the terraces, and the company of good friends.




By late afternoon we were ready to give our feet and our taste buds a break, and so we seized the opportunity to hop on one of the nearby tour boats and spend an hour cruising down the river.  Porto continues to amaze me with the drama of its landscape and architecture.  And the colors…  Rich mustard yellows, brick reds, bright greens, and clear blues make up the fronts of the buildings that line the river.


La Verne made the comment that Porto is very “photogenic”.  I agree, as around every corner was another great shot to be taken.




We ended the day at a nice Port tasting room just a couple blocks from our hotel and spent a couple of hours enjoying a final glass of this local treat, paired with small plates of pistachios, cheese, pate, olives, and bread.  A perfect day of decadence and leisure.  And so the vacation continues…

Day 2 in Porto has reaffirmed that this is truly an exceptional place.  We climbed to the top of a nearby bell tower this morning and my breath was taken away by the sight of all of these red-tiles rooftops and narrow, every-which-way streets.


We climbed down from the tower and headed toward the river, hoping to catch a bus to a contemporary art museum on the outskirts of Porto.  As we snaked our way down crumbling staircases and cobblestone passageways, I remarked to Shane how it feels like time has stood still here for the past hundred years (or more).


We spent the afternoon at the art museum, which was surrounded by a beautiful garden, and then headed over to the beach just outside of Porto.  It was the first time I’d seen the Atlantic in years, and the smell of saltwater was wonderful.


I would have loved to spend a couple of hours sitting in the sand, watching the waves crash, but we needed to get back to Porto because we had tickets for a concert at the Casa da Musica.  I was more excited about the building the concert was being held in than the actual concert itself, because it was designed by the ever-impressive Rem Koolhaas (of Seattle Public Library fame).  The building did not disappoint – the folded planes of the exterior were simple and clean, surrounded by a plaza of stone-clad mounds.  The interior was full of surprises – corrugated glass windows, mint green foam walls, colored lights behind perforated metal…  Around each corner was a new experience to be had.




Our friends Jack and La Verne arrived tonight and the four of us headed down the street to a small authentically Portuguese restaurant to get some grub.  We let Jack do the ordering, and soon our table was laden with rice with octopus, fried cod, squid with potatoes, and Portuguese stew (which is actually a plate full of miscellaneous pig parts, feet included).  We stuffed ourselves until we could eat no more, polished off a bottle of vino verde (a slightly fizzy white wine), and are now ready to crash for the night.  Tomorrow we venture to the other side of the river to hit up Porto’s port houses – yesssss!

Having said our bittersweet good-byes to Paris last night, we were up painfully early this morning to catch our flight to Porto.  As we were riding the Metro to the airport at 5:30 am, I noticed that most of the other passengers on the train looked like they were just heading home from a night out on the town – no self-respecting Parisian would be starting their day at that hour.  But alas, we forged ahead and made it to Porto around 11 this morning, tired but excited to see what kind of adventures lied ahead.

As we exited the Porto Metro station and headed toward our hotel, our suitcases bumping loudly along the uneven cobblestone sidewalks, my first impression was, “Uh-oh…”  Graffiti covered nearly every storefront, building facades were dingy, window shutters were crooked and broken, hanging by rusty hinges, and I didn’t understand a single word of anything that was being said around us.  Had Rick Steves led us astray?  Where were the brightly tiled buildings, the ornate church towers, the glistening river?  Anxiety set in, but I bit my tongue, afraid that Shane would think I was just having Paris withdrawal.  We navigated our way to the hotel and were relieved to find a sparkling white lobby, complete with modern interiors and an English-speaking clerk.  We checked into our room and were thrilled to find a beautiful room with a little balcony overlooking the street, a marble-tiled bathroom, and crisp white bed linens.  I began to relax.  We unloaded our things and headed back out the door, in search of some lunch.  We popped into a little cafe and scratched our heads at the Portuguese menu, but decided to take a chance and just picked out a couple of sandwiches with what seemed like pronouncable names.  The first sandwich brought to our table was a grilled ham and cheese, which was decent but unremarkable.  But the second sandwich was more of surprise, filled with various meats, covered with melted in cheese, and served in a bowl of rich red broth.  Hmmm…  It was good, but not what we were expecting – Shane joked that he’s often ordered sandwich and soup for lunch, but never sandwich in soup.  We finished lunch, paid our bill after an uncomfortable exchange in our waiter’s broken English and our very few words of Portuguese, and we headed out for more exploring in the city center.  The sun came out from behind the clouds that had hung over the town all morning, and I began to take note of the beautiful painted tiles that covered several building fronts.  Turns out we had taken one of the less scenic routes to get to our hotel.  But regardless, after a day here, I am beginning to appreciate the grit and the cracks the as part of the urban fabric.  They are signs of authenticity, of this city’s culture and history.  There is something really neat about being in a town where people still hang their laundry out to dry on clotheslines strung between windows, where they let chipped tiles fall away to create a secondary pattern on building fronts, and where they let things like peeling paint or crooked roofs stand as signs of the remarkable age of their city.





Uplifted by the beauty and character we’d discovered, but still quite tired, we headed back to the hotel for a nap, deciding that we would make our way down to the river later on for dinner.  After some rest and showers in our seemingly palatial bathroom (did I mention that our shower in our Paris apartment barely allowed me room to turn around without knocking the handle?) we set out toward the Duoro river for dinner.  We tried to follow the map to our final destination, but couldn’t keep track of the changing street names, so we decided to just head downhill and hope that we ended up somewhere near the Ribeira district.  Our wandering brought us to a fantastic little lookout over the city – this was the point in the evening when I really realized the awesome-ness of Porto.  I’ll let the picture speak for itself.


Dinner was great and we finished off the evening with a glass or Port and a cup of espresso.  Despite my original skepticism, I would say day 1 of our Portuguese adventure was a success.  We’re hitting a couple of big sights tomorrow and leaving the rest of the day open to be surprised by whatever little gems are hidden in Porto’s narrow, twisting streets.