From the sunny Costa del Sol to the frigid Highlands

After finally awakening from my deathbed (death rattle and all, just ask my parents), I was excited to escape Sevilla for a bit. More importantly, I realized how much I missed having my parents and sister around. It was kind of a relief to be away from my kids at school, away from planning lessons and living in a public bus. And not spending money.

I was finally feeling better on the Saturday before Christmas, so Jessi came from Huelva and we spent all day shopping and gossiping and marveling in how we had ended up in Spain at the same time twice. The next day, as I prepared to get myself ready for my parents to visit by going through my huge checklist of things to do – pack, shower, clean and lock the house, check the status of their flight. All checked off and completed, but I then discovered that, though my parents got to Europe with no problems despite the snow in Chicago, they had been grounded by fog in London. Poor Don Gaa. His first trip to Europe (and outside North America, really) would be tainted by grumbling flight personnel, a sleepless night and unfulfilled expectations. Though I had to spend the night alone in Granada, I enjoyed a nice hotel to myself, a delicious kebab and quite a few drunk dials.

My mom called quite early the next morning to tell me they’d been rerouted to Alicante, from which they would rent a car and drive to meet me in Benalmadena. That’s fine, I said, but be aware that the trip will take 8 hours,lest your frequent bathroom breaks, Dad’s inability to maneuver around roundabouts and Margaret’s susceptibility to motion sickness. I helped her get a few tickets booked rather quickly for Gibraltar, what we thought was an hour-long trip or so. However, my directions to get on a “directo” bus rather than a “ruta” bus were ignored. When they finally rolled into the Malaga bus station, I didn’t even get a hug. They were grumpy, jet lagged and hungry. Too bad nothing is open for food at 5p.m. Strike Two against Spain, I suppose.

Once we found our hotel (thanks to Don Gaa’s amazing navigation skills, which I am happy to say I have partially inherited) and ate some delicious (not) food from the hotel’s cafeteria, I realized how excited I was to have my family in Spain. I also realized that I would have to work hard to convince them that Europe is not useless after their plane troubles. Benalmadena is not really Spain- it’s overrun with Brits and British pubs, British soccer and English language papers. I was happy to go to Nerja, site of some fantastic caves discovered by kids about 50 years ago; Malaga, one of the busiest towns on the Costa del Sol; Gibraltar, an outing which was enhanced by the fact that the gondola to the top was out of order; Tangier Morocco, where I got to ride a camel FINALLY, thus achieving my goal of getting to Africa and Ronda, a gorgeous town perched between two cliffs where bullfighting originated. Though traveling and seeing new places and getting lost is among one of my favorite things to do, I was so happy to be in Sevilla. Here, I could introduce my parents to my favorite place to get tapas, navigate the bus system like a pro and prove to them that I was happy here. I also got to see friends! Yaay.

Celebrating Christmas here in Spain was much more enjoyable that it is back in Chicago. No snow, no carols blaring on the radio, no presents to buy. People here aren’t crazed in the same way Americans are about Christmas. They also don’t believe in Santa Claus, but the Three Kings, and get their presents on January 6. That made for quite a nice Christmas – sleeping in late, climbing a mountain with fantastic vistas of the mountains that border the Mediterranean, eating chicken (glorrrrrious!!) on the ocean and watching TV for hours. Quite enjoyable. New Years, on the other hand, is a big deal. A lot of the attractions were closed for un descanso personal – or a personal rest,. I had nothing to eat in my house, so we hiked for a long time before finding a place to have our New Years Eve dinner. It’s a big family holiday, so most people eat with their families at home, toasting at midnight, before going out. It was suggested to me that Plaza Nueva is a big place to ring in the New Year in Sevilla, so we enjoyed the loads of people around the City Center. The whole of Plaza Nueva was lit up, full of people with grapes and cava in hand, shooting off fireworks. I loved it – it felt really magical. As the new year appraoched, I handed everyone their 12 grapes and Don Gaa poured the cava, a delicious sparkling wine from the northeast part of Spain. You eat one grape on each chime for good luck in each month. I was happy to have my parents partake in a little bit of Spanish culture. Following that, Kike picked me up and we went to the place we get coffee all the time for a few drinks before heading to Manolo’s new place to realllllly drink. I ended up staying out until about 8 am, which didn’t make my parents too happy the next day when I was an hour late meeting them. That’s Spanish nightlife, though. Regardless, I think 2008 is gonna be a good year.

On the 2nd, we took the bus out to Granada to visit the Alhambra. Sadly, it was rainy and cold, so I don’t think my family enjoyed it as much as they should have. I hightailed it back to Sevilla the same day because Kike and I took off the 3rd for Scotland. Not a bad Christmas present, eh? And considering I’m a quarter Scotch, I was overly excited. We took the AVE to Madrid (I passed out), then a plane to Edinburgh (also dead to the world the whole time). When we got to Edinburgh at about 5 pm, it was dark and snowing. Kike complained, saying he was a man form the desert, while I felt quite ok. For maybe the first time in my life, I actually liked that it was snowing. And I like being a giri in Europe because it means I don’t have to wait in much of a line for customs. Not bad.

Edinburgh is a really wonderful city. It’s not too big, not too European. The end of the Christmas carnival meant the streets were still busy, restaurants and coffee shops were full and the cold wasn’t as biting. And everything was lit up. Christmas lights – the not obnoxious ones that aren’t on your house – make me smile. But while I was in love with city, Kike was calling my “people” – aka the Anglosaxons – stupid. We had a very good idea where our hotel was, but no one could tell us which bus to take to get there. So, between flagging down buses, asking people on the street and walking between bus stops on just one stretch of street, we were frustrated. And super cold. The problem is the multitude of bus companies running in Edinburgh, but we found our way to Ben Craig house and were happy for heat. We had some dinner and walk down the Royal Mile, the town center that begins at the base of a mountain at Holyrood Palace and follows all the way to Edinburgh Palace, a military base. It’s really wonderful, full of pubs and parliament buildings, churches (called Kirks) and souvenir stores. But the souvenir stands sell Scottish flags (blue with a big white X), kilts and clan regalia and stuffed animals of the wonderfully adorable Highland cows. Kike was really excited to see the snow, which made me laugh since I’m so accustomed to it. I then got a phone call from none other than Mr. Brian Wolken himself, asking us to come for a few drinks at a great bar called the Tron, at the other end of the Royal Mile. Brian and Matt, former coworkers of mine from Telefund, recently set up camp in Edinburgh after being in Ireland for four months, so we had a few pints and caught up. They’re on their way here rather soon. So nice to see friends when you’re away (Abby Fauser and her sister Missy, another former Telefunder, were also in Sevilla just before New Years).

The next day, we were up early to head to Glasgow, Scotland’s largest town (which is the size of Sevilla, Spain’s fifth largest). The town is not nearly as splendid as Edinburgh…more industrial and gritty with not much to see. I did make Kike go to the Necropolis with me, a cemetery perched on a hill overlooking the only Catholic cathedral in Scotland saved during the reformation. He got really creeped out, which, I have to admit, was rather amusing. The bus ride was quick and we had a chance to take a bus to Stirling and see Stirling castle. Once a royal residence, the castle is being excavated for artifacts, but its size and location overlooking the town of about 20,000 is really wonderful. We headed back to Glasgow, where everything was again closed at 1630, so we could have a quick nappy before heading to dinner (McDonalds)and having a beer and singing karaoke at a bar. What’s something strange I noticed was that many bars have a curfew – meaning you have to stay in a bar after 12pm. I suppose this is to curb juvenile violence? This would definitely be NO VALE in Spain.

The next morning, after enjoying a really, really delicious breakfast at the hotel, we took a train up to the Highlands. This is the part of the country my family is from, both the Ritchie and McCrae clans. I took a nap, and when I woke up, all I saw were mountains full of snow. It was like being on the Polar Express. That soon changed back into rolling hills interspersed with teeny cobblestone towns, vast farms with highland cows and sheep, tiny creeks and stone fences. Scotland. Our destination was Inverness, the largest town in the area. Like Andalucia, the Highlands has got it all – from crumbling castles to Loch Ness, tartan-clad pipers in military garb, hills and rivers and livestock. The center part of town was quite charming, and we found a bed and breakfast right down the hill from the castle. The proprietor was one of the most genuinely nice people I’ve ever met and overly hospitable. He went and found me papers with articles about the Caucuses and primaries. Just about everything was closed by the time we got there, so we found a place to have Cruzcampo (the beer from Sevilla) in a Spanish tapas bar, then ate the national dish of haggis and neeps, then took a walk. We had another beer in a pub before deciding it was in our best interest to stick to our schedule and have a little nap. We found a bar playing Cledieh, pronounced kay-lee, a traditional Scottish music accompanied by a dance and had a bit more to drink. Like most places in Scotland, Kike couldn’t smoke indoors, so we went to the smoker’s haven just outside in the garden. Normally I would have stayed inside with my drink, but luckily we were speaking to each other in Spanish because an Argentinian by the name of Farunco heard us. He invited us to another bar with his buddy, John, and wife, Nicola. After grabbing some food quickly from an all-night take-away (ahhh, perhaps the greatest thing about the UK), we met them at a bar across the street from our hotel called Johnnie Foxes. We had the standard UK beers and delightful Scotch whisky and enjoyed watching Farunco, code name LA RATA!!!!!, continue to get drunk. I noticed the people in Scotland, namely the women, were not so good-looking, and I was told I was too pretty to be from Scotland by a drunk wanker from Liverpool. This followed the phrase, “You’re kind of fat. But I like your jumper.” Uhhh, ok. Rata invited us to his home following bar close, and we drank two bottles of red wine and tried not to wake up Rata’s wife and adorable daughter. Buena gente.

Early the next morning, we took a 2.5 hour long tour to Loch Ness to hunt down the famous monster. Amazingly, Scotland’s largest loch (lake) is so long and deep, you could fit 18 billion people, about 3 times the total population of the world, in it comfortably! It was stingily cold and misty, which I suppose added to the mystique, but the hills cut long ago by glaciers were dramatic. On the edge of one sits Urquardt Castle, a ruined Jacobite stronghold in the Highlands with a long history. Set against the greenery, it was suppppppper cool to climb the ruins and look out over Loch Ness. The guide, with his cute little accent, was really wonderful. We hopped back on a bus back to Edinburgh to enjoy one last night of whisky and of course stop at the Tron. During the day, we finally made it to the castle and to all of its (surprisingly) interesting military museums. What’s especially interesting about Edinburgh is that it sits between two volcanoes (both extinct), but it provides a very stunning panoramic. We made it a priority to buy some fabulous butter cookies, too, before getting back to the airport to return to Spain.

Really, I liked Scotland quite a bit. The people were, for the most part, warm and friendly, the landscapes were gorgeous, and the amount of history there is mind-blowing. America is young, and in my opinion, fairly devoid of culture. I’m Scottish, and I felt a strong connection with the country. From its tumultuous past and its fiercely lit patriotism, ruins to sparkling cities. The food is lacking, but the components of the country are truly far-reaching. Sometimes, when I go to a new place, I can’t believe that people actually live in the place they’re living (and I’m visiting). But Brian and Matt’s couch surfing buddy said it well: “I’ve lived in a few places but I always come back to where I came from. I missed it.” and I missed my adoptive country. Even after four days away, I think Kike and I were both pretty excited for things staying open later, days being longer, beer being more tart. Mmm Cruzcampo. Mmm jamón. Mmm unreliable bus service.

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About Cat Gaa

As a beef-loving Chicago girl living amongst pigs, bullfighters, and a whole lotta canis, Cat Gaa writes about expat life in Seville, Spain. When not cavorting with adorable Spanish grandpas or struggling with Spanish prepositions, she works in higher education at an American university in Madrid and freelances with other publications, like Rough Guides and The Spain Scoop.

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