Autonomous Community Spotlight: Islas Baleares // Illes Balears

Not one to make travel goals, I did make one when coming to Spain: visit all 17 autonomous communities at least once before going home. While Madrid, Barcelona and Seville are the stars of the tourist dollar show (and my hard-earned euros, let’s not kid around here), I am a champion for Spain’s little-known towns and regions. Having a global view of this country has come through living in Andalucía, working in Galicia and studying in Castilla y León, plus extensive travel throughout Spain.

After Valladolid orientation, I struck up a conversation with Meg. We had many mutual friends and would be studying abroad together in Castilla y León, so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to introduce myself.

“Hey, I mean, holaaaaa. Soy Meg. Want to come to Ibiza with me once the program is over?”

Sad but true: of the four islands that constitute the Mediterranean archipelago, I have been to just one. And that island is known for little more than foam parties, beaches and monstrous discos. I even turned down a position at a summer camp outside of Palma to return to rainy Galicia summer after summer.

Mallorca, the largest of the islands and home to its capital, has been on my Spain Wish List this year. Given that it’s a gateway to other parts of Europe, sounds like the perfect place to meet my cousin in a few months for our bi-annual European adventures!

(My apologies for not posting last month. As you know, life can sometimes interfere with everything from work to a writing hobby, so I’m a month late here)

Name: Islas Baleares in Castillian, Illes Balears in Catalán

Population: 1.1 million (including mi niño, Rafa Nadal, when he’s not off somewhere winning cups)

Provinces: Baleares consists of four islands: Mallorca, Menorca, Ibiza and Fomentera

When: 4th of 17 regions, June 2005


About: It is believed that the islands that sit between 50 and 190 miles off of the eastern coast of Spain have been inhabited since the shipwrecked Boeotians, later taking its name from the Phoenician language.

Apparently everyone went around nude then, too, so it’s no surprise to me that the four big rocks that make up the island chain are touristic hot spots.

Anyway, given its strategic role smack dab in the middle of the Med, the Baleares constantly found themselves under different rule – Carthinigans, Greeks, Romans, and didn’t even escape Muslim rule until the 12th century.

During the Reconquist, King James I of Aragón captured the islands one by one, incorporating them into the crown once he had died and his will called for the Count of Urguell to give them back. Like marbles, the islands were wrestled back and forth between seemingly everyone in Europe – Holy Roman Empoeror Charles V, the British, Napoleon and even Turkish and barbary pirates – before 1802.

Interestingly enough, catalán is an official language, with some 75% claiming to speak it.

Must sees: The islands are no stranger to mass tourism – Palma’s airport is one of Spain’s busiest in terms of passenger volume – and it’s benevolent temperature yearround means it’s full of expat enclaves, particularly English, Nordic and German. Even the former Spanish king, Rey Juan Carlos, summers there!

Don’t let that throw you off, though. The impressive Palma cathedral and the port below it, Menorca’s calas and interior wild beauty, the club scene in Ibiza and the temperate waters seem to lure tourists to Las Islas Baleares, but the archipelago’s culture and sun sports have me itching to make it back.

You can tell from my Irish roots that I don’t lend well to sitting on a beach, but I’d love to learn to sail or scuba dive. It just looks like…a break from my computer?

Because the Islas have a distinctly Catalan flavor, the two regions share many popular traditions and festivals. Most notably, last week’s Nit de Foc, celebrating the feast of Saint John, where bonfires blaze throughout the night around the islands, and people burn things as a sort of rebirth that marks the summer solstice. There’s also a mock battle in Soller between pirates and the townspeople to commemorate the islanders’s win over Moorish seafaring folk, and parties and romerías seem to rage on throughout the summer. Oh, and did I mention a grape fight in September?

And, of course, there’s the cuisine. Mallorcan food centers around seafood, tumbet mallorquín (a version of pisto) and the sinful ensaimada pastry. Mallorca is also an up-and-coming wine region, protected under the Denominació d’Origen Binissalem.

My take: I’ve always equated the islands with partying, Rafa Nadal and pebble beaches, but I’ve seen relatively little of the comunidad autonoma. But with daily flights on several airlines, my biggest excuse is deciding which swimsuit to pack and then to actually go! 

Have you been to the Balearic Islands? What would you recommend seeing?

Check out the other regions I’ve highlighted: Andalucía | Aragón | Asturias.

Each month for the next 14, I’ll take a look at Spain’s 17 comunidades autónomas and my travel through them, from A to, um, Valencia. I’d love your take on the good and the bad in each one, so be sure to sign up for my RSS feed to read about each autonomous region at the end of each month! Next up for July is the other island chain, Canarias.

Elephant Riding in Rajasthan: Good Idea, Bad Idea?

“Ok, you have one minute to decide: ride elephant, walk.”

Ali swung around, eyebrows raised. His heavily-decorated tuk tuk’s engine shivered as it halted to a stop and he used his leg to steady it. I looked at Hayley and took a deep breath. “I can’t do it, I’m sorry.”

The city I most looked forward to visiting in India was Jaipur, a metropolis dubbed “The Pink City” that is famous for its salmon painted buildings and the Amer Fort. Once we’d gotten our bearings in Delhi and Agra, Hayley and I were set to enjoy endless lassi yogurt drinks and climbs to some of India’s most jaw-dropping forts and palaces.

Other travelers told me that Jaipur rises out of the desert like a mirage, but we rolled in on a sleeper train that was delayed several hours through a seedy part of town. The porter knocked on the door and motioned for us to get off. Jaipur, after Delhi’s chaos and the scam-laden town of Agra, was already a dream.

Ali stood, arms crossed, waiting to take us to Hotel Kaylan. Though illiterate, he pulled out a journal that was full of recommendations and reviews from other traveler. He stood up and opened the compartment under his seat, taking out a photo album so we could settle on an itinerary.

Apart from the city’s main sights, like the various forts and palaces, the Janta Mantar and the Hawa Mahal, he pushed the Elefantastic park, allowing us the opportunity to paint, feed and swim with the pachyderms. After all, the Rajasthani state is famous for its Indian Elephant festivals and breeding grounds, and elephants have been used for centuries in trade and commerce. What’s more, one of Hinduism’s most beloved gods, Ganesh, the god of good fortune, is depicted as an elephant.

Ali drove us to the Monkey Temple at sunset. Animals are quite commonplace in the streets in India – not only are sacred cows able to freely roam cities and eat all the trash they can find, but we saw goats in rickshaws, pigs and warthogs complacently lying on patches of cracked cement, and now monkeys swinging about temples as the faithful prayed.

India is different when it comes to animal treatment. As an American, I’ve always had a pet and have been taught to respect animals. My parents contribute to the National Parks System and sent me to summer camp as a kid, and I’ve been riding horses since I could walk. That said, I eat meat and would probably defend a human over any other four-legged creature.

I found India to be a strange paradox: Gandhi once said that you can measure a nation on how they treat their animals, but there were scores of abandoned creatures. In fact, I didn’t see an animal on a leash until our last morning in India.

We spoke softly to a man who carried around a bag of mangoes and spoke good English. Despite leaning on a cane for support, he’d been climbing up the slippery slope that wound up a steep mountain a few times a day to feed the massive flock of Rheus Langur monkeys that lived in the vicinity of three small temples.

We’d given the Amer Fort a full morning before hiring Ali to take us to the Mughal markets for shopping. But I was still faced with the decision of whether or not I’d want to ride an elephant up to the magnificent, sprawling residence. We spent the breezy night up on Hotel Kaylan’s terrace restaurant, sipping fizzy soda water flavored with lime and salt. While Hayley settled something with her bank, I dove into researching elephant treatment in Rajasthan. 

Part of the hesitation about the ride came from participating in the Travel Blogging Calendar to raise money for Thai elephants. After being clued in to exactly what happens to elephants when they are tamed there, I would have been horrified to support a rehabilitating practice.

I was encouraged to learn that the Indian Government opened and has sponsored an elephant compound since 2010, meant to be a refuge for the pachyderms and a tourism center for Indian elephants. There’s also an Elephant Wellness Office to which abuse and mistreatment can be reported.

The 100+ elephants working at Amber Fort have specific rules about how many trips they can make per day and are limited to two passengers, plus their Mahout, or handler. In fact, most are able to stop working for the day by 11am, before it gets too hot. No downhill trips are permitted.

But get past the first few pages of Google, and the horror stories crop up – elephants dying of heat stroke, of mahouts being trampled to death, of lack of funding for sick and suffering animals. I didn’t even bother investigating how the animals were trained.

The issue, of course, is not black and white. As animals have traditionally been domesticated by man for millennia, and this sort of tourism is crucial to many communities in India, I began to weigh those points as well. The Novio has trained horses and dogs, and his family relies on animal to earn their living, so would I be hypocritical by refusing to take the ride when I’ve ridden horses and camels?

By the time we went to sleep, I was still uneasy about the decision I’d have to make. I’d imagined elephants would be a part of my India experience, just as dosas and a guru reading my chakras and learning to drive a tuk tuk were.

Ali showed up early the following day to pick us up and take us for a lassi before driving to the palace. He pulled off the road adjacent to the Maota Lake and asked: to the elephants, or are you walking up?

I had asked his opinion on the ride, and he admitted that he wouldn’t think about doing it. Ever. Full stop. Ali is a spiritual and respectful man, so I trusted his judgement.

We set off walking, having to dodge hawkers and other tourists on the ramp and stairs that lead to the Suraj Pol, or Sun Gate.

When I saw my first elephant, trunk decorated with paint, I gasped. Having only seen elephants in zoos, I couldn’t believe I was just a few paces away from one – so surprised, in fact, that I narrowly missed a pile of fresh poop.

The climb itself was incredible, and we passed by the elephants through narrow gates. I didn’t, for one second, regret my decision to forgo the ride – it looked shaky, so I wouldn’t have gotten any good photos anyway.

Watching the passengers dismount in the lower courtyard, called the Jaleb Chowk, the elephants turned around and went back the way they came. I couldn’t deny that it was beautiful to watch them sway as they left the sun gate and went back for the next batch of passengers. 

Elephants, in Hindu culture, represent strength, prowess in war, majesty and royalty, and a vehicle to the divine world. But in no way does a vehicle to the divine world mean sitting on top as the elephant trudges up a slope.


This article was written as part of Contiki Storytellers’s campaign for Costa Rican sea turtles (please watch the video above!). Animals are an important part of ecosystems, after all. I cannot tell you it’s right or wrong to ride an elephant in India or Thailand or elsewhere, merely that you investigate and make the decision based on your personal feelings. I am not a conservationist or an animal rights activist – I’m just a traveler who didn’t feel right taking an elephant ride. I was not paid for this article.

What’s your take on animal tourism? I’d love to hear from other bloggers like Green Global Travel, Wanderlusters and Hole in the Donut, who are into responsible tourism.

The Amer Fort is located 11 kilometers from Jaipur in the village of Amer and is open daily from 7:30am until 5:30pm. Foreigners pay a 200 rupee entrance fee (about 3€). The cost of riding an elephant is 1000 rupee for two people, plus a tip for the driver.

Spain Snapshots: The 10 Best Memes of Spain’s Crushing Defeat in the World Cup

In truth, it was a bendición from the gods: after watching Betis get relegated to Segunda as a card-carrying socio, I had all my cards on Spain’s World Cup bid.

I mean, we won The Euro Cup in 2008 (and my Barca-loving boss at Banana Republic scheduled all of break time together so I could give him updates during the game), the World Cup in 2010 and the Euro Cup again two years later. 

You can imagine the relief I felt when my academy’s end-of-year dinner was scheduled for the same night as the Spain-Chile match, and I didn’t have to suffer through 90 minutes of dreams dying (and probably unicorns and other things as elusive as going four-for-four).

I made myself a gin and tonic at home and settled into my favorite part of losing: MEMES!

Whenever you’re feeling down that Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar are probably taking great pleasure in the reigning World Champs becoming the first team to be eliminated in the first round, bookmark this page and remember the better times of La Selección Española:

Diego Costa

Ugh, let’s talk about how much I loathe Diego Costa, a former Atlético Madrid player who gave up his spot on the Brazilian national team to attain Spanish citizenship, believing he’d have a better chance at winning the cup with Spain than his own country.

Can we get a slow clap here right now?

El Tiki Taka

Spain’s famed ‘tiki taka’ style of short, direct passes haven’t brought them a ton of goals, but it has helped them attain the three peat. 

Clearly didn’t work against a revenge-hungry Holland, or a more decisive Chile. Thanks for the memories, Tiki Taka.

The Sinking Ship

One of the more popular memes I’ve seen on Facebook has been the sinking ship with the band’s heads replaced by Gerard Piqué, Sergio Ramos, Cesc Fabregas and Iker Casillas.

Be it a metaphor for a country that lost a king and a dream and their dignity in one day?



Cruel, guys.

De Vacaciones

Some players on the Selección have admitted to being tired after 40 weeks of league play, plus European league championships and a number of friendlies leading up to the Cup.

Spain’s goalie and captain, Iker Casillas, can finally take a break with his girlfriend, sports reporter Sara Carbonera, and gets an entire month to enjoy. Just like every other Spaniard. 

Waka Waka

While everyone was dancing the Waka Waka in South Africa, I was falling in love with Barcelona star Gerard Piqué.

Shakira apparently was, too, but her home team is first in their group, so maybe some Waka Waka? Eh? Eh?

Sorry, that was so bad.

La Abdicación

Last Wednesday, I didn’t even know Spain. Apart from the team losing, Spain’s King, Su Majestad Juan Carlos I, officially left the throne, and his son was crowned the following morning.

In this meme, JC thanks Spain National Team Coach Vicente del Bosque for doing everything possible to be present on his son’s big day.

If only. Also not present? The Spanish rose AKA Cayetana de Alba. Trick doesn’t like being shown up!


A visual reminder that, when you’re on top, there’s no place to place to go but down (or back to Spain via Iberia).

El Tupper

Poor Pepe Reina. Spain’s back up goalie has been invited to be ‘convocado’ by the Spanish Selección for the past three World Cups, but he has yet to clock any minutes. Iker Casillas has gotten all of the glory.

On the bright side, he gets a free trip to Brazil and someone will send him back to the Madre Patria with a Tupperware full of something delicious. 

Do you think they’ll get to-go cups of caipirinhas, too? 

Sergio Ramos

The Real Madrid hincha was recently revered for a tying the Champions League final in the last minutes against Diego Costa and his crosstown team, but what he has in fútbol skills, he kinda lacks in smarts.

El Pony de Camas is asked to translate the word red and use it in a sentence. If you know Spanish, you know that ‘red’ also means net, so Ramos, a defender, tells goalie Iker Casillas to take the ball out of the net. Again.

Sad, but so, so on.


As the Novio says, “The definition of sport: a physical activity subject to rules and regulations that is always won by the Spaniards.”

I’d say he’s eating his words, but he’s probably just glad I’ll stop spending so much money on beer and nachos. Go Team USA?

Who are you rooting for in the World Cup? I’m pushing for Mexico, the USA and Germany. And don’t worry, Iker – I still love you.

Behind Every Plate: A Day with Insiders Madrid

The more immersed I become in the Spanish gastronomic world, the more interest I have in where food comes from, who makes it (or butchers it or cures it or raises it) and the stories behind everything I consume.

I recently spent the day with Joanna, the founders of Insiders Madrid. I was jet lagged, emotionally fraught from my grandfather’s death and not really sure what day it actually was.

Given the choice between many different types of tours, I chose the follow my nose and stomach on the Gourmet Food Shop Tour on a bright June morning. We met right on Gran Vía, the juxtaposition of old Madrid and shiny new Madrid. Apart from snacking at four stops along the way, I was able to meet the owners and operators of some of the most renowned food shops in Spain’s capital. 

Joanna has traveled extensively and worked in television for years before deciding to follow her passion: to provide luxury and off-beat tours to people from around the world. Between samples of Spanish foods like ham and olive oil, we shared stories about dining and drinking in Spain. 

Our first stop in Malasaña was at Madrid’s oldest charcuterie. A photo of owner Antonio’s grandfather – the shop’s founder – hung above the door.

I had mentioned to Joanna that the Novio’s family raises livestock and produces ham, and she quipped, “What could I possibly tell you about ham that I don’t already know?”

The truth is, plenty.

Antonio explained the way that feed and climate can affect the taste of the ham, mixing in family anecdotes from nearly a century of holding down the shop in an area of town that has seen major gentrification in the last few years. Antonio’s shop sidles up to hip boutiques and art galleries that double as watering holes.

We snacked on freshly cut ham and picos and artisanal beers brewed just around the corner.

At the nearby church of San Antonio de los Alemanes, a priest gave us permission to look around in the oval-shaped chapel that has been dubbed Spain’s very own Sistene Chapel. He excused himself to tend to business down a spiral staircase as Joanna paid a small donation. After the financial crisis hit Spain, the priests at San Antonio opened a soup kitchen, called a comedor social, downstairs to serve those affected by unemployment and wage freezes. The money we paid for an entrance went right to feeding the needy.

My jet lag must have been noticeable, as Joanna suggested we go for a coffee at one of Madrid’s most prolific cafeterías, Café Comercial. The age-old, mirrored cafe was calm in the break between breakfast and lunch, but I chose a vermouth over a coffee, convinced I’d crash after so many coffees.

The establishment is run by Fernando, a young restaurateur who has been in the food service industry for two decades, and who invited me to breakfast the next morning. Joanna says the café doubles as her office – she meets clients and food providers here over a coffee or vermouth.

As we chatted over fresh orange juice and enormous toasts, Fernando pointed out the bar staff. Most had been working for Comercial for well over ten years and could speak of the evolution of a well-known establishment whose clientele de toda la vida had come and gone. Fernando told me about clients who had been around forever, eating the same dish and sitting in the same chair for ages.

Fernando is working to breathe new life into an old place by adding vermouth tastings, language exchanges and theatre performances.

Racing the clock, we sampled olive oils from beyond Andalucía before ending on a sweet note: a chocolate tasting at a renowned chocolate bar. Joanna chose six or eight different flavors, each of which had been blended with cocoa beans to form outages flavors with hints of spice, cheese and fruit. 

As we closed the tour with a quick caña after the sugar rush, we got to talking like old friends about our shared passions: food, drink and Spain.

Joanna and Seth of Insider’s Madrid graciously invited me on their Gourmet Food Shop tour, but all opinions are my own. The tour lasts approximately three hours at the cost of 65€ per head, which includes all tastings. Purchases at the stop are at your own cost.

Love Spanish food? Check out my biweekly food feature, Tapa Thursdays!

The Thing About Spanish Weddings…

I went to my first wedding when I was 20. I had never been asked to be a flower girl, and my older cousins didn’t get married until I was already living in Spain. I drove with a friend out to Waterloo, Iowa, for a study abroad friend’s nuptials. The following year, I was a bridesmaid in a high school friend’s ceremony. I was as wedding tonta as they come.

The Novio invited me to a friend’s wedding on Gran Canaria (!!!!) after we’d been dating for about six months. We took a long weekend and explored the island by car, but I was underdressed, had the wrong length dress on, and mistakenly didn’t eat lunch before we left.

Since then, I’ve tallied more enlaces in Spain than weddings in the US – three of fellow americanas who married Spaniards – and I’ve even photographed one! Just last weekend, I attended a bodorrio in the Novio’s village of San Nicolás del Puerto. He wasn’t there, but I went anyway because, who doesn’t love a good wedding?

Yeah, so the thing about Spanish weddings is…


Weddings are typically held in the bride’s hometown. The Novio knows the father of the bride is the one who pays, so he’s promised we can do one back home, too. In fact, I’ve only been to three weddings in Seville proper! 


It’s considered bad taste to send the invitations to your friends and family; instead, the happy couple are expected to hand out the envelopes to guests! There have been several weddings where I’ve not gotten the actual invitation until just days or weeks before the nuptials, and most are sent six weeks before (thanks for sharing this, Lynette!).


Ladies: if it’s a daytime wedding, stick to a short dress. If it’s at night, go long. Do not mess this up, or have the marujas in attendance forever tsk-ing you. If you’re really pija and daring, you can wear a nice pants suit.

El tocado

Those crazy fascinators are ONLY appropriate for day weddings. I know, just when you want to be bold and Spanish and wear one, you find out that you can’t because the ceremony is at 6pm. Sorry.

The wedding party

It’s not common to have bridesmaids and groomsmen; rather, Spanish weddings have a madrina and a padrino who sign the paperwork that legally makes you man and wife. When the Novio’s brother got married in a civil ceremony, I was his wife’s madrina, which also meant I got to fix her hair right before I took photos of them.


There are virtually no gift registries – you hand the happy couple an envelope stuffed with money to start their nest egg (or pay back the lavish meal you just ate).

I was horrified when the Novio slammed 300€ into his friend’s palm at our first wedding together, but money is a lot easier to carry than an olla exprés, I suppose. Brides and grooms sometimes include their bank account number in the invitation, as well, so that you can transfer money in before the ceremony.

Food and Drink

They never seem to stop serving food or drink. Ever.

In Spain, there is usually a coctel where someone will inevitably be cutting a leg of jamón, and you’ll have beer, wine, sherry and soft drinks served, along with finger foods. Once you sit down, there will be more jamón and boiled shrimp before you get two dishes, a dessert and coffee before the champagne toast.

The bride and groom typically come around to your table at this time to give you a small gift, and this is where you hand them the envelope. Every time someone shouts, ‘Vivan los novios!’ you must shout viva.

Then it’s dance and copas time! Most weddings have a DJ or band and they always, ALWAYS play the same songs. I fooled someone into thinking I was Spanish last weekend because I knew every single song they played.

All the normal stuff we do back home?

The bride and groom have their first dance, you throw rice and the bride throws her bouquet, and someone’s drunk uncle hits on you. Like many Spanish celebrations, weddings are over-the-top and full of fun moments (usually brought on by a cocktail or two). And there is always a sevillana or two!

At Jesus and Macarena’s wedding last weekend, the father of the groom asked me how I was enjoying myself. I told him it was the exact wedding I’d envisioned for myself – right down to where the banquet was held (the father of the groom’s restaurant!).

Have you ever attended a Spanish wedding (or had one yourself)? Tell me about it…I am hopeful I’ll get my two parties someday and need some ideas!

Grieving as an Expat: A Story About Loss, Life and Last-Minute Bookings

Death is about as taboo a subject as they come. As my cousin Christyn and I tried to mask our fear the last time we talked to Pa, seated on the futon, it was as if the proverbial White Elephant had come and wedged itself in between us.

As my days living in Spain have stretched on to nearly seven years, there has always been a little voice in the back of my head that has reminded me that there are things I’ve given up. While some are trivial, my heart sometimes hurts when I miss weddings, babies and other defining life events.

And believe me, it weighs on my expat mind nearly every day.

Back in November, by dad delivered the news I had been dreading since boarding a Spain-bound plane: my grandparents needed assisted living. My grandmother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and could no longer look after herself or the man she’d cared for during 63 years of marriage. She’d forget to give him his medicine for a weak heart, or not feed him.

I decided to turn down my summer camp position to spend time with my family back in Chicago during my summer holidays. It wasn’t a hard decision in the end – not for money, and not for experience. 

I lost my maternal grandmother to cancer at age 9, my maternal grandfather to a hit-and-run at age 19 and was facing losing my remaining grandparents – one in body and one in mind – at 29.


My grandfather, Don Gaa, Sr., was a man of few words. He loved working with his hands, sitting with his feet up and playing jokes on us. As my dad, who took the same name as his father, summed up a simple man who grew up in Nebraska during the Dust Bowl as he gave the eulogy: “You could tell how much Don loved you by how much he teased you.” His winks and sly smile were words enough.

When I said goodbye to him over the phone about 48 hours before he passed, I could feel his smile through the phone. It’s hard to be serious and tell someone you love them and will always remember them when you burst out laughing every time you think of him and his sly little smile.

Christyn slung her bag on her back and gave me a hug. I reminded her to call her dad that afternoon. Christyn is a nurse in Germany and had explained Pa’s condition, his decision to withdraw care and get hospice care. He was as stubborn as they come, and he wanted to go in peace.

As I unlocked the door to work that day, I got a frantic whatsapp in capital letters from my mother: CALL ME IMMEDIATELY FOR PA. I fumbled with the keys, tears flooding my eyes, as I struggled to tap out a response. “Is it really that bad?”

“Yes. <3 <3 <3”

I paced the corridor of the academy, trying to compose myself before the other teachers arrived. I decided to stay mum, not wanting to cause an avalanche of tears and blubbering and ugly cry onto people with whom I had a professional relationship. But this is life, and life sometimes sucks, and crying makes me feel better.

As soon as my secretary came in, I crawled into her lap and sobbed.

My boss allowed me to take a walk between my classes to clear my head. I had to work up the courage to call my Uncle Bill, who was at the hospital with my grandfather as he waited to be moved. My grandfather has been deaf for as long as I can remember, so I probably looked like a psycho walking around Barrio de la Calzada with sunglasses on and shouting into my cell phone in English. Pa was on a feeding tube and the muscles in his esophagus had all but stopped trying, so I talked at him as I always did as the bubbly granddaughter.

After moving to Spain, he always pretended I was speaking to him in Spanish before I’d give him a nudge and he’d envelop me in a hug. I knew I probably wouldn’t speak to him again, so I told him two important things: that I was fortunate to have him in my life for nearly 29 years and that goodbye is a word that is often replaced with “hasta luego.” It felt final but not final to send him off that way.

“He’s smiling, Catherine. I think he wants to tell you that,” Uncle Bill said before we hung up.

I continued to walk around the neighborhood for 10 minutes before happening upon a donut shop. I forked out a euro to drown my sadness in chocolate and sugar. It made me feel better.

That night, I hardly slept, checking my phone every few hours for an update on Pa. Nothing came. I awoke groggy and grief-stricken, and decided going home would be too much emotional strain on me. I didn’t send any messages to family, inquiring about how the move to the retirement village had gone or how the old man was holding up.

I collapsed into bed that night, right after work, and slept soundly.

The next day was a whole different story. I woke up and checked prices for a Madrid-Chicago trip. I texted my mom to tell her I wanted to come home, if only to see Pa once more and tell him I love him. I asked my boss to ask about a week-long leave of absence. Being a spiritual person, she immediately agreed and offered to take over my classes and speak with lawyers about the legal ramifications of missing four days of work.

Pay deducation or not, I had promised my grandmother I’d be at her funeral, and now that she was on the verge of being a widow, I felt it was my duty. And I wanted to.

My dad called just after midnight. I had already chosen flights and just wanted to run my travel plans by him so I wouldn’t be stuck at Midway with a non-functioning phone and no one to take me for an all-beef hotdog.

“Yeah, Pa just passed away about 45 minutes ago,” were his first words to me. My grandfather had slipped into a coma on Tuesday night, received last rites twice and my grandmother and my father’s two youngest boys were with him when his heart decided that enough was enough.

I was sorry, but at the same time, relieved. When someone whose health is poor suffers and who had lived to nearly 86 dies, there’s always a moment of grief and of loss, but it dissipates quicker than I had imagined it would. My dad had lost his first parent at 62, whereas my mother was an orphan by 47. I cried quietly, but nothing compared to Monday’s bawlfest with MariJo.

Somehow, I pulled it together to book a Delta flight, a train ticket to Madrid and a hotel in Barajas, then planned my classes for the following week. I slept like a zombie, relieved that I wouldn’t be racing against the clock to see Pa before he passed. In fact, I was relieved.

The following morning, the Novio took the day off of work to help me prepare for my trip. Rather than being sad, he told me all of the memories he had of meeting Don, Sr. in Chicago and Arizona. I laughed as we had a morning beer while the other abuelitos around us drank their coffee. 

“Your ‘grampy’ was the funniest man,” he said, recalling a time where he had teased my mother and her sweet tooth with a little wink.

He really was the funniest man.

My sister greeted me at my gate with a beer in hand. She and Pa had always been close, as I was the proclaimed favorite of his wife, and Pa gave everyone else all the love that Grammie gave me. “I wish we were seeing each other under different circumstances, but it’s really freaking good to see you,” she said. There was no culture shock whatsoever (my guess is from frayed nerves, a three-hour delay out of Atlanta and the fact that my trip was so last-minute).

I was beyond tired – both mentally and physically – but happy with the decision to come home.

As I plopped down I my bed, something poked my upper back: a wooden bull that my grandpa had carved for me the summer before. It went straight into suitcase to be carried back to Spain.

On Saturday afternoon, we set off to my grandparents’s house near the Illinois-Wisconsin border. The Gaas had moved in to that house on David street just after they married, and before my father was born. To me, it’s the house where many of my childhood memories were formed.

My dad’s brothers and their wives were there, as well as my grandmother, who looked frail but stoically did not cry. My arrival from Spain took center stage (I had not been home in nearly two years), and I suddenly felt elated to be with my family. We pulled out the photo albums my grandmother had kept since her marriage in 1950. There were no tears, just laughter and memories and trying to find the fake poop he’d hid amongst our Christmas presents.

“Do you think you could get married in October? That would be a nice month.” My grandmother held on to me as we passed a picture of her wedding day. I’d told her that we wanted to do a ceremony in the US, and her face changed. She was so happy that the funeral home had done a great job of making Pa look like Pa, and I even said I think he had a slight smirk on his face.

She was as stoic as a widow can be during the wake, and was so delighted to see so many friends come out. My Pa loved little kids, and when all of my second cousins came with their babies at once, Grammie’s mood changed. Keri’s daughter ran up to the casket and poked Pa, then ran away, giggling as if Pa were actually chasing his only great-granddaughter.

For four hours, I played catch up with all of my extended family. The last time I had seen them was for Thomas’s wedding in Boston two years ago, and despite the circumstances, we all laughed and hugged and ate and rejoiced at being together again. “You definitely win the award for furthest traveled!” Uncle Mark quipped.

When we went home that night, I fell asleep, wrecked by a non-stop week of travel and emotional distress and jet lag. The following day, we would bury Pa in Antioch, just a stone’s throw from the house he had lived in with his family.


The funeral was sad, as funerals tend to be. I cried alongside my sister, but was able to read a passage I’d selected from the Book of Wisdom about eternal life without cracking into ugly cry or even a sniffle. My voice echoed in my ears, and the tears came as soon as I’d finished.

At the funeral, we said goodbye to Pa one by one as we touched the casket. I repeated my words: hasta luego.

I walked to lunch with my dad. I’ve only seen him cry twice to date – when my mom’s parents died – and is mind is already switched to ‘Irish Funeral’ setting. Even though my grandfather was German, he played up my grandmother’s love of the motherland, often donning green and marching with us in Irish parades on March 17th. 

Beers in hand, we took turns telling stories about my Pa: his best friend Joe was with him when they picked up two Chicago broads hitchhiking to Wisconsin and ended up married to them, moving next door to one another on David Street. The elation when my cousin Brian, the only male cousin, was finally given the honor of carrying on the family name. The hat collection he kept when he semiretired from owning a grocery store to work as a mechanic at Great America.

My favorite? Pa told my great aunt Anne that he’d wink at her when he was lying in a coffin. But of course he would.

When it was my turn, I kneeled on a barstool and recounted the words the Novio had told me after meeting Pa for the first time. “Your dad is a great man, Puppy, but I want to be just like your grampy.”

“When I die, please have fun remembering me.” Don Gaa, Jr. and I were leaning against the car hood at the Dairy Queen in Mundelein. We were somber, yet I felt better knowing that we’d laughed just as much as we’d cried at the funeral. Even my grandmother seemed determined to start making friends at the retirement home.

I’ve often felt guilt at being so far away from home, and it had never burned so much as in that span of days at home. There was talk about long-term healthcare, of cashing bonds and of who would get what. Most fell to my sister, including being the executor of the will, “only because she lives here.”

I left the US the following morning after a third hot dog lunch with my dad. I suddenly felt this weird urge to get married and start a family so I wouldn’t be depriving anyone of anything. It was a topic that came up countless times in those days, and it really lit the fire under my culo

I don’t think my grandma will take too long to go. After more than six decades with my grandpa, she’s left with ever-fading memories. My heart hurts thinking about the grief she must feel, about how lonely she likely is. But how much would I give up here to be there? Is there any way to still straddle the Charca? To be present in two places?

The truth is, I wouldn’t if I could. I’m too independent, and maybe that makes me selfish. The best I can do is promise to be there when it counts. 

Have you ever dealt with death or loss on your travels?

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