Thursday, March 31, 2016

Europe 2015 - France: Scoring our wheels

So, technically, we were in France today. Okay, it was only me and only for an hour, picking up our leased car from Calais. Still, it's an important part of our trip and, perhaps, it was the most complex to plan (more on this later when I don't have to thumb type).

Here's me doing what you shouldn't: taking a quick snap crossing back into Belgium in our brand-spankin' new Peugeot while cruising at 108. Relax, that's kilometers per hour. The blue "mood lighting" dashboard gives a glimpse of our ride's posh-but-affordable sleekness.

Booking our U.S. - Turkey plane tickets with a month and a half "stop over" in Europe? No problem. Lining up AirBnB locations throughout Europe? A cinch. Renting a car for 37 days? Not so easy. The details and fine print would make most people's head spin, so here are the cliff notes. If you ever need to rent a car for more than 21 days in Europe (15 days minimum during special promotions), seriously consider Auto Europe's "Buy Back" program. It's a short-term lease program that gives you a new car right out of the factory with full, zero-deductible auto insurance; no extra driver fees; and a few other perks.

The only catch: you have to book the car at least a month out, and once you're within 30 days, there's no turning back - not without incurring a 1000-Euro fee. But when you consider getting full coverage - including collision and theft - through even a reputable car rental place is very expensive, the commitment seems worth it. For example, we priced 37 days with a comparable insurance package, and the cost was about $1,000 more, nearly doubling the cost of leasing through Auto Europe. The other option is to rent the car using a credit card that offers additional insurance - many cards offer this. This wasn't an option for us because they only cover for 30 days.

There is one other catch: If you pick up your Auto Europe car from one of the several locations in France, you're good to go. But if you need the car delivered to another city outside of France - say Brussels, like us - there's a $400 fee associated with picking up and dropping off. So we had to get creative: we booked a car to go pick up the car from Calais and a second car to go drop off the car, ultimately saving us $300 (instead of paying the $400, we would pay the $50 for each of the additional rentals).

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Europe 2015 - Belgium (Still): Not always sunny on travel

Conventional wisdom and the omen of the old man rinsing his dentures in the terminal bathroom told me: the allure of travel sometimes gets dulled by reality. The last few days have been a bit of a kick in the... stomach.

First, Aylin and Emilio picked up a stomach bug that had 'em salvo pukin' non-stop for about a day. Our consolation: there are worse places to get stuck than our Cousin Irina's and her husband David's lovely beachfront apartment in De Pannes, Belgium. Deniz and I took turns watching the kids, so we didn't completely miss out.

Second, we got dealt a you-just-can't-win day. The day after picking up our car in Calais, and once the kids were feeling 100 percent better, we decided to venture into downtown Brussels and attempt to revisit the Grand Place and the Manneken Pis - hold the rain this time, s'il vous plait. The sky looked clear as we sat in some traffic and looked for parking. As if on cue, the drizzle began the second we got out of the car. Google Maps decided to lock up on my iPhone. I knew we were so close to the Grand Place, but without knowing which direction to go, and in the rain, it seemed so far. Our rain plan of hitting the Musée de la Ville de Bruxelles (the Museum of the City of Brussels), where the kids enjoyed seeing the Manneken Pis's wardrobe, including an Ecuadorian outfit, would have been perfect until we walked out.

After carefully carrying the stroller down the few stairs from the museum entrance, I proceeded to take what must have been a spectacular, cartoon-like, slip-on-a-banana-peel, ass plant. With stroller in hands. With Emilio in stroller. Not pretty. I lost enough cool points to make it mathematically impossible to recover. Ever.

With the same urgency one might help a fallen senior citizen, onlookers rushed to my aid, as I lay flat on my back with the stroller on top of me in a small pool of rain and shame. With my backside soaked from my waist to my ankles, my immediate thought: Emilio! Apart from being a little rattled, he was fine. Somehow I managed to maintain positive control throughout the tumble.

Beyond Emilio being good to go, the weather held up enough for us to get a family portrait with a backdrop featuring the photographically elusive, 310-foot steeple of the Town Hall Building in the Grand Place. If anyone cares to point out that we missed the five-foot archangel Michael slaying the devil at the very top of the steeple... Following the day we had, we'd like to politely say, "Oh, shut up."

We also got a better shot of the kids with the Manneken Pis.

Third, I had my own maladies to contend with - beyond licking my emotional wounds from the embarrassing fall, of course. I picked up a bug that took me out of service for a day and a half, forcing us to cancel a day trip to Antwerp. This bug featured some great sneezing episodes, one of which rattled my frame just enough to pull my lower back something fierce.

There was one big epiphany (or selective, self-serving rationalization) for me in all of this: If I'm having these health issues and mobility challenges now at 41, can you imagine me at 60? What a mess! Better to scratch this travel business off the bucket list now while I'm still, literally, able to.

Of note: this epiphany applies only to me, as I know some 60 year olds that would run circles around me.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Europe 2015 - Last Day in Belgium: Bruges in one (perfect) day

After a few rough days of sickness and falls, we had a good feeling about Bruges. Almost as soon as we got out of our car, it stopped raining. 
Without a doubt, Bruges is one of the best cities we've ever visited. Its cobblestone roads and water canals winding through well-preserved buildings dating back hundreds of years fools the senses into thinking you're back in the feudal age. Horse-drawn carriages and the town's cleanliness almost make you feel like your walking down Main Street at Disney. Almost. 

If a picture tells a thousand words, here are about 10,000.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Europe 2015 - Leaving Belgium with new cousins

Belgium far exceeded our expectations. We knew Brussels and Bruges would not disappoint, but we didn't anticipate the genuine affection we received from essentially perfect strangers - Cousins Mario, Sonia and Irina, and their respective families. They're actually my dad's first cousins - children of my dad's uncle and hero, Tio Pepe - my grandma's younger brother. Apart from one quick brush with Cousin Mario in 2000, I simply knew them by fame: Tio Pepe's successful kids - the pilot, cardiologist, and lawyer - from Belgium. In other words, I didn't know them at all.

They each hosted us for a few days and made us feel immediately at home, as though we've known each other forever. Family unity is a badge of honor in our family, so I suppose I shouldn't have been that surprised. Even so, we never felt even the slightest, expected awkward moment. Beyond that, their respective better halves - Catherine, Georges and David - had no excuse for being so kind to us. In their own way, they each demonstrated their warmth. Catherine's thoughtful gesture of toasting our arrival. Georges going way out of his way to grab a small bag we'd left behind. David offering to have us stay at their beach apartment, so we can pick up our car from nearby Calais. You can tell a lot about a person from those small gestures of kindness.

With this context, it's easy to see how some of my favorite moments in Belgium were low-key, subdued, but memorable, family affairs. Playing a little guitar with Cousin Mario with our daughters Aylin and Laura looking on. Cousin Sonia's enthusiasm to host us in their new pool. We made it to her place just in time to enjoy a poolside beer before the rain came in. She texted us this photo, inviting us over:

Our drive to the beach with Cousin Irina, where she shared the miracle birth of her beautiful, "Petit Sara," and David's hopes of taking his family where the sun shines a little more. And perhaps one of my favorite, favorite little moments was exchanging music recommendations with Cousin Mario and David. Sitting around the computer, pulling up YouTube videos, Mario shared Georges Brassens, David gave us some Leó Ferré, while I countered with Tom Waits - "A Sight for Sore Eyes," if you must know. Our mutual passion for the power of music transcended any language barriers (David speaks mostly French).

In each of my cousins, I also witnessed a hunger - similar to mine - to live in the now. It's never too late to learn a new musical instrument or never too soon to put in the pool before the kids run off to be grown ups or never too crazy to give serious consideration to a wild dream that may set you free. In the end, perfect strangers with similar bloodlines turned out to be kindred spirits.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Europe 2015 - First Road Trip Soundtrack: From Brussels to Paris

When leaving Belgium and honoring their music, you can't go wrong with these three vastly different but equally compelling wise men of song - in no particular order: Plastic Bertrand, Arno, Jacques Brel, and Stromae.

And when driving to Paris, can you go with anyone but La Môme Piaf, the Little Sparrow: Édith Giovanna Gassion? Plenty more French music to come, but Edith Piaf is the only way to really start.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Europe 2015 - Paris: Blissful disorientation and modified romance

Deniz likes to know what she's getting herself into. I prefer the element of surprise. She's pragmatic. I'm idealistic. She likes movie previews. I don't. But we compromise and manage to find a good balance between preparation and spontaneity.

For example, she wanted to know our kids' sex and I didn't. So with Aylin, we didn't find out until her birth. She totally rocked our world by being born a girl - so much for parental instincts. We learned Emilio would be a boy at 11 weeks. Usually, you have to wait until 20 weeks to see the baby bits. We don't intend to tell him this, so it doesn't go to his head.

This marital dynamic of ours played out nicely in Paris. Deniz did her homework, settled on a few must-hit places, and simply turned it over to our college friend, host and tour guide extraordinaire Delphine. She whisked us through our three days with pin-point precision and record-breaking efficiency. She had the timing down to a science - knowing where and when to go up to the bell towers at Notre Dame, take the elevator to the Eiffel Tower summit, or wander the Louvre during the least congested time. Usually, it falls on me to herd the cattle, but with so much to see with such little time in a sprawling city I’d never visited before, I was more than happy to just "moo" along.

By buying us time, Delphine helped us find another balance. We enjoyed Paris’s romantic offerings without neglecting the kids’ needs. For example, we enjoyed the Eiffel’s spectacular night view of its City of Light, but we also made time for the carousel across the street – a far more enjoyable activity for the kids.

It didn't hurt that Delphine lives in Saint Denis, where we were able to leave our car in her building's garage, and walk five minutes to the Metro and be in the heart of Paris within 20 minutes. This saved us time and patience. Like in most big cities, Paris traffic is a bitch.

I spent a better part of the time blissfully disoriented in what has to be one of the greatest walking cities in the world. Although I'm aware of key landmarks and managed to retain a healthy, high-school level of historical context, I purposely don't like to spoil the experience by reading up too much. I rather experience it as it comes. It's partly my Navy submarine background. We used to go down a hatch at homeport. A shake, rattle and roll later, we'd pop up in some port on the other side of the world. And then, we'd go out and embrace the unknown - meandering around town, sometimes drunk - our uniforms weren't the only things ready for a good soaking after weeks of being underway. The excitement of not knowing what's around the next street corner - before Google Maps and smart phones - was enticing and has stuck with me.

This is where Deniz and I differ. For her, getting a preview and knowing more doesn't spoil anything. It enhances your travel experience. It is due diligence. Certainly many of you will see it her way. And you would all be terribly wrong. I’m kidding. Mostly.

For me, the uncertainty of it all is part of the draw. I loved that the Eiffel sort of snuck up on me, as did great looking Parisians - women and men. These people are as ubiquitous as baguettes here. I suppose in the fashion capital of the world, you should expect the occasional, drop-the-sippy cup, high-cheek boned, elegant, well-manicured, model types.

Not all disorientation is welcome, however. We found the Louvre to be a messy maze of staircases - almost out of M.C. Escher's famous "Relativity" lithograph - and confusing signage, especially when piloting a stroller with two highly kinetic enfants. And it seemed most places had two entrances and exits, but everyone was only aware of one.

In the end, we all enjoyed Paris tremendously, if even if at times we stretched the kids' routines to squeeze in some live jazz at Luxembourg Gardens or gave up a little romance to walk up Avenue des Champs-Élysées to the Arce de Triumphe hands-on-stroller instead of hand-in-hand.

Deniz even scheduled a short stop at Boulevard Saint Michel near Université Sorbonne, if only so this idiot can accurately visualize the famed street anytime I listen to Peter Sarstedt's wink-to-Paris lullaby, "Where do you go to, my lovely?"

So, I guess I can - reluctantly - acknowledge that a little planning ain't all bad. Especially, when the planner has your number. Merci, mon amour.

Europe 2015 - Paris

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Europe 2015 - Saint Cirq Lapopie: Recalibration

Months before the trip, we decided to cut the 10-hour road trip from Paris to Barcelona in half by finding a small town somewhere in the middle. After a few searches, we settled on Saint Cirq Lapopie. Approximately 25 miles off the highway, we could not have found a more beautiful, medieval, little town deep in the French countryside. Even the winding roads, through vineyards and other small towns, proved to be relaxing after our full-throttle run in Paris.

The town's serene vibe and perfect, mid 70s weather, allowed us to meditate and recalibrate. Deniz and I acknowledged that we have to minimize how often we push the kids outside of their schedules, and when we do, we simply need to own the consequences and be more patient when they act out. It's not a matter of if.

How can you not find peace in a place like this?

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Europe 2015 - Road Trip Soundtrack 2: From Paris to Saint Cirq Lapopie to Barcelona

Even with the stop in Saint Cirq Lapopie, we still enjoyed plenty of quality time with our France and Spain playlists. Here are a few key selections, as well as the only song we could possibly blast when we entered Spain: The Pinker Tones' "S.E.X.Y.R.O.B.O.T." - one of Aylin's and Emilio's favorites. More on The Pinker Tones when I summarize our Barcelona.

From France:

From Spain:

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Europe 2015 - Barcelona: Celebrating our first 10 years

Obvious love from Mario Iván Oña on Vimeo.

Ten years ago today Deniz and I made the easiest decision ever. So easy was our decision that to not have made it may have put into serious question our sanity. We were married. Lifelong decisions are seldom this obvious, but from the day we started dating, we knew.

Our friendship, compatibility, and immediate love for each other was like nothing I had ever experienced. Even saying "I love you" rolled off the tongue naturally. With Deniz, love was instinctual and instant. No computation or guessing, except for maybe wondering what had taken so long for our lives to cross. In a life with finite years to live and love, why couldn't we have had a few extra year up front?

We were married September 10, 2005, seaside, outside of Izmir, Turkey. We wrote our own vows and promised to learn each others cultures, be the best parents we could be, and travel. I think we're doing okay. And somehow with every turn along the way - the good, the bad, the painful, the joyous, our marriage has become stronger and our bond tighter. I half jokingly toasted to me when Aylin was born. "Here's to me, the luckiest guy in the world," I said. Today, I tweak it slightly: "Here's to us, the luckiest couple in the world."

Monday, March 21, 2016

Europe 2015 - Barcelona: Finding faith in art

¡Si osmosis no funciona en Barcelona estoy cagado! Loosely translated: If osmosis doesn’t work in Barcelona, I’m screwed!

In our five-day visit, we were inside Antoni Gaudí’s masterpiece, a few feet from Salvador Dalí’s painting chair, and had lunch with another great Salvador.

There is no other way around it: Barcelona was Gaudi’s sculpture garden. His emblematic architectural examples of modernisme or Catalan modernism are everywhere. The Casa Milá and Casa Batlló buildings, along with the gated community-turned-public park Parque Güell are Barcelona’s biggest draws. The structures’ curving lines and cave-like texture, sprinkled with mosaic accents are instantly recognizable – like a Picasso.

But the centerpiece of his collection is the still-unfinished church of La Sagrada Familia. From the outside and from a distance, it looks like a gigantic candle gothic church with its wax skyscraping steeples starting to melt. As you get closer, you begin to see the intricate details. And once inside, you get a full appreciation for Gaudí’s vision of marrying art, nature, and geometry. Concrete pillars resembling tree trunks with protruding branches seem to hold up the impossibly high ceilings. Light peers through various small crevices above, creating an optical illusion of what you might see if you looked up inside a dense forest or jungle. The monochromatic arrangements of stained glass windows – reds, yellows, and oranges or blues, greens and purples – add splashes of color the otherwise plain, off-white interior walls.

Dalí’s most eclectic collections, on the other hand, are actually about two hours outside of Barcelona. His seaside house in Portlligat reveals how the master of surrealism lived: you can see where he sat to paint, how he found inspiration from the sea, and his absolute, unabashed sense of style. He embraced and reveled in his eccentricity. He viewed his life as a canvas for his surrealism expression: his gravity-defying mustache, his wardrobe, his interior decoration.

When you visit the Dalí Theatre and Museum in his hometown in nearby Figueres, one thing becomes clear: Dalí was a multimedia artist. Beyond his famous surrealism oil paintings, he designed clothes and furniture, and was one of the first to use holograms and arrange mirror-imaged paintings and mirrors to create three-dimensional illusions. He also designed jewelry, including the magnificent “Royal Heart” – a gold heart brooch with pulsating rubies arranged to make the heart look like it’s beating.

And then there’s the other Salvador – Salvador “Mister Furia” Rey Nagel. Dalí may have been better know, but this Salvador is still very much alive. He is one of the creative powerhouses – writer, singer, producer, multi-instrumentalist, humanitarian, all-around good guy – of one of Barcelona’s most important music exports: The Pinker Tones. When he found out I would be in Barcelona, he invited Deniz, the kids, and I to swing by “Pinkerlandia” – their studio in the artsy Grácia district in the heart of Barcelona.

I met Salvador in New York City in 2006 during the annual Latin Alternative Music Conference, where I interviewed him and his creative partner Professor Manso and also watched them perform live at Prospect Park in Brooklyn. I didn’t know The Pinker Tones at all, so when we sat down for our interview, he immediately struck me as so unassuming and humble, I wondered if the band’s management had dispatched their roadie for the interview instead of its original member and creative genius. The Pinker Tones’ versatile style and refusal to box themselves into a specific sound, along with Salvador’s graciousness, made them instantly likeable.

Pinkerlandia doubles as a recording studio and a house of worship for music greats. There’s an autographed Brian Wilson photo, an original John Lennon sketch, and Bill Graham psychedelic concert poster from the ‘60s promoting a new up-and-coming band called The Who with “Jim Hendrix” as an opening act.

Over lunch at a nearby café, we talked mostly about music – the genius of Brian Wilson and how The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” inspired The Pinker Tones’ “Life in Stereo,” Turkish funk by Mustafa Ökzent, and what’s next for The Pinker Tones. We then touched on how we both – in different ways – have embraced parenthood and adjusted our lives accordingly.

For example, I’m writing less about music and more about family travel because that’s my reality. Similarly, Salvador is all in on The Pinker Tones’ third installation of their children’s book series “Rolf & Flor,” which apart from being aesthetically pleasing also raises awareness on important topical issues, including global warming and the protection of children. Rolf & Flor in London – due out in October – will have the two title characters meet a child with down syndrome and also a young Syrian refugee.

Given that our exchanges up until now had been mostly business – I need a story to tell, they need to get their music out – I was expecting a pitch. This would have been completely fine by me, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn Salvador had no agenda but to simply have our families meet and just hang out. It wasn’t until I pressed him a little that he shared with me some humanitarian work that he is doing with a friend to help Syrian refugees. “My grandparents were Polish refugees,” he said, “So the war in Syria and this immigration crisis really hits home.”

So maybe creative osmosis doesn’t work. I won't be designing a building, painting a picture or recording a song any time soon. But through these brilliant, creative minds, I picked up a few powerful messages. From Gaudí: faith and science can coexist. From Dalí: don’t pull any punches on self-expression. From my friend Salvador: stay grounded and find a cause to champion.

Through it all, it also reinvigorated my somewhat dormant faith. While my Catholic upbringing taught me not to worship false idols, I think I’m okay appreciating God’s divine intervention through their artistic expressions. Beyond the miracle of my children’s births and the rebirth of a tree in the spring, these artists and their work just might be the most empirical proof of God’s existence.

Here are more photos from our visit to Barcelona or click on the photo below:
Europe 2015 - Barcelona

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Europe 2015 - Paris and Barcelona: Leaving the comforts of home

The devil may well be in the details, but sometimes angels are in the detalles – the Spanish word for thoughtful gestures or small expressions of affection. Those small slices of kindness stay with us forever.

For all the allure of chasing the exotic and experiencing the unexpected while traveling, occasionally finding comfort and safety in the familiar can be a welcome break. I’m not talking about running into the first McDonald’s you see and inhaling a Big Mac as if it were oxygen. I’m talking about a place you feel welcome, where you can put your feet up, throw in some laundry, and raid the fridge – a place you feel at home.

After Brussels, where family took us in, three college friends hosted us in their homes. In Saint Denis, outside of Paris, Deniz’s former classmate and our mutual friend Delphine accommodated us. In Cerdanyola del Vallés, outside of Barcelona, our former housemates Dulce and Dimichell, along with their boys Roger and Manu, welcomed us.

We met them all back in 1999 at the University of South Carolina, where I suppose it makes complete sense for a Turkish American girl and Ecuadorian American boy to fall in love and be surrounded by friends from France (Delphine), Spain (Dulce) and Puerto Rico (Dimichell).

Delphine is far left:

Dulce is far left and Dimichell is sitting on the right:

Beyond their generosity in taking us in, they all had their own beautiful detalles that will be permanently etched in our memories.

Apart from helping us make the most of sprawling Paris in record time, Delphine received us with homemade, authentic ratatouille – a healthy, classic French vegetarian plate of sautéed eggplant, squash, zucchini and various other chopped vegetables, garnishes and spices. We all had seconds and the kids gobbled it up each time. On our second night, she put out a fantastic selection of caviar, salmon tartare, various cheeses – perfect with our Chardonnay from the nearby Burgundy region, where Chardonnay originated.

Dulce – sweet in Spanish – has always lived up to her name as far back as we’ve known her. Apart from laying out a table full of tapas just about every night we stayed with them, she made our visit particularly awesome by surprising us with cake and champagne on our anniversary.

Dimichell, a wine connoisseur who did his very best to make me a little less wine illiterate, picked up on a quick anecdote I shared over dinner. When I mentioned to him that my dad had scored a bottle of Barón de Oña (Baron from Oña) in Spain many years ago and declared he would uncork it at the birth of his first grandson – the first “varon de Oña” or boy from Oña, Dimichell secretly went on the hunt. My dad popped open his bottle following Emilio’s birth. Dimichell popped his on our last full day in Barcelona.

Not to be outdone, their boys Roger and Manu were quite gracious hosts to Aylin and Emilio. Boys their age don’t tend to be exactly maternal, but it was clear their upbringing had much to do with their thoughtfulness. Both boys were smitten by Aylin and Emilio’s antics, and they constantly helped us look after them, play with them, and give them the occasional high five.

The younger Manu put a little lump in our throats by presenting Emilio with a this drawing of a tiger. Emilio was clinging on one of the boys’ tiger toys. We insisted he return it because we knew he’d quickly turn to something else – Emilio and his “expansive” attention span. Even so, Manu picked up on this and within a few minutes came running out to the car, as we were saying our final goodbyes. Out of breath, he said, ”Here, I drew this tiger so Emilio can take it with him.”

Emilio loved it so much, he took a little bite:

Sometimes, the details are – indeed – in the angels. Our next stop – Nice – will be our first without family or friends showing us the way. We’ll see how it goes.