The way we ended up planning our trip was to alternate days of heavy sightseeing with more relaxing days. On one of those relaxing days involving lazy mornings and naps, we decided to take an afternoon hike in the Sierra Nevada National Park, just a few kilometres from where we were staying. A few days earlier, while on our ill-fated puke drive, I had seen a sign that said it was 19 kilometres to the Sierra Nevada National Park. I assumed that meant there would be an official entrance where we could park, and then some well-marked hiking trails and picnic areas. But I guess it was just marking off the distance until the nearest border of what is quite a large national park.
You may be surprised to hear that our trip to Spain was virtually unplanned. We bought our plane tickets and booked our house, but other than that the only thing we did was book our tickets to the Alhambra in Granada. The Alhambra is on every list of must-do’s in Spain. It’s perhaps the most well-known remnant of al-Andalus, the name given to Spain during its over 700 years as a Muslim civilization. Tickets to the Alhambra tend to sell out, so I made sure to get ours early. It just so happened that some Amsterdam friends from our children’s school were also in Spain for the holidays, and had booked their Alhambra tickets on the Monday before Christmas as well. I’d like to think that my kids would have enjoyed seeing the Alhambra anyway, but having their friends there was a definite bonus.
No, the title is not a fancy Spanish term for something else. We literally ended up calling this particular (low) part in our vacation “the puke drive.” Sunday morning we did not wake up in the best of spirits. There are moments like these on every vacation, I suppose; moments in which things just don’t go well. In our case, the moment managed to last all day.
It started out with morning coffee. Tony and I are accustomed to going to coffee on weekend mornings in Amsterdam. In fact, our favourite dates tend to be these coffee mornings, where we can just relax, connect, and enjoy one another’s company. And it doesn’t hurt that Amsterdam is so packed to bursting with wonderful cafés that even though we have tried dozens, there are still dozens, if not hundreds, left to try.
The next day was forecasted to be the hottest of our vacation, so we determined to spend it at the beach. However, I couldn’t resist also planning in some sightseeing. We decided to drive down the coast to Málaga, one of Andalucía’s major cities, and a well-known beach resort. When I read that the Alcazaba (Moorish fort) there was the only parallel to the Krak des Chevaliers in Syria, I knew we had to visit it.
We parked in an underground parking lot near the Alcazaba and managed to walk all the way round it and up and down several staircases before finally finding the entrance, which rises just behind a tumbledown Roman theatre. In fact, the builders of the Alcazaba (or perhaps subsequent restorers) were not especially particular about coherence of style, and happily incorporated a random Roman pillar here and there in the Alcazaba. Before we entered the Alcazaba, Axa and Tony did a deeply moving tragic sketch in front of the theatre.
Back when we were first planning our Christmas trip to Spain, Tony and I had differing ideas about what the best sort of vacation would be. I advocated taking the entire three weeks the children would be off school (plus weekends on either end) and planning a grand extravaganza road trip through the entire Iberian Peninsula. Tony’s ideal vacation is more soaking up the sun on the beach for a week. So we compromised. Rather than booking a new hotel in a new city every day or two and spending the entire trip on the road, we found a darling little house in the Lecrín valley, between Granada (home of the Alhambra, my top must-see in Spain) and the coast. This was to be our home base for the next nine days.
Between the terrible internet and so many exciting things to do, I didn’t manage to post the rest of our trip to Spain, but I’ve been writing posts as we went along, so I’ll post the rest of our vacation over the next week or so.
The morning after our day at the Prado, we got up bright and early and had the iconic Spanish breakfast: hot chocolate and churros. It’s as decadent as it sounds, and the Spanish chocolate is thick and creamy enough that it’s perfect for dipping. Surprisingly, nobody ended up with an upset stomach.
After a drizzly few months of autumn and winter in Amsterdam, nothing sounded better than Christmas in Spain. Axa and Raj get a whopping three weeks off of school, so we were able to take advantage of extra cheap plane flights to Madrid. We flew in Tuesday evening, and finally made it to our apartment sometime after one in the morning. Our host, Felix, graciously waited up for us to let us in. After three years of trying to understand Puerto Rican Spanish in Florida, I had pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I’d forgotten the Spanish I learned on my mission to Chile. So I was quite pleased to find that I could communicate perfectly with Felix. Strangely, from his lips, the accent of Spain seemed effortless for me to understand. Then he told me he was from Venezuela. Oh, well. At least I still speak South American Spanish.
One of my favorite things about living in Amsterdam is the sheer amount of stuff to do. In my bad moments, I used to call central Florida a “cultural wasteland.” To be fair, it was possible to find things to do there other than theme parks and the beach, but we certainly weren’t doing them every weekend. Here in Amsterdam, every weekend I have to choose between several different activities that all sound wonderful. From museums to concerts to festivals to educational expositions, there is just so much going on. And if I widen the net just a little, to cities reachable by train in less than an hour, I have Rotterdam and The Hague, as well as places like Haarlem, Utrecht, Amersfoort, and Leiden, all of which have their own vibrant cultural scene. Truly an embarrassment of riches.
It’s probably obvious from the title of this post which school we picked for our children. De Nieuwe Internationale School Esprit (DENISE) is a small bilingual Dutch public school in a beautiful, historic part of Amsterdam. Here they are, looking happy but nervous on Raj’s first day, and Axa’s second, still jet-lagged after a bare week in Amsterdam.
Before I tell you more about the school and the many reasons we love it, let me explain how we found it in the first place. This stuff is hard to do when you’re an ocean away and don’t speak the local language.
Once we had decided to send our children to school in Amsterdam, we were faced with the rather overwhelming prospect of finding a school that would be a good fit. Fortunately, as usual, the internet came to the rescue. There’s a wonderful expat parenting group called Amsterdam Mamas that has the answers to any question you might have when moving to or living in Amsterdam.
Besides the website, there’s an extremely active Facebook group where you can ask questions on anything, including what to expect when giving birth, which local restaurants are most family-friendly, or even what to do when your upstairs neighbor won’t stop banging on the ceiling (ask me why I want to know). There are a number of offshoots to the main Facebook group, including Amsterdam Mamas Book & Film Club, Amsterdam Mamas Write, and Dutch Education. It was to this last that I went to with all my questions about–Dutch education. I spent a couple of weeks poring over past posts and absorbing everything I could.