Friday, January 16, 2015

The Huxhams Invade Spain

This past Christmas break, rather than hopping on a train or a plane and exploring another European country like France or Italy like I did the past two breaks, I stayed in Spain. I was originally planning on going home to spend the holidays with my family, not only because I didn’t feel like traveling for 2+ weeks and draining my savings, but also because I had been away from home on Christmas for two straight years.

Family visits Spain
Family selfie in front of a Christmas tree in Madrid
However, that all changed when my dad texted me early last year wanting to bounce off the idea of flying the family over to Spain so we could all spend Christmas together. Back home during the summer I had always joked about them coming to visit; after all, they would have a free tour guide and translator! I wasn’t expecting my parents to actually seriously consider making a trip across the ocean to come visit, so I was surprised (and excited!) when I learned that my mom had finally come over to the idea of a six-night jaunt across the country. My brother had gone on a trip to Italy once in high school, but neither of my parents had ever left the U.S. before—so it was a big leap of faith for them to commit to taking a vacation in a foreign country where they didn’t speak the language.

I’m so glad they did, because the four of us had a blast running around Spain between the day after Christmas and New Year’s Day. It wasn’t without its challenges, and jetlag, lots of walking, weird food options, and translating from Spanish to English left us all pretty pooped at the end of each day, but we made the most of the short time that we had together as a family and got to experience a lot of this exciting country.

Everyone enjoyed Spain in the end, but we ran into a little turbulence at the beginning when American Airlines canceled my family’s flight from Dallas to Madrid. I found this out while attempting to fall asleep on the night train to Madrid, and promptly freaked out and got zero sleep that night. They ultimately got on the next plane to London and from there made their way down to Spain, but we lost our whole first day in the capital.

Family visits Spain
Chamberí Metro station, closed in the ‘60s
While I waited for them to arrive in Madrid, I made the most of a bad situation and had a bacon-and-eggs brunch at Federal Café, explored the Chamberí “ghost Metro station,” checked out the free Madrid History Museum, had a bowl of Madrid-style tripe and chickpea stew, and went up to the Corte Inglés department store’s lookout point.

When they did finally leave security at Madrid-Barajas’ baggage claim, I learned that their luggage had been lost—in fact, the bags were still back in Texas. Extremely frustrating, but there was nothing we could do except file a lost luggage report and go to the hotel. After freshening up a bit, we walked into the old town, split four or five raciones or platters of food at Lizarrán, and explored historic Madrid at midnight…which was a kind of trashy place with drunk people stumbling about and trash everywhere. Still, we rounded off our first “night out in Spain” with some churros and hot chocolate at Chocolatería San Ginés.

After breakfast on the next day, we did some emergency clothes shopping at H&M to hold my mom, dad, and brother over until their suitcases would show up, and made a brief walking tour of the Madrid de los Austrias, peeking through the iron grating at the Royal Palace and swimming through crowds at the Almudena Cathedral. Riding the Metro was a big culture shock for my suburbanite parents…at one point the subway train lived up to the “packed in like sardines” reputation you often hear about!

Family visits Spain
The aqueduct of Segovia
Soon it was time for us to catch the high-speed train to Segovia. A quiet, sunny half-hour ride later and we had emerged in the north-central region of Castilla y León. Our first stop on the trip was Segovia, and I think my family enjoyed this proud provincial capital the most out of anything we saw that week.

Half-timbered houses, city walls, narrow winding streets, and 800-year-old Romanesque churches all competed for our attention as we hit up the big sights like the Roman aqueduct, the late-Gothic cathedral, or the fairy-tale Alcázar castle. I treated my family to a tasty dinner of cochinillo asado (roast suckling pig) at Mesón Don Jimeno, and my mom and I tried ponche, the local marzipan-covered cake. On a foggy Sunday morning, we signed up for a guided tour of the cathedral’s bell tower, which was a really unique experience…even if the wind and the rain at the top was a little too much to handle. Later that evening, my family’s suitcases finally arrived and we all breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Family visits Spain
Christmas lights in Santiago’s Alameda Park
The next day, it was time to hit the road. One six-hour train ride later and we had emerged in essentially a totally different country: Galicia. To everyone’s surprise, the weather was sunny the entire time we were in Santiago; I left my umbrellas and rain boots at home while we explored the old town!

With only a day and a half to spend in Santiago, we slept in and stuck mainly to the highlights. On the 30th of December, we got to see the botafumeiro fly across the cathedral’s transept, that five-foot silver “incense-spewer,” all the while a grand, very Catholic procession of priests and chanting monks circled the church for the Traslación mass.

Family visits Spain
Rooftop tour of Santiago’s cathedral
My dad and brother really got a kick out of the butt sculptures that Galician stonemasons put on the Hostal dos Reis Católicos (the Parador or fancy state-run hotel), and we even spotted more butts when we climbed up the stairs to go on a guided tour of the cathedral rooftop.

I think our first dinner at Bodegón Os Concheiros Pulpería of octopus, fried peppers, and various pork products was a little too much for my family (although my dad did share a platter of octopus with me!), so the next day we had sandwiches, burgers, and platos combinados at Restaurante Da-Ca right by my apartment with lovely views of Belvís Park. Thanks to my English teacher’s recommendation, we even got a taste of Galician-Argentine barbecue ribs our last night in town.

The train from Santiago back to Madrid left us at the Chamartín train station just barely after the Cercanías commuter rail trains had stopped running, so we were forced to take a taxi back to the hotel—quite an experience for my parents!

Family visits Spain
My brother and I being tourists in Santiago’s Alameda Park
Unfortunately, almost the entire city was shut down on New Years’ Eve—even the “24 hour” McDonald’s—but thankfully we found a Tako-Away open nearby. The hotel we stayed at even provided four free packages of the doce uvas de la suerte, the “twelve lucky grapes” that are a Spanish tradition to eat on each of the first twelve chimes at midnight. With the television set on La Sexta’s broadcast of the festivities in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol square, we frantically munched on grapes in hopes that this superstition would bring us good luck in 2015.

Apparently it worked, as my family’s flight back to Dallas went off without a hitch, and they arrived home with all their luggage.

If you’ve ever lived abroad for a spell, has your family ever come to visit you? What did they think of your adopted home—the language, the food, the culture? Share your experiences in the comments below!
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