Don’t know what gifts to buy for the holidays? Do you wish you could travel NOW?
My grandmother told us every year not to give her gifts. What she wanted was us at her table every Sunday for lunch. As a mom, I don’t want things from my adult children either. I want experiences with them. I’ll never forget the Christmas we spent together in London…the trip Taylor and I did to Captiva Island…the ride cross-country with Cole when he moved to Denver .
And if you’re looking for a way to bond beyond one experience on one day, I have more unique ideas… they are in this month’s newsletter along with suggestions for summer entertaining, travel planning, and other May fun.
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While vacationing on the west coast of Florida the previous two winters, I saw happy, fit folks of all ages everywhere. Snowbirds love this area–maybe now more than ever– because, unlike the northern parts of the state or most of the US, it’s warm enough to socially distance outdoors all year. Only an outside studio could have coaxed me into a class the morning after celebrating New Year’s Eve, but I’d missed my yoga studio in Nashville, closed due to Covid now for almost a year. I had just restarted the practice that gave me peace, joy, and community while living in Marrakesh, and though I’ve done some online classes since the pandemic started, it hasn’t been the same. So I traded my comfortable bed at Art Ovation Hotel for one of the bikes they provide and took off on empty but sunny streets.
Please watch the video below to understand why, meet some amazing ladies, hear about a haven for locals and tourists…and a model for giving back.
I understand why locals love Pineapple Yoga + Cycling Studio, named in Sarasota Magazine Best New Yoga Studio 2019 and in SRQ Magazine, Best Local Yoga Studio 2020. On-demand classes, online teacher training , studio and live streaming, and here’s just a few events: history yoga classes, Dock Yoga at Marina Jack on Valentine’s Day, Poolside Yoga at the Moderns Sarasota Hotel, Moving Meditation at the Ringling Museum, Throwback 90 Outdoor Yoga Party. AND… check out other experiences offered on beach, boat or paddle board here. Take me back please!
My son. has been vegan for a few years and has opened my mind and tastebuds to some delicious dishes. Lila, recommended by locals, was a great choice. Pronounced Lee-lah, translated as fun, whimsical and creative, the eatery lives up to its name.
Watch Episode One here or skip to sections which interest you marked below.
A lot of us are getting through sheltering at home by meeting online with old friends. I thank God for technology that bashes through borders during a pandemic. Looking back at how we’ve navigated change in the past can transform how we handle new norms in the present and future. Being grounded for many has been grounding–even if what we know about an invisible enemy seems to shift every hour. In Nashville we’ve been saturated with spring storms and power outages. Worldwide we’re assaulted with staggering statistics of death tolls and unemployment. So I’m wondering…
How are we doing? Reassessing life’s meaning? Seeking a new job or career? A new life? Needing to reinvent ourselves again?
I’d planned to start a podcast this summer but decided to first launch as a YOUTUBE series since we’re home on computers more than commuting to work or traveling. Welcome to this first episode where we’ll travel to Spain and meet my friend, Monica Fernandez Chantada, master of reinvention and growth, who shows us how she and her country are dealing with months of pandemic lockdown, social distancing, and unemployment. Her journey from a Corporate Human Resources position to International Teacher to Camino de Santiago Tour Guide to Life Coach will inspire you as she shares coping tips, travel go-to places, and the beauty of her backyard. She explains how saying “Yes!” changes challenges into adventures and offers to teach you Spanish online.
Moni will walk us through her province of Galicia, Bucket List worthy for its mountains, coast, Celtic ruins, wine, and wonderful people. Through here pilgrims since the 9th century have traveled to the Cathedral in Santiago on the Camino or St. James’ Way–backdrop for the Martin Sheen movie (trailer below). We’ve walked three continents together and I’m still inspired by her journey and spirit. I think you will be, too.
If you’re planning a getaway for when the coast is clear and up for a Camino or stay in Galicia, check out options at Moni’s company, Spanish Steps, and/or stay in her home in Vigo where she’s a Superhosthere.
11:30 How to Reinvent a Life (Again) From Journalism to Working in Corporate Human Resources Job to Teaching Spanish is the US to Camino de Santiago Guide “I always say ‘Yes!’ Every challenge, I take it!”–Moni
Reflect, then project. For those of us who thought we’d be farther along in 2020 in some area(s) –education, career, relationships, health, finances, savings, freedom, peace–think again. Rather than be discouraged, let’s look back with gratitude at how far we’ve come! Make a list of what you did accomplish in the last decade. Identify steps you took in the direction of where you want to go and what you’ve learned along the way. Just as important as getting to destinations/ outcomes for the lives we want is moving closer to the people we want to be.
What words best sum up your last ten years? For me they were change, journey, faith, and let go. Before 2010, I spent 17 years in the same house 3 streets from the school where I taught/my children attended K-12. After 2010, I fled my too-silent, empty nest; lived in 2 countries abroad; traveled to 15 more; taught at 7 schools; and became a travel blogger, writing coach, and full- time university lecturer. During this time of transition, I thank God most for relationships; for my time in Morocco; and for other travels–Christmas with my children in Marrakesh and London, New Year’s Eve in Venice, Easter from Prague to St. Petersburg, and springs and summers in Spain.
Our Maker customizes journeys each of us need for seasons of life. Whether they require us to cross continents or make discoveries in our own backyard, all lead home– to the people we were uniquely created to be.God gives us the desires of our hearts when we delight in Him (Psalm 37:4) so He can fulfill them. He delights in giving us good gifts (Matthew 7:11). What dreams has He given you? In ten years, where do you want to be? What’s your word for 2020 that expresses what you most desire to be or do? Is it a noun–courage, strength, laughter, vulnerability, hope–or a verb–enjoy, explore, create, focus, dream?
I share some lessons I’ve learned/relearned/am still learning over the past decade as invitations to reflect on your own. Please share in a comment what life has been teaching you on your journeys and where you hope to still go in the new year and decade ahead.
Lesson #1: “Everything you want is on the other side of fear.”–George Addair
When, like heroes in books and movies, we set out on a quest, we meet Fear spitefully guarding the treasure– joy, confidence, freedom–whatever it is that we seek. Sometimes the dragon looms large before us, stradling our path with the breath of a blowtorch trying to force us back. Angst and Anxiety, fear’s more subtle forms– can be harder to identify although more people than ever say they suffer from both. Stress can also ambush us from within, threatening our mental and physical health. It can literally short-circuit our nerves, causing them to burn through our skin. This Christmas I experienced this condition for the second time — “Jingle bells, Jingle bells, SHINGLES all the way!” (I also learned that this can happen at any age. Three of my friends were diagnosed with shingles while in college.)
When anxiety gets me down, I get frustrated with myself because it seems by now I should have mastered the whole fear thing. Maybe that’s because over the last decade, I was more determined than ever to slay fear once-and-for-all.
In 2013 I booked a bedroom in a Costa Rican jungle beach house owned by Lisa Valencia, an expat who’d left her empty nest in Montana for a more economical, adventure-filled life. Her book, like Under the Tuscan Sun and Eat, Pray, Love, inspired me to believe I could change my life, too. I’d always wanted to live abroad, and with an empty nest and bank account I was curious about a place where healthcare might actually be affordable. I’d traveled with students and done service trips in Europe and South America, but this time I’d go it alone.The trip didn’t go as planned, but it prepared me for an expat life a year later. Steps we take in faith toward a dream can lead to unforeseen, scary territory, but rather than detours, they are necessary legs of the journey. They don’t throw us off course but help us stay the course and find the desired destination.
Over the years my friend Sherry, who I visited in Ecuador, and my friend Sally, a nurse who raised her family in Niger, sent me Matthew 11:28-30: Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly. I wanted that.
I also wanted to be the woman in Proverbs 31:25: She is clothed with strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future. In Morocco, like few times in my life, I fully experienced both. Moving solo to Africa sight unseen and trusting my most precious gifts–my grown children and other family members 4400 miles away– grew my faith. I had to trust God with all because (other than our choices and despite our best efforts), we humans control little. Most days, I felt my faith cutting through fear like a lightsaber. Even when blind-sighted, I was able to sing in the dark and when sad, I could find joy.
I thought I’d defeated fear for good. Then I moved to the Dominican Republic. I felt I was drowning in two tsunami waves–one the first month after I landed, the other the last month before I left. After moving home to Nashville, I also felt afraid. The supernatural peace I felt in Morocco couldn’t be sustained. Life is seasonal, and I realize now that this side of heaven, we will never be permanently fear-free. Just when we think we’ve beaten fear like in a video game and moved onto the next level, a stronger version of the monster appears. But with each bout we can grow stronger. Grace enables us to ride fear Queen Daenerys-style. In darker seasons I find peace in the 365 forms of “Fear Not” in the Bible, and test my thoughts with 2 Timothy 1:7: “God doesn’t give us a spirit of fear, but of power, love and a sound mind.” I trust His character and protection, the One who over the last seven years sustained me through earthquake, illness, a mugging, a van accident, a hurricane, and an assault. We can’t see what lies in wait, but He can.
Lesson #2: Each of us has a life story and gets to be the leading lady or leading man of it.
In the movie The Holiday, an elderly friend and famous Hollywood producer, Arthur Abbott (Eli Wallach), advises Iris (Kate Winslet) to let go of a man who doesn’t love or respect her.
Arthur: So, he’s a schmuck.
Iris: As a matter of fact, he is…a huge schmuck. How did you know?
Arthur: He let you go. This is not a hard one to figure out. Iris, in the movies we have leading ladies and we have the best friend. You, I can tell, are a leading lady, but for some reason you are behaving like the best friend.
Iris: You’re so right. You’re supposed to be the leading lady of your own life…Arthur, I’ve been going to a therapist for three years, and she’s never explained anything to me that well.
We are free to live our own story– to choose where to live and how to serve others with the gifts God gives us. I’d taught Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey for years, but it wasn’t until teaching Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist while in Marrakesh that I recognized each stage in my own journey. Like heroes in books– Ulysses, Frodo, Luke Skywalker, Mulan–we real folk are sometimes called to adventures that require us to leave everything familiar. Unchartered territory is daunting and can cause us to refuse the call. Coelho, in his introduction to the 10th Anniversary Edition, gives four reasons why: 1) We’re told since kids what we want is impossible. 2) We fear the defeats we’ll experience on the path. 3) We fear success. 4) Love–for me, the obstacle.
Coelho explains: “We know what we want to do, but are afraid of hurting those around us by abandoning everything in order to pursue our dream. We do not realize that love is just a further impetus, not something that will prevent us going forward. We do not realize that those who genuinely wish us well want us to be happy and are prepared to accompany us on that journey.” I am forever grateful to my daughter and son who supported me 100% when I told them I wanted to apply for teaching jobs abroad, my sister and brother-in-law who gave me a sendoff party with family and friends, and my Mom who kept in constant touch the three years I was gone.
One of my greatest struggles has been with the empty nest. Moving abroad forced me to create a new normal so I could outrun it for awhile. School breaks–that Christmas in London and summers at home–we spent quality, intentional time together. I wasn’t prepared for the delayed pain that hit full force when I returned to Nashville–the place we’d lived together. Releasing my children was HUGEbecause, as a mom, I’m a Stage 5 Clinger as much as a Gypsy Soul. The last decade I’ve also learned/am learning to let go of…
Expectations of how life and people “should” be. Plans are great, but life can derail them. How we react is the only thing we can control. Decades earlier, divorce made me let go of my idea of a “perfect family.” For years I feared my children and I weren’t just on Plan B but benched for life as the B Team. We realize now how close we became as the 3 Musketeers. I’m also learning that basing our happiness on how others act and react is a setup for frustration and disappointment. We can know our limits, respect other people’s boundaries/choices, and choose with whom to be in relationship and to what extent.
Judgement–Travel teaches us flexibility. Living cross-culturally makes us let go of rigid constructs of what life should or should not be. I’ve taught behind what some, sadly, would call in my polarized home country ‘enemy lines.’ Working over the last decade with colleagues, students, and families in a Bible Belt Christian high school and university, a Caribbean Catholic high school, an international high school with coworkers from 20-something countries and students who were mostly Muslims, a liberal public high school, and a public community college and university has taught me one thing. Our same Maker creates us more alike than different. Regardless of where we live on the map, most people love their families, value faith, and want to live happy and free.
Material things–Downsizing the amount of “stuff” in our lives clears space for what we really want. Living out of 4 suitcases for three years taught me how much I really need. I like Thoreau’s approach to minimalism and simplicity: The cost of a thing is how much of life I’ll be required to exchange for it– now or in the future.
People–Family is forever but time spent with friends can be seasonal. This is especially true in the expat community where friends bind fast and furious. International teachers by nature want to see the world, so after serving a two-year contract, many move on. Likewise, while expats are abroad, friends at home are also transitioning through new seasons. Priorities, addresses, interests change. Thankfully technology can keep us in touch, and I was able to reconnect with these friends when I returned to Morocco Summer 2018.
Old Stories–Some old stories–the ones we laugh about– keep us connected, and some connect us in shared pain. However, some stories we tell ourselves or others tell about us are unhealthy. They block us from moving forward. People can victimize us, but unless we are physically restrained, we can break free. Once we do, internalizing what the perpetrator did still holds us hostage.
Assumptions–We all have bad days or seasons when we speak or act from a place of pain. As discussed in the The Four Agreements, our lives are happier when we only believe what we know to be true and refuse to take things personally.
Perfectionism–Though some life experiences follow the journey model, most are not linear. They spiral. We find ourselves confronting over and over our most challenging issues, and sadly, we still sometimes fail. Growth is learning from past mistakes, knowing our triggers, and adding to our skill set so we can better handle adversity. When we do mess up, we can make amends and treat ourselves with the kindness and patience we extend to others. We can lean on God and give ourselves what we need when depleted– H.A.L.T. when feeling hungry, angry, lonely or tired–rather than demand others fill these needs.
Lesson #4: Embrace.
Once we’ve let go of what we don’t need in our lives, we have free hands to hang onto what we do. Hang onto…
Beauty breaks for the soul. Most of the women I know live with passion and purpose. They are what southerners call steel magnolias–curious, creative, courageous. They contribute and grow. I know, too, they often feel overwhelmed. Exhausted. Stretched to the limit. Whether in our backyard or on an extended getaway, we need time to listen to our hearts–to explore, breathe, just BE. Self-care was foreign to me until I became a single mom with two young children. Wise women advised me to take timeouts–to put on my own oxygen mask– when my son and daughter were away. The solo travel and moves abroad I did in the last decade wouldn’t have happened had I not learned how to make the most of time alone decades prior. I started with baby steps– lunch out with a book on a pretty patio, exploring a museum, or seeing a film in the theater alone. In the 2000s those moves became strides–an annual overnight stay at a B and B, learning Latin dance, leading students and volunteering on trips abroad. Beauty and adventure infused me with superpowers I needed as a mom, teacher, and creative. All of those mile markers moved me to Morocco. Wandering and dwelling in beauty creates calm. So do centering practices like yoga, meditation, prayer.
Creative Community. Spend time with people who inspire you to do what you were put here to do and realize fully who you were created to be. Releasing a book or album or any other project creatives feel called to do can be a long, lonely process without traveling companions to remind us of our mission and cheer us back to the path when we lose our way. Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way and in The War of Art advised well— stay away from chaos and ‘crazy makers’ who distract us from our work.
Curiosity. T. H. White in his The Once and Future King, a retelling of the King Arthur Legend through the lens of WW2, explains the gift of education. In it, Merlin tells young Arthur: “The best thing for being sad is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old … you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting… Look what a lot of things there are to learn.” Online courses, podcasts, and audio books make learning-on-the-go possible. Exploring new territory, like Josephine Baker’s Moroccan home, taught me about a woman who is now my hero.
Your True Identity/Value. My friend-since-I-was-five Sally, created a jewelry line based on photos of my adventures. She knew me when high school dances ended with Chicago’s “Color My World,” and we prayed that one day someone would be our happily-ever-after. After both of our marriages ended, we saw God make mosaics from the shards of our lives. An Italian friend told me once I was meant for a grande amore. We all are. God calls us to a love story–one with Him full of adventure. The jewelry line she created is calledChérie, which in French, the language of Africa, means “cherished by God.” Thanks to Sally, women can wear the lessons I learned on my journey–Choose Adventure,Walk in Faith, Seek and Find, Follow Your Heart– and feel connected to a global, cross-generational sisterhood of seekers. See the line here.
Lesson #5Expecting the unexpected, enjoy the moment. Our health and that of our loved ones is not a default blessing. Without health, our dreams— like travel— can die. Take your shot when you have it. For many of us, that’s between when kids leave the nest and parents need our help. Most things cost more than the price tag, but experiences, unlike things we eventually Goodwill, we take to the grave and are priceless. And that old adage—“You find love when you aren’t looking”— for me proved to be true. I am thankful someone I hadn’t laid eyes on in over 30 years found me, has made me laugh like no other, and also values roots and wings.
For 7 More Life Lessons Realized in Venice, go here.
Madrid is a proud city—from colossal buildings of monumental magnificence to curious culinary corners where locals gather. While living in The Dominican Republic, I quickly noticed the neighborhood’s most precious food imports were from Spain, sangria was sipped in cafes daily, and the local families I knew traveled to the Mothership often—a rite of passage of a hallowed heritage.
Though I’ve enjoyed eating in Madrid on previous solo trips, this time I went with the pros—Devour Madrid —and am so glad I did. As promised, on the Tapas, Taverns, & History Tour I learned more about the capital’s history, ate my weight in four family-run- century-old tapas bars, and walked and talked it off with an amazing guide, Eduardo Munoz, and some very nice people.
At 6:30 we met at Plaza de la Villa– Medieval landmark/former seat of Madrid’s city government and site of The Casa de Cisneros, built in 1537 by the nephew of Cardinal Cisneros, advisor to Queen Isabel. By the time we parted four hours later, I’d met new friends—a couple from Arizona, another from outside London, a mom and son from North Carolina, and a woman from Washington, DC who also enjoys solo travel.
At our first stop, we enjoyed jamón ibérico de bellota and cured meats from several Spanish regions. As a southern girl who lived two years in Morocco with almost no pork available, I was in “country ham” heaven. We also enjoyed cava (similar to France’s Champagne) and award-winning organic olive oils.
We each had to try drinking wine the traditional way. The no-spill secret was to pour into the mouth without hesitation, then extend the arm fully to allow a steady stream.
On we walked to the Royal Palace (above) and Plaza Mayor (below).
Next stop was Meson del Champinon, a local institution where the stuffed mushrooms and pimentos (grilled peppers) are legendary. The sangria was excellent as well.
Our final stop, a boutique hotel and bar in a building dating to the 14th century, was my favorite part of the evening. Eduardo said here we’d relax and talk over more food and wine. He added:
“Wine is like people. You have to give it time to express. It is about feelings. The older the wine the longer it takes to know it. It is more complex.” He added we get to know each other over good wine. Certainly over our four hours together we enjoyed cultural and personal exchange.
We discussed the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. The Londoners said the princes marrying brides they met at university makes the monarchy more accessible. With big smiles and protective pride they added: “They lost their mother and the country loves them. It’s exciting!” We also revised our Bucket Lists based on suggestions of members of the group. I asked them about Sark, an island in the southwestern English Channel off the coast of Normandy which is reached by ferry and traveled by horse-drawn carriages because cars are not allowed. A friend says we should visit. They said they have been there and often travel to nearby Guernsey. By night’s end we discussed pros, cons, and principles on topics as varied as Uber vs Taxi, Hotel vs AirBnB and grocery dairy vs milkman delivery.
I was first drawn to Europe years ago by not only what was served on the table but by what transpires at table. Lingering over food, wine, and thoughtful perspectives makes my heart as full as my stomach. As we all parted, Eduardo gave us a curated city guide to navigate the rest of our stay, and when I return to the “real world” and face hard challenges or circumstances, I’ll remember his words: “Poor soil makes the best wine. The roots have to go deeper which makes it richer.”
Thanks to Devour Madrid for the tour. As always the opinions here are my own.
If you missed my article above which explains the gallery below, please read it HERE.
In seven days this Southern Girl Gone Global Goes Home. After living in Morocco and The Dominican Republic for the last three years, I’m excited to return to Nashville–a city I love–where StyleBlueprint is bringing women together locally and globally. Recently I described in the article above my adventure in Gorgeous Galicia with old friends, Moni and Ale, who I met in Music City years ago. Today they teach English, host an Airbnb, and are El Camino de Santiago guides. Below are additional photos of our time together in Portugal and Spain.
If you are interested in seeing this area for yourself, meeting new people, and doing the Camino with us in 2018, email me at email@example.com for more details.
Parador of Baiona
Moni’s hometown, Vigo
(Below) Not to be missed next week, St. John’s Eve–story here.
LOVED, LOVED, LOVED Camping and hiking the Cies Islands. Until next time…
Whether wanting to explore Spain (and other countries’ roads that lead there), pursue a personal dream, ponder in peace, practice wellness through hiking or yoga, learn language, hear stories from travelers around the world, Spanish Steps leads the way in offering options. I fell in love with Spain last year, and experiencing that gorgeous country with Spanish Steps is now high on my Bucket List.
After hiking with Mònica Fernàndez, a talented Spanish and English teacher, through her native region of Galicia, in Southern Spain, and in the Sahara, I am excited to learn she will co-lead tours below with other dedicated members of Owner Judy Colaneri’s Spanish Steps staff including co-guiding with her husband, Alessandro Martinez, October 12-19.
All Camino tour dates in Spain, France, and Italy can be found here. Tours fill up fast so if interested take the step that leads to more here.
He will give a crown of beauty for ashes, a joyous blessing instead of mourning, festive praise instead of despair.–Isaiah 61:3
Trust your heart if the seas catch fire; live by love though the stars walk backward.—E. E. Cummings
Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
When I met my friend, Monica, in Nashville many years ago, she invited me to her hometown, Vigo, Spain. She visited me last fall in Morocco, and I met Alessandro and her in Tarifa in March, but I saved my visit to their city for this week. I wanted to be here on June 23 for La Noche de San Juan (St. John’s Eve). This year it finally happened. As we picnicked in the sand before bonfires blazing, flames dancing to the tide’s tempo, I joined a celebration observed throughout Spain and in much of Europe and Latin America– a night to remember and release what we need to forget.
St. John’s Eve and Day June 24 commemorates the birth of John the Baptist, born six months before Jesus that first Christmas. John said he baptized Christ with water but his cousin would baptize believers with fire and the Holy Spirit. The event of water and fire coincides with Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year, which begins my favorite season—summer—a time of freedom. In Italy celebration for Saint John, patron saint of Genoa, Florence and Turin, lasts from July 21-24. Likewise, last Saturday when Monica and I met in Porto, Portugal, the city was starting what some say is the world’s biggest celebration with live music echoing through the hills surrounding the Douro River.
Staring into the flames and glowing embers that warmed us, I thought of fire as a symbol of passion and a means of purification. I thought of the healing powers of the sea’s salt and was warmed by old friendships and the night’s invitation to new beginnings. By tradition some jump over bonfires for good luck or swim in the ocean after midnight for cleansing, renewal, and energy. Students burn school notebooks to celebrate the end of the school year. Participants of all ages write on a slip of paper what they want to purge from their lives—something holding them back or pulling them down– and throw it on the fire. I watched as the flames turned the napkin I’d written on into black, curling crepe paper, then devoured it completely. I thought of God’s promise in Isaiah 61:3 to make beauty from ashes. He has, and He will.
Catalan cuisine is something to celebrate. Below are two must-eat restaurants of Costa Brava.
Marc Genes of Visit Emporda and Alba Plana of Costa Brava Tourist Board introduced my group of travel bloggers to locals excited to share their tables brimming with goodness. Outside the Museu de la Mediterrania we sampled raw and cured sausages prepared as they were in the 14th century; brunyols, fried, sugared dough similar to beignets; local apples, bread, tomatoes, and wine.
Our one day in L’Estartit meant sink or swim to manage two big events– snorkeling the Medes Islands and a meal. Why we all didn’t sink after lunch at La Gaviota is a mystery. Located beachfront, it was my favorite restaurant of the eight delicious days I spent feasting on Costa Brava. From Lloret de Mar through the Baix Empordà region, nature’s bounty of foods locally grown and freshly caught made tasting experiences simply exquisite.
South of L’Estartit was the most beautiful restaurant of the tour, a once-casino and terrace under a magnolia tree that reminded me of home. The presentation of starters; their signature dish, Pals rice casserole; and the best macaroon dessert I’ve ever had relaxed us so much after a bike ride we needed a double expresso to continue our journey.
Of all the adventure and beauty planned for my “Discover the Medieval Coast” tour, I was most excited about snorkeling around the Medes Islands, the richest natural reserve in the western Mediterranean Sea.
Since before Johnny Depp donned an eye patch, I was swooning over swashbuckler movies with my mom. Going to a pirates’ playground dating back to the Middle Ages would be great fun.
The archipelago is located a mile off the shore of Estartit of Torroella de Montgri in the Baix Empordà county in Catalonia. The largest islands– Meda Gran and Meda Petita—were first home to Ancient Greeks and Romans. But in the 15th century, pirates moved in, motivating King Martí Humà to fortify the area, resulting in castles clustered along Costa Brava today.
Ottoman corsairs, or Barbary pirates, from North Africa occupied the islets next. And though French soldiers took them in the 17th century, during the war with Napolean they were defended. Today the area is protected above and below, making the real appeal of the Medes Islands what lies beneath.
I’ve always loved the ocean. Maybe because my sign is the fish or because I loved Jacques Cousteau. Since he dove the area exploring lush layers of red coral, sponges, sea grass, starfish, sea bass, eels, barracudas, rays, fan mussels and red mullets, divers have followed suit. Now I would, too.
Onshore I stuffed my first wetsuit into a bag remembering movies I’d watched as a child, thrilled when a giant octopus put a submarine in a chokehold.
But as we pushed through the fog, then stopped in the middle of it, I thought of Open Waters and all the Jaws marathonsI’d watched with my son. It was the kind of chill thrill–an excitement and dread–I’d hoped for.
I’ve been asked how I had the courage to move to an African country I’d never seen. The short answer is, “It felt right.” Putting on a scuba mask, however, never has. Dodging cobras in the square while being chased by henna hustlers is my new norm. Breathing through a tube still isn’t. I’d snorkeled in Florida and Honolulu, and though the mask made me feel smothered, I knew if I panicked, my flippers could plant firmly in the sand. Not so this time.
The air temperature was 65 degrees and I knew the water would be cold.
After stuffing, then zipping myself into my wetsuit and posing for pics,
the girl who slowly lowers herself into pools in 108 degree weather in Morocco dreaded plunging into the freezing sea.
“Hold your mask, count, and on 3, step off,” I was instructed. I was a kid again on my neighbor’s diving board trying to get the nerve to jump. Almost every time, I’d climb down, walk to the ladder, and lower myself into the pool. But I’d come too far–not because we’d driven from Lloret–but because living abroad started with a solo trip to Costa Rica. I’d called it my No Fear tour. I’d learned over the last nine months that the real No Fear tour isn’t a trip; it’s a long journey called life.
One, two, go.
As water rushed into my sleeves and up my arms, members of the group shared support, body heat, and a floating ring if needed. I’d spent the last ten months keeping my head above water, a fish out of water, a mermaid in Marrakesh. In Puerto Viejo I’d finally floated on my back without my feet sinking… by relaxing. Face up, I’d smiled at the sun. This time, if I wanted to see beauty, I had to relax, but with my head down, submerged in a world where I can’t breathe.
I stopped fighting the waves with my fins. I depended on the mouthpiece, the tube, and my arms to keep me afloat. I relaxed, listened to my breath, and I looked. I released the ring, knowing I could swim. I could breathe. A school of grouper and a meadow of sea grass waved me on.