Hi from Rick: Barnyard Ballerinas
|Tasty welcome: Ham's-eye-view of a Spanish bar.|
Sorting through my notes and impressions from this year's travels — from Gibraltar to Bosnia — I was struck by the variety and accessibility of Europe's many cultures. I am thankful how, in spite of the Continent's rush to affluence, its unique charms survive. And I'm thankful how it just never gets old.
For instance, minutes after landing in Madrid, I was southbound on the freeway in my rental car, immersed in the vastness of la Mancha. It's a tough terrain I see out the window. A windmill — weathered into a useless little nub — still caps its blustery hill. Even the bugs are tough. I swear they bounce off my windshield and keep on flying. It's not the most inviting place.
Then I pop into a rustic truck stop tavern for lunch. Cured ham hocks — toned legs with pointed toes like barnyard ballerinas — hang from the ceiling. It's a tradition repeated in nearly every bar in Spain, courtesy of Europe's happiest, acorn-fed pigs. As my teeth break into my ham sandwich...I've finally arrived. España! My passport was stamped, but I hadn't emotionally touched down until I broke through the crisp crust, into the fluffy fresh baguette, and hit the heavenly jamon. That simple truck stop sandwich welcomed me in ways the scenery couldn't.
Sitting on barstools beneath the ham hocks, Spain still has its short men with tobacco voices proudly sporting their "curves of happiness" — round bellies. (Sure, some would say "reminders of lives cut short." They would say "souvenirs of lives well lived.") But Spain is changing, too: you no longer need to fear car-window-smashing-purse-grabbing thieves; people don't throw much trash on the bar floors any more; restaurants are no longer hazy with smoke; and there's orthodontia — a new generation with straight teeth.
I once thought as soon as I had TV shows covering the entire Continent I could hang it up. But no. I'll forever be scrambling to keep up-to-date with Europe.
This month's Travel News is full of 21st century changes to "Old Europe" — from traffic restrictions in Britain to junk mail solutions in the Netherlands, from a new affluence in Istanbul to Hollywood's discovery of tiny Civita di Bagnoregio, and more.
To keep you even more up-to-date, we've added daily, traveler-friendly news links to our European Headlines page.
The future is fascinating. And on that note, all of us here wish you a Merry Christmas, and Happy Travels in 2008.