I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick

Two bulls is plenty

Things are so hot in Spain, that they’ve moved the times of bullfights two hours later…to 9pm. No more sun and shade tickets…everything’s the same (hot in the shade). And that’s where I’m heading.

The last stop of the metro line is Madrid’s Plaza de Toros–the biggest bull arena in Spain. From the metro station, the escalator pumps the crowd directly to the front of the arena. It’s all peanuts and crackerjacks…like going to a baseball game. All tickets are only €6 ($8) today as the line up is 3 novice bullfighters (2 bulls each…six fights…two hours of medieval man vs. beast madness). The man in front of me in the ticket line negotiates aggressively for a good seat. I simply say “uno por favore” and end up sitting right next to him. The ramshackle band seems to be directed by the cymbal player who claps a relentless rhythm.

At 9:00 sharp, 500 angry and disoriented kilos of bull charges into the arena. Simple old men sit attentively like season pass holders, girls flutter their fans as if aroused by picadors prancing in tight pants. You can tell who’s local and who’s not. Tourists uselessly discharge flashes on their cameras. Local man croak “ole” like old goats and the Spanish women wave their white hankies with the kill.

The ritual killing lasts 20 minutes. Then another bull romps into the arena. Of course, even attending a bull fight is controversial among animal rights enthusiasts. I’ve always been ambivalent about the spectacle, thinking as a travel writer I need to report what is here (not judge it and support a boycott). When the event is kept alive by the patronage of tourists, I would then reconsider my reporting.

With this visit (my first bullfight in 5 or 6 years), the killing seemed more pathetic and cruel than ever and the audience seemed to include more tourists than ever. I left after two bulls (feeling a bit wimpy as I passed the ushers at the door). Walking from the arena back to the metro, there were the other biggest light weights in the stadium–about 20 people out of several thousand, leaving after only a third of the action: all Asian travelers and American families. I stood next to a Mid-West family–mom holding daughter’s hand and dad holding son’s hand at the subway platform. I said, “Two bulls enough?” The parents nodded. The 12 year old boy summed it up in three words: “That was nasty.”

Mini green peppers, sautéed in Madrid

Changing cultures is always fun. I love to feel disoriented, as I am when I first arrive. After a stint in Austria, I’m in Spain. I got up early. Walking around Madrid at 8am people seem in a kind of fog. It’s not clear who’s starting their day and who’s ending it.

When I enter a new culture, I have certain rituals. In Spain it’s: a plate of Pimientos de Padron–sautéed mini green peppers with a delightful coat of salt and oil; savoring a slice of jamon iberico–the most expensive ham, made from acorn fed pigs; people-watching over a tall glass of horchata–that milky, nutty refreshing drink you find only in Spain; eating really late–8pm is tea time, no one seriously starts thinking about dinner until 9:30 or 10:00; setting the circa 1950s orange plastic machine into motion as several ugly oranges drop down, are sliced, squeezed, and fill the glass with liquid sunshine; and being really, really hot.

Austria is a relatively religious part of Europe. But in Spain, people brand Catholicism into their children with the choice of names. My last cabbie’s name was Angel. The woman at the hotel desk is Maria Jose (Mary and Joseph). The guy who runs my favorite restaurant is Jesus. And another friend is Jose Maria. Men have Maria in their name and women have Jose.

I’m done with TV production for the season. Simon is back in Seattle editing together the two new Austria TV shows we just shot and I’m in Spain for five days to update my Spain guidebook and apprentice one of my guides to do more research. As always, Spain is a festival of life. The streets are jam packed with people…at midnight.

A breathy German voice?

I like the German language. People say it’s guttural, but for me, nothing sounds as sexy as the voice of a breathy German woman singing (or talking to me on my German rental car’s GPS system…leeeenx, rrrrechts, garrrrrada-aussss). And speaking of Nena…I just saw a billboard in the Munich airport with Ms. “99 Luftballons” all excited to have a photo of English heartthrob Robbie Williams on her cell phone.

Our word “cranky” must come from the German word for “sick,” krank. Someone just told me that in many countries with sweeter-sounding languages, German is used in dog obedience schools. Try it on your dog: sitz means “sit,” fuss is “heel,” platz is “lie down,” and schnell is “fast.”

Chestnut tree conviviality

In the last two weeks in Austria, I noticed that every time I was truly struck by the conviviality of a place, I’d look up and see chestnut leaves.

An old-time vested waiter brings me a tall apfelschorle (apple juice with soda water…standard hot summer drink here for me) as I ponder the finest view in Vienna. Framed under chestnut trees in one direction, the majestic city of Vienna sits solidly on a grand bend in the Danube. And in the other…forested hills which kick off a mighty range of mountains that don’t stop until they tumble into the sea at Marseille in France…the Alps are born.

Days later, I’m in my favorite Austrian alpine village, enjoying a second helping of the sweetest saurkraut you can imagine (you can get loopy for good kraut over here…many do) at the lake-side restaurant in Hallstatt. (It’s forever etched in my mind for the wonderful evening Anne, Andy, Jackie and I enjoyed here a few years ago when we took our annual family Christmas photo–which I still see on the office and breakfast room walls of my favorite little B&Bs around Europe.) Swans, imported in the 19th century to please the Kaiser and his Empress, glide by for a little genteel begging. Rustic tables line up as if to provide a dinner concert of scenery…a peaceful lake interrupting the power of the alps. And all the action is under one massive chestnut tree.

The next day, in Salzburg we parked our bikes at the Augustinian monastery where, once upon a time, the monks (must have been the most popular monks in town) brewed a heavenly beer. Stepping into their beer garden, it seemed half of Salzburg had gathered (all generations, enjoying fish grilled on sticks, radishes artfully sliced into long delicate spirals–with salt they make the beer taste even better–and tall grey porcelain mugs drawn from old time wooden kegs)…under a chestnut tree orchard of conviviality.

There’s a unique Austrian word for that “under the chestnut tree ambiance”…gemutlikeit. A cozy conviviality that can make you dream in lederhosen and dirndls.

Pharmaceuticals…just say no

When it comes to pharmaceuticals, I do my best to “just say no.” I rarely take any pill or medicine. The kind of drug abuse that seems unnoticed in our society is that which is advertised everywhere we look. But for this trip someone told me about Ambien. “Take one and you sleep eight hours straight and wake up feeling sharp and crisp.” When dealing with jetlag, for me, staying up on the first day isn’t that tough. The problem is that I wake at about 4:00 the next morning and then I’m beat that next afternoon. So, on this trip, I popped one Ambien the first night and, on day two, I woke up after nearly eight hours to the memory of my alarm clock ringing. One point for pharmaceuticals.

I was “on camera” from the get go, and now our two week film shoot is over. No more wardrobe concerns. It’s so great to spill on my shirt and not send out an SOS for fizzy water. (A great remedy for oil and sauce splatters–a fact of life in European restaurants for someone as well-mannered as me.) I can change my shirt whenever I like–rather than wearing the same one for five days in a row as I do when making a TV show (to minimize “continuity” concerns when filming). I don’t care if I get a cold sore (I’m fever blister prone only when I’m over stressed and working too hard…which I only am and do when I’m filming). I don’t care if it rains (which is a major headache when making a TV show, as sunshine brings out the colors and the people and simply carbonates whatever we are featuring). When filming in cloudy weather, we work twice as hard for half as long. I don’t care if the schnapps pub is empty (last week, in Salzburg, it was, and I had to holler “free schnapps” to get those rustic faces laughing and twinkling around the bar). I don’t care if street musicians are disturbing the peace (last week I had to politely pay a bad flute player to be silent…tough to do diplomatically…but every bad flautist has his price). Simon and Peter (my Biblical named film crew…director and cameraman) flew from Munich to Seattle with some precious carry-on baggage: about 20 hours of hi-definition video film from which two dynamite programs–Vienna and Salzburg/Austrian Alps–will be edited this month. (Our new series airs this September across the nation on PBS.)

As they flew to Seattle and I flew to Madrid, I felt thankful to be able to collaborate with such a talented, hard-working, and committed-to-quality team. Working hard with the right people is a joy. Next stop…Spain!