Madrid

A couple weeks ago we flew to Spain to do a road trip through parts of Portugal, and the south of Spain. I thought it would be fun to share our journey with you in the order we saw it, so that you get to travel along with us!

We kicked off our trip in Madrid, a city we never got to see when we were living in Barcelona. So, in spite of the jet lag, we were eager to get out and explore what the city had to offer…

The first thing we got to see while we were there was El Retiro Park, and it completely blew us away. I don’t know if it was the time of day that we visited, or the time of year, but the light in this place was incredible. It was literally golden. It peeked through trees starting to change color, and turned fountains into shimmering displays of light. All we could say as we walked around was ‘Wow!’ I wish we could have spent an entire day there.

Esmé also loved this park. Besides the fact that they had too many playgrounds to choose from, there were people and kids everywhere doing all sorts of amazing things. Some of them were skateboarding, some were rowing in boats on a lake, some were bicycling around, but her favorite were the rollerbladers. We actually sat down on a bench for awhile just so that she could watch them. Then she got up and started ‘skating’ around in her crocs in the dirt along with them.

The Palacio de Cristal, or Glass Palace, has to be one of the coolest treasures tucked away in this park.

I mean just look at this beautiful building! This park had all the beauty of the gardens in Paris or Versailles, the character of Central Park, but with a history and charisma that is all its own. Hands down best park we have ever visited. Ever.

On our second day in Madrid we went to see the Royal Palace. We made the mistake of assuming that the house was attached to the gardens, like in Versailles, and ended up paying to see something that wasn’t the main thing we wanted to see. As such we were tired by the time we finished the tour of the house and didn’t want to go and walk through the garden once we were done.

The Palace itself was spectacular, nonetheless. They only allowed photos in the entryway, but you can still get an idea of how beautiful the rest of it was.

This was the ceiling above where you walk up the stairs to start the tour. Just beautiful. Whenever you’re in old palaces, churches, or buildings in Europe, you have to look up. There are incredible ceilings everywhere! I never get tired of looking at them.

Our next stop in the day was something we promised to Essie for her good behavior inside the Palace. And honestly, if you know me at all, it was really a stop for the both of us.

Dessert!!! Specifically, hot chocolate and churros. Let me also clarify that in Spain, if you order hot chocolate, it is not what you will get here in the states. Not that it isn’t good here, it’s just that it’s a whole other level over there. The hot chocolate is more like a melted brownie. It is very thick, almost like a pudding in texture, and very rich in flavor without being overly sweet. The churros were perfectly crisp on the outside, with a soft moist center to soak up all the chocolate-y goodness. And now I’m starving. Seriously, so so good! Both Esmé and I were very happy campers after this pit stop.

After that we decided to walk back to our hotel, exploring as we went. We stopped at the Plaza Mayor to enjoy a calamari sandwich (my husband’s version of dream food), then continued wandering until we got to Gran Via.

I have to say that the street itself, although very grand and bustling, did not impress me as much as I thought it would.

I was much more impressed with all the buildings we saw walking there and back. Look at the movie theater! How cool a building is that? Esmé loved the giant spider.

Again, I’m always looking up, to see what treasures I can find. It was such a pretty city to explore. We made one more stop at El Retiro Park before calling it a day, and that was Madrid.

The next day we had to leave early to go and pick up our rental car to start our road trip. But before we started our drive to Portugal, we decided to make a stop in Segovia as I had heard about some pretty cool things that were there.

 

The first of which was the Aqueduct of Segovia, which alone made me glad that we went out of our way to this city. It was absolutely incredible. The stones are massive, and it is unfathomable to think about how it was constructed during 112 AD.

I could have sat and stared at this thing all day. It makes you ask all kinds of questions that you will never know the answers to. Like how did they move all those stones in an age where there was no machinery? Where did they get the stones from? How many people died because they didn’t have the safety measures that we do today? It’s the thing I love most about traveling to old places…thinking about the people who inhabited them and what their lives were like while they lived/worked there.

There was also an amazing castle there. We tried to drive up to see it, but the only parking was down at the bottom of the village in front of it. That’s the thing about travel. It’s impossible to see everything you want to see. You make a list with your top choices, pick the one you want to do the most, then hope for the best with the rest, especially with kids. It never ends well if  you rush through just to squeeze in everything that’s on your list. Believe me, we’ve tried.

So we waved hello and goodbye to the castle from afar as we got in the car to head to our next stop, Portugal!

 

 

 

 

When Traveling With A Toddler Works, And When It Doesn’t

Traveling with a toddler is always a bit of a schlep, but we tend to think that it’s worth it. We love getting to show Esmé new places, and having her try new things. It can also be a risk. It’s easy to look at all the nice photos on Instagram and think that it’s all picture perfect. The truth is that sometimes it works out, and everyone has an amazing time. Other times you question your sanity for trying to satisfy your sense of wanderlust with a child in tow.

Generally we land somewhere in the middle, but in the past couple weeks, we experienced two situations that were so polar opposite of each other, I thought I would share. That way you can get an idea of what’s really going on behind those photos. Let’s start with Monaco:

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Monaco was a destination that my husband had been particularly excited to see. He loves Formula 1 racing, and was intrigued about all the hype of it being the world’s wealthy playground. I had a few reservations because I knew that it was a smaller place that a lot of people come to visit, and I’m not crazy about crowded cramped areas. However, I also was curious about this glamorous place I had always seen in movies.

The first hurdle was traffic. We were staying only a half an hour away in Saint-Paul, so we thought we would just make a morning of it, but what should have only taken a half an hour, ended up tripling due to traffic. We weren’t off to a great start because it was late morning, almost afternoon by the time we arrived.

Our moods improved once we found parking, and walked out to take in the views near the harbor. We were in a beautiful, new city, and we were excited to go explore!

IMG_4548Our next hurdle was finding a place to sit and eat, and a bathroom. The unexpected traffic made for very full bladders, and very empty tummies. We had brought our lunch with us, we just needed to find a place that was somewhat child friendly.

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This was a very fancy place and I was wary of letting loose our little monkey too near the nice shops and cars that were parked in front of the Monte Carlo Casino.

I tried asking a couple of people where the nearest bathroom was. The first man actually rolled his eyes at me, then looked away when he responded with mumbled directions (that weren’t correct). Obviously I was a serious waste of his time.

We split up then, so that my husband could get us settled in a park that we found, while I continued my hunt for a bathroom. The second man I asked worked at a very fancy jewelry store, and didn’t speak English, so I said ‘WC?’ ( which is what bathrooms are referred to quite a bit over here). He said ‘Ah, oi!’ and happily moved me to a window where there were very beautiful watches of a brand called IWC. I shook my head no, and then guessed ‘toilettes?’ to which he then pointed me, nicely, in the right direction.

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The park was actually a lovely reprieve from the crowds and craziness that is in Casino Square. Esmé toddled all around chasing after birds, only stopping to come back for a bite or two of food. Once we were all fed and had used the facilities, I wanted to take her on the LaDuree carousel. It’s a gorgeous white one that is right behind the casino. She had also really enjoyed the last one she went on, so I was eager to take her on another.

Third hurdle…getting on the darned carousel. There didn’t appear to be anyone manning the carousel, so I tried to flag down the waitress who was working at the cafe right next to it. She was very good at ignoring me, so I actually had to chase her down, get right next to her and ask if we could ride the carousel. She told us ‘It is for customers only,’ and hurried away to her two tables, out of 20 or so, that had customers.

Well! What was there to do but buy a macaron from the little shop and try again. I even asked the lady inside if we could ride the carousel if I bought a macaron. She was very friendly, and assured me that yes, of course I could. After I bought the macaron, I went, with bag visibly in hand, to stand near the carousel and try to catch the waitress, who still had only 2 tables, attention once more. Again, she was very good at avoiding me, and so after chasing her down, again, I said ‘We bought a macaron, can we ride the carousel now please?’ She responded saying ‘You have to eat here at the tables to get on.’ I plunked our cookie and our things down at the nearest table and then said ‘Now? Can we please ride the carousel now???’ and she finally had the guy let us on.

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At this point in time we were all feeling very disappointed with our trip. Casino Square was very crowded; there weren’t any beaches to check out really; and there were very few child friendly things that we found to do, one of which I had to fight to get my child on. Really, you’d think I was asking her to part with a limb or something. I realize that we are probably not the target clientele for Monte-Carlo, but that’s no excuse for poor manners.

Now let’s look at when we got to stay in a castle in the north of Spain:

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We checked into Castillo de Arteaga on the last night of a road trip back home after spending a week with family. We were on the fence about going out again after checking in to see the northern coast of Spain, because we were all a little tired. Once we arrived, and saw all the steps that led up to the check in area, we heaved a huge sigh before each of us grabbed a side of the stroller to carry her up (something we have to do at least once a day wherever we travel) until a woman came running out and said ‘No! No! No!’

She guided us to the elevator and took up the rest of our bags herself. The concierge showed us up to our rooms and told us that ‘The room you will be seeing is actually a suite. You have been upgraded because we have to think of the baby, and what will be better for you, and also other guests,’ before showing us into our room.

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You guys. This place was a castle. Well obviously it’s a castle, but the room they gave us was quite literally a castle. It was enormous! It was also the fanciest place I think I have ever stayed in my life.

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If you scroll back up a couple pictures to the one where I’m standing in front of the castle our windows were the ones right at the top, underneath the arches, so we also had this magnificent view. Of course once they showed us our room, we knew there would be no trip out to explore the coast. As Esmé would tell you there was far too much exploring of castle grounds to be done…

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Her personal favorite was the bathtub, which was big enough to walk in. She had the best time moving candles from side to side, and fitting the plug into the drain, and then pulling it back out again. They provided us with an actual plastic baby tub to use, but we filled up the big one instead and had ourselves a pool party :).

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A little later in the evening, when we heard our neighbors arrive in their room, we figured out why they let us have the suite. Our neighbors had three children of their own, that we could hear, so I’m pretty sure their strategy was to keep the noise isolated to one area that was farther away from other guests.

I don’t blame them. If I had a hotel that had a restaurant with a Michelin star, I think I would also try to keep the noise level to a minimum to keep my wealthy patrons happy. Even if they hadn’t upgraded us, the staff went out of their way to be helpful and friendly, and that really made the trip for us.

Monaco was a bust for us. I think in order to enjoy your time there you need to be child free and willing to spend some money. Then you can take everything in at your leisure, and go shopping or gambling in between.  Castillo de Arteaga, on the other hand, was beyond anything we could have ever expected; but we never would have gotten such a fancy room if not for Esmé.

Now you see. Sometimes traveling with a toddler doesn’t work out at all like you had hoped. Even though you have a few nice pictures, the trip ends up being a disappointment. Other times it works to your advantage, and the trip ends up being even better than you could have ever dreamed.

Barcelona Beaches

A little while ago a couple from Canada asked me to take their picture at one of the tourist attractions here in Barcelona. Initially she asked using very basic English with lots of hand gestures.

I laughed a bit, because she thought I was from here, and obviously didn’t speak English. I don’t blame her. Not many people here do, so I actually sound like she did most of the time. The only difference is I’m speaking broken Spanish to the people I’m gesturing at.

I told her sure I’d be happy to take their picture, and she carried on with the gesturing of what she wanted, still not realizing that I’d responded to her in English.

After a few sentences, it dawned on her that I was speaking the same language she was, and she started making small talk asking how long we were staying. When she found out that we had in fact been here for a little over a month for work, she wanted to pick our brains for the best things to see and do.

I was so excited! We were actually helping tourists, because we were (kind of) locals! We were able to give them a ton of tips until they asked about where the best spots were for nightlife. Uh…bars? Clubs? Dancing? What are these things you speak of? We have a toddling tyrant who requires us to be home in the evenings. Therefore we are completely useless in that category.

The one thing that they were most interested in were the best beaches to see. I figured since I have also had requests from friends, who will be visiting in the near future, on where to go and what to see, that I should do a beach roundup of our favorites. Here is my inordinately detailed list of the best beaches in and around Barcelona:

Barcelona

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If you are looking for a beach with all the action, Barcelona is the place to be. There are literally stretches of semicircle beaches as far as the eye can see, jam-packed with people looking to have some fun. There’s beach volleyball, soccer, tons of restaurants and bars (huge plus for Americans like us, who generally bring coolers with our own libations to enjoy), and, if you’re brave enough, there are nude beaches for those hoping to get rid of tan lines. Or maybe they just like to strut their stuff? Flaunt it if you’ve got it? I don’t know. I’m certainly not that brave. Working in a dermatology office makes you afraid of the sun.

These beaches are also very easy to get to if you’re only staying in Barcelona for a short while and don’t have the time to drive an hour away to the other beaches listed here. You can also rent umbrellas and lounge chairs, which is handy as I don’t think many people travel with one.

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The beaches in Barcelona are also very kid-friendly. People who have strollers to worry about needn’t worry too much because there is a wide, paved area for pedestrians and bicyclists the whole way down the beach. The sand is also a little bit finer, similar to that on the coasts in the States, so if your toddler is into eating sand/dirt and sand immersion (see above), it’s easier to digest than beaches I’ll talk about in a moment.

The thing that we didn’t like about the beaches here were that they were very crowded. It kind of feels like people soup when you go to take a dip in the ocean, and the water is a little murky because there are so many people there kicking up the sand. We like to have a little bit of breathing room, particularly when swimming with our little one.

Sitges

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I love love love this city! I think it may partly be due to the fact that it was the first smaller ‘Europeanish’ town that I saw, but I absolutely fell in love with it. This place is a little over half an hour away south from Barcelona, and the drive can be quite lovely if you take the highway near the coast. The beaches here are still busy, but the one we saw was smaller, so it wasn’t the huge crowds that you would see in Barcelona.

The thing that I love most is that there are all these white-washed homes with bright colored doors and windows that lead up to the beach. I haven’t been to Greece yet, but that’s kind of the feeling I got. Lots of narrow, winding streets, where you’ll turn a corner and be completely surprised by some new charming detail.

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This is also a very good place to go if you are looking to do some shopping. While Barcelona does have limitless opportunities for shopping, it is still a little expensive, particularly if you are visiting when they aren’t having sales. Sitges offers numerous little shops tucked away in between restaurants and homes that are much more affordable. So if you’re going for a beach day, be sure and check out the shops while you’re there, as you’re bound to find something you’ll love.

Lloret De Mar

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The beaches here are an hours drive north from Barcelona. They are near the beginning of Costa Brava, as such is quite a sight to see. It’s a rocky coastline that has several beach areas to choose from. If you bring your snorkeling gear you can swim out among the rocks shown above to see the brilliant colors of the water. We did a beach day here and my husband did just that, and he absolutely loved it.

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If you decide to make this location your destination for a beach day, you have to check out the ‘Jardins De Santa Clotilde.’ Even if you are not a beach person and you’re visiting Barcelona, it’s worth the drive just to see the gardens. The fact that it is #2 on Tripadvisor of things to do in this city should tell you something.

Finding the gardens was a little tricky for us because if you search for it on google maps, it will route you to an Oficine de Turisme, which is not close to where the gardens are. I would use Apple maps if you have it( it took us to the right place), or look for Avinguda Santa Clotilde, which will become Passeig Jardins. The entrance to the gardens is at the front of the traffic circle, where Av. Santa Clotilde becomes Passeig Jardins, and there are signs that show you where to go.

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We also thought that you could get to the gardens from the beach, or vice versa, because some of the photos on Tripadvisor appear as though it leads out to the sea, but it does not. It does offer you amazing views of the sea, and you can see a smaller beach that’s tucked away behind the gardens (in picture above), which was the beach we chose for our beach day!

This beach does not have the fine, Barcelona sand though. Instead it is lots of very small pebbles, so when your toddler tries to eat it, be prepared to hear a much more pronounced crunching sound. There is also little shade available, so if you are sun-phobic, or have a fair-skinned child as I do, you should bring an umbrella, or sun-tent if you plan to be there all day.

This is also the place to be if you are looking for fun-filled night life. Driving around the city we saw countless clubs, bars, and casinos everywhere. You could drink, lay out at the beach day all day (please use sunscreen), walk back to your hotel, have a nice little siesta, and then boom! Ready to party! Again, not really our thing, so can’t recommend specific places, but there were many, many young people wandering around the streets there, so that tells me that’s where the parties at. I can’t believe I just said young people. Now I feel and sound old.

What we didn’t like, again, was the fact that there were so many people in the water with us. If you go to the smaller beach near the gardens like us, there are less people than over on the main beaches, but it does mean that everyone there is squashed into a much smaller area of water. Also for families traveling to this beach, it is a bit of a hike to get to the one behind the gardens, so it is a little cumbersome with all the baby things.

Tossa De Mar

IMG_3842We thought that Lloret De Mar was pretty amazing, until we saw this place. I mean who doesn’t want to see a castle on the beach? Tossa De Mar is only 20 minutes north of Lloret De Mar, so it’s an hour and 20 minutes north from Barcelona. If I had to choose between the two of them I would choose this one. I felt like it was a little less party-central than Lloret De Mar.

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The castle is actually called Vila Vella and the original structure dates all the way back to the 13th century! Inside the walls there is what they call the Old Town, which is a village where all the buildings and streets are cobbled. It is such a charming place to see.

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If you walk all the way up the hill inside Vila Vella, you will not only get gorgeous views of Costa Brava, but also see the remains of a late Gothic church that was built during the 15th century. I think that may be one of the reasons why I prefer this beach to Lloret De Mar. There’s a little more history and personality to this location… lots of places that make you stop and wonder what life was like for people when all of this was built.

History aside, there are also more shops and restaurants to wander around and peruse as opposed to Lloret, which was focused more on bars and clubs. It’s a really great place for families with young children, or anyone looking for a more peaceful retreat.

The only downside was getting around Vila Vella with a stroller. You either need one that is pretty good for off-roading with all the cobblestones, or one that is light enough (like an umbrella stroller) to carry around. Ours was the latter, so Daddy carried around the baby, and Mommy carried the stroller. Totally worth it.

Camino De Ronda- S’Agaro

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If you can only choose one of the places I’ve mentioned so far for your beach day, this is it. It’s only an hour and 15 minutes north from Barcelona and is a must see. I have never in my life been to a place that just keeps unfolding into postcard perfect views. I felt like I was walking through someone’s Pinterest travel board.

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Camino De Ronda is a path that runs right along the coastline of Costa Brava. It offers view, after view of sparkling clear water in rich blues that blend into bright greens. As you walk along the path, you will notice stairs that lead down to the sea nestled in the rocks.

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If you find that you are perspiring from walking too vigorously, fear not! Simply take one of the many paths down to the sea, enjoy a quick dip, carry on with your walk, and repeat as necessary.

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There is also a nice wide stretch of beach towards the end that actually has a little bit of shade! We were very excited. As you can see, even though it was busy, the water is not overcrowded as it was in some of the other beaches, and we were there on a Saturday. You definitely have plenty of room to stretch out and relax.

The only bad thing about this place is that it was a little difficult with a stroller. The worst part was getting down to, and up from the beach. There were many, many stairs. Once you make it to the Camino De Ronda, you’ll find that it alternates between stretches of path and 3-4 stairs up or down; so you definitely need to prepare yourself for carrying the stroller around. It really was a mission, but we are already planning our next trip here because it’s absolutely the prettiest beach that we have ever seen.

 

Who’s Afraid Of The Big Bad Bus?

When I left to start college at the mature, responsible age of 18, I decided to live off campus, in an apartment, with two roommates from high school. Dorms were so small and depressing. An apartment had so much more space and light! I moved out a month before school started, so I could set myself up and be all nice and organized.

As wise as I was in my thinking, I neglected to recognize the fact that I did not have a car. Therefore in order to get to campus, I would need to take the bus. Ergo I would need to figure out bus schedules all by myself, something that absolutely terrified me.

Why does the idea of public transport scare the bejeesus out of me? Possibly because I had a Mom-taxi most of my pre-driving life, but really there are so many things that could go wrong: What if the bus never comes? What if you miss your stop and the next one is not for a very, very long time? What if you get off at the wrong stop? What if you get on the wrong bus??

Being the mature, responsible person I was at the time, I hid my head in the sand as long as I could. School was still a month away, and there was no need to rush things. I could walk to the grocery store and back, that’s all I needed to do. I spent one whole month watching TVland’s ‘Bewitched’ and ‘I Dream of Genie,’ laying out at the pool, and walking to the grocery store when I got really bored.

By the way 3 out of 4 of those situations did happen to me:

Number one happened twice actually. The first time was when I was 14 and my friend and I had decided to take the bus to the Tucson mall, because at that time it was way cooler than Park mall. We missed the last bus home and had to wait, at night, with some very dodgy people, until our parents came to rescue us. The second time was en route to my very first retail job in college, at Ann Taylor Loft. I had to walk two miles to work, in my work clothes and shoes. I was sweaty and had an insane amount of blisters when I arrived, not particularly retail-friendly.

Number two caused me to miss a Spanish exam in my Freshman year of college. Again arrived sweaty, out of breath, and very close to hysterics.

Number four was also when I was 14, in my first year of public school, consequently my first year taking the bus to school, and nearly caused me to have a heart attack until I saw a classmate. Then it ended up being a very happy accident because we just hung out at her house, and ate junk food until my parents could come and get me.

Now that we are here in Barcelona, I am forced to face my fears once again. We have a car, but my husband uses it to drive to work every day. Even if he didn’t, it’s a manual, so I can’t drive it. Even if it was an automatic, the traffic here is insane. It stresses me out just being a passenger, so I can’t even imagine having to be behind the wheel. Public transport it is.

You are probably thinking that now that I am older, a parent, much wiser, and more mature I faced my fear head-on. Wrong! Again, most everything is within walking distance here. If it isn’t I wait until the weekend when my husband can drive us. Walking 3-6 miles a day is cool, because I don’t have to risk situations 1-4 getting me stuck, or lost somewhere I don’t know how to get back.

Yesterday, however, a friend was in town and wanted to meet up someplace that was definitely not within walking distance. It was during the work week, so I was going to have to get Esmé and I there by ourselves. The time had come to figure out this whole bus thing.

My husband took me to buy a ticket on Sunday that allows for multiple rides, and I google-mapped out the routes I needed to take. We left a little early to give us some time and we made it on the first bus all in once piece. So far, so good, I thought to myself as I followed the little blue dot on my phone to make sure I didn’t miss our stop. When the bus stopped where it showed we were supposed to get off on my phone, I gathered up Esmé and all our things and headed for the door.

Right when I got there it closed. Panic started bubbling up, and I pushed the stop button several times. A few of the people seated by the door started asking questions I couldn’t understand, because they were speaking Catalan. Instead I just looked at them like a panicked deer in the headlights, pointed to the door, and said ‘I have to get off!!’ They started to shout to the driver ‘Abre la puerta!’ but we were on one of those super long buses, so he had difficulty hearing us. More people joined in the shouting and it got much, much louder ‘ABRE LA PUERTAAAA!!’ and finally the doors opened. I thanked the people over and over again as I very shakily clambered off the bus. SO embarrassing.

I took several deep breaths, and tried to slow my thumping heart as I walked to the next bus we had to take. ‘Ok,’ I said to myself, ‘No big deal. We just have to make sure we are at the door before our stop, so we can be quick enough to get off the bus at the right stop.’ On we went to the next bus, and I made sure that we were by the door ready to get off for our next stop.

I was still not quick enough, unfortunately. I nearly got stuck in the door as the driver closed the door, and some nice older lady helped hold the door for us. I set Esmé in her stroller down on the sidewalk and turned to thank the woman, and stared in horror at a hand sticking out of the doors. Yes it was as scary as it sounds. It’s like those horrible Halloween tricks people play on you with limbs falling off.

The doors did have those cushy, rubbery layers in between them, and when the driver opened the door for her she shook her hand as if to say ‘don’t worry about it! See? It’s fine!’ but the damage was done. I now have a new ‘what-if’ to add to my list of why I don’t trust public transportation: What if you aren’t quick enough for the Barcelona buses and you lose an appendage because the doors shut on you? Or worse your child??

I arrived at my destination shaking, heart-thumping, and very, very sweaty. The journey home was, thankfully, not as eventful. But I made sure we ready to get out the doors as soon as they opened, then raced through them, before they could claim a body part of mine, or some kind, helpful stranger.

To answer the question, who’s afraid of a big bad bus?… I, my friends, most definitely, still am. As such, I’m happy to announce that today I walked everywhere :).