Hey! That's MY Little Red Bag!

Sheila Sowder

© Copyright 2010 by Sheila Sowder

Photo of a red suitcase.
Walled cities, roasted suckling pig, gothic cathedrals, sumptuous pastries, modern and efficient train travel, energy-conserving systems, bullrings, famous art, lost (and found) luggage, sidewalk cafes, mystical castles, mountains and plains, and an occasional Irish pub. All part of the experience of traveling in central Spain. This story is about our adventures in that ancient and modern country in the fall of 2009.

“There it is, up on the top shelf.” I leaned as far as I could across the half door barring me from the Lost Baggage Office. “That little red bag. Tell her, Eddie, tell her.”

My brother-in-law rattled off a long Spanish sentence to the sulky-looking young woman seated before a computer on the other side of the barrier, a Madrid Barajas Airport employee badge around her neck.

“No, no,” she replied firmly, shaking her head, and added a few incomprehensible words as she pointed to her computer screen.

“She says she checked your file, and your bag wasn’t turned in,” Eddie translated.

“Hey! That’s MY little red bag! It’s sitting there in plain sight.” I realized I was shouting when the woman turned toward me, glaring. “Tell her it has a tag with my name and address. I can describe its contents,” I said more calmly.

Eddie looked skeptical but pressed my case until the young woman finally stood up, pulled down the bag, and slammed it onto the desktop in front of her. She checked the leather label against her computer screen, gave us a dirty look, and zipped open the case.

“A hair dryer, a curling wand, velvet jewelry bag,” I listed as Eddie translated.

The visibly irritated young woman leaned over her keyboard, hit a few keys, and then carried the bag over to the door where Eddie and I had been blocking a large group of other lost-luggage seekers.

I quickly sorted through the bag. “Seems like everything’s here except my two bags of snacks.” I looked at the woman whose face turned red. Apparently she understood more English than she had indicated. “But that’s fine,” I said as I signed the form she shoved in front of me. I grabbed my bag and we were off to the gate to catch the plane home.

Thus ended a memorable vacation in Spain, memorable because of all its firsts: the first time my husband, Jimmy, and I had traveled with another couple; the first time he’d been locked IN a bank; the first time traveling abroad where the service staffs refused to fawn over us just because we were American tourists.

It had taken my husband, Jimmy, and me several years to be able to travel well together, so we carefully avoided getting involved in traveling with another couple. Just doubling the potential for problems, we thought. But when I casually mentioned to Jimmy’s niece that we thought our next trip would be to Spain, she said, “That’s where Mom and Dad want to go. It’s always been their dream to visit Segovia.” That was understandable. Their last name was Segovia.

And that’s how it happened. I told Jimmy that we couldn’t plan a trip to their dream destination and not at least invite them. I reminded him that Eddie spoke Spanish and we didn’t. He wasn’t hard to convince.

We had arranged to meet up in the Madrid airport. By the time we all made it through customs in the stupor of a sleepless night, I realized my carry-on had been left on the train that shuttled us from gates to terminal. Even Eddie’s Spanish couldn’t shake the lady at the lost baggage office who insisted that no red bag had been turned in. I convinced my companions that I could do without it, and we could check back before our flight home. We caught a taxi to our hotel near the main train terminal.

Jimmy makes all our travel arrangements, and he had chosen a hotel slightly more upscale than our usual. Still near the train terminal, though, since we’ve learned that those areas are usually safe, convenient, and reasonably priced. This was a busy area, mostly shops, restaurants, and hotels. Close to the major art galleries, on the bus line to everywhere else, but perhaps lacking the charm one might expect from an old, European city. However, the modern comfort of the hotel made up for the area’s first impression, although at check-in we had our first clue that the Spanish might not be quite as impressed by our American tourism dollars as had been the Italians, Greeks, and Irish. Polite, definitely. Fawning, not at all. Cool, professional, and just a little underwhelmed seemed more their demeanor, although we found throughout the trip that continued contact with the same personnel usually resulted in a thaw and friendliness that seemed slightly more genuine than the toadying we’d encountered in other countries.

After unpacking, our first priority was to convert dollars to Euros, and we headed for the nearest bank. Through the windows, we could see quite a crowd lined in rows before the tellers, so I remained outside. I was watching the passing crowds when a man in a suit hurried out the door of the bank and down the street, disappearing into a restaurant a block away. After about ten minutes of people watching, I began wondering why it was taking so long. And why no one else had left the bank. Peering in the windows, I noticed the crowd was no longer in lines but seemed to be just milling around as the tellers looked concerned. One teller was on the phone. I tried the door but it was locked. I could see Jimmy but I couldn’t get his attention.

Another ten minutes passed. Obviously it wasn’t a bank robbery, and no one appeared to be ill. Finally, the same man in the business suit came hurrying toward us with keys in hand. He unlocked the door and people poured out onto the sunny street.

It was time to close for lunch, and the manager locked the door on his way out,” Jimmy told me. We’d encountered the practice of European businesses totally closing down for a long lunch period before, but never with customers locked inside.

After a quick lunch, we boarded a double-decker tour bus just down the block from our hotel. We’ve found this the best way to survey a city, especially in the throes of jet lag. Sit on the top open deck, relax, and enjoy the sites, keeping track of the areas and places that deserve more detailed exploration. In Madrid, a two-day pass cost around twenty Euros and allowed us to ride all over the city, getting on and off as often as we liked, always ending up right back at our hotel. The top of a double-decker bus also provides a fantastic perspective for photo shooting with very little physical effort. Jimmy and Jina snapped monuments...while I snapped pastry shops.

Our first evening, we encountered a problem of cultural confusion. Jina and Eddie, as happens with many American tourists in Spain, were expecting the food to be similar to the food of Mexico. Common language, common food. It works for England and the US with a few exceptions. However, Spain’s cuisine has little in common with Mexican cuisine. Different spices, different ingredients, lots of seafood. Delicious, but not Mexican.

Spanish cuisine has influences from the Mediterranean, from northern Africa, from neighboring countries, even many regional differences within Spain itself. No tortillas, no tacos, no enchiladas. But the food was good and hearty and, once we discovered that most restaurants had a list of inexpensive daily specials that came with a beverage, even a glass of Spanish wine, we ate well for a reasonable price. Desert was usually part of the daily special, with a choice of several selections. One evening, the desert menu listed “la manzana,” which Eddie translated as “apple.” We all assumed this was an apple pastry, but when Eddie ordered it, he was given a shiny red apple on a desert plate. As he slipped it into his jacket pocket for a later snack, a lady at a nearby table leaned over and said something in Spanish. After we’d left the restaurant we asked Eddie what she said. “You got my apple,” he told us, which cracked us up so hard we couldn’t walk for a few minutes. Keep in mind that we were really tired and a little bit punchy.

Another food difference we’d forgotten to mention to our companions is the scarcity of American-style breakfast in most European countries, with the exception of the British Isles. Most of the cafes cater to the locals, who prefer to grab quick pastry or roll and coffee on their way to work. This tradition suits me just fine since there were many fine pastry and donut shops near our hotel, but Jina and Eddie wanted the kind of substantial breakfast they were used to at home, and that sounded good to Jimmy, too. We finally found a small restaurant close to our hotel that did an egg dish, not exactly in a form we recognized, but served with ham and toast. It sufficed.

One of the problems we’ve encountered during our travels is the appetite time difference. This is especially inconvenient when our hunger for lunch kicks in right after most of the restaurants and cafes have closed for their long afternoon break. In each country, we’ve discovered one particular life-saving food item. Often these treats have saved us from having to compensate with vending machine candy and chips. Always available, always delicious. In Italy it was the small paninis available at train station stands, from street vendors, in every bakery and coffee bar, so different and so much better than the American version. In Ireland it was the toasted ham and cheese with tomato and onion, the cheapest item on all pub menus but a delight each time we tried it. England has its pasties and sausage rolls. In Spain I discovered tiny ham sandwiches, very small buns filled with the wonderful jabon iberica, a ham that is similar to prosciutto. Available in many bakeries, and every hole-in-the-wall café that had whole hams hanging in the window.

One aspect of the trip that I should have anticipated from my various Spanish language classes was that the dialect of Spanish spoken in Spain is considerably different from that spoken in Mexico. For example, it was quite a shock to Eddie to find that an “s” is pronounced as if it were a “th.” Therefore, “gracias” becomes “grathiath.” To him, it was Spanish with a lisp. Many other words are different, including those for toilet and tickets. Still, he was able to converse effectively, and his translating skills came in handy on many occasions, especially with menus, street signs, instructions, and the occasional service personnel that didn’t speak English.

When we travel to other countries, Jimmy and I look for systems and services that we don’t have in the US, some so good that we wonder why our country hasn’t picked up on them yet. We are reminded that, while we do live in a wonderful country, there are other wonderful countries that are ahead of us in some ways. Keeps us from becoming too xenophobic. Of course, in every country we’ve visited, the passenger train systems are much superior to our own, and we marvel at the modern design, the reasonable cost, the full, comfortable cars and high-speed travel. The train we took for a day trip in Toledo looked like something from the future, with clean cars and comfortable, roomy seats with footrests, a feature I’d like to see in all forms of public transportation, including airplanes.

 Other services we admired included gas pump hoses that were quite long enough to use on either side of the vehicle, condom dispensing machines on the outside of pharmacies, solar warning signals on road curves, flashing lights on the right side of speed bumps, and bike rentals from coin-op machines on the street. We soon noticed that most of the lights in public areas, such as hotel hallways and public restrooms, were motion control, and that the electricity in our hotel rooms had to be activated with the key card, thus assuring that energy wasn’t wasted when no one was in the room. We were even impressed by the sparkling clean, round metalpublic toilets (WCs) that sprouted on the occasional corner in urban high-tourist areas.

My favorite smart idea, though, was the permanent exercise equipment set up in a special section of many city parks, usually right next to the children’s playground. Exercise equipment for adults only. We saw many seniors using the various machines, along with mothers whose babies napped in strollers. What a wonderful way to give city people free access to physical fitness, in addition to enabling busy parents to use their children’s playtime for their own health.

For several days, we wandered Madrid, using the on-off tour bus and our feet. We experienced the Royal Palace, the Gran Via, Paseo del Prado with its Jardin Botanico, the plazas and the parks. Our intention was to find the flavor of this city that was ancient and modern, traditional and progressive.

Whenever we needed a dose of the familiar, we always had our choice of either a McDonald’s or an Irish pub. These two institutions have been everywhere we’ve traveled, from Sienna, Italy, to Santorini Island to Amsterdam. So, of course, they weren’t hard to find in Madrid, and we ended up appreciating them both.

Sheilapic2 Our day trip to Toledo by high-speed train started from Madrid’s Atocha Train Station and ended an hour later at a much smaller but equally impressive station on the outskirts of Toledo’s old town. After walking across the bridge and climbing the stairs to enter the city through a gate in the old wall, we once again looked for a sightseeing bus to give us a quick perspective. This beautiful city was established during the Bronze Age, and was once the capital of the Spanish empire until the Moors conquered Iberia. Built on a hilltop, its architecture reflects its Christian, Muslim, and Jewish heritage. 

After our bus tour, we wandered on foot through the ancient streets, in and out of cathedrals. We enjoyed the street scene, especially a man playing a table full of empty wine glasses whose music was as hauntingly beautiful as a Navajo flute.

Eventually we ran across one of the ubiquitous Irish Pubs for a refreshing beverage before our journey back to Madrid.

On the third day, we rented a car and headed to Segovia, a beautiful little city with a magnificent, still-functioning aqueduct built by ancient Romans around AD 50. Our hotel was a beautifully and tastefully converted monastery, the Hotel San Antonio el Real, on the outskirts of Segovia, yet easy walking to the town center. The hotel was built around a courtyard, and our rooms were just this side of luxurious, with ultra modern bathrooms and lovely padded window seats. The staff was efficient and helpful, and the breakfast buffet was the most extensive I’ve ever countered outside of Las Vegas. Not only were there enough egg dishes, breakfast meat and potato selections to satisfy a Texan, but also dozens of cheeses, pastries, fruits, smoked fish, crepes, cereals hot and cold, and a variety of juices and beverages, including specialty coffees and teas. Perhaps best of all, though, the wait staff was from Central America and spoke a Spanish dialect that was familiar to Eddie. Between the food and the conversation, we almost regretted having to finally leave the restaurant to begin the day’s sightseeing.

Segovia was originally a walled city, and has the narrow, meandering streets, public squares, ancient stone buildings, balconies, and hilly terrain so often associated with that design.

There’s a large town square in front of the aqueduct, and a festival celebrating the town’s Roman past was being held there on the day we arrived. It spilled over into the square in front of the Segovia Cathedral, where we watched a foot parade of Roman-costumed courtiers and their ladies, led by the king and queen.

A colorful introduction to the last Gothic  cathedral built in Spain. It turned out that Jina was a cathedral aficionado, and through her nudging, we toured cathedrals in each city and town we visited, thus giving us an appreciation for these structures and for the artwork they contained that we wouldn’t have had otherwise, and the cathedral in Segovia was well-worth our time.

Sheilaspic4 Segovia also has a magnificent castle, The Alcazar, built in the twelth century. Inspired by Moorish architecture coupled with some Germanic influences, it is rumored to be the one used as a model for Disney’s Cinderella’s Castle. One of my favorite memories of the trip is standing in a field near and slightly above the city, at sunset with the castle glowing above the town.
sheilaspic3 We stayed in Segovia for five nights, and once we felt we’d drained all the sightseeing potential out of the town, we made day trips by car to other walled cities and towns, including Pedraza, Sepulveda, and Avila. Our usual routine was to park at the edge of town,   walk in, and wander the streets and shops, cathedral and any private homes, estates, or gardens open to the public.

We’d often wander through the town grocery store, a favorite treat for Jimmy and me because of the unfamiliar merchandise. And we’d find a little restaurant or café for lunch and try the local specialties.

Avila was where Jimmy had his strangest food experience. He ordered a sandwich with a local fish that was listed on the menu of the pleasant outdoor café in the town square. The dish the waiter set in front of him looked like a bun full of long white worms that seemed to be trying to escape. After ascertaining that this was indeed what he’d ordered, and that indeed, it was fish, in a spirit of culinary adventure, he proceeded to eat the whole thing, claiming that it was tasty as long as his eyes were closed.

A favorite moment: finding in a tiny, ancient church a large painting of The Last Supper in which a very visible rat lurked beneath the table. I’ve studied depictions of this painting, both by DaVinci and by others, and still have to see a rat in any but this particular painting.

Another favorite moment: discovering in a small town the Café Route 66, filled with memorabilia from along that famous highway.

My best food experience in the Segovia area, even better than the pastries and coffee, the delicious traditional bread soup and the paellas, was the regional specialty, roasted suckling pig. It was so good I still yearn for the taste. Piglets roasted in huge stoneware ovens (don’t think about it), then served in large, juicy slices with a rich smoky flavor that is a little like ham but with its own distinctive essence. Suckling pig even outweighed the little ham sandwiches as my favorite food discovery from Spain.

One evening after Jina and Eddie had retired to their room, Jimmy and I decided to have a couple of drinks in the lovely little hotel bar. After chatting with the bartender, we were offered a special tapas that looked like small croquettes. We each took a couple on a small plate, but at tne first bite, we both had the same expression of horror, which we quickly covered up. Further questioning, while I choked down the first croquette, enlightened us to the filling. Squid ink. Not a happy choice, I thought. Jimmy manfully ate both croquettes and, when pressed, declared it delicious, but declined another on the basis that we were stuffed from dinner. The following evening, we went to the bar again for a nightcap, and the bartender greeted us with enthusiasm. Apparently, since Jimmy had liked the squid ink croquettes so much, they had made up another big plate just for him. I suddenly remembered an email I needed to send, deserting him to his treat, which he ate with a lot of beer to wash it down.

The next evening, we skipped the hotel bar and headed in the direction of an Irish pub we had passed earlier. We’ve never been to any town of reasonable size, on our own continent or in Europe, that didn’t have an Irish pub, so we weren’t surprised to find one in Segovia. And since it was the eve of the 250th anniversary of the founding of the Guinness brewery, we knew there had to be a celebration going on. We weren’t disappointed. We thoroughly enjoyed the camaraderie with both locals and visitors as we all tipped our mugs and toasted Alfred Guinness. We left not only with good memories, but also with complimentary commemorative T-shirts with a map of the world made of uplifted mugs of Guinness.

Back once again in Madrid for a couple of days before catching our flights home, we all had specific sights we couldn’t miss. Jina organized us onto the after-dark tour bus, which meandered through a more modern part of Madrid full of impressive homes and parks and upscale shops and restaurants, and passed monuments, churches, and museums, all lit up amid the backdrop of a vibrant and energetic nighttime metropolis.

Eddie and Jimmy were determined not to leave Spain without a tour of the largest bullfight coliseum in Madrid. However, time was getting short and I still hadn’t visited the Prado yet, so I took off on my own as the other three caught a cab. The Prado was just blocks from our hotel, right past a gorgeous large park where earlier we’d wandered through flower beds, by small lakes, through a crystal palace, and sipped café con leche at an outdoor café.

The Prado itself was awe-inspiring, although I’m inclined to believe that much of the awe came from just being in one of the most renowned art museums in the world. I’m more of an impressionist art fan, therefore, I enjoyed the art of the Museo Reina Sofia more, but the design and the mystique of the Prado made the experience memorable.

The other three travelers couldn’t stop talking about their tour of La Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas (commonly called Las Ventas), and thanks to both Jina and Jimmy being photo fanatics, I got the full digital tour of the bullring so I wouldn’t feel bad about passing it up.

Some last-minute shopping took us to the dinner hour, where we opted for excellent Italian as a diversion from Spanish cuisine.

And now, here we are at the passenger gates, saying goodbye as Jimmy and I head for our Iberian Airlines flight, little red carry-on bag firmly in my hand, and Eddie and Jina go on to the United terminal. It will be good to be home and back to familiar routines, but it won’t take the 2,000+ photos Jina and Jimmy took between them to remind us of the wonderful adventures we had in this lovely country. Old Madrid sparkling after a quick afternoon shower. Mystical Segovia gleaming in the sunset. The view of Toledo’s palaces and cathedrals, with their mystical Moorish influence, captured from a nearby hill. The walled cities, the gardens, the people, the food, the wine. Memories forever.

I wonder if Jina and Eddie would be interested in a trip to Peru next year to see Machu Pichu.

Since retiring from a career in advertising, I have traveled the US in a “classic” motor home with my husband, Jimmy. Although some might think we’re on a permanent vacation, we still consider our “real” vacations to be our annual trips to other countries, where we prefer to wander around by ourselves soaking up the local culture, architecture, food, and the occasional local beverage. Normally, it’s just the two of us, but we made an exception for our trip to Spain and included another couple.

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