April 26, 2009 - Posted by Erin in Travels in Spain

Yesterday, Heather and I decided to take a little day trip outside of Madrid – always one of my favorite things to do on the weekends here. She had never been to Toledo, which is of a course a “must see” city here in Spain. So I was up for taking my fourth trip to the very special little city to show her around. Special because it was the first city I visited outside of Madrid – I went there by myself the very first time I came to Spain and absolutely fell in love with it.

We got there and decided to just get lost in the city. Usually I pick up a map considering its windy streets can easily lead you to nowhere if you don’t know where you are going. But, I figured that I knew well enough what direction we needed to head in to find everything, so we may as well just wander aimlessly until we fell upon the best sites.

During our journey we decided to do what we do best – something we fondly call tapas hopping. It basically entails us partaking in one of the very common Spanish traditions of going from place to place (usually bars) and having a tapa and a drink and then heading to the next place. Ours was a mini version this time – normally we prefer to spend an entire weeknight hopping from bar to bar in the La Latina neighborhood of Madrid. Heather and I are both basically professionals at this – we love Spanish food with all our hearts (especially the wine, cheese and jamón……and bread, and tortilla, and olives….ok, we don’t discriminate!), and nothing makes us more happy than sampling various tapas at different bars. During this particular little tapas trip, we had a plate of delicious manchego cheese at one place (manchego is from the community that Toledo is a part of – Castilla La Mancha), accompanied by tintos de verano (summer wines), and then at our next stop we enjoyed jamón and gazpacho. The trip was also punctuated by a couple of stops for sweets – the city is known for its marzipan, so we had to be sure to sample that as well.

After wandering through the city and eventually finding our way back to the car, we headed up to the Parador of Toledo. Paradors are hotels that you can find throughout Spain – usually they occupy historic buildings and in general are sites worth seeing in and of themselves. The Parador in Toledo has a stunning view of the city, so it was there that we each grabbed some coffee before our hour long drive home. It was a perfect finish to our little adventure.

Today I am spending the day mentally preparing myself for the next few crazy weeks. This coming weekend, Jacob and I will be driving to Galicia, the northwestern most region of Spain. It’s one of the very few places in Spain I haven’t been, so I am eager to check it off my list! The following weekend begins the real craziness though – I found out this last week that I will need to go to a conference in Seattle on May 11. Well, my friend Kim is coming out to visit me in Madrid (for the second time!) on May 16th, so the only way for me to get a flight back in time is for me to actually fly through SF because Seattle doesn’t have as many flights. So, I will be flying to SF, staying there for a day, then flying to Seattle for three days, then flying back to SF for a night, and then, coincidentally, will be flying back on the very same flight as Kim to Madrid. Annnndddd thennnn, Kim and I will arrive in Madrid Saturday morning and hop directly onto a train to Cordoba, where we will be picking up a rental car and driving to Granada for the night….then back to Cordoba for a night, and then I will train-it back to Madrid on Monday morning and straight into work, and finish off the day with a Flamenco show. Wow – I am completely exhausted just writing this!

It will definitely be a tiring couple of weeks, but I am absolutely looking forward to the opportunity to go home, go to Seattle (and see all my family who lives there, including my two cousins who are pregnant – one of which who is due while I am there!!!), and then having a good visit with Kim.

More to come whenever I have a moment to catch my breath!

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April 16, 2009 - Posted by Erin in Travels in Europe

Completely underrated, in fact. I had zero expectations for Portugal, so I was super pleasantly surprised to fall in love with the charming city of Lisbon.

The first thing we encountered upon our arrival to the city was the Golden Gate-like 25th of April bridge. It was built after the Golden Gate and by the same construction company (apparently modeled after the Bay Bridge – go figure). Crossing the bridge was quite the metaphor though – little did I know that I would be entering such a gem of a city, that coincidentally shares a million other wonderful things in common with SF.

The first afternoon we ventured out in the city of Lisbon to check out the Castle of Sao Jorge. On the way there, walking through the streets my senses were ambushed by the fresh, yummy smelling air. It seemed that no matter where I went, the air just smelled lovely – like something delicious was always in the oven. The buildings were absolutely gorgeous, and trees and foliage were abundant. I discovered on our walk a couple of other things this city has in common with SF – big hills and lots of bone-chilling wind (not something that I miss so fondly).

After meandering around the castle grounds and watching the sunset, we headed to dinner at a Portuguese restaurant where the traditional “fados” are sung. Fados are sad, yet beautifully romantic songs. During our meal various singers came out and sang the songs to live music.

The next day we journeyed through the city, visiting the various tourist stops. Unfortunately, over the course of the day I got increasingly sick with some sort of cold or flu, and ended up needing to head home and get rest for the remainder of the day. It was fine though – we had a room on the 18th floor of our hotel with a stunning view, so at least I was able to enjoy the city to some extent.

The next day we headed out to the small village of Sintra, where we walked through its small hilly streets and then visited the relatively modern Pena National Palace – modern because it was only built in the 19th century. The city itself was gorgeous – fully of charming houses and blossoming flowers. The hill where the Palace is located reminded me a great deal of Muir Woods with its mossy covered trees and ferns everywhere. There were even eucalyptus trees! This place even smelled like home!

From there, we headed out to Cascais to visit the beach. It wasn’t exactly ideal beach weather, but it was beautiful nonetheless to sit by the water at a terraza and have a drink while listening to the waves crash. The weather again reminding me so much of home – you know, it’s cloudy one minute and freezing cold, but sunny the next minute and totally t-shirt weather.

The next day we headed to a few more tourists stops, including the Belem tower, where many of Portugal’s famous discoverers departed. It was also there that we sat down to enjoy some of Portugal’s finest pastries – notably, these yummy little pastries called natas.

I had expected Portugal to be a lot more like Spain, but was so amazed to find out that it has such a unique, wonderful personality of its own. I found the architecture to be quite different (in a good way), the landscape to be totally unique (and reminiscent of home), and the culture to be very distinct as well. I was most shocked by the fact that probably at least half, if not more, of the restaurants and bars that we visited prohibited smoking. The abundance of smoking in Spain has become quite an issue for me (not just because it’s gross – and let’s be honest, inconsiderate – but because it makes my clothes stink, and worst of all because it makes my sinusitis go haywire). Everyone in Spain tells me that it wouldn’t be possible to prohibit people from smoking…..and yet, just a few hours away in Portugal, people seem to be perfectly accepting. Hmmmm. All I know is that between the fresh, delicious smelling air, and the lack of smoke exposure, that my lungs and clothes were so thankful.

It’s really hard to capture my impressions of Portugal and the city of Lisbon since they depend so much on so many small subtle factors – from the hilly, cobbled streets to the clean air – but it’s fair to say that it wasn’t what I expected and I was pleasantly surprised. Lisbon was a lovely city – I look forward to getting to know the country better during future visits.

April 5, 2009 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Traditions

Not living in the States makes me just that much more eager to celebrate our traditions and share them with people here. So when my mom gave me an Easter egg coloring kit before I left for Spain last time, I was very excited. It only seemed natural to share the experience my friend Heather, who is also from the States. Then I figured that it might be just a bit more fun with kids involved (well, and how would Heather and I hide and find the Easter eggs with just two of us!?).

So today we went over to Jacobo’s sister’s house where a slew of family and neighborhood children would join us. Before we could do so though, we went on a massive hunt trying to find white eggs – in fact when Jacobo called one of the biggest grocery store here asking if they had white versus brown eggs, they actually hung up on him thinking that he was playing a joke. So, two lessons learned – 1) apparently white eggs are not very common here and 2) brown eggs, while not ideal, suffice.

After a nice lunch of a delicious beef stew that Jacobo had made, we began the egg decorating. The kids were of course in heaven, begging for “las inglesas,” or the English women (they were close enough right?), to show them how to decorate the eggs. We decorated 18 eggs….well, we thought it was 18. When we were finishing up with the egg decorating, one of the kids brought Heather and me a couple more eggs. We thought we’d just missed them, so we proceeded to decorate them as we did with the others. So, make that 20 eggs.

Later, we hid all the eggs outside and the kids eagerly went in search of them (unfortunately we didn’t have any baskets, so plastic bags had to suffice). All the kids were proudly showing off their bags of eggs when we noticed that one of the little girls seemed to have a bag full of liquid. Apparently she had a raw egg. We’re not sure exactly how or where she managed to find those two extra raw eggs, but it sure was funny. Smart kids.

We all had such a good time that we’ve already decided that we’ll be doing it again next year….but with more eggs, make that white eggs, and baskets.

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April 4, 2009 - Posted by Erin in Travels in Europe

My trip to Berlin was a bit of a last minute surprise, and not altogether a good one. A week ago Friday, I learned that eRepublik had been accepted to participate in a startup pitch contest. What is that? Well, basically when a startup is in its early stages and needs money to grow, it requires lots of pitching to different investors in order to gain that money. Therefore it is really important to develop a really good pitch in order to sell yourself and your company.

Well, good news for us, we were accepted to participate in the event. Bad news, my boss/CEO couldn’t go. So guess who was next in line? Me. This was a week ago. I’d seen my boss pitch many times – whether it was giving a presentation to the press, or to actual investors last November in Silicon Valley. But this time, I needed to revise and improve his presentation and give it myself. This was no small task. I had to develop and memorize a 90 second elevator pitch as well. So I spent the last week refining the 10 minute presentation as well as the elevator pitch and committing them to memory. My boss gave his stamp of approval on the powerpoint – it was a pretty solid presentation. I practiced probably 20 times. I was as ready as I would be.

Thursday evening, Guido, my Italian colleague (new to my team and only started a couple of weeks ago), and I left for Berlin. The trip got off to a rather rocky start though as he and I both headed through security and were met by a disgruntled Easy Jet employee (the airline we were flying) who insisted that my purse and his backpack constituted as carry-ons, and therefore with our small suitcases, we had two carry-ons each. Initially, Guido’s very inspiring plan was to wear as much of our clothes as possible in order to fit our purse/backpack into our suitcases. We decided to first just try to shove everything in – which turned out to be successful. So with renewed energy and triumph we approached the Easy Jet lady again, at which point she instructed us that we had to make each of our suitcases fit in the stupid little suitcase measurer thing – you know those things you always see at the airport, but that NO one every makes you actually use. Yeah, that. And so ensued probably the most hilarious part of the trip where Guido and I basically tried to fit a square peg into a round whole for like 15 minutes. By some miracle, Guido managed to figure out just the right technique to fit my somewhat larger bag into the bizarrely small space (a useful technique that we managed to apply on our flight home as well). We passed through security and then at the gate, another disgruntled employee took the bag away from me, checked it, and all our efforts were for nothing. The trip was off to a crummy, albeit ironically hilarious start.

Arriving in Berlin, at around midnight, and starving, we quickly learned that Berlin was nothing like Madrid – that is, not a single restaurant was serving food, not even our massively large 30-something floored hotel (no, not room service either!). So we decided to journey out and find ourselves some grub. After much wandering we managed to find a fast food kebab place. I ordered myself a falafel wrap and managed to, by some sort of luck, communicate no mayonnaise-y sauces (which if you know me, you know that if it has a drop of mayo, then I won’t touch it!). That was probably the best falafel creation that I’ve had in my life – not because it was any good really, but because I was friggin starving and just desperately needed something to work out.

So the following day we gave our presentations and pitches. Let’s just say I give a far better presentation to Jacob then I do to a group of people. It’s funny – I realized that I hadn’t really given such a formal presentation since my days at UOP. Sure, I’d presented stuff at VeriSign, but not with such formality. I think after not having done it in so long, I was far more nervous than I had expected. They didn’t announce any winners or losers at this point…but I am confident that little old Erin didn’t beat any of the convincing and proud startup CEOs. I did my best though :(. All in all, it was good to get the feedback on the presentation as it will definitely be helpful for us in perfecting our pitch in the future. The whole presentation part will definitely not go down as the highlight of the trip for sure though.

So on to more interesting things. Following the workshop, which ended in the afternoon, Guido and I set out to see Berlin. Lucky for me, Guido had been a couple of times and knew the city well enough to be a very good tour guide. We first passed by the cathedral Berliner Dom – the city’s main cathedral with a stunning contrast of turquoise blue statues, gold detail and conversely, smoke stains from when the city was under seige. Next was the city’s iconic Brandenburg Gate – on one side a row of the many foreign embassies and on the other, the Parliament.

We passed through to the other side of the Brandenburg Gate and on to the Holocaust Memorial – a really impressive, undulating landscape of cement blocks of different heights. When you then walk in between them, you discover that not only are the blocks different in height, but the land itself is hilly, so that when you walk inside, you feel a sense of isolation and being lost in a very cold dark place. It was interesting because at first I wondered what the symbolism was, but it was easy to understand once you entered and became lost in the the cold dark paths.

We then passed through one of the more modern parts of the city, full of shiny, glistening skyscrapers. Then it was on to the Berlin wall, where just a small stretch remained. It was thin and sad looking with all of its graffiti and thick metal reinforcement bars that, after 20 years without purpose, looked weak and powerless. It’s weird to think back on the significance of the wall – I was only eight when it came down, so the memory is vague, and certainly wasn’t tremendously significant to me at the time. It’s amazing that such profound and tragic things happened in a seemingly normal place only a small time ago.

Then it was on to Checkpoint Charlie, which was the crossing point between East and West Berlin during the Cold War. It was there that we crossed over into was used to be communist East Germany – it was like suddenly being in Romania, which I really hadn’t expected.

Tired and hungry, Guido and I headed back to the heart of the city to refuel. The weather was shockingly beautiful, so we found ourselves a restaurant outside and ordered ourself some German food (yum?). Guido got some sausages (naturally, it’s Germany, please) and I got myself some spinach filled mushrooms and salad. It absolutely hit the spot! We both ordered beers – perhaps the first time I’ve had a beer to myself since college (which probably explains some strange flashbacks). I drank about a third and promptly tasked Guido with finishing the rest. It was a nice, relaxing dinner after a very long and trying few days.

We returned to the hotel where I went into a coma for about six hours before my wake up call at 5 AM, good lord. Now I am on the plane flying back and eager to get into bed and forget that eRepublik even exists, and just enjoy my weekend.

Overall, the trip to Berlin was a really wonderful opportunity to be able to face a big challenge and to learn lots of very valuable new things. And I am of course really grateful that I was fortunate enough to visit such a charming city and witness the artifacts of its powerful history in person.

Tomorrow we will be heading to Jacob’s sister’s house where Heather and I are going to share the Easter egg coloring tradition was Jacob’s family. Should be fun.

More to come!