We may have arrived in Spain on the last warm evening of the year. We landed in Valencia and got settled into our big, beautiful apartment before heading out for a night on the town. We met our friends in Ruzafa, our neighborhood, and walked to a club. An hour or two later we found ourselves outside Mya Club at the City of Arts and Sciences. As we walked up we saw these big white domed pillars, almost like a whale’s ribcage, lit up by a rainbow of neon lights. The club was outdoors under the dome and guests walked down a long pathway lined with palm trees to get to the dance floor. Aside from the main club upstairs there were two other clubs down below, each playing slightly different music. We didn’t know it was the last night the upstairs area would be open. Regardless, we danced and made the most of it, enjoying the perfect temperatures.
After ten months of travel I was exhausted. My bank accounts were not as full as they once had been and I knew I needed to save up energy and money for the final month. We would end the year in Cape Town, South Africa, where my parents would visit for three weeks. I would be juggling time with my family and time spent getting in my last hurrahs with my travel family before we all would say “goodbye” and go our separate ways. While I’d hoped that Spain would be warmer than Portugal, the weather did not hold. It got chillier and chillier in the weeks we were there. Anyone from back home would roll their eyes at me if they saw the actual temperatures, but after a year in warm climates, I was neither acclimated nor prepared for the cooler temps of autumn. I eventually went out and bought another pair of pants and two new shirts so I’d be better equipped for the cold. The chilly winds that ripped through town made it that much easier to hibernate for a good part of the month and Sam and I spent most days tucked away in our apartment, which had a large living and dining room and a well equipped kitchen. We even had a TV in our bedroom, so to avoid spending money and to recharge I would hang out in bed and watch Netflix. You may scoff at me and say I should have been out exploring and enjoying Spain, but let me just say that traveling the way we do gets exhausting. We all need time to recharge, and just because I’m in some new part of the world, doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do the same from time to time.
Valencia is a cute, walkable city. Many people get around by bike, but since the town’s flat, it’s easy to navigate on foot as well. Prices are reasonable and the old architecture is stunning. It’s full of small restaurants and cafes, coworking spaces and markets. There’s also quite a large vegetarian and vegan scene. So much so that Sam and I decided to go vegetarian for a week. It was surprisingly easy. The most memorable moments from the month centered around food. Restaurants offer fixed-price menus that come with several courses and a dessert, and paella is a local matter of pride, made one specific way and lovingly shared with family and friends. I fit in many one-on-one lunch and dinner dates with friends throughout the month and enjoyed a few group meals as well. Our big track event was a paella workshop where we all learned how to properly make paella Valenciano at a beautiful estate out in the country. A large group of us hung around walking through the garden and drinking wine as the paella boiled in our giant pans.
Continuing a tradition we had started in Portugal, Sam and I hosted one shabbat dinner at our apartment. We invited a few friends to join and made two large pans of lasagna, all gathering around our large dining room table. It was a bit of an eclectic group, which I liked, bringing together people who didn’t interact all that often. When we’d finished dinner we talked around the table and eventually turned on a movie. About a week or so later we received an invitation to Torie’s and Aaron’s apartment for a Dinner Around the World celebration. Remote Year does these sometimes, where they encourage people within the network to gather wherever they are and share a meal. There were Remote Year citizens there, and a handful of people from our group, Bourdain. Torie cooked the turkey to perfection and everyone pitched in bringing a dish or two to create an incredible spread. My sweet potato soufflé was voted the best side dish of the night and Sam made a pretty bomb pan of macaroni and cheese as well.
A week after the paella track I received an invitation from my friend Chelsea to head out to the country again for a day of celebration with a family. It was grandpa’s birthday, so family and a few friends were gathered at what I can only describe as their private paella spot. It was a small cabin on a plot of land with an orchard in back. One of several in the area. The cabin was little more than a living room, a small kitchen with a sink and a wash room. Outside was a large patio with a few picnic tables and the wood fired oven where the paella was made. The place’s only purpose was to provide a spot for the family to gather and enjoy a meal together in the fresh air. We drove out to the country with Chelsea’s friend, Jen, and her boyfriend. Once there we met the family, including several Australians, one of which was the husband of one of the daughters. They all welcomed us warmly and when it was time for paella, they sat us at the head of the table and allowed us to eat directly from the pan so we could enjoy the crispy bits that get stuck to the bottom. They call this the socarrat. After the meal we went for a walk in the orchard, stopping to pet the dog and take pictures. As the sun fell below the trees and it began to get cold, we hopped in the car and drove home.
Much like my month of restoration in Malaysia, November was a month for me to recoup and focus inward. I’ve learned so much about myself and my needs in the past year and this month I listened to my inner self and made time for rest, meaningful interactions with good friends and what work I had. I also prioritized my finances, balancing my budget from the month before and beginning to gather what I’d need to file my taxes in April. I spent less money and Sam and I planned our travels for the first few months of 2020, figuring out how we could spend less, but still see and do everything we wanted. It felt good to get ahead of these things, especially knowing I’d have little time for them come December.
On the 27th, 13 of us left Spain early to spend a few days in Istanbul. I was both excited and a bit nervous for this trip. I had wanted to visit Turkey for a while and I personally had a fantastic guide to show me around. Having lived in Istanbul previously, Sam was excited to share the city with me. On top of that, much of his family lives there, so I would be meeting members of his family for the first time. We had booked a hotel right by Taksim Square, in the heart of the European side of the city. We arrived there quite late at night and got settled in. While work had started to pick up a bit for me, I didn’t have to work during the few days we were there, thanks to the Thanksgiving holiday. Instead, I was on an actual vacation, which is, believe it or not, quite different from my everyday travels.
Our first day in Istanbul, we woke up early and took the tram to the Blue Mosque. We walked around the grounds and ducked inside, admiring the domes of both the mosque and Hagia Sophia across the way. Steven met up with us and we made our way to Hagia Sophia, which boasts the oldest dome in Europe. I insisted we pay a guide to show us around, and we were glad we did so we could learn about the rich history of this incredible structure. Hagia Sophia was constructed as a Greek Orthodox cathedral in 537 AD and later converted into an Ottoman mosque in 1453. For nearly 1,000 years it was the world’s largest cathedral. The Byzantine dome, which I believe was the first of its kind, eventually served as inspiration for many Ottoman mosques to come. Funny to think that something built for Christianity would later become a model for Islamic buildings. From there we spent our afternoon winding our way through the bazaar, meandering through the packed pedestrian streets and vendor stalls, checking out souvenirs and taking in all the sights, sounds and smells. We ended the day in our friends’ Airbnb, where they’d agreed to host Thanksgiving dinner. They had picked up some local food for a very different kind of Thanksgiving feast and we all came together at their house to eat and catch up and play Heads Up. We’d talked about going out that night, but found instead that we were content to enjoy each other’s company in their cozy apartment.
The next morning, Sam and I woke up early for breakfast at his great uncle’s house. We were served in the pool house, which was glass sided with views of the water below. Although it was raining, it was a beautiful sight and we enjoyed sitting there and watching it from the refuge of the indoors. Shortly after our arrival, Sam’s uncle invited us to join him for dinner at a nice fish restaurant along the water. We had planned to go to a belly dancing show with our friends, but it was clear we couldn’t refuse, so at his uncle’s insistence, Sam agreed. This breakfast was unlike any I’d experienced for one simple reason. No one there spoke the same two languages. As we sat around the table with Sam’s uncle and his friend, our conversations took place in a blend of English, Hebrew, French and Turkish. While Sam’s uncle and his friend spoke Turkish together, his friend spoke English to Sam and me. Sam and his uncle would communicate in Hebrew, but his uncle would address me in French. This, of course, created a scenario where everything would have to be translated in order for the entire table to be included. It was somewhat awkward, but also very cool to be a part of such a diverse exchange. At dinner that evening, we found ourselves once again, in a glass walled dining room with a view of the water. This time we were right on the water though, with a great view of a mosque lit up with a bridge behind it in a perfect backdrop. After a wonderful dinner we left to meet our friends. We had a few drinks and then turned in for the night, full and exhausted.
What better way to end a stay in Turkey than at the hammam? The last morning of our visit, I met four of my friends at a gorgeous hammam for a bit of relaxation before our long journey to Cape Town. A hammam is a Turkish spa, where you’re bathed in water and bubbles and then scrubbed down from head to toe. After enjoying a refreshing drink, we changed out of our clothes and were ushered into the baths. There we were dowsed in water, handed a glass of cold water and invited to lay down on a hot stone slab. We gazed up at the domed ceiling with small holes that let in the sunlight from outside. It was warm, humid and relaxing and we awaited our turns at getting scrubbed. We were each wearing bathing suit bottoms, but no tops, although we had wrapped ourselves in Turkish towels. When it was time to scrub though, the towels were cast aside and we saw each other nude for the first time. We would talk later about how healthy it is to see other women naked from time to time. In the US, we all hold ourselves to impossible physical standards without really understanding what the women around us look like. In the hammam you see all body types and realize that we’re all beautifully imperfect. It’s really quite a special thing. What happened next would have made many Americans uncomfortable. I was led over to a corner with a step and a basin where a sweet, welcoming woman proceeded to bathe me and scrub me, asking me to sit and stand, lean forward and turn around. She took this large thin cloth bag and dipped it into a basin of soapy water, then squeezed it out against my body, creating soapy bubbles that felt like velvet against my skin. Once that was done, she washed my hair and toweled me off, sending me back to the main hall to lounge on cushions and drink tea. I felt so pampered!
That evening we had our last meal in Istanbul at Sam’s favorite restaurant. I don’t remember ever eating so much food in four days, but everything was just so good that I couldn’t resist. I left Istanbul feeling fulfilled and refreshed in so many ways. I was ready to welcome the last month of Remote Year and welcome my parents for the holidays. We arrived at the airport where the rest of our friends were waiting for us. As we boarded our flight, I said “goodbye” to Istanbul, knowing someday soon I’d be back.