My Love Affair with Costco, Part 2: Spain

Last week, I told you about my first experience visiting an international Costco in Japan.  This week, I will tell you about the experience I had in Spain about four years ago. 

We were planning to spend a month in Madrid in an Airbnb.  We had arrived in Spain several days before and we had stayed with friends in Valencia about three hours to the east on the Mediterranean coast. 

I’m not sure why I get so excited when I see the familiar Costco sign!

Naturally, I had scouted out where the Costco was in the Madrid area.  It is located in the southern suburb of Getafe, almost directly on the highway coming from Valencia.  Since we knew what we needed to have for a month’s stay in the capital, we decided to stop at Costco before occupying the rental apartment. 

We arrived in Getafe in our rental car the night before where we filled up with gas at the gasolinera

We felt right at home at the Costco gas station!

We then proceeded to the hotel which we had booked so that we would be a short drive to the downtown area of the city the next morning when we had arranged to take possession of the apartment.

The hotel was only a few miles away and was located in a primarily industrial/business area of Getafe.  We were settling into our room when I opened up the curtains, and across a vacant field was the Costco warehouse, with its large familiar red and blue sign!   

I had a hard time convincing my wife that I hadn’t planned the whole stay around having this view of Costco from our room.  To this day, when we check into a hotel and we open the curtains to see what is outside, she asks if I requested the “Costco view.”  

Spain’s only other Costco is located in the southern city of Seville.  After our stay in Madrid, we were visiting Seville on our way to Málaga where we were leaving from a week later. 

Before the Seville Costco opened in 2014

We made the obligatory pilgrimage to the Seville Costco so that we could compare the US and Spanish warehouses.  As I noted in the previous story on Japan, each country’s Costco features some of the regional specialties.  In Spain, there were aisles devoted to the various types of olives and olive oils, as well as a large concentration of Spanish hams, cheeses and wine.  We picked up a special combo pizza for dinner which had barbecue chicken and fresh peppers. 

Inside the Seville Costco
Of course there were many “Jamones Ibéricos”
(Spanish hams) on sale

We were very satisfied to have added Spain to our collection of foreign Costcos that we have visited.  While it sounds ridiculous to some people to hear that we always make a point of stopping in an American-style warehouse while we are traveling, I feel that it makes perfect sense:.  The place where people buy their food and products for their home is like a museum of the local culture.  This always gives us an interesting vantage point which gives us a window into their way of life.           

Next time, our Costco visit in Iceland. 

“Would You Do This For Me?”, part 3

This is the final installment of my posts entitled “Would you do get this for me?” but this one is a slight variation from the first and second parts.  In this case, we weren’t being asked to bring something back from where we were traveling;  it was a request from someone back home to do something very special.

Through my Spanish Conversation group, I had met a very nice Spanish woman who had just come to the US to work.  She needed help with her English for her job, so I set her up for a language exchange with my wife who wanted to learn Spanish. During her stay, her English improved greatly.  Meanwhile, she helped us decide where we wanted to spend a month in Spain later that year. 

We had originally thought that we would like to stay for a month in Girona, in the heart of Catalonia, where I believed that my wife would be able to learn Spanish and I could pick up some Catalán.  Lucia cautioned against this, instead recommending that we choose Madrid since we had never spent more than 3-4 days at a time in Spain’s capital city. 

This turned out to be a good decision because when after spending two days in Girona, we had seen almost everything we wanted to see.  Our month in Madrid was full of exciting surprises, including the discovery of many excellent Chinese restaurants. 

At the end of our stay in Madrid, we still had 12 days before we had to be in Malaga from where we were returning to the US.  We wanted to spend at least three nights in Seville and Malaga, so we had time to take a leisurely route through the west-central part of Spain known as the Extremadura which borders on central Portugal.  We stayed in the city of Cáceres, a walled city dating back to the 12th century Moorish times. 

Our trip took us from Madrid to Cáceres to Sevilla to Málaga

When we wrote our friend Lucia that we were in Caceres, she asked us if we would do her a favor.  Her mother’s family came from the city of Brozas, 25 miles from Caceres which was on the road to the town of Alcantara which is famous for a Roman bridge across the Tagus River. 

Placing flowers at the gravesite

Lucia’s request was that we leave some flowers at the tombstone of her mother in the public cemetery of Brozas.  She had explained earlier to us that when she was about 10 years old, she had been brought to Brozas to spend time with her grandparents.  While returning to their home city in the northern Spain, her parents and her younger sister were killed in a car accident.

As we entered the city of Brozas at noontime, the area around the main church was unusually quiet.  We were able to find a small store where we purchased some flowers.  Our GPS wouldn’t show us the  correct route to the town cemetery but a person we met along the way offered to lead us to it just outside the city.   Only one person was working there when we arrived and when he saw me taking pictures, he approached me.  

“Why would you be taking pictures in a cemetery?”  he asked. 

When I began to explain that I wanted to record our search for Lucia’s family plot, his eyes lit up. 

“I knew the family well and I was a youngster when this happened,” he said, recalling the accident from some forty years before.

“I didn’t know that Lucia was in the United States right now,” he told me, as he brought us to the mausoleum plot of Lucia’s family.

“Last time I spoke to her, she was living in Madrid,” he said.

I immediately called Lucia on the phone.  She was deeply moved by our visit to her family’s burial site.  She was amazed that the caretaker of the cemetery was someone she knew since childhood.  You could tell that she appreciated this personal favor.   

For my wife and me, the real joy of traveling has always been the opportunity to have these authentic experiences.  We have been on many trips or excursions where we have visited places on someone’s “must-see” list, but after a while, they are not especially meaningful.  But we will forever remember the cemetery in a little town in Spain and the Indian city of Jodhpur because of the personal connection we had with these places.      

¿Harías esto por mí? ” parte 3

Esta es la última entrega de mis publicaciones titulada “¿Podrías conseguirme esto?” pero éste es una ligera variación de la primera y segunda partes. En este caso, no se nos pidió que trajeramos algo de donde viajábamos; fue una solicitud de alguien en casa para hacer algo muy especial.

A través de mi grupo de conversación en español, conocí a una mujer española, Lucia, muy agradable que acababa de llegar a los Estados Unidos a trabajar. Necesitaba ayuda con su inglés para su trabajo, así que la preparé para un intercambio de idiomas con mi esposa que quería aprender español. Durante su estadía, su inglés mejoró mucho. Mientras tanto, nos ayudó a decidir dónde queríamos pasar un mes en España más tarde ese año.

En un principio pensamos que nos gustaría quedarnos un mes en Girona, en el corazón de Cataluña, donde creí que mi esposa podría aprender español y yo podría aprender algo de catalán. Lucía advirtió contra esto y recomendó que elijamos Madrid, ya que nunca habíamos pasado más de 3-4 días seguidos en la capital de España. Esta resultó ser una buena decisión porque cuando después de pasar dos días en Girona, habíamos visto casi todo lo que queríamos ver. Nuestro mes en Madrid estuvo lleno de emocionantes sorpresas, incluido el descubrimiento de muchos excelentes restaurantes chinos.

Nuestro favorito en Madrid

Al final de nuestra estancia en Madrid, todavía teníamos 12 días antes de tener que estar en Málaga desde donde regresábamos a Estados Unidos. Queríamos pasar al menos tres noches en Sevilla y Málaga, así que tuvimos tiempo de tomar una ruta tranquila a través de la parte centro-oeste de España conocida como Extremadura, que limita con el centro de Portugal. Nos alojamos en la ciudad de Cáceres, una ciudad amurallada que data de la época musulmana del siglo XII.

Nuestra ruta de Madrid a Málaga con paradas en Cáceres y Sevilla

Cuando le escribimos a nuestra amiga Lucía que estábamos en Cáceres, nos preguntó si le haríamos un favor. La familia de su madre procedía de la ciudad de Brozas, a 40 kilómetros de Cáceres, que estaba en el camino hacia la ciudad de Alcántara, famosa por un puente romano sobre el río Tajo.

Flores colocadas en la tumba

La petición de Lucía fue que dejáramos unas flores en la lápida de su madre en el cementerio público de Brozas. Ella nos había explicado antes que cuando tenía unos 10 años, la habían llevado a Brozas para pasar tiempo con sus abuelos. Mientras regresaban a su ciudad natal en el norte de España, sus padres y su hermana menor murieron en un accidente automovilístico.

Cuando entramos a la ciudad de Brozas al mediodía, el área alrededor de la iglesia principal estaba inusualmente tranquila. Pudimos encontrar una pequeña tienda donde compramos algunas flores. Nuestro GPS no nos mostraría la ruta correcta al cementerio de la ciudad, pero una persona que conocimos en el camino se ofreció a llevarnos a las afueras de la ciudad. Solo una persona estaba trabajando allí cuando llegamos y cuando me vio tomando fotos, se me acercó.

“¿Por qué estarías tomando fotografías en un cementerio?” preguntó.

Cuando comencé a explicar que quería grabar nuestra búsqueda de la trama familiar de Lucía, sus ojos se iluminaron.

“Conocía bien a la familia y era un niño cuando esto sucedió”, dijo, recordando el accidente de unos cuarenta años antes.

“No sabía que Lucía estaba en los Estados Unidos en este momento”, me dijo, mientras nos llevaba a la parcela del mausoleo de la familia de Lucía.

“La última vez que hablé con ella, vivía en Madrid”, dijo.

Inmediatamente llamé a Lucía por teléfono. Ella estaba profundamente conmovida por nuestra visita al lugar de enterramiento de su familia. Le sorprendió que el cuidador del cementerio fuera alguien a quien conocía desde la infancia. Se notaba que apreciaba este favor personal.

Para mi esposa y para mí, la verdadera alegría de viajar siempre ha sido la oportunidad de tener estas experiencias auténticas. Hemos estado en muchos viajes o excursiones en los que hemos visitado lugares en la lista de “visitas obligadas” de alguien, pero después de un tiempo, no son especialmente significativos. Pero siempre recordaremos el cementerio en un pequeño pueblo de España y la ciudad india de Jodhpur por la conexión personal que teníamos con estos lugares.

El cementerio

Cáceres, Spain and the GPS

It was a good thing that it was my wife’s birthday.

After spending almost two months in Spain, we had decided to drive from Madrid, where we had spent a month, to Malaga (in the south of Spain) where we were leaving from to come back to the US.  Despite several trips to Spain and numerous cruise stops at the usual Mediterranean ports, we didn’t feel as if we knew some of the smaller cities in southern or western Spain. 

In the next 12 days that we had to drive the 350 miles to Malaga, we had definite preferences to follow to make our last days in Spain as pleasant as possible.  We wanted to spend at least five days in Seville on the way south, we didn’t want to drive more than 2-3 hours in any day and we would rather stay in any hotel stays less than two days.  From Madrid, we mapped a route which included the region southwest of Madrid called the Extremadura, a largely agricultural area but one full of history dating back to the Roman times.  The major tourist destination, Mérida, was more than three hours from Madrid, so we chose to visit Cáceres, a smaller city further west not far from the border with Portugal. 

We left Madrid early in the morning in a rental car.  I figured we had a lot of time to spare before we checked in to our hotel in Cáceres which was only about 2 ½ hours away, so I picked a route which included a few detours where we could have lunch.

My wife, always the more practical of the two of us, asked me if we could just drive straight through so that we could reach the hotel early in the afternoon.

“It is my birthday, and I want to be able to enjoy the hotel as much as possible,” she pleaded.

My style, completely the opposite, is usually to turn every drive into a field trip with numerous stops for photos and touristic discoveries.

Being her special day, I could hardly argue, so we proceeded to Cáceres along the most direct route.  Cáceres, an old Roman city dating back to 25 BC, is one which I soon discovered could be confusing to a GPS. Its ancient streets in the old sections of the city are so narrow and twisting that it makes it easy to get lost.  

As we entered the old city, the GPS informed me that we were close to the hotel, but unfortunately we found ourselves at the end of a one-way street. When I began to turn around, a group of old men came running up to the car and asked me if I realized that there was smoke coming out from under the hood. 

Panic immediately set in since I always worry about breaking down in a rental car.  They attempted to reassure me and asked me to open the hood so they could check it out.  In a crevice on the top of the engine sat the oil cap, obviously not in its appropriate place. Hot oil had sputtered out from the uncovered opening. They kindly replaced it and told me that it appeared that I could make it to a service station or to the local branch of the car rental agency.   

I knew exactly what my wife was going to say at this point as I re-entered the car.

“Can you imagine if this had happened up in the mountains or far away from the city on one of your ‘field trips’?” she said, trying her best not to rub it in, while emphasizing that she was relieved that this had happened close to our destination and during daylight.  I could hardly disagree. 

When I brought the car the next day to the local agency, it turned out that the car had survived and that the engine oil level was not dangerously low.  The manager of the agency noted in our rental record that this mistake had happened.  He suggested that I notify the company in the US which had booked the rental.  When I returned home later that week, I was pleased to learn that the total cost of my rental had been reimbursed as compensation for our inconvenience.    

Of course, my wife and I were pleased that we had averted a situation which could have been even more disruptive.  And I know that had I not listened to her, it would have created an unpleasant permanent memory of the “car disaster” on her birthday!   I also realized then that the mistakes of a GPS can form the basis of an interesting story.

By the way, Cáceres was a wonderful place to spend three days.  The city is full of surprises including excellent regional cuisine and very friendly people who were curious as to why an American couple would choose to visit their city.