My Old Kentucky Home

My skyping home went unanswered for hours, filling me with more and more dread as the hours ticked on. Finally, nearing 8pm in Spain, my sister picked up and spoke the three words I had dreaded from her (besides “The dog’s dead.”): I’m moving away.

Now, I have little to say: I live in a country seemingly halfway around the world and was hours from moving into a 26th Century monastery for a few weeks. I asked where she was going.

“Loo-a-ville.” Wait, as in Kentucky? I hadn’t so much as driven through the place, and now my little sister was going to live there and work as a teacher.

A year later, my mother and I took off, dog in tow, towards Lullville. I expected cowboy boots, country music and a whole lot of fried chicken. After all, this is the South (Interestingly enough, the KFC Yum! Center, a stadium which hosts concerts and sporting events, is the first legible sign after Kentucky welcomes you as you drive over the Ohio River). Strangely enough, Louisville is able to retain its southern flavor while bringing residents cutting-edge art, interesting museums and a whole new meaning to the Bluegrass state.


Margaret’s residence, the front apartment of a stately house with a brick porch and wrought-iron gate, lies in the Highlands district of Loiusville. Quaint, friendly and central. As I lugged my old desk up the concrete steps to the house, countless joggers and dog walkers offered a warm hello or a hand to help. As frigid Yanks, this was the kind of down-home goodness I wanted.

After a night in, we set out early to a mystery location my sister wanted to take me to. I assumed it would be something totally touristy, as the signs were directing us towards Civil War Battle sites and bourbon distilleries. Instead, she took me to her favorite Louisville attraction: the Zappos Outlet. For someone with just 20 kilos of allowance on her bags back, I went to town, slipping my toots into Badgley Mishka pumps, eyeing satiny eggplant flats that would get no use and scanning boxes looking for deals. I left with three pairs, totaling less than $70, and already thinking what I’d be leaving behind to make bag allowance. As we left the store, I asked the salesperson what would be worth seeing. A Louisville newbie herself, she simply said, “21c is so fun after a few drinks. It’s right on Museum Row, so look for the red penguins.”

Being avid Chicago Cubs fans, my sister and I toured the Louisville Slugger Museum, a must-see for those who love America’s National Pastime. We watched as bats were cut from trunks, sanded and measured for players, dipped in wax and engraved. I was itching to see the gallery the girl has mentioned at Zappos, not listen to an old man speak about thick, wooden sticks.

The Museum Row of Downtown Louisville is just steps from the mighty Ohio, chock-full of quaint coffeehouses, fleur-de-lis homages to the city’s French past and, of course, museums. Following the fleur-de-lis road, 21c’s red penguins popped against a slate grey building. Statues were scattered around the corner where the hotel rests, and we went inside to find a gallery dedicated to modern art about Cuba. The long, white walls of the atrium came alive with sculptures, photography and paintings depicting a modern state. I could have easily had a mint julep and done more wandering, but modern art is clearly not my mother’s thing.

We broke from the tourism for an ice cream cone, pedicure and later dinner at an outdoor eatery far down on River Road. The next morning, Margaret took us to a breakfast spot that reminded me of the hippie communes in Los Caños de Meca back in Spain. Lynn’s Paradise Cafe not only took its dishes to the next creative level, but also the space. Booths and tables stand underneath indoor trees, and the wildly vivid colors kept my eyes moving. Trivia cards, crayons and even plastic dinosaurs littered the table, proving to be entertaining while we waited for coffee and omelette.

But it wouldn’t be Kentucky without the bluegrass, the booze and the horses. Our tour of my sister’s New Kentucky Home had to end with a trip to Churchill Downs to see the Twin Spires of the Kentucky Derby. In the end, we got what we wanted – Southern Hospitality, horses and a whole lot of charm, but Louisville is so much more than that. A place where, like Sevilla, the old can exist with the new.

It feels like home.


If you go:

Louisville Slugger Museum: Look for the big bat right on Museum Row. Pricey, but you get your very own lil’ Slugger that you can have personalized while you take the 30-minute tour. A must-stop for baseball fanatics.

21c: Whimsical, thought-provoking and anything but expected. There’s a swanky bar attached if you’re just interested in a mint julep and a walk through the free galleries.

Lynn’s Paradise Cafe: Rumored (well, by my little sister) to be a place where jockeys load up on carbs before race days, Lynn’s is famous. We waited for a table and then waiter for our food, but the helpings were plentiful and so, so good. Sundays and race days have the place full, so think ahead before going on an empty stomach, or call ahead.

Churchill Downs Racetrack: Easily the most notable site in Kentucky, the famous track that saw Barbaro win the Derby and then break his leg hosts about 800 races a season, including “Derby After Dark” contests. Grab your funny hat, tour the incredibly informative museum and listen for three-year old horse hoofbeats.

Dublin Doors

Way back four years ago, I made a list in a freshly-opened journal with an Old World Map on it. Underlining in black ink, the list read:

Places to Go This Year.

Ireland. Portugal. Morocco. the Netherlands. Germany.

For someone hellbent on traveling to 25 countries before a birthday of the same age, I had some work to do in just under three years. I scoured Internet travel agencies and budget airlines in search of my first destination, though I always knew what it would be. Given my reddish hair and blue eyes, freckles and being a softy for beer, the Emerald Isle, home to my father’s family, would get my well-saved travel dollars first, even if it was the most expensive.

My passport is now home to four green stamps, proclaiming my four trips to Eire, which include three in the last eight months. On each jaunt, I’m more enamored with Beef and Guinness pie, the Ha’penny Bridge over the River Liffey, fields exploding in bright green. And those doors! I spent an entire morning hunting out the most brightly colored amongst squat, brown brick buildings and the ever-present grey skies.

Have you ever been to Dublin?

Make It New

The latest book to embed itself into memory is the delectable Every Day in Tuscany: Seasons of Italian Life by Frances Mayes. I adored it, as I love Mayes’s affection towards food, off-kilter flow and reflections on the joys of living abroad. I can relate, too.

Towards the end of her book and the end of her 20 years visiting the whimsical, dilapidated Bramasole, Mayes conjures the wisdom of Ezra Pound as she packs up to return to America for a few months: Make it new.

This afternoon, I’m returning to Spain for the fifth year. My life last year, I hate to admit, became a bit mundane. Waking up at the same time, ordering coffee from the same bar and even the same class structure became an imaginary prison, punctuated by a few trips to new places. Not proud of the lack of progress last year (except in the Spanish resident department), so I’m vowing to heed Mayes’ and Ezra’s advice and Make it New this year.

I had a great trip in America, visiting with friends new and old, eating my comfort foods and not caring for once where it sits on my waistline, roadtripping to Kentucky to prove that my sister really is more grown-up than me. I’m actually not ready to go back to Seville, just yet.

I mean, really, who could with a face like this begging you not to?

Three Cheers for the Red, White and Blue (and yellow)

Once upon a time, the object of my utmost affection was Spain. I loved her landscapes, her cuisine and the way she makes me feel me. You could say she wooed me six years ago, and that’s why I had to go back two years later. She’s been fairly good to me, too. But after four years,  I kinda wanted to cheat on her with America. Being away for so many months, I forgot about all the ways America makes me swell with pride, grab a slice of watermelon and watch fireworks.

Red Coke signs with free refills

I’ve been relishing in the cost-free water that comes with my meals out. A bottle of agua in Spain can run me up to two bucks, so I gladly tip my glass to water or Dr. Pepper, one soft drink I actually do miss in Iberia. So far, only one restaurant chains, VIPs, which includes TGI Fridays and Gino’s, will give you unlimited Diet Cokes with your meals. And, seriously, what’s more American than a Coke?

Anyone up for mixing?

White Smiles

Everyone in America is always smiling. While in Kentucky, I was floored with the Southern Hospitality I’d always heard about. Older men held open doors for me, while others offered to help me search for $100 worth of missing traveler’s checks. Everyone did it with a smile, to boot. What’s more, I was treated to the pearly whites of two of my sevillana friends, Meag and Bri, who came to visit me on my birthday. Smiles all around.

Four days of smiling this wide. My mouth still hurts.

Blue skies over cornfields

Never did I imagine I’d love the rolling cornfields of Middle America that I grew up with. Driving through rural Indiana, my mom and I were treated to mile after mile of good ol’ American soil – cornfields, cows and rest stops. I thought back to my days at Iowa, driving the I-80 towards Hawkeye Country.

I’ve seen plenty of picturesque places,but love a good old American view of the open road.

Yellow Sweet Corn

And who could forget the tantalizing sweet corn that my family gobbles up in the summer? For my last meal tomorrow, I had just one request – an ear of kernels on the grill, still in the husk, with whatever else my dad concocts.

If you are what you eat, at least I’ll be delicious.

Why Travel Makes You Cool

I started getting emails about my long-awaited return to America before I had even booked a ticket.

“Want to come visit me in Colorado?” “We should go to a baseball game!” “Will you come wedding dress shopping with me?” and everything in between was asked of me. I no longer wondered how I’d fight boredom during my 25-day American sojourn.

Coming home after 20 months meant I was suddenly popular. Everyone was quick to pat me on the back and say, “Well done!”, invite me out to eat or to their pools and give me gifts. Traveling and living abroad for the past few years has made me cool in the eyes of the people I grew up with, drank with in college, even babysat! Travel has made me cooler than I was in high school (and I had plenty of friends).

Travel gets you free stuff.

My buddy Nate called me the other day to offer up Cubs tickets. I glady accepted, eager to see my boys in action and not one to turn down anything free. As it turns out, Nate paid for my ticket, paid for a few drinks at Wrigley and provided excellent company for a Cubbie “W”. But he isn’t the only one buying my time with booze and baseball – my mom has jumped at the chance to buy me clothes, friends picking up my meals, my sister surprising me with my favorite iced coffee while I staved off jet lag. Even my parents fight for my time, and we live under the same roof!

Free stuff, American style

Likewise, I get free things all of the time in Spain. Having a couchsurfer meant an invitation to a bullfight, and coworkers buy me coffee. But my favorite is enjoying a beer with a local, struck by my confidence to move abroad by myself, astonished at my fast andalu accent. I learn more sitting in bars, popping olives in my mouth and swigging Cruzcampo, and talking to sevillanos than I do by studying. Apart from free drinks, I get free advice, free history lessons and plenty of free compliments.

Free stuff, al estilo espanol

Travel stories trump any other anecdote.

Remember that friends episode where Joey starts every story with, “Once, when I was backpacking through Europe…”? Yeah, I’ve got tons of those vignettes. Since I started my adult life abroad, it seems that I can only share stories from my time living in Spain. Oh, you went to the state fair? Cool because I love corn dogs, too, but my state fair involves flamenco dresses and horse carriages, not hog calling and deep friend butter.You have a new boyfriend? That’s great! Is he a fighter pilot like mine? Oh, no?

My fair > your fair

Having lived in Europe for four years and traveled to 27 countries, my life experiences are enriched, punctuated by special meals, amazing views and more castles and churches than one could possibly remember. Discovering places I never thought I’d see, like China, equates to my friends’ finding a great new Chinese restaurant in the neighborhood they call home. Travel makes me the cool storyteller, relating everyday life as if it were exotic (and it sometimes is).

Travel makes you independent.

I moved out of my childhood home at 18 years and three days. As I near 26 and mourn the end of my “youth” status in Europe, I find it hard to believe that I’ve been out of my house for nearly a third of my existence. Moving to Spain was a step I needed to take for myself, to test my limits and shake up my already-high confidence. And it was scary. I always say that in Spain, I’m either giddily happy or really, really depressed – moving abroad enhances both highs and lows. I suffered greatly when a friend’s mother passed away yet still smile when I think how far I’ve come since arriving wide-eyed to Triana.

Spain makes me sonreir

My parents sent me a card on my 25th birthday last August, touting that my independence characterizes me far more than my other personal characteristics. Even Spaniards in their 30s, many of whom are starting families or settling into a career, see me as wise beyond my years. I’ve always relied on just me – until I moved to Spain. Sure, I’ve had to do everything from open a bank account to talking my way out of a noise ticket in another language, but being away from America means I’m in a time warp, caught somewhere between adolescence and adulthood.

If anything, travel has made me realize I’m just one person, and I can’t do it all myself. It’s ok to ask for help, even if it’s just for directions.

Has travel made you cool in any ways? Or are your friends sick of your stories of shearing llamas in Peru and catching strange illnesses in India?

Eating America

This being at home stuff is stressful. So many people to see, so many “American” things to do.

I’ve resorted to my bad high school habits: crappy TV and a lot of junk food. Teen Mom is on? Cracking open a can of chunky soup now. Real Housewives? I think I’ll eat a pizza in honor of all those guidettes in Jersey.

So, I’ve decided to just indulge. After all, in just two short weeks I’ll be on a plane back to the land of olive oil and pork. No Chicago style all-beef franks or margaritas in Spain!

What’s your comfort food, the one you request first thing when you get back home? Mine’s easy: an all-beef hotdog from Portillo’s (hold the mustard) with crinkle cut fries and a milkshake. Even the novio likes them!

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