July 31, 2021

Making an “on-air” light for my home office

The final product - an "on air" light when I'm in a meeting.

When my wife and I started working from home in March 2020 we settled into a routine where she’d work downstairs and I’d be in the bedroom upstairs. Since I'm on the bedroom our cat Angie is usually sitting on the bed right behind me - in full view of my webcam. This is great for paying the cat tax during meetings, but not so great when my wife wants to come give Angie some pets and I happen to be on a video call. After a few accidental meeting interruptions I knew there had to be a way to make it easier for her to know when the coast was clear for a cat visit - something like the "on-air" lights used in recording studios.

Our senior cat Angie enjoying some sunlight on the bed.

We already had a few Hue light bulbs in the house, so my first idea was to just turn a light on whenever I went into a meeting. I could do this pretty easily from my phone or Google Assistant, but I usually forgot to change the light which defeated the purpose.

Luckily I’d been exploring some DIY home automation tools and had bought a Raspberry Pi to try out Home Assistant, an open source home automation solution that can be run locally on your own WiFi (I wrote a bit about Home Assistant in Debugging the smart home) . It can run on a bunch of different hardware, but I wanted to keep things simple so I bought a Raspberry Pi starter kit from CanaKit and followed Home Assistant’s instructions to get things set up. With Home Assistant you don't even need to already have Hue lights. You can use any light the 100+ lights Home Assistant supports or even just smart outlet with a light plugged into it.

Here’s a quick walkthrough of my setup:

What I used

The steps

The first 3 steps involve setting up the Raspberry Pi and Home Assistant. I followed along with the online documentation for each step and will link it below. If you've already got it configured, skip to Step 4 to build out the automation.

Setting up Home Assistant

1. Set up Home Assistant on the Raspberry Pi

I followed the excellent guide on Home Assistant’s website with no issues. I chose to do the Home Assistant Operating System installation as recommended on their website.

2. Add the Hue integration in Home Assistant

Again Home Assistant’s excellent documentation makes this super simple. There’s even a single click button to add the integration from the site: https://www.home-assistant.io/integrations/hue/

3. Install the macOS (or Windows) Home Assistant Companion App

Direct link: https://github.com/home-assistant/iOS/releases/tag/release/2021.7/2021.202

Creating the Automation

Creating the actual automation is the only part not covered by Home Assistant’s documentation so I’ll walk through it in detail. We're going to create a scene that tells Home Assistant which lights to turn on, what color to make them, and how bright to set them. We'll then create an automation that tells Home Assistant to trigger that scene when the computer camera turns on and an automation to turn off the lights when your camera turns off.

1. Create a scene for your lights

  • Navigate to Configuration > Scenes > Add Scene in Home Assistant.
  • Name your scene and choose your light(s) from the devices list
  • Click the lightbulb to choose your brightness and color/temperature
  • Save your scene

2. Create your "on air" automation

  • Navigate to Configuration > Automations > Add Automation > Start with an empty automation
  • Name your automation and add a description. Leave the Mode at its default value of Single
  • Choose Device for Trigger Type
  • Select the computer you’ve installed the Companion App on
  • Choose “[computer-name] Camera In Use Turned On”. [computer-name] will be whatever your computer’s name is as registered with Home Assistant.
  • Skip conditions and leave as is
  • Choose Activate scene for your Action type and select the scene we made in step 4
  • Save your automation

4. Create your "off air" automation

  • Navigate to Configuration > Automations > Add Automation > Start with an empty automation
  • Name your automation and add a description. Leave the Mode at its default value of Single
  • Choose Device for Trigger Type
  • Select the computer you’ve installed the Companion App on
  • Choose “[computer-name] Camera In Use Turned Off”. [computer-name] will be whatever your computer’s name is as registered with Home Assistant.
  • Choose Device for your Action type and select your light
  • Choose Turn Off for the action.
  • Save your automation.

Now you’re good to go! If you set this up, run into issues, or have an interesting automation I’d love to hear about it on Twitter.

September 22, 2011

.me

Over the past few years I’ve been trying to figure out how to present myself on the web. It began with AIM,then poorly written geocities sites, followed by MySpace, and ultimately Facebook. None of these established a public presence and didn’t help me establish my personal brand online.

This changed when my first website became www.willvaughanphotography.com, where I showcased my current photographs and set up a basic pricing scheme. While poorly built by simply slicing images in Photoshop, it was my first online site I could truly be proud. It was difficult to update, however, and hasn’t been updated in years. I moved to my first site at williamhvaughan.com, which I used to establish a portfolio and a blog. This was created in Rapidweaver and updating was easier, but still required uploading new html and assets every time I wanted to make a post.

I was hoping to launch a site entirely written by me, but it quickly became clear that maintaining the site and uploading content would be time-consuming and I'd rather be putting that time into creating the content and enjoying my last year at Tufts! So today I'm launching willvaughan.me, my portal to the web. This site will likely change as I continue to play around with my online presence. I'd love any feedback on posts, projects, or the site in general. Thanks for visiting!

Stay tuned for updates and feel free to follow me on twitter, or Google+.

April 9, 2011

Cupcakes

Two weeks I wrote about my culinary explorations of the s’more variety. With the semester coming to the final stretch, writing has been forced to take a back seat. Spring break ended with a great two-day skiing trip to Attitash and Wildcat, with beautiful spring skiing conditions. Fresh snow on the mountain both days, with temperatures in the thirties and low forties and sun lighting the slopes. While the skiing was incredible, I could not escape from the task that was waiting for me back home; the most difficult baking challenge I’ve ever taken on: the S’more Cupcake.A cupcake may seem like nothing for someone who has mastered S’more Chicken, but this recipe involved creating everything from scratch, including the frosting. This meant I would have to use a candy thermometer for the first time, and combat my arch nemesis, egg white peaks. The last time I attempted a recipe that involved beating egg whites to specific peakicity my meringues ended up as some sort of freak mushy meringue nightmare. While scarred, I knew that if I were to ever master the art of the novice baker, I had to conquer the egg whites once and for all.

Once my candy thermometer arrived from Amazon, I headed to the store to acquire the necessary ingredients. The S’more Cupcake consists of three main components: the graham cracker bottom, the cake portion, and the marshmallow frosting. The graham cracker crust and the cupcake batter both went down without a fight, proving no match for my rolling pin and electric mixer. With the cupcakes cooking in the over, it was time to tackle the frosting. Now I realize for those familiar with baking, a candy thermometer is nothing new, but to me, the idea of having to mix ingredients at certain temperatures is a bit intimidating. What doubled the intimidation level, however, was that I had to time my egg white beating with the decreasing temperature of the syrup so that they could be mixed together at the opportune moment.Syrup simmering on the stove, I began beating the egg whites, watching hopefully for the liquidy mess to turn into a beautiful mountain range of soft peaks. To my amazement the peaks began to form and the temperature of the syrup reached the correct temperature. I mixed them together and miraculously produced a delicious, marshmallowy frosting.

With the cupcakes cooled, I frosted each with a dollop of marshmallow frosting and then sprinkled some shaved chocolate on top for effect. I couldn’t wait for post-dinner dessert time to come around and gently unwrapped the reward of my toils in the kitchen. It was delicious. The warm chocolate blended perfectly with the graham cracker crust and the marshmallow frosting topped it off with a light sweetness. I wound up with lots of extra batter, frosting, and crust, and made a mini S’more cake, which lasted mere days in our house of six college students. This brief exploration into S’more desserts was delicious, fun, and horrible for my waistline, but definitely worth it!

March 22, 2011

I’ll Have S’more Please

Spring break has arrived, bringing with it some of that elusive free time that disappears during the semester.  While some unfortunate students are suffering through warm weather and endless parties in the warmer regions of the world, I’ve been lucky enough to head home to the beautiful weather of Massachusetts.  To take advantage of this opportunity, I decided to tackle some of the cooking projects that have caught my eye during the semester.

As many of my close friends know, a secret pipe dream of mine is to open a s’more focused restaurant in the vein of the specialty dessert restaurants, like froyo and cupcake shops, that have become popular in recent years.  My vision is to provide diners with gourmet s’more ingredients that they can then roast over their personal fireplaces.  Some diners may wish for the traditional restaurant motif where they are able to order from a menu and have the food brought to them, ready to be enjoyed.  This is understandable, but first, we need to come up with some s’more inspired recipe.

Despite my deep desire that the s’more become a universal dessert known throughout the world, many tell me that it is only known in the U.S. and Canada, and then particularly in the northern regions.  For the unfortunately uninitiated, a s’more is a medley of three fairly delicious ingredients: graham crackers, chocolate, and marshmallows.  When brought together and heated by fire, these ingredients combine to form the s’more, the world’s greatest dessert (followed at a distant second by the infamous whoopie pie).  If you’ve never had one, I am so sorry.  Make your way to your nearest grocer, procure the necessary ingredients, roast your marshmallow over open flame if possible (otherwise assemble and microwave for ~10 seconds), assemble, and rejoice at the discovery of heaven on earth.

Now back to the recipes.

My first experiment of the week was a delicious S’mores Cheesecake Bar from Tracey’s Culinary Adventures, recommended to me by a close friend who shares my passion for s’mores.  The recipe was relatively simple, although a bit more complicated than the dessert from which it draws inspiration.  Unfortunately I had to double the recipe due to a double dose butter meltdown, and now have an enormous brownie pan of cheesecake goodness in my refrigerator.  Well, to be honest, there is about a 3/4 empty brownie tin in my fridge as I have become addicted to these things.  Seriously, they are incredible.  Tracey may have to be a future consultant for the restaurant.

So at this point two thoughts might be battling it out in your head: 1. What kind of restaurant doesn’t have a main course?  2.  Why is there a picture of chicken, asparagus, and sweet potatoes in a post about s’mores?  Then again, maybe not, but they do make a fantastic segue into the next evolution of the s’more.

Dear reader, it is time I introduced you to S’more chicken, the first main course meal to be inspired by s’mores.  When I proposed the idea to my friends a few months back, I was rewarded with scoffs and laughter, doubters who didn’t believe in the simple power of the s’more.  For weeks I endured their laughter and derision, formulating the recipe in my mind, but never had the time or ingredients to test my deliciously crazy meal.  Before I knew it, however, spring break had arrived.

I headed to the nearest Market Basket and acquired the necessary ingredients.  The meal is still a work in progress, but, without further ado, I give you: S’more chicken.

I headed to the nearest Market Basket and acquired the necessary ingredients.  The meal is still a work in progress, but, without further ado, I give you: S’more chicken.  Incredibly simple to make, the only ingredients needed are chicken, sweet potato, graham crackers, eggs, marshmallow, lime, flour and brown sugar.  I chose asparagus for my vegetable, which worked well, but am still experimenting for the perfect compliment.  Boil the sweet potatoes and mash them, adding milk or butter to taste.  Dip the chicken in flour, whipped eggs, and crushed graham with brown sugar crackers before placing it in a pan of heated oil to fry.  While the s’more inspiration for the  graham cracker encrusted chicken is clear, the other aspect of the dish that traces its roots to the classic s’more is the white marshmallow-lime reduction sauce seen on the sweet potatoes.  To make this, heat marshmallow cream in a sauce pan with some milk and heat on the stove to dissolve the marshmallow.  Add a squirt of lime juice to taste, adding flavor and censoring the sweetness of the sugary marshmallow.  For the asparagus, I placed it on a baking sheet with some olive oil, crushed pepper, salt, and brown sugar and baked it in the oven for a few minutes.  Together the meal was delicious, combining sweet and savory in an exquisite manner, but don’t take my word for it, try it out!

So after conquering the seemingly impossible task of creating a tasty s’more chicken meal, where will I go next?  After a brief skiing break, I hope to try my luck with another of Tracey’s recipes, a s’more cupcake, that will complement the dessert offerings.  Check back for updates on my semi-official s’more baking week,cyber and definitely leave comments with any recipe suggestions or ideas!

March 20, 2011

Guidelines with Room

Many of my classes this semester are focused on fostering productivity and creativity, whether it be in the workplace, as an entrepreneur, or in the design process. I’ve come across countless methods and theories, from the traditional brainstorming, to the philosophy of 20% creative time famously implemented at Google, and even simple iteration and ideation. One notion that has become particularly clear to me, especially when working in groups and teams, is that creative freedom is a must. Ideas should be allowed to be proposed and built upon, no matter what one’s initial reaction is. Allowing the first idea the opportunity to grow can create an ultimately different idea that provides the perfect solution.

 

This freedom, however, should not be extended forever, nor employed in all levels of the design or ideation process. The key is to implement creative freedom while eventually adding guidelines to ensure the ultimate focus is reached. A balance must be maintained between issuing constraining goals or guidelines at the projects inception and allowing creative possibilities to run wild. The greatest ideas come from thinking outside the box, but ultimately producing a product, presentation, or project comes from a conscience decision to follow a path to completion. Finding this balance is difficult, but it can be obtained by allowing for a brainstorming period in which all ideas are acceptable, and then slowly transitioning to a more practical path where the far flung ideas are set aside to focus on the interesting yet obtainable. Students, employees, and teams should not be given a strict set of instructions, but rather allowed to pursue a creative solution to the given problem, and then guided internally, or externally if need be, to produce the creative solution.

March 14, 2011

Caminando por Alcalá

I can’t believe nearly four months have passed since I left Spain. Returning to the U.S. has been like going through reverse culture shock, bringing with it both the good and the bad. Besides my Spanish friends and the Spanish culture in general, what I miss most is having the time to explore the city and discover something new every time I step outside. Living back home in Medford, my route to school is generally a straight line with little exploring and few new sights. I think this stems from a combination of walking with my eyes half-closed from living in the Boston area for all of my life, generally being in a rush for class or work, and simply not making the time to discover an area I simple-mindedly consider well known.

Living in Spain has taught me that, despite this natural tendency to overlook the familiar, there are new locations to discover, new places to visit, and new people to meet no matter where I live and no matter how long I’ve been there; you just have to accept it. So as a reminder to myself and to others that by keeping open eyes and an open mind, and by walking slowly with your head held high, you will always see something you’ve never seen before, whether it be a new person, a house you’ve never noticed, or the first flower buds emerging from the mud-luscious ground, I’ve posted my final dibujo project from last semester.On one of my last Sundays in Alcalá, I headed out for a two hour walk with my camera in an attempt to photograph my personal map of the city. I started in my apartment and headed down my favorite streets, photographing the squares in which I spent most of my time. I edited all of the pictures together as a horizontal journey through the city, overlaying each site above its location on a map of the city and adding it different sketches from throughout the semester. This is Alcalá through my eyes.

What I witnessed on my walk made me realize how much there is to see in the world. Within those two hours, I saw people, young and old, celebrating the holiday season by spraying each other with silly string. I saw children running through the street hammering away on tambourines and vendors roasting chestnuts at the end of Calle Mayor. I saw tourists visiting the Casa de Cervantes and bomberos joking around after having put out a fire at a local restaurant. When I reached the Plaza de Cervantes I came across a Christmas concert where a huge crowed sang along with a local band as friends laughed, danced, played tambourines, and sprayed each other with the aforementioned silly string. Around the corner, a huge line extended from city hall as the people of Alcalá gathered to see Spain’s World Cup. Next to the line, soldiers from the Spanish army cooked lunch for anyone who was interested. While a testament to all that made my semester in Spain an incredible experience, all that I experienced in those two hours reveals what amazing experiences a simple walk down the street can contain.

December 29, 2010

Holiday Trip: Day 7 – Paris or Disneyworld?

I think it’s fair to say that Paris is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and I’ve only seen it in the winter! Every city has its own character, and Paris is unique in its beautiful architecture, roadside bistros and cafes, the flower shops in most plazas, and way the city seems to glow at night. This beauty, combined with the historical and cultural significance of the city and nearly all of its landmarks, draws thousands of people to the city, creating a unique mix of cultures and languages, as locals, tourists, travelers, and visitors share the city. It also creates lines and queues, everywhere in the city, reminiscent of your favorite amusement park.

We were aware that the Louvre fills up quickly, so we had planned to get there early and beat the crowds. Unfortunately we overslept and everyone beat us to the line. We decided to save the museum for another day and instead went to Notre Dame, the famous cathedral of Paris. Notre Dame is enormous and entrance is free, so there should be plenty of room inside and no ticket window to create a traffic jam, and yet there was still an enormous line extending from the beautiful facade of the cathedral. The line seemed to be moving at a good pace, however, so we queued up and made our way into the cathedral.

I’ve been to Notre Dame three times and it never fails to impress me. The grandeur and immensity of the building is simply awe inspiring. The height of the interior and the beauty of the two enormous stained glass windows, as well as the numerous chapels that line the cathedral, is simply astounding. There are pews lined up for worship and for silent prayer, where we sat for a few minutes enjoying the voices of the choir as they echoed off the walls. Walking around the cathedral, one sees lots of visitors taking pictures and admiring the beautiful architecture and enormity of the building, but also people praying, lighting candles and kneeling before a chapel in prayer. The beauty of Notre Dame is that it serves as a religious experience for some and a breath-taking secular experience for others. It is a place that combines the spiritual realms of life and religion while allowing people from all walks of life to appreciate its grandeur.

After Notre Dame we walked down the island to St. Chapelle, only to find another long line. After a cold, cloudy day of finding lines everywhere we went, we decided to save St. Chapelle for another day as well. On the way back to the hotel we stopped at Concorde to see the famous ferris wheel and the Champs Élysées stretching out before us towards the Arc de Triomphe. We walked through the beautiful gardens next to the square which had a great view of the obelisk and the Eiffel Tower in the distance. I brought my parents to the Christmas Market and we walked along as before, enjoying the festive atmosphere and the sidewalks filled with people and drinking our vin chaude. After a delicious ham and cheese crepe we headed back to the hotel to rest before going to the Moulin Rouge.

We had a quick, but delicious dinner at Indiana Cafe, an American-style French restaurant. I had (can you guess?) a salad! Delicious, crunchy lettuce with tomatoes, tortilla pieces, juicy chicken, and a delicious balsamic dressing. But I digress. We took the metro to the stop near Moulin Rouge and entered yet another line after a brief coffee break at the Starbucks across the street. We eventually made our way into our tightly packed seats and found ourselves across from delightful fellow Americans from Florida. What a pleasant surprise to find people with whom we could talk before the show!For those who have seen the movie Moulin Rouge, a personal favorite of mine, the actual show is quite different. It’s more or less a dance show but with less clothing and a few acrobatic and talent acts like juggling and ventriloquism. All in all it’s definitely an experience worth seeing, but nothing that needs to be visited more than once or that shines in quality of dancing or singing. The most impressive acts are of the acrobatics and talents, leaving the audience on the edge of their seats as a performer balances his partner on one hand while lifting her with his arms alone, or a juggler simultaneous manages 7 pins. The ventriloquism was also quite impressive and definitely hilarious. The show was fun and a good night out for our second night in the city!

December 29, 2010

Holiday Trip: Day 6 – Arrival in Paris

Short post for today as we spent most of the day traveling. Flew from Madrid to Frankfurt, Germany and then onto Paris where we thankfully took a taxi to the hotel (much easier than taking the metro and train like I did when visiting with some friends from the Tufts in Madrid program). Our hotel is less than five minutes from the Arc de Triomphe and in a perfect location for visiting the city.

We asked the concierge to recommend a nice but casual bistro and she sent us to a nice, “casual”, but pricey bistro a couple blocks away. The food was delicious, I had a salad and chicken skewers. So nice having a full bowl of salad with mixed greens and vegetables! Spanish cuisine does not generally incorporate raw vegetables or hefty salads, so it was like Christmas to be able to eat them again as a basic part of a meal.

After dinner we walked up to the Arc de Triomphe and then down the Champs Élysées. Mom and Dad returned to the hotel while I continued down the beautifully decorated street to the Christmas market. All of the trees on each side of the road were covered in Christmas lights that twinkled on and off, creating an almost magical appearance. The Christmas market is enormous, containing hundreds of tents and merchants selling everything from Vin Chaud, crepes and Belgian waffles (gaufres in French or gofres in Spanish), to arts and crafts like homemade greeting cards and custom jewelry. I indulged in a chocolate gaufre and made my way leisurely back to the hotel.

December 27, 2010

Holiday Trip: Day 5 – Time in Toledo

For our last full day in Spain we decided to take a day trip to Toledo, a gorgeous city perched atop a huge hill in a somewhat desolate area outside of Madrid. A short high-speed train ride brought us there and we hopped on the tourist bus waiting outside the station. I generally prefer exploring new cities independently and discovering some of the hidden gems on my own, but the huge advantage of the tour buses is that you are able to see the highlights of the town quickly while seeing everything from a view you might not normally get while walking. In Toledo, the bus took us on a route around the city on the opposite side of the river, so we were able to see all the major buildings and sites of the city from afar as we circled the city, and then were able to see them up close when we disembarked in the main plaza.

This was my third trip to Toledo and it’s always a fantastic experience. It was a beautiful sunny day, but quite cold as well. After sitting on the top of the open-air tour bus, we headed straight to a café to order some tea and warm up. We wandered around the city, visiting some shops and doing some window browsing. When we reached the Cathedral plaza a nice man told us about an artist workshop that was closing in an hour and, with no specific commitments or plans, we decided to check it out. We were all a little suspicious at first, but it ended up being pretty cool. There were there “masters” at work, creating the Damasquino jewelry of Toledo, which is jewelry decorated with intricate gold patterns. Toledo is famous for this style of jewelry and examples of it can be found in any gift shop throughout the city. Here, however, you can watch it being made first hand, which not only shows that their jewelry is made by hand, but also creates a unique connection between buyer and seller as you are able to meet the person who created the piece of art you’re purchasing.

After visiting the workshop, we walked up to the cathedral but skipped the line for entry and instead headed to a nearby tapas restaurant. This turned out to be the same restaurant I had gone to four years ago when our high school Spanish class went to Spain for a week. I had been so proud of myself at the time for asking the waiter to bring us what he recommended. Fun being back in the same restaurant, but with a much better level of Spanish at my disposal and four years of life experience. The restaurant created two memory snapshots, the present and the past, that really put into perspective how much I’ve grown and matured in my Spanish, as well as in general life. Oh and the food was also delicious!Bellies full (this seems to be a common theme from this vacation!), we wandered around the city a bit more, discovering some beautiful old streets that seemed to turn in every direction without ever ending. We walked up to the alcazar, but unfortunately it was closed for renovations, so instead we headed to the old city hospital that has since been turned into a beautiful museum featuring many pieces by El Greco and some amazing tapestries and ancient artifacts from Toledo’s early days. Amazing to see the ancient tools and pottery created 2,000 years ago by people living in the same area we had been walking around all day. With our train departure time rapidly approaching, we headed back to the station and made it on board with only minutes to spare.

After packing at the hotel, we left our lovely Best Western in search of a quick dinner, which we found at a nice tapas restaurant off of Sol. The food wasn’t quite as good as we had experienced at the other Madrid tapas bar, but it was delectable and made for a fitting last meal. I left my parents on the way back to the hotel to take some night pictures of Madrid in Sol, Gran Via, Plaza de Cibeles and la Puerta de Alcalá. As with all of the pictures I’ve been taking on the trip you can see them at my flickr page! Finished packing back at the hotel and got some sleep before waking up for our flight to Paris.

December 26, 2010

Holiday Trip: Day 4 – Comida con mis dos familias

Today was truly a day of families. After sleeping in to catch up on some sleep, we took the train into Alcalá to have lunch with my host family. I was looking forward to the lunch, but was a little nervous about having a meal between two families that spoke two different languages. Would there be a lot of awkward silences or misunderstandings? On the way to the Plaza de Cervantes, I showed my parents a little bit of Alcalá, introducing them to what has been my home for the last 4 months. We walked along Calle Libreros, enjoying the warm sun on a cold December day. We visited Colegio de San Ildefonso and the Plaza Mayor where we walked around for a bit. Turning back after reaching the end of the plaza, I saw my host family waiting for us at the statue of Cervantes.I was a little nervous about the first encounter, but it went better than I could have hoped. Paqui, Juan and Eva embraced all of us with a warm hug and dos besos. Soon we were talking away with me and Eva as the translators and each of our respective parents trying to make out what they could of the others’ language. My mom did her best to thank Paqui and Juan in Spanish, with Paqui helping her through it as needed. We talked for a bit in the plaza and I even met some of their extended family who were walking through the plaza at the same time. Everyone was extremely kind and it felt like a family reunion more than anything.

After some small talk we left the plaza and headed to the Parador where my parents wanted to treat Paqui, Juan and Eva to lunch for taking care of me over these last few months. I had never been inside the parador, but they are known throughout Spain for being impeccable, elegant hotels. The parador in Alcalá is barely a year old and creates an interesting mix of modern architecture and interior design within the ancient setting of Alcalá’s beautiful university buildings. We found the dining room and decided on the exquisite buffet which provided a first course of salad, cheese, meats, and paella, a second course of our choosing, and a buffet of desserts, as well as drinks. With such a broad array of food at our disposal how could we say no?

The meal passed quite rapidly as we moved from salad to paella and migas to our main dish and eventually onto dessert. While I had been nervous about the conversation during the meal, it ended up being quite fun, with Eva and myself translating back and forth into English and Spanish and each of our parents trying to make out what the others were saying. This resulted in some comical misunderstandings and mispronunciations that just added to the meal and conversation. Time flew by and before we knew it dusk was on its way and our bellies were full.

Juan and Paqui graciously invited us home for merienda, which consists of a post meal drink and snack. It was a bit strange being back in the house after leaving it earlier in the week when I took the bus to the airport with everyone from the program. I knew I’d be likely be going back, but it was strange to see the room without my belongings in it, in the same state is was when I arrived in Alcalá. It wasn’t as if I had never been there, however, as Paqui had put the photograph I’d given the family on the desk in the bedroom. We all sat around the coffee table, with Wall-E and Chiqui (I never found out how to spell her name) running around our feet and jumping on my lap from time to time. We passed the afternoon lightheartedly, making small talk while listening and caring about the topics in a true SPanish manner. It was a fantastic afternoon and was more than I could ask for as a conclusion to my semester studying abroad. My host family and my real family eating and talking together as one. As the evening drew on we said our goodbyes and hasta luegos, exchanging contact information so that we can stay in touch in the future. I feel incredibly lucky to have had such a great host family, one that takes an interest in their students’ lives and wellbeing while also allowing us to explore and discover Spain and its culture on our own. Thank you guys for everything!

As my last day in Alcalá (for the time-being) drew to a close I showed my parents some of my favorite spots in the town, including the Plaza del Palacio Arzobispal and Calle Mayor and Plaza de Cervantes at night. We dined at La Española for tapas in true Alcalá style, then took the bus back to Madrid to view a little of the surrounding city on the ride home. Wonderful to be able to share the city and family that has been home for the last few months with my family!

December 25, 2010

Holiday Trip: Day 3 – Segovia

Day 3 into our family vacation and we found ourselves rather unexpectedly at Christmas, or at least I did! Without the usual buildup around Tufts and the house at home, hanging Christmas lights, decorating my room, finding and decorating a Christmas tree, the holiday sprang up out of nowhere. It was more of a passive experience for me here, with my host family doing the decorations (a lovely tree and colorful flashing lights hung in front of the mirror were some highlights), the plaza turning into a market, lights suspended above the streets and a Christmas tree springing up in the plaza. Understanding that most attractions in Spain would be closed for the holiday, we decided to venture out to a different city to see the sights.

We decided to take the high speed train up to Segovia for the day, a town rich in history and tradition. After stopping for a chocolate croissant in Sol, we took the metro to Chamartin and then began our journey at alta velocidad to the ancient aqueduct that awaited us. The train ride was a brief 30 minutes, but provided us with some stunning views of the mountainous countryside, some of the higher peaks covered in snow. Arriving at the station, we were greeted with empty hillsides of snow, with the mountains we had just traveled beneath rising in the background. I feared we were at some random Segovia station far away from the city center, with only countryside and cows to keep us entertained on Christmas. Luckily, a quick bus ride brought us to the city center and soon we were standing beneath the aqueduct with a few hundred other people. But why the crowd? We had stumbled upon one of the greatest kept secrets of not only Segovia, not only Spain, but of the entire world: La Carrera del Pavo.

Every Christmas, for the last 75 years, the fine people of Segovia have gathered for the bicycle race to end all bicycle races, one in which there is no pedaling. But, Will, how do they race without pedals you may ask. A fine question, a fine question indeed. The cyclists mount their bicycles on the street at the top of the aqueduct then race down the hill, gathering as much speed as possible. At the bottom of the hill they make a turn through the center of the crowd, beneath the nearly 2,000 year old aqueduct, and begin making their way up the hill on the opposite side. The cyclist who makes it the farthest up the hill wins. People of all ages, from young whippersnappers to old fogies, participated in the race with a wide range of bicycles including custom-made peddle-less bikes and a E.T. in a basket. There was even an old man with a bicycle made out of wood!

After watching the turkey race and scoring some free hot chocolate, we headed up to the top of the aqueduct for some photos and then ventured into Plaza Mayor. By now it was time for lunch, so we found restaurant (there were more open than we had expected for Christmas day) and settled in for a traditional Segovian meal: cochinillo de Segovia, or suckling pig. While not normally at the top of my list of foods I would enjoy eating for lunch, I had to try it since it is the specialty of the region. It wasn’t bad, although the hoof sticking up from my plate was a little disconcerting. Dessert consisted of another traditional Segovian dish, this time delicious and visually appealing, of which I most unfortunately forgot the name. To complete the Segovian dining experience, we partook in a bottle of red wine from Segovia throughout the meal.

With full stomachs we headed to the cathedral and walked around the spacious interior. Next up was the Alcazar, which we could view from the outside. I had been to both of these sites with the study abroad program earlier in the fall, but it was fun to be back again and be able to share some of what I had learned about them with my parents. It was at this point that my dad realized he had lost his train ticket, so we took the next bus back to the train station in case it would be difficult to resolve the issue. We had some entertainment on the way thanks to some boisterous Americans singing “The Wheels on the Bus” next to us.

Luckily someone had found my dad’s ticket at the station and turned it in, so we were able to relax in peace for the next two hours at the strain station. I slept for a bit at the table (as did the boisterous Americans a table over). The train ride home was dark and uneventful except for my encounters with a certain Italian woman. It all began as we put our bags into the xray machine at the station. She was standing behind me and as I put my bag in the scanner, she threw hers on top of it. I didn’t understand why she had to put hers on top of my bag instead of behind it on the belt, as is the usual procedure in xray machines, but maybe she missed her target or they do it differently in Italy. On the other side of the machine however, our bags fully scanned, she attempts to maneuver ahead of me and recover her bag before mine (at this point hers had slipped off of mine and was behind mine). This resulted in our bags getting tangled, at which point she glared at me and yanked hers until they separated. I thought our strange encounter was over until I happened upon her once more on my search for a vending machine onboard the train. Strolling down the center aisle, I was interrupted by the rearend of a woman backing out of one of the seats. As she turned to face me, I was greeted once more by the glare of my Italian friend. I felt closer to her than ever before.

Back in Madrid, we took a brief siesta and then headed down past Plaza Mayor for some delicious tapas. We found a great little restaurant that served the best croquetas I’ve had in Spain, as well as delicious empanadas, brochetas, y huevos estrellados. We ended with a fantastic tiramisu. The restaurant was a little fancier than your typical tapas bar, but the ambiance wasn’t lost one bit. Our second Christmas meal was as much of a success, if not more so, than our first and we headed back to the hotel as happy as could be. Content and ready to relax before bed, we put on Love Actually (best movie ever for those of you who will be seeing it for the first time in the future) and spent a relaxing Christmas evening in the hotel. While quite different from our traditional Christmas day at home, this was a fantastic one I won’t be forgetting any time soon.

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