Travel

24 Hours

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Today is Saint Patrick's Day and if I were home, there's a good chance I'd be on a patio somewhere drinking green beer. Instead, I’ve just seen a mom and baby calf on my walk back to the room after an afternoon of Thai massage, acupuncture and craniosacral therapy that’s left me with a mild chi buzz and craving fresh juice. I’m feeling positively, well, positive. I barely flinch when I discover the juice bar has closed for the day.

It’s been a day since my mom and I arrived at Miraval, a wellness spa we heard about when it made the list of Oprah’s Favorite Things last year. I’m sitting on the terrace outside our room listening to the rustling of leaves in an afternoon breeze and enjoying our view of the Catalina Mountains under the umbrella of a big, clear blue sky.

24 hours ago I was grouchy.

“I hope we’re not the fattest people here.” I said to my mom as I changed into my workout clothes a few minutes after we arrived.

“You know,” I said later, as we waited in line for our dinner reservation, “people out here are pleasant, but they’re never as friendly as a friendly southerner. Don’t you think so?”

“This place is nice, “ I said on the moonlit walk back to our room after dinner, “but its no Ritz.”

Amazing how your perspective can change after a great night’s sleep and a little bit of space to just be. My insides are quieter. My yoga pants look better. When a rabbit ran across our path this morning, it occurs to me for the first time, "Oh. That's why they called him Peter Cottontail."

Excited to see what discoveries the next week will bring.

Giving + Receiving

For every picture I took in Haiti, there are a hundred better ones I missed or chose not to take. I felt guilty taking pictures at all, especially when people were the subject. Pointing the camera felt like stealing.

I guess that’s why it’s important to try to give something back. Some people have already asked how they can help. I'll be collecting supplies and shipping them directly to Ralph or Mona in Haiti on an ongoing basis for at least the next few months. Once some of the immediate needs are satisfied, I'll likely make a return trip with my group to evaluate other ways we can help. To start, though, this list is pretty easy and straightforward:

The school at Fond Verrette needs rain boots and rain coats for 300 kids grades 1 - 6, plus book bags and supplies. Remember, most kids walk several miles each way to school, where many of them get their one and only meal of the day. Without rain gear, it's not only a miserable commute, but it poses dangerous risks for flu, malaria and other infectious diseases.

The orphaned kids at Mona's house need pretty much everything, but clothes and shoes are a great start. Hygiene products like soap, toothbrushes, shampoo, tampons, and diapers are also needed. The boys asked me for soccer balls and when I gave a few girls some sparkly strawberry lip gloss, they responded like they’d won the lottery. Of course, the most basic need of all is housing, so large tents are invaluable. If you’re interested, I’m happy to provide more details.

On behalf of Mona, the kids, teachers, and parents I met on this amazing trip, thank you for your help and support. Any donation is appreciated and will be delivered by me, directly to the people you've seen in my pictures.

In gratitude,

Mary Frances

Bucket Bath

Eddie and Ralph both lost their homes in the earthquake. When we visit what's left of Eddie's place, he shows us where his parents had been sitting when the roof came down. Eddie's entire block is devastated. Like so many in the middle class, his neighbors have set up their tents next to where their homes had been, instead of in the mass camps that populate every public park and open space down in the heart of the city. Some live out of their cars. Still more have fled Haiti completely, and are now living with family in The Dominican Republic or the U.S. (Eddie's own parents, in fact, both escaped the falling roof with relatively small injuries and are living temporarily with his brother in New Jersey). Eddie is eager to rebuild but to date hasn't received city approval to even clear his lot. Similarly, we witness a minor confrontation between Ralph and a man from his neighborhood over ownership of Ralph's mother's home, which is also collapsed. The original deed to the home is lost in the rubble, and -- like every single government building in downtown Port Au Prince -- the Deed Office is completely destroyed.

Eddie and Ralph have rented a house for guests of their 2Care foundation in what was previously the wealthy area of town, up in the hills of Patronville, looking over the city. For the last 3 months, the house has been Ralph's primary residence. It is large but modestly appointed and needs a lot of general maintenance, not to mention a woman's touch.

Janis and I sleep in bunk beds and share a bathroom at the end of the hall. Since water and electricity are only sporadically available, there is a large bucket in the shower filled with water from the reservoir on the first floor. When there´s no running water¨, Eddie explains, ¨We go Indian-style¨, though only later to I realize that means we bathe from water in the bucket (which come to find out can be surprisingly effective, as a well-travelled Facebook friend noted, and I soon validated.) I also learn a lesson in physics  when Janis explains that when the toilet pumps aren't working, dumping a small bucket of water in the bowl actually triggers a flush.

So there is scarcely little electricity or running water, no air conditioning, no other modern conveniences. But given the circumstances that exist on the other side of the walls that shield us from the sun and rain, we choose to be grateful that there are also no mirrors in our part of the house.

Mona's House

When we arrive at Mona's house this morning, it's been almost 48 hours since Janis or I have seen another white person. In the heart if the city, in the rural areas, in the remote mountain village of Fond Verette, we've seen thousands of Haitians and one Spanish aid worker who stopped to chat while we were stranded, waiting for our tire to be fixed. But we have seen no white faces, and certainly none of the fresh-faced missionaries like those in the matching t-shirts that filled up our flight from Miami. It's a remarkable thing to realize, but it takes on a special meaning when we walk into Mona's courtyard this morning. As Janis and I step over the threshold into the courtyard full of a hundred or so children, one small boy literally runs out of his sneaker in terror at the sight of us. The other children roar with laughter at the boy, who we suddenly realize has never seen a white person before.

A half an hour later, his father will carry the boy -- who's a little shy of 3 years old, I'm guessing -- over to us as the child shreeks and buries his face in his father's shoulder. I hold out my hand and his father touches his hand to mine to show the boy it's okay. He is not convinced. After repeated attempts, I try a new tactic. I take the boy's picture and show him the image on my camera's LCD screen. Finally, I get a smile. A few pictures later, when he thinks no one is looking, the child finally finds the courage to poke my arm with his tiny index finger. Soon I have a new friend.

Before we leave three hours later, I have dozens of new friends, all seduced by my camera at first, then huddled around me like a mob of fans for a teenage boy band, all smiling and talking to me in Creole, touching my skin and hair with absolute fascination. I speak the few words I know in French, which the children repeat in chorus. "Bonjour!", "Mademoiselle!", "Monsieur!", and so on. When I finally tell Janis I don't know anymore French, they shout back in perfect unison, "I don't know anymore French!", although most, if not all, of them don't know what the words mean. So I count to them in English, then in Spanish, and they shout it all back to me with delightful enthusiasm. They even teach me to count to 30 in Creole and don't seem to notice how much I struggle with the phonetics. It's a simple but fun game for all of us. Although we can't really speak to each other, we have connected.

This entire scene plays out in Mona's small courtyard, just before the children line up for their one meal of the day. To back up a bit, Mona is an attorney who took 50 or so children in last Fall, when an old priest running a small orphanage near her home died, leaving no one else to care for them. Mona had been involved with the orphanage before, and stepped in during the moment of crisis, expecting to use her contacts in local government to help find new homes for  the kids. But when the earthquake came on January 12, that plan fell apart. In the months since then, families from around the town have brought new orphans to Mona. She is educated and already has so many, they don't know what else to do. Today, Mona has almost 400 children in her care.

Like most others here who have been left homeless, the children live in makeshift camps, set up on vacant lots near Mona's home. Neighborhood women volunteer to help with daily care and supervision, and men from the neighborhood stand guard over the camps by night. Eddie and Ralph provide supplies, and enough food for each child to have one meal each day. Their goal is to build a school on some nearby land, donated just a few days before we arrived, and to find permanent homes or an orphanage where the children can live.

Later today, we will return to the airport  to pick up Eddie's friend Char who has brought waterproof tents and medical supplies from Michigan. Tomorrow, we will replace some of the camp's existing tents --- made crudely of sticks and bed sheets, with the larger, sturdier new ones. It will be good to get some real work done.

Fond Verrette

Today, I'm hoping against the odds that I can find an ATM or some other way to get cash. I definitely under-budgeted my cash and have almost completely run out after giving Ralph $300 for my half of our 4 day car rental. Things here are surprisingly expensive. Although a US-imposed trade embargo was lifted more than 5 years ago, political unrest, two devastating hurricanes and the recent earthquake have kept the country in an almost constant state of disruption since then, and the old black market system is still the dominant retail culture. Although the minimum wage is $2 per hour, most  things seem to cost the same or more as they do in the States. I spent 6 hours yesterday on the middle hump of the back seat of our SUV, driving the rocky, hilly, unpaved roads/riverbeds to and from the mountain town of Fond Verrette, where one of Eddie´s schools is located. We got a flat tire in a small village about 15 mins drive from the school and it was a thrill to sit still and talk/interact with the locals. I gave $20 bucks each to two school boys who were sweet and spoke to me in English. It's bizarre and difficult to process the sight of someone living in such extreme poverty holding US currency, then walking, then running, presumbly back to their homes to give it to their family. I wonder what they will do with it, how they will even exchange it for Haitian Goudes, with civilization so many miles away.

After 2 hours waiting while the locals work to fix the tire, Eddie pays two guys on mopeds to take us the rest of the way up the mountain. It is a thrill -- three of us to a bike, speeding up the rocky path,  Janis terrified we will veer right and fall off the cliff to the dry creek bed no less than 10,000 ft below. The pictures and video are priceless! :)

When the bikes have gone as far as they can safely travel carrying so much weight, we thank our escorts and hike the last 30 minutes through the mountains to the school, saying bonjour to the local farmers in their rice and bean fields along the way. emaciated cows, goats, pigs and dogs sit in the fields, looking as though they barely have strength to walk.

The visit to the school is incredible and surreal. We give our rain boots to the children in each class with the best grades and take pictures of each class on the school steps. I want to pluck the smallest boy and the smallest girl right up from the steps and put them in my backpack. For the first time, I have empathy for those Baptist missionaries. :)

Today we're going to buy food and supplies for the kids at the site in Port Au Prince, which Eddie hopes will be his next school.  He says we will have our hearts broken before the day is done. I believe him, as what I've seen of Port Au Prince already is unimaginable, nevermind that I have seen it with my own eyes. Think of an imaginary intersection between Iraq and the Congo -- thousands and thousands of homeless people living atop mountains of debris and trash and waste. Craziest of all is the sound of children laughing and playing amidst it all. I hear them now as I'm writing.

Like every other incredible thing I've ever taken a picture of, my pictures are sure to be disappointing to me, but still amazing for anyone who hasn't seen it themselves.

Entourage

When we arrive in Port Au Prince,  Janis and I are the last to deplane. Eddie waits for us at the entrance to customs and give us instructions on how to proceed. ¨Have $5 ready, but don't let anyone see you with your money. Wait for me right there. DO NOT go into the baggage area.¨ It will be like this for the next 5 days, Eddie leading us around like ducks.

After a short wait, we’re the last to enter the hot, crowded, chaotic hanger to claim our baggage. Immediately, a large, intimidating man greets Eddie with a friendly, rowdy bear hug. At Eddie’s cue, we hand the man our claim tickets and he turns and disappears into the dense crowd. Within minutes he emerges with our bags and we all head outside, where Eddie's business partner Ralph is waiting for us.

On the short walk along the crowded street outside the airport, men hustle to help with luggage, trying to make a buck. Others line the gated wall at the edge of the exits, looking worn and sullen, their hands loosely gripping the iron bars.

At the car, a handful of men and teenage boys greet Eddie and Ralph with much glad-handing and happy shouting. As I'll witness countless times on this trip, money changes hands discretely.

On cue,  Janis and I hand our $5 bills to the man who carried our luggage and climb into Ralph's SUV. Ralph and Eddie are in front. Two other men, who we will come to know as Kents and Fatahl, pile in behind Janice and me and politely say hello. This will be our entourage for the next 5 days.

Team USA

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The American Eagle flight that brings us from Atlanta to Miami is the smallest plane I've ever been on. That's why it's a surprise when the connecting flight from Miami to Port Au Prince is a jam-packed 737. Fresh-faced teenagers and young adults in brightly colored t-shirts are everywhere. Red is TEAM MISSION from First Baptist Church in El Dorado, Kansas. Mission of Hope has opted for gray with a smartly designed logo on the chest, while Forward to Health is in Chartreuse and Vermont Medical Response Team is in yellow. When it's finally time to board, Janis and I poke fun at Eddie as he finds his seat in business class. We make our way back to our center aisle seats in the back among a handful of Haitian families, who sit quietly, in stark contrast to the polite but lively teenagers up front.

The flight to Haiti is just 1 hour and 40 minutes, closer to Miami than Atlanta. I've never been to a third world country and as much as I’ve anticipated this trip, there's no way I can be ready for the world I'll walk into in under two hours.

Rome. Wow.

IMG_2726Rome shattered my expectations, though I´m not even sure what those were, thinking back on it now. But if Florence left me speechless, Rome left me positively spilling over with words. “Who, what, when, where, HOW?” began the million and one questions unleashed on my poor mother, whose fuzzy memories of Spartacus and Cleopatra were suddenly at a premium. Though I’ve never been to Egypt or Greece, ancient civilizations fascinate me. When I visited the Met last Christmas, I spent the entire time in the Egyptian galleries, stopping for a full fifteen minutes to look at a doll with strands of hair on her head and blue paint on her eyes. She was more than 4,000 years old.

Rome may not be as old as Giza or Athens, but it is the birthplace of western civilization as we know it today. Beyond its contributions to language, art, architecture, and law, Rome’s place in the history of Christianity is pivotal. Around every corner is a statue or a monument or a building or a street offering physical evidence of the battle between pagan mythology and Christianity; the Vatican a literal war chest of trophies.

Like my first drive up the Pacific Coast Highway, every 50 feet or so a new and stunning sight demanded a photo, until my camera’s memory card was filled with small, unremarkable images bearing almost no likeliness to the things themselves. The Colleseum, the Pantheon, the Tomb of Augustus, the Temple of Hercules, the Vatican, St. Peter's Square…everything was just so huge, in both size and importance. Pictures can't do it justice.

And unlike so many other ancient cities, modern Rome is right there in the midst of it all, very much alive and moving forward. (The shopping, btw, was absolutely incredible though I had neither the time nor the funds to partake.)

Before we left, I threw 2 coins in the Trevi Fountain, which is supposed to guarantee my return someday. In the meantime, don’t be surprised to find me saving for shoes and adding Sparticus to my Netflix wishlist.

Top Ten Things I Learned in Florence

We're leaving for Rome tomorrow -- Woohoo! My writer's block on the Florence experience is still nagging at me, and I feel compelled to make one more go of it before we begin leg 3 of our journey. Forgoing the burden of writing prose, I've decided to do this short and sweet, David Letterman style:

Top Ten Things I Learned in Florence

  1. Italians are better-looking than the rest of us.
  2. Every once in a while, the luxury of a 5 star hotel is worth working overtime to pay for.
  3. Medieval history, architecture and religion are now on the long list of things I wish I’d paid more attention to in school.
  4. Though I appreciate its importance, aesthetically speaking I don’t care much about renaissance art. With the exception of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Primavera, I’m pretty sure if you’ve seen 200 renaissance paintings, you’ve seen them all.
  5. My map skills are surprisingly poor.
  6. I've come to believe that the systematic subjugation of women by the Christian Church must surely be the greatest human rights abuse in all of history.
  7. Architecture can bring inspiration to everyday life. A boring building is a wasted opportunity.
  8. Bicycles shouldn't be just for kids.
  9. The perfection of one porcini pizza may have destroyed my chances of ever enjoying a NY-style cheese slice again.
  10. If I'm ever stranded on a deserted island, please send a lifetime supply of homemade pasta, arrabiatta sauce, good cheese and Chianti Classico. I'll be fine, trust me.

Machismo

Machismo! The lift in my building is broken. My apartment manager Sylvia said it would be repaired shortly after I arrived, but the workmen just showed up two weeks ago: working class guys in stained boots and white t-shirts, often taking their first smoke break as I leave for work in the morning.

As they drill and hammer in the elevator shaft, the sound of their music echoes up the stairwell into my apartment. Instead of rock or hip hop, they play classical Italian and Spanish music with dramatic instrumentals and powerful female vocals. The ambiance is near perfect.

 It's striking, the way masculinity is so different here.

Dudity

BareMy friend Jeff suggested in a recent email that my blog posts are a bit long/heady/serious to be easily read by someone with self-diagnosed ADD. “Post some butt shots or something”, he said. His feedback is timely. Amanda and I were just chatting yesterday about the fun and excitement of Spain’s “bare-as-you-dare” beach culture. This is my first exposure to topless beaches, much less full on nudity. The experience has been eye-opening, in more than the obvious way.

Topless is generally the rule here. Women of all ages and body types go without  -- no matter how big, small, tan, fit, saggy or low -- au naturale is in. After a few seconds of being startled by this massive difference in culture, I’m amazed at how quickly it becomes completely uninteresting. They’re just bodies, after all. We all have them, and we all realize they don't usually look like the ones in movies. I mean, seriously, what’s the big deal? Remember the congressman who tried to ban Schindler's List from being shown on t.v. because of the nudity? Sometimes we Americans are insane.

But enough of all that. Back to the nudity. Or even more fun, the dudity! Yes, even the men in Spain let it all hang out! It’s not all that common here on Barceloneta Beach, but Amanda says there’s a place in Mallorca that’s a virtual forest of sticks and berries! I can’t wait to see for myself on my next visit, although it does present a small dilemma. I mean, I can't just go and observe.

I haven’t done it yet, but perhaps I should. When in Rome, right?

La Mercè: Part 2

IMG_0418As I’ve mentioned in early posts, the lack of separation between work and life is striking here. Colleagues relating as friends, without the pretense and awareness of roles and professional boundaries is, for me, utterly profound. My boss, Eva, invites me out on Thursday, offering to serve as my tour guide for the first day of the festival. It’s sort of last minute (Wednesday afternoon, in fact) and I’m a little anxious knowing I’ve already made plans with Amanda; my neighbor, Regina; two new interns, Justin and Anna; and a guy from Arizona called “Sony”, who we met at a café last night. I explain this to Eva and she assures me of her modus operandi: the more the merrier.

At noon on Thursday, we meet up with Eva at La Colmena, which appears to be one of Barcelona’s landmark patisseries. Eva quickly introduces Marta, who it turns out was a key player in the evolution of La Mercè in the early 1970s, after Franco was overthrown. Marta, a self-described housewife at the time, was instrumental in introducing a host of Catalan cultural events into the festival, marking a milestone for La Mercè – and for Barcelona – in reclaiming its Catalan heritage after years of suppression/oppression by the dictator. It’s almost two hours later when I realize Marta is Eva’s mother.

Again, with the dumb luck. We simply couldn’t have asked for two better hostesses. Eva and Marta lead us through the packed streets of Ciutat Vella, "the old city", deftly guiding us to the most important events of the day. Marta uses her long-established connections at City Hall to escort the group behind-the-scenes to a catered, terrace view of the festival’s most coveted event: the Castellers ("human towers"). In the midst of thousands of Barcelonans and European tourists, its almost embarrassing.

From the Castellers to the Cathedral de Santa Maria de la Mar, to the Roman ruins beneath the city to the convent marred with bullet holes which pay homage to the cruelty of a firing squad set there during the Spanish Civil War, we see the festival and enjoy a fascinating history lesson at the same time. We eat lunch, then tour Barceloneta, a quaint barrio near the ocean, its apartments so small that families set up make-shift living rooms on the sidewalks, where they spend much of their time.

By the time the day ends, following mojitos at a beach-side café and a jazz concert in the park, Eva has generously devoted 10 hours to me and my friends. We have talked a bit of politics and history, seen pictures of her kids, heard stories of her recent divorce and a recent Survivor-esque vacation in the mountains of Vermont. She has paid for everything, despite our protests. I have little doubt this is not a business expense.

Thank you to Eva and Marta for your gracious hospitality. May I soon have the opportunity to pay it forward.

Walking the Walk

Fresh Catch at La Boqueria Mercat Carb-overloaded from tapas, paella, pasta, risotto and oh-so-much bread, I’m craving fish. Once we decide to cook in, Amanda and I happily head to the market.

As I’ve written before, I love the freshness, authenticity and intimacy of Spain’s market culture. Far from the glossy, sanitized and packaged world of my “neighborhood” Publix, Barcelona’s markets remind me where food comes from and what it really looks like before it’s transformed into the stuff I usually buy at the store. One of my favorite things at La Boqueria is the fresh seafood tables, piled high with shiny, bloody, sometimes smelly sea creatures, many of which I don’t recognize despite the fact they’re completely intact and often still alive.

Salmon seems like a great way to satisfy the Omega-3 craving, so we decide to have broiled fish and veggies for dinner and a salmon scramble for breakfast the following day. We find a fishmonger and ask her for “quarto” of the whole fish in her display, although we’re not really sure what we’re asking for. She quickly cuts 3 large steaks and as she’s about to cut the 4th, we shout out to stop her “Tres, tres, por favor. Lo siento. Tres es perfecto!” Instead of cutting the 4th steak, she throws 3 steaks and the remainder of the bloody fish into a plastic bag and hands it to us. “Doce”, she says, handing me the bag. Twelve euros and almost half a fish is more than we’d bargained for, figuratively speaking, but that’s what happens in a language vortex – even when you get what you ask for, it’s often not what you wanted.

We leave excited, despite our slightly bruised egos. I’m buzzing on the 10 minute walk home, eagerly extolling the virtues of local farms and fishmongers and already anticipating tomorrow’s long-awaited scramble.

Back at my apartment, Amanda runs out for a bottle of wine and I open the bag of fish. The steaks are still connected on one side by slick, iridescent skin and gills hang off the bloody body, near where the head has been severed. I pause for a minute but, not discouraged, take a breath and bring my laptop into the kitchen where I search YouTube with the keyword phrase: “How to Cook Salmon”. The results page returns a 3 minute video, which I start to watch as I pour the last of the vino tinto on top of my refrigerator.

Immediately, I realize my mistake. Its shocking, really, to think I could watch someone cut and bag a whole fish right in front of me and never think of the obvious fact that fish are full of bones. Shocking, but true. Less obvious, but just as important, is the fact that a fish cut into steaks is basically impossible to filet after the fact.

I guess that’s one of the great and challenging things about new experiences: they’re often lessons in humility. And so it is with this experience, from the shopping and the realization that scales and gills and spinal columns are less than romantic (not to mention difficult to cut through without a sharp and proper knife) to the slow, tedious process of picking bones out of delicious and perfectly broiled salmon steaks to the much-more painful and mood-altering attempt the next morning to filet the uncut salmon, which eventually leads me to abandon the kitchen in disgust, leaving Amanda to rescue breakfast.

The experience was humbling for sure, but surprisingly reaffirming at the same time. There’s something terribly wrong with my own ability to be so disconnected from something so obvious as fish bones. Without the skin and bones and blood and guts, its easy to forget much of our food comes from real, living creatures. I vow to visit the fishmonger on my next trip to the market. In the meantime, I will practice. Pot vostè si us plau el filet de peix?

Showing Up

Pimientos del Padron Last night, the learning technologies department at UOC held a going away party for Alistair, another HCI research intern who’s leaving this week to spend the next 6 months at Georgia Tech’s campus in Lorraine, France.

To be honest, I was a little anxious about it. The truth is, I’d be a little anxious about any work party after just 5 days on the job, but given the massive language divide between my co-workers and me, I knew this one would be mas difícil. Not going wasn't an option, though I seriously considered it more than once.

But I went.

First, a few cultural notes for anyone who, like me, has attended her share of work happy hours. Sure, there was the saltine-eating contest that escalated into the onion-eating contest, and the holiday party at Trois that ended, well, let’s just say it ended poorly. But generally speaking, work events – particularly those obligatory affairs hosted for short-timers whose names you can’t always remember – they are usually, in a word, well, stiff.

From the very start, this event is different. Instead of being hosted at a mediocre bar in close proximity to the office, the location is across town, a full 30 minutes and 2 metro transfers away, at a restaurant called La Esquinica, which is rumored to have the best tapas in the city. I arrive around 7:30 and order my first Estrella as I sit down to a handful of smiling co-workers with an anxious but happy-sounding “Hola!” By 8:00, additional tables and chairs have been added and 19 people are crammed together in a dark corner of the bar. With no menus, and no discussion among the group, a few people start calling out things to our camarero and a few minutes later the table is crowded with bottles of vino joven (a young, sweet white wine that must be shaken before it’s poured) and plates and plates of tapas: sautéed champiñones (mushrooms), octopus, tigres (stuffed mussels), pimientos del padron (fried green peppers), morcilla (sausage) and patatas bravas (Barcelona’s famously fried potatoes with spicy sauce).

Plates and bottles are feverishly passing in both directions. There are no individual plates – just the passing tapas and 19 hungry forks, all dancing together in harmonious chaos as the table grows increasingly loud and boisterous. It isn’t like work at all; it’s like familia.

The conversation is lively and, as David explains, largely focused on “television movies”, which I later discover include Knight Rider, The A Team and The Hulk. Thanks to the sweet eagerness of those around me, I manage to chat a bit and gratefully learn a few new words in the process. Maria makes me laugh out loud when she points to me and excitedly announces to everyone in broken Inglés: “I love her accent! It is like…the sitcoms! It is like…How I Met Your Mother!”

And so that’s that. I guess sometimes it pays just to show up. When we finally head out, just after 10:00, there is a huge line outside waiting to get into La Esquinica. I head back to the metro, buzzing from my first Tuesday night out in Barcelona.

Super Nachos

In a post last week, I considered the authenticity of American vs. Spanish-made Mexican food, weighing the importance of our proximity to our southern neighbor against my own sense of the clear but historically-vague (in my mind, at least) similarities between the Spanish and Mexican cultures. Beginning this weekend, Barcelona hosts its annual Semana de Mexico festival, a week-long celebration of el Grito, Mexico’s fight for independence from Spain. The event is a reminder of my long-forgotten history lesson that for thousands of years, what is now Mexico was among the most advanced and culturally-rich civilizations on earth, until it was destroyed by Spanish colonization in the 16th century. After 300 years of Spanish rule, followed by a brief period of French occupation and the Mexican-American war, Mexico has lost most of its indigenous population and almost half its territory. Despite an illustrious past dating back before 2000 B.C., Mexico has had a pretty shitty time of things in the modern world. Anyway, for those of us who’ve forgotten about all that, it just seems worth remembering. In a completely unrelated story, Regina and I stopped into to a small restaurant close to our apartment last night because the menu board outside said “Super Nachos” in neatly written chalk. Climbing down the steps to the underground bar, and still further into the cavernous seating area, we found ourselves in what appeared to be a seedy opium den in a back alley in Bucharest. As it turns out, La Journal is actually where the neighborhood hostel guests gather to drink and play guitar and huddle around chess boards. The air is dense with smoke and there’s no light inside the restroom, so Regina had to use the flashlight on my new, plastic cell phone to navigate. For just 6€, we shared a tasty bowl of nachos and I had a cold San Miguel. For another 1€, there were also Chips Ahoy cookies and Twix bars on the menu, but it was late and Regina was still a little high from her first day of pilates.

Not to worry, though, I’ll be back to La Journal again very soon. Did I mention its open all night?

Realism vs. Idealism

My Street In La GraciaBefore I came to Barcelona, I had a picture in my head of what it would be like. I'm a pragmatic realist by nature, but I'll admit the scene was laughably idyllic: Despite its reputation as a bustling metropolis, I imagined a Barcelona made of sleepy, tree-lined neighborhoods, cobblestone streets and quaint cafes filled with stylish urbanites, old artists and happy, colorful children. I knew it was silly, imagining the merchants busy early in the morning, spraying down the sidewalks and singing to themselves as they set up shop carts of fresh flowers and produce and warm focaccia. Pretty hilarious, really. In the real life Barcelona, the merchants have actual store fronts instead of carts, and of course, they aren't really merchants -- they're just regular people working in retail. I haven't heard any of them singing yet, and their corrugated metal doors are often pulled down, revealing a tapestry of graffiti covering the neighborhood before 9 and after 5 during the week and all day on Sunday. Regina says scooter traffic and bar noise keep her up at night, as does the guy above me who sings pop music in the voice of a passionate, operatic tenor, usually late into the evening.

All of that said, in the real Barcelona, the streets of La Grácia actually are sleepy and tree-lined and peppered with quaint cafes that all look and feel just like I imaged them. The architecture is quintessentially European and the shops, which are more often than not actually the size of carts, are beautifully stocked with flowers, produce, books and high end, aromatic tea that wafts like potpourri out onto the sidewalk. There's even a Focacceria on my morning walk to the metro.

Every few blocks, the narrow streets of La Grácia open up to one of 10 plaças (like a small town square), each dedicated to this or that historic figure or event or architectural landmark:

  • Plaça Joanic
  • Plaça de la Virreina
  • Plaça del Nord
  • Plaça del Diamant
  • Plaça de la Revolució de Setembre de 1868
  • Plaça del Sol
  • Plaça Rovira i Trias
  • Plaça Rius i Taulet
  • Plaça del Raspall
  • Plaça de John Lennon (No, I'm not kidding)

Today, Regina and I drink cafe con leche and watch a live jazz concert at Plaça Rius i Taulet. It is a breezy, sunny day and the square is filled with urbanites, old artists and happy, colorful children. It is a perfect Sunday afternoon.

If my imaginary Barcelona is a 10, La Grácia is an actual, real life 8 on the euro-charm scale. Its good to see idealism realized every once in a while.

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Repsol

Repsol Gas StationToday at lunch, I happen by the first gas station I've seen since I arrived in Barcelona. Given that it's the first, and that the exterior design is clean and sleek, I decide to have a look inside. Almost immediately, I'm baffled to find a small, well-stocked fresh food market, sitting right there in the exact aisles where I'm conditioned to see Cheetos, Fig Newtons, Slim Jims, Alka Seltzer, Natural Light, motor oil, breath mints and porn rags. Instead, I see fresh produce, raw milk cheeses, olives, steaks, whole chickens, wine and high end spirits. Honestly, it's a shock to my senses. Just to be clear, I'm not interested in spending the next 3 months making gross over generalizations about how Europe rocks and America sucks. I can already tell you I like my ubiquitous air conditioning, my public wifi and my Rosemary & Olive Oil Triscuits -- three American luxuries I'm already homesick for. Besides, I don't know if this is a Barcelona thing or if perhaps I've just happened upon the one gas station in all of Europe with a gourmet retail buyer.

But it certainly has me thinking: How is it that our American society has accepted the transformation of our food culture (not to mention our culture at large) into this nutritionless, overly processed, homogenized, corporatized “food economy”? Beyond its obvious perils in terms of our nation’s health, I’m simply shocked we’ve allowed so much of our food experience to become so utterly soulless.  Good coffee, fresh bread, locally-farmed produce, meats and dairy – these are Europe’s ubiquitous air conditioning. I vow to visit la mercat every day on my way home from work.