What doesn’t kill.

Today begins leg one of the Mary Jones European Travel Adventure. My mom and I have never traveled alone together and we´re both excited for what lies ahead. There´s no way for us to know that in a little over one hour, my mom will utter these words: “Sometimes it takes an experience like this to fully appreciate the joy of traveling with a man who has severe OCD.” Her chin will quiver slightly as she says this.

But we can´t know about that now, as we giddily begin our walk to the metro, where we´ll soon board a train to the Barcelona airport. We won´t really anticipate it when we have trouble using the ticketing kiosk at Sants Estacio just minutes before our train departs. Nor is it blatantly obvious when we board – and then unboard – the wrong train, avoiding a near fatal mistake in terms of our weekend itinerary by just a few seconds.  But as we arrive at airport Terminal 1 and have to board a commuter bus to reach Terminal 2 where our flight is departing, I think it hits her.

“What doesn´t kill you…” I say.

I feel slightly vindicated when we end up waiting more than half an hour for boarding to begin. When I score seats on the emergency row, she seems to consider forgiveness.

Still, something seems slightly different about her. For the next two days, at the mere mention of my father, I swear I think I see her chin quiver.

It’s not ideal.

IMG_1626 IMG_1624IMG_1623IMG_1631 When we leave Joachim’s office at 9:15, it’s an absolutely beautiful morning. I’m slightly buzzing from my acupuncture treatment and excited to have the day off to show my mom around Barcelona.

We hop on the metro for the short ride to Liceu and by the time we reach La Boqueria, it’s raining. We take advantage of the roof overhead and immerse ourselves in aisle after aisle of the freshest, most exotic produce, meats, seafood and confections we’ve ever laid eyes on. What a treat to experience one of the world’s best markets with my favorite foodie! With eyes much, much bigger than my European refrigerator (not to mention our stomachs) we decide to come back later in the day to avoid carrying our inevitable bounty in our backpacks all afternoon.

When we walk back onto La Rambla, the rain has picked up a bit. I negotiate a sweet deal on two paraiguas (umbrellas) from a street vendor. We will not be deterred. We walk the narrow, picturesque streets of Barri Gotic and El Born, marveling at everything.

“It’s not ideal,” mom says at one point, “touring in the cold and rain.”

The profundity of this proclamation makes me laugh out loud. It becomes the day’s mantra. Each time the rain blows sideways or the cold wind turns our umbrellas inside out or we’re drenched by a passing car, we repeat the mantra in monotone voices and then explode laughing. She’s right. It’s not ideal at all.

A few weeks ago my mother made another profound proclamation.

“You sure do drink a lot,” she said after a reading my latest blog. “It’s always cava this and vino that – every picture I see you have a drink in your hand!”

“Mom, they’re pictures! I don’t take pictures when I’m doing laundry, I take them when I’m out doing something fun."

It’s not like I can’t have fun without drinking. But why start a fire with flint and sticks when they've invented the lighter? (Ha. I stole that line from a spam joke my friend Keri sent me once.)

Anyway, I guess this conversation slips her mind when we duck into El Xampanyet at lunchtime for tapas. Three small plates, 4 glasses of vino blanco, 1 shot of liqueur and a small plate of cookies later, and we’re both enjoying a perfect vacation buzz. Mom makes progress on her Spanish, after I convince her that pointing silently at what she wants is both rude and ineffective. When she asks la camarera “Dos mas vino blanco, por favor?”, the young guy at the table next to us laughs and asks where we’re from. He’s from Philadelphia, and glad for the chance to talk to other Americans.

So we have a great lunch and make a new friend in the process. Sure, touring old town Barcelona in the cold rain is not ideal, but it sure beats pretty much anything else we could be doing on a Thursday afternoon. For a moment, our drunk giddiness is overshadowed by heady gratitude. Then we head back out in the rain, still wet up to our knees and laughing our asses off.

Departures and Arrivals

IMG_1567Sometimes an idea gets so stuck in your head there’s no room left when a better one comes along. That’s how it was with picking up my mom from the airport this morning. Her flight arrives at 8:55 a.m. All week long a taxi has seemed like the best option – why take a risk on public transportation when one wrong transfer could leave my mom wandering the airport alone asking passersby “Hah-blah-eng-glish?” It’s 8:30 a.m. when I realize my mistake. I’m in the back of the taxi just a few blocks from my apartment listening to a torrential downpour and staring at gridlocked traffic. Rush hour in the rain: Of course I should have taken the metro.

The experience of sitting in a traffic jam is such an acute stress, still familiar to me despite a 9 month sabbatical from what was once a daily ritual. I practice yoga breathing and remind myself there’s nothing I can do about it now. The time for action was 45 minutes ago when I was leisurely sipping my coffee and archiving the more than 1500 messages in my Gmail inbox. Funny how the brain works sometimes.

So I breathe and selfishly pray that her 10-hour flight is delayed by the weather. If I believed in such things, I would take credit when she tells me on the taxi ride home the plane was suddenly averted just minutes before landing, a mere 100 yards off the runway.

The delay saves me. I arrive at Terminal A just in time to pull the paper I've printed from my backpack, and in doing so fulfill my mom’s lifelong dream to see her name on a sign in the midst of a crowded airport. All’s well that ends well. Let the adventure begin.

Ten Things

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Its Saturday and Amanda and I are wrapping ourselves in jeans, sweaters, boots and scarves, knowing the cool, crisp air will be downright cold once we head out for a day on bikes. Amanda’s mom, Missy (who arrived from Tallahassee yesterday), digs through a suitcase full of bathing suits, colorful tops, capris and sandals until she finds the one, lone sweater in her suitcase. If she’s irritated by the optimistic weather report she got just four days ago, she graciously hides it. After all, it’s a gorgeous and sunny weekend, nevermind the fact that its downright cold outside. So much for my endless Mediterranean summer. The weekend is a blast. In fact, it gets me even more excited about my own mother’s visit, which is coming up in just 3 days!! A big thanks to Missy for reminding me of some important tips when traveling with mom:

1)   A perfect fried egg makes a great breakfast.

2)    Sometimes shopping is more fun than a museum.

3)    In answer to the question How’d you sleep?, “I was in and out” is mom for “Like crap”.

4)    Letting someone else make decisions is part of the fun of vacation.

5)    Some destinations are better reached by metro than by bike. Taxis are also good.

6)    Pictures are more fun with people in them.

7)    Long walks are fun, as long as you’re not trying to get somewhere.

8)    Even red wine spills don’t have to be fatal.

9)    Sometimes, southern charm really can melt the heart of a cranky European. (Sometimes, but not all the time.)

10) Moms care more about seeing their daughters than the Top Ten Things on the inside flap of a guidebook.

Thanks again, Missy. I hope the rest of your trip is fantastic! Please eat a Double Texas for me, and don't forget -- It ain't over 'til its over!!

Cravings

Having a craving is one thing. Having a craving you can´t satisfy is something else altogether. I won´t say its hell, but its pretty close. Its just one of those comforts of home, I suppose, knowing what you want and  being able to go out into the world and get that exact thing. Today, I wish I could have 45 minutes on the Arc trainer, the one good yoga class at the Y, a walk in the Old Decatur Cemetery, a grand slam, a cute pair of heels, brunch with Lucky and Minnesota, a debate with Lauren, dinner in my parents´ kitchen, a grey-haired date with Jeff, a high octane beer with Carol, martinis with Nicole, a watershed cheeseburger, a NY style pizza, an indie film at Tara, my cat Bailey and my bed.

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?

Shop Talk

BoredRecently, several people have asked me exactly what it is I’m doing here. “Just working. Doing some research. You know, usability stuff.”

Lame, I know. But when it comes to work, its hard to know how much is enough and how much is too much. That’s the good thing about a blog: no one’s being held captive. If I’m boring, you can just hit the back button and get back to reading Dlisted.

I work in the Affective Technology Research Group at the Open University of Catalonia. Our goal is to understand how a person’s emotional response to a learning environment influences their engagement and desire to learn. To do that, the team is continually evaluating new tools designed to measure emotion (a notoriously tricky endeavor). From observation techniques (quite literally pulled from a script of the t.v. show Lie to Me), to physiological sensing tools like face readers and galvanic skin sensors to neuropsychological measures like EEG, the team triangulates different methods in their pursuit of reliable insight into learners’ expectations, feelings, aspirations, desires, interests and aesthetic preferences.

Of course, it would be a whole lot easier (not to mention cheaper) just to ask people how they feel, but it turns out human beings hide and repress our emotions for a million big and small reasons. We lie. We forget. We just don’t know. Even in seemingly mundane tasks, emotions can be quite complex – a messy mix of different high and low intensity feelings that are difficult to sort out on a therapists’ couch, let alone in a usability lab.

My main project at UOC is a research study to evaluate a self-response survey method called “affect-tagging”. It looks something like this: Bring 50 students into a lab and record them performing tasks in the UOC’s Virtual Campus – the online portal through which all content delivery and student/teacher interactions are facilitated. After the tasks, ask them to complete a survey about their experience -- half get a verbal survey and the other half get a non-verbal survey using animated characters depicting a relevant set of emotions: happiness, desire, fascination, satisfaction, sadness, disgust, boredom and dissatisfaction, each relating to different aspects of the portal’s usability, likeability and aesthetics. We then compare their self-reported responses against an expert emotional heuristic assessment (Again, see Lie to Me) or biofeedback data (Again, face scanners and skin sensors). That's it. Measure, analyze, rinse, repeat. The goal is to find the self-report tool (cheap and easy) that most reliably captures a user’s true emotion, as indicated by the other, more expensive and time consuming methods.

Expert heuristic analysis and facial scanning can detect even low intensity emotions by movements in the user's face and posture. Though expensive and time consuming to use, these methods are the gold standard in emotion measurement.

Before I left, I told my friend Carol a little about the work I’d be doing. Her first question was so obvious, yet I hadn’t really thought about it. “How will you do research on a portal written in another language,” she asked “and with users who don’t speak English?” Carol, you’ll be interested to know that I still haven’t quite figured that out yet.

La Mercè: Part 3

IMG_1101I’m tired. Whether it’s the daily acclimation to the culture or the language or the work or the fact that I’ve been sneezing and blowing my nose for almost 5 weeks straight or the dehydration (thanks to not drinking the water until Regina informed me that Barcelona’s water is, in fact, potable), I’m feeling a bit worn down. (No, I don’t know exactly what “potable” means, but to be clear, in Regina’s words “This isn’t Mexico!”). I want to go to the beach. With deft precision, Amanda and I execute a perfect Saturday afternoon: To the beach by 11:00 and to Cal Pinxo by 3:00, to try out what Marta has assured us is among the best paella in the city. Of course, Marta doesn't lead us astray. The seafood is fresh, the rice al dente and a thick crust lines the bottom of the caste iron skillet in which it’s delivered. Perfecta! I show a complete lack of decorum by asking for salsa picante (Tabasco), which I realize is the equivalent of asking for ketchup for my scrambled eggs, but alas, I can’t resist. We throw caution to the wind by ordering not one, but two bottles of cava, which we drink with delight. Several videos -- and a close call when I try to wipe my mouth with the table cloth, almost wreaking havoc on our table -- later, we're snapped back to reality when Regina calls to say we’re meeting for Correfoc in an hour and a half. We’ve been at the restaurant for more than 3 hours.

After a brief moment of panic that too much cava might spoil the evening, we push through and head back to my apartment to get ready. Overcoming all obstacles, we make it to the firerun just as it's about to start at 8:00.

Words can’t convey the sheer pandemonium of this event. It would simply not be possible in the States: a two hour parade in which hundreds of devils pulling armored vehicles disguised as dragons shoot fireworks at the exhilarated crowd of men, women and children, who run through the streets covered in protective scarves, gloves and goggles, delighting in the challenge of getting as close to the action as possible without getting oneself set on fire.

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It’s crazy and wonderful and one of those stories you’re pretty sure you’ll be boring some poor child with in the very distant future. The night ends on the beach, the five of us watching fireworks over the ocean, making big plans for Sunday, which we all secretly know we’ll probably sleep through. Happily, we do.

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.

La Mercè: Part 1

IMG_0955The festival starts on Thursday, which is a city holiday. Since I have the day off, I’m tempted to go out and stir up trouble on Wednesday night, but decide instead to prepare for the next 4 days by laying low. On our way to La Boqueria, Amanda and I stop into to a café for a snack while we make our shopping list. Thirty minutes and a-near-argument-over-how-to-make-a-proper-arrabiata-sauce later, we emerge from the café, ready to hit the market. To our delight, we discover La Ramblas is packed with people -- the parade marking the start of the festival has just begun. Dumb luck, I decide on the spot, is surely one of life’s sweetest pleasures. We happen into pole positions despite the huge crowd. In fact, a local news crew is stationed right beside us. Giant kings and queens and dragons and what appears to be a large, malevolent beetle pass by as the crowd cheers. Men of all ages dressed as devils walk by with large fire-lit torches, whetting our appetites for the mysterious and dangerous “firerun”, which we plan to attend on Saturday night. A band playing bagpipes --  the poignant hallmark of every great parade – marches by. In my excitement, I stupidly refer to them as “Irish bagpipes” and spend the next 2 hours poking fun at myself to spare Amanda the trouble.

Blog as Confessional

8PM School Night in La GraciaIt’s 7 p.m. on Friday night and I’ve just ordered a café Americano in hopes it might jumpstart my flow. The sun is getting low and there’s a fantastic breeze rustling through the trees around Placa de la Vila de Gracia, just two blocks from my apartment. The square is somehow peaceful, despite a virtual tornado of 100 or so children between the ages of 3 and 13, who seem positively jubilant to kick-off their weekend. In fact, as I type there are two small girls playing with chalk under my chair, prompting me to chuckle out loud when their tiny heads tap the underside of my seat. (I’m distraught I don’t have my camera, btw.) Its been a week since my last confession, and I’m feeling a little guilty about it. This blog has been a thoroughly worthwhile enterprise: sometimes hobby, sometimes therapy, sometimes merely a way to avoid repeating myself. Whatever the case, it requires time and energy and focus and this week I’ve been a tad lacking in all three.

Perhaps it’s the working. It’s hard to believe that before September, I’d been out of my once cozy corporate box for 9 whole months. Frankly, I’m struggling to believe I was ever a willing party to the cruel, inhumanity of the 9 to 7 grind. It’s nothing to do with the work itself; but rather the slow, dull, mindless routine of it all. Human beings just aren’t wired that way. Hasn’t anyone heard of circadian rhythms, for goodness sake?

Perhaps, too, it’s the fact that I’m still a little worn out from experiencing one of the highlights of my trip so far: La Mercè, the 4 day annual festival that commenced last Thursday and left me exhausted when my head hit the pillow on Sunday night.

Held each year in honor of Mare de Deu de la Mercè, the Patron Saint of Barcelona, La Mercè feels a bit like Independence Day + New Years Eve + New Years Day + St. Patty’s Day, all rolled into one, long party -- sans the streamers and the stale draft beer and the port-a-lets. Four days of cultural events, parades, concerts, and an event called Correfoc, a “fire run”, which the promotional material warns “carries serious risk of burning to all spectators”.  Behind my maiden voyage on the Mediterranean, it’s the coolest thing I experienced so far.

¿Cucarachas?

Apparently, there are no bugs in Spain. Despite the warm afternoons and the large trash receptacles at the end of every block here in Barcelona, I haven’t seen a single bug in 4 weeks. Not on the sidewalk, or on my patio or in the dank, exposed brick cavern of the inoperable lift in the entryway to my apartment, no bugs. At home, at work, in cafes, on the train – it seems every window in the city is open and not a single bug ever makes its way inside. Anyone have some insight into this phenomenon? (Where’s my Uncle Sam when you need him?)

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?

Surrealism: Part 2

IMG_0838 Three weeks to the day after my arrival in Spain I confess to my mother I have the big city blues. Just a week after my weekend in Mallorca, I already need to escape the pavement pounding, metro riding, traffic dodging and garbage smelling (yes, sadly) realities of big city life.

I’m in luck. Trains leave to destinations around Spain and western Europe every hour, so after a lazy morning in the city, Amanda and I head to the station, ready for an adventure.

This is my first trip to Europe, so I’ve never had the quintessentially European experience of riding a train through the picturesque countryside sipping wine and having my breath taken away by juxtaposing scenes of vast landscapes, quaint farmhouses and big perfectly clear blue skies. In fact, my only railway experience to date involves the Greyhound train from D.C. to Cape May, New Jersey with a gaggle of old cigarette-smoking ladies on their way to Atlantic City (at least I think that must’ve been their destination from the looks of them). It’s just not the same thing.

We decide on Figueres because its cheap (12 €) and close (2 hours) and Amanda’s friend Terry recommends it. We have no idea what to expect. We have a note pad and pen for entertainment, though it will be hours before I can show-off my mad Hang Man skillz. Instead, we spend the next two hours taking pictures, napping and playing musical chairs until we find seats a safe distance from the restroom. We arrive in Figueres just after 2:30 to find a dusty, sleepy old-fashioned town that seems to have been forgotten by the popular travel guides. A quick sketch of our route from the wall map in the train station and we’re off. A few blocks away, we stumble upon a street market in the town square where vendors have set up small tables to display a bizarre mix of antique tchotchkes, books, bawdy art and machinery ranging from cameras to miscellaneous weaponry. It is fascinating and I resist the urge to start doing shots (for fun and courage) and trying to barter with the locals. I become fascinated by an old and ORIGINAL watercolor painting featuring a woman sheepishly about to dive into an ocean of penises. Unfortunately, the frame alone is 40 €  -- far too rich for my tastes at the moment.

Minutes later, not realizing we’ve covered the full length of the town, we stop to consider whether we should call a cab. That’s when we see it.

Situated at the top of a hill overlooking Figueres is The Teatre-Museu Dalí, a large bright pink building dotted on top with giant eggs and statues that look like Academy Award statuettes arranged with their arms in different positions. It's surreal, which of course is the point, since the museum was designed by the Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dalí to house his artwork, his extensive personal art collection and his tomb. The museum itself is a work of art.

Inside is a virtual fantasyland; a giant cabinet of curiosities filled with bizarrely erotic, violent and creepily macabre artwork spanning every medium, including paint, sculpture, jewelry, avante guard and a room-sized installation called “Face of Mae West Which Can Be Used As an Apartment”.  Prior to this visit, I knew little of Dali’s work except for the iconic image of melting clocks in The Persistence of Memory and I’m unexpectedly thrilled by the afternoon’s discovery. It’s almost 8:00 when we finally emerge, in a hurry to catch the last train back to Barcelona at 8:50. Although we don’t have time to stop in the now-crowded town square to wait for the teenage dance competition to begin, we do manage a quick run through the market for a couple of cold beers and a bag of corn nuts. All in all, a very good day.

After dominating Hang Man on the ride back home (though the sweetness of my victory is dulled by a very poor showing in tic tac toe), we arrive back in Gracia after 10:30, buzzing from the excitement of the day and still craving a good meal. We decide to defect from all things Spanish and try the cozy Italian restaurant near my apartment. Santa Madonna does not disappoint. Ignoring the time, we gorge ourselves on red wine, mushroom risotto, homemade pasta with shrimp and finally panna cotta, which despite its silky, rich, perfection we cannot possibly finish. The short walk home is not nearly sufficient to settle our stomachs before we pass out, tired and happy at almost 1:30.

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Being a Tourist

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It’s Friday afternoon and I’m in the mood to be a tourist. I’ve yet to visit Barcelona’s top tourist attraction and Amanda is eager to act as my tour guide, since this will be her second trip. La Sagrada Família is the master-work of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí and it must surely be among the top 5 most amazing churches in the world. The massive, intricately designed building has been under construction since 1882 and is not expected to be complete until at least 2026, a date set because it marks the 100th anniversary of Gaudí's death. Actually, I’d heard it would be another century before it's completed, but Wikipedia says its much sooner. I’m sticking with this date because a) I’m finished with grad school and revel in being a lazy researcher and b) I want to believe its true that I’ll be alive to witness the church's opening, first hand or otherwise. Designed in Gaudi’s unique and organic architectural style, "The Temple of the Holy Family" is a truly awesome sight. It seems to represent extremes of engineering genius and artistic indulgence: heavy slate doors engraved in hieroglyphic-inspired scripts, interior columns designed to look like massive trees to provide shelter over the congregation, elaborate exterior facades featuring intricate depictions of key events in Christianity (nativity, crucifixion, etc.) and eighteen spindle-shaped towers representing important Christian figures (12 Apostles + 4 Evangelists + Virgin Mary + Jesus = 18). Despite the cranes and the dust and sounds of construction, it is easily one of the most stunning things I’ve ever seen. We wander through the church and then the model gallery taking pictures and marveling at Gaudi’s grasp of complex mathematics and his artist eye for the geometric beauty of the natural world. Of course, pictures don’t do it justice, but please check them out anyway in my Barcelona album on Flickr.

So, La Sagrada Familia is a highlight. The search for lunch afterwards, unfortunately, is a lowlight. I’ve resigned myself to the sad realization that Catalan food is just not going to be my favorite. Although I’m loving the abundance and variety of seafood, the search for great tapas and paella has yielded a handful of over-priced, bland, fried, mushy, oily, mayonnaise-covered disappointments. Unfortunately, this is exactly the meal we find at the "authentic" bodega on La Rambla de Cataluyna -- a terrible miscalculation by the editors of our guide book. 30€ and some mild crankiness later, we trek home anticipating the only food left in my kitchen: Vino tinto and Pepperidge Farms Chesapeake Dark Chocolate Chunk cookies, gratefully purchased from the specialty American foods section of the hip home furnishings store around the corner, which also carries hard-to-find American delicacies like peanut butter, cake mix and pancake syrup. Effective tonight, we are done with tapas.

Surreality

IMG_0463Some experiences are so over the top, the thing that surprises you most is that you manage to stay your regular self right in the midst of them. My weekend in Mallorca was like that -- at times so postcard perfect, I had the surreal feeling on more than one occasion that I might be on a Hollywood sound stage, instead of out in the real world. When we weren’t driving through hillside farm towns that looked like Napa, or strolling down cobblestone streets among medieval cathedrals and ancient Roman ruins, we were boating – better yet -- swimming in the clear, blue Mediterranean, drinking cava and eating sweet peaches with sea-rinsed salty skin. Ridiculous.

Thanks to the adorable drunk guy who wouldn’t stop talking to us in unintelligible Spanish as we sat in Placa Mayor drinking Pellegrino and waiting for the sun to come up, we made it to bed before 6 on Saturday morning and didn’t sleep through a glorious afternoon. Thanks to the perfectly executed American diner owned and run by Amanda’s friend Heather (originally from Texas), burgers and nachos warded off our hangovers, which I thought might be inevitable. Thanks to the hospitality of Amanda’s friend Joan (pronounced Joe-awn), who invited us to his family beach house for the weekend, I happily lost a bet over who could be the first to hook us up with a boating connection. I think it may have been fixed, but who cares?  At any cost, the trip was priceless.

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Bitterness & Sweet

MallorcaToday is September 11. Eight years ago this very morning, I was sitting in a cube in a floundering post-dot.com technology company, getting ready to leave for the airport for a 2 day investor meeting in lower Manhattan. So much has changed since then, in the world at large and in my own world, too. If life is a rollercoaster or a symphony or some other oversimplified metaphor, the last eight years have shown me its full dimension. I suppose that’s true for all of us. According to numerologists, we experience life in 9 year cycles of endings and new beginnings, the lows creating a space for the highs around the next corner. According to Jason Lee’s character in the too-harshly criticized Cameron Crowe movie Vanilla Sky: Without the bitterness, baby, the sweet just isn’t as sweet. Sorry, I thought it was a pretty good movie.

Today I’m ready for some sweetness. In just a few hours, I’m heading to the airport for a quick flight to Mallorca to visit Amanda. I’m excited to see her; excited to meet her colorful group of new friends, excited to see first hand the dramatic topography of the island, which is absolutely stunning in her pictures.

Stay tuned.

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?