Monday, May 30, 2011

Everyday living in Barcelona: Transportation (Spain)

Alas, we said farewell to my Honda Civic in North Carolina... and pretty much all forms of personal transportation. Considering the rising gas prices, this makes us ahead of the game.

The public transportation in Barcelona is fairly good, and since our apartment is centrally located, very convenient. Even the shuttle bus to the airport is only a 10 minute walk away. The old part of the city, where we live, is predominantly a pedestrian zone anyway, and mostly we pity those who try in vain to maneuver their cars down the narrow streets and alleys. Traffic is legendary, and parking can set you back 30 euros a day. This is enough to convince many to opt for motorbikes, which can be left on the sidewalks. Getting a subscription to Bicing, a company which maintains red bicycles in locations all over Barcelona, is another popular choice. Skateboards and microscooters - much to Richard's dismay- also abound.

Since he doesn't feel comfortable risking his neck in this traffic, Richard leaves the longboard at home, and instead, chooses to walk the pleasant 40 minutes to his office listening to BBC podcasts. Most days I commute via the Metro (the underground train system) or the Ferrocarils (the commuter train system). There are specific areas in the tunnels designated by the Barcelona City Council for street musicians to play for change although you will still feel cursed if you accidentally step into a car with the odd accordion player singing "La Vie en Rose."
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Sunday, May 29, 2011

Everyday living in Barcelona: Home (Spain)

Some of you may be wondering what it's been like for us living in Barcelona. It's a tough job to try to encapsulate the myriad of differences and similarities in a blog, but after 7 months, I will be attempting a perspective in this series.

In any large city, especially one couched between mountains and sea like Barcelona, housing is at a premium. Wages (for those 80% who do have work) have not kept up with cost-of-living, and most people live with their parents or rent a room in an apartment with 3 to 6 other people. Our main considerations were the dog and wanting to feel like we were really in the city. The rent on our 500 square foot apartment is brutal, and since we are foreigners, we got hit up for the typical 3 to 6 months' rent for a deposit. We live in the old city so it's a fifth floor (read: sixth floor, since Europeans don't start counting until the second one) walk-up. The advantages are being a 10 minute walk from the center (Plaza Catalunya) or the city's largest park (Ciutadella), and the streets around us look straight out of a chase scene from the Jason Bourne movies.

We are lucky. Our place is furnished in IKEA-ware, and our penthouse suite is awash in natural light most of the day (for which our dog-turned-sunbather Pepper is grateful) and gets a refreshing cross breeze my dad couldn't stop gushing about. We have a washer in a little outhouse on the balcony and the dizzying dryer lines to go with it (I have yet to hear of anyone in Spain having a dryer... even the people with swimming pools). Our kitchen is small, but not much smaller than in North Carolina, and amazingly for a European place, has full size appliances! Most fortunately, we have piped in gas. The common alternative is orange butane tanks, which have to be carried and refilled by the "butanos," men who wander the streets, banging on their wares like an audition for STOMP!

Sure, it was an adjustment to begin with, but with our pictures up on the walls, it feels like a pretty good home.
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Primavera Sound 2011 in Barcelona (Spain)

One of the experiences I was most looking forward to in moving to Europe was going to music festivals. Barcelona hosts Primavera Sound, a four day event mostly at the massive beach-side venue of Parc Forum and some random places in the city, too. Shows started around 5 pm... and, this being Spain, finished around 6 or 7 am. I was absolutely crushed that I missed Girl Talk's show, but that's what happens when you have to teach 2 hours later.

The variety of acts made for some strange bedfellows. For example, Johnny Rotten's (of Sex Pistols fame) new band P.I.L. was rockin' out while Big Boi (of Outkast fame) was rapping at the stage next door. The Walkmen were impressively tight, for all their time changes, and I was really glad to have finally seen them after accidentally sleeping through their show in North Carolina. The National, Warpaint, P.J. Harvey, and Fleet Foxes commanded huge audiences. The Flaming Lips entertained with their onstage antics (blow up robots, dancing Asian milkmaids, etc.) and enough balloons and confetti to rival a Super Bowl half-time show. The return of Pulp heralded a rowdy send up of Disco 2000. We bobbed and weaved through some promising smaller acts (e.g. Glasser and M. Ward) and less promising ones (e.g. drama-heavy punk group Throwing Up trashing the stage and their sponsors in the Ray Ban tent).

Event organizers seemed to make some odd choices that hurt some bands: Why put on Tannhauser, aka Mogwai-lite, at the same time as the original? Belle & Sebastian's upbeat show suffered from poor sound mixing since heavy thumping bass is not exactly what most people expect to hear with twee. But the most distracting effect had to come from misguided Gang Gang Dance, who appeared with two "dancers" - a purple ninja who alternated between waving ribbons of toilet paper and doing yoga poses and some random dude waving a garbage bag on a stick with no semblance of rhythm.

Despite our enjoyment of the music, I am afraid we will have to admit that we are not cut out for the long hours of partying in the Barcelona scene. We expect a long recovery period.

Click on the album in the side bar for pictures from the festival and of Montserrat.
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Montserrat (Spain)

Montserrat makes for a pleasant day trip out of Barcelona. We made the journey with my parents and aunt and uncle. A regional train takes you to the bottom of the mountain, where you can catch the funicular or, in our case, a slow cable car up to view the lumpy chimney rock formations along the way. There is a Benedictine monastery at the top, and in the basilica, you can line up with the other hundreds of pilgrims to take pictures with the Black Virgin statue. During our visit, there seemed to be some special trip involving representatives from Nagasaki, but my grasp of Catalan is too nonexistent to catch it during mass (although by now, I have figured out, "germanes" do not refer to our European friends but "brothers" in the language). In the plaza, the locals caved to the tourist hordes and dance the sardana in peasant costumes with tinkling bells on their slippers.

The real reason for us to return to Montserrat I suspect will be the hiking. You can follow the row of market stalls offering tantalizing samples of locally aged goat cheeses, membrillo (quince paste), and dried fig concoctions to trails that wind up, down, and around the mountain range. Some of the more adventurous visitors, clad in performance wear and walking sticks in hand, shunned the public transportation options from the train in favor of the steep, rocky incline. Many looked like they had regretted it by the time they reached the top. We enjoyed a more leisurely trail around the mountain dotted with tiny shrines of painted tilework and picturesque landscapes viewed from the comfort of shady trees.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Calçotada in Valldoreix (Spain)

It's very late to be writing about this, but I still want to talk about our favorite Catalan tradition so far: the calçotada! Ah, just thinking about it makes my mouth water...

The Calçotada, as some of you Anthony Bourdain fans might have seen, is Catalunya's version of the hog roast or pig pickin,' minus the pig. As there is a stereotype that Catalans are penny-pinchers, one of my students told me that they say that Catalans are so cheap, when they have a barbecue, it's not meat they are grilling... it's onions! A calçot is a special kind somewhere between a green onion and a leek in size. They are planted in mounded beds and harvested sometime in late winter or early spring.

In February, we were invited to the all day affair in Valldoreix, a town maybe an hour on the train outside of Barcelona. To get our appetites up, we went for a hike in the mountains past olive trees to an old church. Then we returned to the house for some pica-pica (usually involves olives, chips, and assorted bits of canned seafood you try to pick up unsuccessfully with toothpicks) and badminton. There was a lot of laughing and snickering while the guiris (foreigners) tried drinking out of the porró, a typical Catalan decanter with a long spout. Pros are measured by how far away they can hold the porró from their mouths and still maintain a steady stream of wine without dribbling it on their chins or clothes.

Calçots actually require minimal preparation - just cut off the root ends and no worries about the dirt! Once the fire is going (traditionally using grapevine wood), the calçots are arranged in a single layer on the grill. You need to flip them in order to get the nice charring on both sides. When properly blackened, a bunch of the calçots are bundled tightly together in newspaper and set aside (optionally inside another container). After a half hour or so, they are ready to eat.

The correct way to eat a calçot is to pull off the outer charred layer in a single movement with your two pinched fingers. Then you dip the naked calçot into a bowl of salvitxada (a divine concoction with ground nuts, tomato, and olive oil so heavy on the garlic that it's spicy), swirling it around to get a liberal portion. Then you pull the whole, dripping mess up to your mouth and, starting from the bottom end, try to eat the whole thing in one go. You should be left in the end with only the stringy green top and very ashy fingers. Repeat. And repeat. And repeat... Seriously, the hosts at our calçotada calculated on 30 calçots per person! They are pretty addictive - a creamy, spicy, and nutty explosion- with surprisingly, none of the harshness you would expect from eating ridiculous amounts of onions. Now, I know I ate many myself, but I am pretty sure I did not meet my quota.

In case anyone was still hungry after the pica-pica and calçots, there were grilled botifarras (typical Catalan sausage) and lambchops to be had as well. The calçotada lasted well into the evening - even past the time when most of Spain would actually be eating their normal dinner - with some talented folks bringing their guitars and finishing off with a couple of gypsy's arms. A "brazo de gitano" (literally: gypsy's arm) is a sponge cake roll desert with lavish amounts of whipped cream filling inside. We rolled off our chairs, bid our hosts goodnight, and hoped that our fellow passengers on the train back to Barcelona would forgive us of the reek of onions, garlic, wine, and woodsmoke that was surely seeping from us.

The only bad thing we can say about the calçotada is that we were disappointed to not be invited to more. Many Catalans will take part in a calçotada two or three times during the season.