Friday, August 29, 2008

Moving on

Yesterday was the last day of our teacher training course. Our trainers bought snacks and cava (Spanish sparkling wine) for us, and then we went out for our last night with the group.

Even the beers were in a festive mood.Later in the evening, we ended up at a bar designed to look like a fairy-tale forest. A cool idea, but its execution was marred by a strange lack of chairs.

Now we are hoping to head to Italy for several weeks, emphasis on the "hoping." Rowan did an exchange year there in high school and she wants to see her host family again.

We don't want to take a plane, because the baggage limits here are about 50 pounds, and we have way more stuff than that. They charge us about $4 a pound for every pound over the limit.

We then decided to take a train, but the tickets available for our destination are sold out for the next six days.

As soon as Rowan climbs out of bed, we are headed to the bus station to see if they have spaces available.

Once we get to Italy, we are considering WWOOFing, which stands for "World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms." (Here is the Italy site.) The organization has members throughout the world. Member farms provide food and a place to stay in exchange for farm labor. The volunteers get to learn about organic farming and sustainability methods.

We are hoping to end up in a vineyard or somewhere where I can learn to make cheese.

We interviewed with an Indonesian school this week, and with any luck we will be in Indonesia within a month.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Rain, finally, and the disappointing absence of "Jesus: The Ride"

Last Friday, we went to see a concert in the park. (Unfortunately, I forgot my camera, so no pictures that I actually took. Sorry!)

The park, el Teatre Grec, was very cool, with seats set into a stone amphitheater. The opening act was a guy who played flamenco versions of songs Mark Knopfler (of Dire Straits) did for movie soundtracks, such as The Princess Bride. A little strange, but cool. He liked making the "sensitive guitar-playing guy face," which reminded us of the John Mayer face.

The main act was a woman from the States. I thought she was okay, but Rowan liked her quite a bit. Then again, Rowan had more to drink than I did.

On the way home, we got caught in a massive rainstorm, the first we've had since we've been here. We got drenched and ducked into a local bar to escape the wetness, but the crowd and staff in there were not friendly, so we moved on quickly.

The next day, we took the metro out to a big hill that we can see from our apartment. First, we went to the science museum. I thought it was great because they had tons of interactive stuff.They also had an indoor rainforest, where the animals wandered around. They seemed quite acclimated to the presence of humans.But as this sign informed us, not all of the critters are that friendly.Rowan and I enjoyed ourselves quite a bit, but our British friends informed us that the museum was no good and that the museums in England are much better. Then again, they also think British food is tasty.

After the museum, we went to a large church, which from a distance dominates the view of hill. The church is described in one guidebook as "bombastic."Merriam-Webster informs us that "bombastic" means "pompous" or "overblown," but this church seemed much more subdued than other churches we've seen in Europe. Also, it strangely seemed much smaller up close than it did from the distance.

Right next to the church is an amusement park. I took this picture from the railing on the church's second level.None of the rides or attractions in the park were religious, though. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but the amusement park was not it.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Beachiness, festivaling, footsoccerball, and the nature of light and matter

Last weekend was quite busy. We had Friday off as a holiday, so we did a ton of stuff. I think I am recalling things in the right order, but I may be wrong. We kicked things off by going to the beach.
This is actually a picture from a previous beach trip, but I didn't bring my camera this last time. Several times, the public address system informed us to use caution while swimming because of jellyfish in the area. We still went swimming because the warning was only a yellow flag, whatever that means. I saw no jellyfish.

The next day we went to the Joan Miró museum. Miró is a well-known Catalan painter. His most famous work is supposedly the mural El Segador (The Reaper), a work so famous that I cannot find its image on the Internet. He also painted "Man and woman in front of a pile of excrement." I was tempted to buy the poster, but I restrained myself.

The museum also had a temporary exhibit by Olafur Eliasson, an artist from Copenhagen. He does a lot of interesting things with lights, mirrors, and angles.
I enjoyed that part of the museum much more than the rest of it.

After the museum, we walked up a giant hill to check out an old castle. We walked because we determined the telefèricos (cable cars) were too expensive.The castle at the top was fairly interesting, though I'm not sure if it was really worth the walk. We did take a break at the top to eat giant amounts of pasta from the restaurant in the castle. We also wanted to rest up for the walk down.
That is Rowan's hat I'm wearing, in case you were wondering. I was nice and let her sit in the shade.

We eventually went home and rested for awhile. That evening was the first night of Festa de Gràcia, an annual festival where different neighborhoods decorate their streets in competition with one another.Each street chooses a theme, such as "Butterflies," "Under the sea," or "The Smurfs."Some of the themes were a little difficult to determine.Other themes just seemed odd for a festival. For example, one street decorated with the theme "No Nukes." To me, that doesn't seem to scream "PARTY!" but it was possibly the most crowded street.

The next night, we went to see a soccer game, or, as they call it in the rest of the world, a "football match," between F.C. Barcelona and C.A. Boca Juniors from Argentina. Tickets were pretty pricey, but we had a good time.

In soccer, they play two 45-minute halves where the clock does not stop for anything. Any additional time from penalties is then tacked on to the end of the game. Barcelona was down 0-1 going into the penalty time, but somehow managed two score two goals (both on headers!) to pull out the win in the penalty.

The game was part of a charity tournament, so we have a suspicion that the outcome was rigged. Still, the game was exciting and the crowd was boisterous. The people in the level above us were stomping and jumping so much that the concrete overhang was swaying by more than a foot. We actually wondered if the stadium would collapse. Obviously, it didn't.

I think we slept until about 1 pm the next day. After such a weekend, we needed it.

Friday, August 15, 2008

I am writing this while anti-drunk

Last weekend, Rowan was sick with a sore throat, so I left her behind to go see some of the sights with friends from our class.

We went to Plaça d'Espanya, which is in the general area of the structures built for the 1988 Olympics. The beautiful building behind us was built for the Games. Afterwards, they were going to tear it down, but they eventually gained some sense and turned it into a museum.In order from left to right, there is me; Claire, who is from Atlanta; Sinead, Chris, and Ed, who are from Britain; and Jenny, who is from New Zealand.

We then went and wandered through some of the parks. One of Rowan's complaints about Barcelona is a lack of greenery. The parks are few and far between, but the one's they have are quite nice. I was sorry she missed out on the park.On Sunday, Rowan was feeling a little better, so we decided to go out for dinner. Most restaurants are closed on Sunday, but we thought we would wander around and hope to find something. I really wanted paella, a traditional rice and seafood dish.

But after about forty minutes of wandering and no paella in sight, we settled for more sushi.This time, though, it was brought to us in normal portions by people, not a conveyor belt.


The two Columbian ladies have moved out, so we now have much freer access to the bathroom, another terrace, and a living/dining room.Also, one of our roommates and our landlady are on vacation. We are very happy to have more space and less people.


I have yet to find a good Barcelona beer, but I will keep looking. The beers come in a wider variety of sizes than back home.
No, my hand has not grown to gigantic size. The bottle is 25cl, which is about 9 ounces. A normal-sized bottle is 33cl. Someone told me that the bottles are so small so they don't get warm before you finish the beer.

They also seem to really like non-alcoholic beers. A couple of free bottles were attached to my 12-pack of real beer, and it isn't so bad. The flavors were tea with lemon, and apple. Both were quite refreshing.

We had tried the apple stuff before. Two weeks ago, some girls were giving out free samples in front of the department store near our school. We took about four samples each over the course of a day and a half. I think we actually became anti-drunk. I have never thought so clearly before. I was very close to solving cold fusion before the buzz wore off.


This last picture is for Kurt. It is of me and Rowan in front of a big prickly pear cactus, which they apparently have here.
Otherwise, Barcelona is nothing like Phoenix.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Boxes of refreshment and the conveyor belt of happiness

Yesterday, we went to the beach for a couple hours. The weather was almost perfect. It was cooler than it has been for several days: still warm enough for water and sand, but not overwhelming. Also, I think the Barcelonans like it hotter, so the beach wasn't so crowded.

We drank quite a few boxes of Don Simon Sangria. That's right, boxes.I normally like to drink my wine-based beverages out of glass bottles, but the stuff was cheap. Even at inflated beachfront prices, each box was only two euro, and it was refrigerated! Now that's some good sippin'.

Afterwards, we went to an all-you-can-eat sushi restaurant. They have conveyor belts that carry little plates of food past you, and you grab what you want. Not the best food in the world, but decent and somewhat fun.

I kept pointing at stuff and yelling thing such as, "Rowan, grab that plate of little green balls of stuff!" or "Grab some more salmon-skin rolls. No, not salmon, salmon-skin! Skin!"

I think we need to find more ways to integrate conveyor belts into our daily routines.

Picasso was a rockstar

Last weekend, we headed over to the Picasso museum. On the first Sunday of every month, a lot of Barcelona's museums offer free admission, so we thought we'd try to get some culture into ourselves.

The museum opened at 10, so we got in line at 9:30 to wait. That's right: we waited in line to go into a museum. I felt like we were at a rock concert. I sort of wished we were at a concert.

Here is what eventually piled up behind us:They don't let you take pictures in most museums, but I took this one when none of the security guards were watching:
This is not a painting by Picasso, but it does reference a painting by Velázquez, Las Meninas, which has fascinated numerous painters, including Picasso, who re-imagined the painting in 52 of his own works.

Can you imagine Eddy Vedder doing 52 different versions of someone else's song? Picasso was one wacky dude.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Spanish Apartment

We are starting to feel at home in our apartment in Barcelona. Those of you who have not seen the movie L'Auberge Espagnole (The Spanish Apartment), go rent it and watch it. For those of you have seen the movie, our situation is kind of like that.

We have seven people in our flat, but only one bathroom. It is often difficult to get into the bathroom. Also, someone always seems to be using the clothes washer.

However, everyone seems fairly nice, even though we don't see them often. The residents include the owner, who is local, a guy from Argentina, a guy from Taiwan, a mother and daughter from Columbia, and us.

Aside from all of the people, the apartment itself is quite nice. We are on the top floor of an old building, so we have a large terrace where we can relax.The bathroom is nice, as well, when we can get into it.Here is the view from our bedroom window:Here is the view from the terrace:Here is our bedroom:
And here is me typing at our desk:We are starting to figure out the patterns of our lives. We walk to school but have spent the weekend familiarizing ourselves with the metro system. We can purchase a ten-use public-transportation pass for seven euro, so it is very affordable to get around. It just takes some planning and knowledge of where the buses or subways go.

We took the wrong bus the other day. Since there are a lot more buses than subway lines, the buses are much more confusing.

I'm sure we'll have everything figured out shortly before we leave.

Random thoughts on France and the French

Here are some general thoughts about France and the French that don't really correspond to any particular place on our travels. They are in no particular order and have no continuity between them.A popular drink in France is Orangina. (The name does not rhyme with a certain part of the female anatomy.) It is basically watered-down orange juice with more sugar added. Obviously, Rowan loved the stuff. It had lots of pulp, too. And the beverage has some of the weirdest spokes-creatures ever.

A lot of France and Germany looks pretty similar to Wisconsin. The hills roll gently among fields of corn and wheat.

We drank some good beer. Some of it came from Germany, but the French also brew some good stuff, such as the the beer from D'Abbaye Affligem
. I have not yet found a Barcelona beer I really like, and I've tried about six of them.

Here is me enjoying one of the good beers:
Here is Rowan enjoying one of the good beers. She is mocking my "picture face":Men in Europe like to wear 3/4-length or capri pants. It just doesn't look right to me. Also, if I was just looking at some of their shoes, I would swear they were wearing women's footwear.

Rowan likes castles, and there are enough of them in Europe. She started seeing them everywhere. "Is that a castle?" she would ask. "No, that's a big office building."
"Is that a castle?" she would ask. "No, that's a grain factory." Eventually, she joked about it, pointing at random things and asking if they were castles.

The trains have a strange ticket policy. No one checks your ticket when you get on the train. Later, you may get checked by the railroad employees when they come through the train cars, but if you're sneaky enough you can avoid them and ride for free. We did not try this.

We probably could have saved some money if we were less honest. At the crepe place in Nimes, the waitress forgot to put our coffees on the bill, but we told her about it. When buying train tickets for one of the trips, Rowan got a discount because she fits in the under-26 age range, and such people get a discount on some of the train lines. She was honest and told them I was old. Here is us sitting honestly on the train:One of the things I find interesting about traveling is the difference in the informational icons. The icon for exit in Europe is some stick figure sprinting; apparently the Europeans are always in a hurry. There is a lot of variance in the street crossing symbols. Sometimes, the stop-guy has his hands on his hips; sometimes he just stands there. Sometimes the walk-guy strides purposefully; other times he appears to be taking a leisurely stroll. In the park yesterday, I saw an interesting sign showing a stick figure person picking up the poop of what appeared to be a stick figure Scottish terrier. I was going to take a picture, but Rowan called me an idiot for wanting to do so. This image is pretty close, though. Here is picture of a train sign warning people not to exit the train on the side that drops several feet to the ground, because people need to be warned of such things:
I've written before about how the French love their Arc d'Triomphes. However, I am not really sure what triumphs they are commemorating. Anyway, here is Rowan standing in front of one of the arcs. She had just finished triumphing over a baguette sandwich:In general, the French weren't rude. But the people in the service industry definitely were. I think I used the term "jackass" about fifteen times when I complained about them to Rowan. In addition to the rude cab driver in Montpellier, we had several other unpleasant interactions. One restaurant we approached was quite crowded. The places are generally seat-yourself, but the only open tables were for six people. We sat down at the end of one, but then a waiter moved us to the other one. Then another waiter separated a two-person table from the one we had just been at and told us to move there. Then the other waiter came back and chided us because now the tables were separated. We got up and left. "Jackasses," I muttered.

Overall, though, we enjoyed our time in France. I just like picking on the French for some reason. Probably because they're jackasses, or I am, or someone is, or something.

Montpellier: You got a cheap hotel, now deal with it.

When we got off the train in Montpellier, we had no idea where to go next. I had managed to misplace our hotel information, but we knew the name and that it was very close to the train station.

Rowan went to figure out where the hotel was located. She asked a cab driver, and he pointed her in the general direction. When she asked if he could take us there, he replied, “You are a smart tourist who found herself a cheap hotel, now deal with it.”

Rowan responded that we had a lot of bags, but he told her, “That is your problem, not mine."

We lugged our bags to the hotel. It wasn’t that far, but I had to leave Rowan behind at the halfway point to check in, drop off some of the baggage, and then go help her with the rest.

The hotel was reasonably nice. The tile floors had been re-laid recently, and our room was air-conditioned. Rowan was concerned that there was a two-foot-tall step up to the shower, but neither of us managed to tumble perilously from that precipice.

We wandered around town some. There was also some striking architecture, but of a more French than Roman variety.

Here is one of the many Arc du Triomphes scattered throughout Europe (we also have one in Barcelona; I believe the one that is most well known is in Paris):We also found an old abbey and cathedral, which now serves as a school of medicine.After looking at architecture, we wandered around town for a while.It truly is a beautiful city.

At one point in our wanderings, we came across a plaza where an old dude in a bright pink tank top was gyrating his hips and getting funky to some dance-pop song playing from his boombox. (I apologize, but I don't have a picture.) He played the same song over and over again. After awhile, he put his boombox on his shoulder and walked away. We later encountered him in several other locations throughout town.

After much walking, we headed to McDonald's, not to eat, but to take advantage of the free wireless internet they provide. Here I realized that I didn't have the necessary equipment to plug in my computer.

We went to an internet shop so we could email home. We found out that foreign keyboards are a little different. Instead of a QWERTY top row, they have an AZERTY top row. Also, you shift for numbers, since the symbols are the defaults. And the punctuation is in different places.

At night, we went for a drink in a plaza. There were guys breakdancing on the ground in front of one of the restaurants. The dancing was interesting, but they were doing it to 1960s American rock. I have forgotten what was playing, but Grand Funk or The Band wouldn't be too far off.

We went to bed early. Our train to Barcelona would leave at 7:30.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Nimes: Foie gras fried miles flowers and his glass of softness

We took an overnight train to Arles, hoping to save money by not having to get a hotel room. The seats weren't bad, since they were "super-reclining" and reasonably comfortable. But one of the guys behind us kept talking on his cellphone, and his cellphone kept ringing, and it had the most annoying ring tone ever, and people with the train kept coming to talk to him. They spoke in French, but Rowan told me that he was upset because he had rented a sleeper car and didn't get one.

He also had his little kid with him, and the kid was as annoying as his dad. He cried for about an hour when he got on a train, yowling in inhuman tones. Since he is a child, I can forgive this behavior. But he also kept playing with his Leapfrog® learning device at loud volume, even at one in the morning when all human children should be sleeping.

Also, one of the women behind us was one of the loudest snorers ever. I would say her snore resembled a train, but it even drowned out the sounds of the train.

We arrived in Arles at about five in the morning, thoroughly unrested. We quickly found out that the station was so small it did not have baggage storage lockers. We really wanted to see the town--workplace of Van Gogh and home to much Roman-style architecture--but we didn't know what to do with our stuff.

We decided to wait until the ticket counter opened to ask for advice. While we waited, we were joined by the friendliest, healthiest-looking stray dog I have ever met.When the counter opened, Rowan asked the girl in the ticket office if any place in town could store our bags. She said no. We decided to skip Arles and head to Nimes. I asked the girl at the counter for tickets: "Prochaine...a Nimes...por deux." She was very friendly, probably because I am so ruggedly handsome. She turned her screen so I could double check the train and price, and all was good.

Our hotel in Nimes was okay. It was in an excellent location, and the room was fine, but it had a somewhat terrifying elevator.

We checked out some of the sights, most of which are Roman architectural curiosities. One of the main attractions is a small coliseum, which they refer to as the Arena.
Another sight is a structure with a bunch of pillars. In its lifetime, the structure has been used as a courthouse, a monastery, a horse stable, and a place to store grain. It is now a museum and protected landmark.We also visited a large garden. While we were there, a gigantic boccie ball tournament was taking place. We watched a little bit of the tournament, but neither of us are boccie aficionados. Here is the park:
And here is Rowan at the top of a hill with the park behind her:While wandering around town, we stopped occasionally to look at the menus of some restaurants; almost every place has its menu posted outside so you can make an informed decision about where to eat.

One restaurant had the worst English translations I have ever seen. In addition to the one I've given in the title of this post, other dishes included:
  • Plate freshness with believed ham of country, tomatoes mozzarella accompanied by its sorbet to the basil
  • Salad of early product
  • Plate surprised tasting of the Pallet
  • Caquelon of melted with goat’s milk cheese, salad of the moment and its brioche bread with olives (they didn’t even bother translating some of the words, such as caquelon, which is, from what I can determine, a heavy saucepan)
  • Small blank of brandade and its greedy salad with the balsamic vinegar (sometimes, they just put blank instead of translating; in this case, it was quite ironic since they blanked flan, which translates as flan, or custard; I have no idea what brandade is)
  • Roulade of net of plate on its bed of tapenade
  • Nut skewer of Jacques Saint marinated house minute
  • Suggestion fish of the leader of Friday evening according to load
  • Roulade of poultry to spinaches poelee with the aromatized calf juice
  • Small stopper of the pallet to the rum furnished with the fruits with season
After much walking around, we had a restful night of sleep, and woke up rather late. We had a leisurely breakfast of crepes, and then headed to the train station.