Sunday, May 31, 2009

Jazz A La Czech

This contraction free post is brought to you by the Czech keyboard (and yeah, I am sure I could just ask, but where is the fun in that?)

Prague, as many know, is famed for music. Mozart was probably more popular here than in Vienna during his own time, and today there are nightly concerts put on largely for the tourist crowds at various historical churches and concert halls through the historical center.

But in addition to classical music, there is a smaller jazz scene, so I decided last night to deviate from the expected and give one of the most popular local jazz clubs, Agharta, a try. After surviving the rainburst that opened up no the crowds as I was crossing the Charles Bridge into Old Town, and reviving myself with a pizza for dinner, I wandered over to the Old Town Square, where the recent rain left the paving stones glistening in the lamplight as the unseen sun went down. Agharta was only a quick walk from from the square, down the stairs to a cozy cellar where local jazz groups perform.

Popular with locals and tourists, the club filled up as the evening wore on, with those who had reserved seating grouped around tiny tables and the rest of us packed in along the walls, and even sitting on the stairs leading up to the balcony outside the main room. For the equivalent of two bucks, I got a half pint of dark Czech beer to sip slowly during the first set.

The group of the night was a quartet featuring electric bass and guitar, piano, and drums. While I am generally not as into jazz that features electric guitars (I like the old school jazz trumpet players most of all), they were pretty good, and got more and more into it as the night wore on, to the enthusiastic cheers of the audience. The piano blew me away, though, with his flawless playing and utter immersion into the music as he bobbed to the beat, alternating between looks of intense pain and sheer joy. When he gave an impromptu solo performance after the guitarist broke a spring, the audience was completely taken in.

I left after the second break, an Agharta compilation CD in hand (the one the clerk at their shop claimed was his favorite). For many, I am sure the night was just getting started, but I while on tour I try to make sleep something of a priority. It was just a taste, but if I come back to Prague, I will be ready for more.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

When the Rain Comes

I have not been able to figure out how to use the apostrophe on a Czech computer. Because of this, I am going to attempt a blog post with not contractions! Yippee!

Our group arrived in Prague yesterday afternoon and made the nearly half mile walk to the hotel from the bus just as the rain started to pour. Typical for central Europe (and for Seattle, really), the weather this time of year is unpredictable. In the lovingly rebuilt baroque city of Dresden, where we spent one night before our trip to Prague, the weather changed from rainy to sunny to rainy to sunny all in the course of about six hours. And I do not mean light rain. When it rained, it truly poured.

Prague is lovely, however, in any weather (although I am sure the group would say they prefer the sun, and, well, I cannot say I do not agree). But the stained glass in St Vitus Cathedral is still breathtaking, the Charles bridge still feels like a walk into fairyland, and, of course, the crystal shops will never, ever disappear. And if I am not mistaken, I think I notice a little more sunlight creeping across the leaves of the trees outside this shop window. Now might be the perfect time to explore more of the Prague Castle. I can write more later, but I cannot let a possible sun break go to waste!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

I'm So-o-o-oo Tired

Mensch, bin ich aber müde! I think Berlin has me museumed-out for the time being after today's foray into the Deutsches Historisches Museum following a two and a half hour walking tour and later a quick look into the Musical Instrument Museum (yes, that's right - this museum is dedicated to historical instruments). Considering I have also been to the Altes Museum, the Pergamon Museum, and the Jewish Museum during my short stay here, perhaps it was time for break. And so I took a break... and went shopping.

Now, I rarely go shopping "for fun". Generally there is always some purpose to a shopping trip, whether it's because we're looking for a new light fixture or I need a new pair of jeans because the old ones have a hole in the rear. But somehow, shopping seemed like the perfect antidote to 2000 years of German history. It helps that Prenzlauer Berg is actually a fun place to shop, with many trendy little independent boutiques, although most are also unfortunately too spendy for my liking. Perhaps that's a good thing, as that means that I escaped the afternoon having spent only 30 euros - some on a gift for Michael, some on a nice Spirou and Fantasio comic. Possibly my favorite of the Carlsen Comics series, you can't find Spirou and Fantasio in the U.S. anyway, as these comics have not been translated into English. With that in mind, I figured, as someone who generally disdains souvenirs, that this was a reasonable purchase.

Tomorrow we leave Berlin early for Dresden. In the meantime I'll be packing, reading up on Spirou the bellboy's early adventures, and hopefully getting a good night's sleep. Bis später!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

In Praise of the Chicken Döner

Ah, chicken Döner, how I love thee! Yet too oft, thou art too far from me. Thankfully, in Berlin, I can eat chicken döner to my heart's content. The döner is definitely one thing for which the Germans owe the Turks their most heartfelt gratitude.

For those wondering what on earth I'm talking about, chicken döner is made from chicken meat that has been stacked on a rotating spit that turns in front of an open grill, much like how gyros are typically cooked. The revolving roasting makes for a crispy, absolutely delicious coating on the meat, which is shaved off to create sanwiches to order. A typical döner will include "scharf (spicy)" sauce, cabbage - sometimes pickled, onions, and a tomato and cucumber salad, all stuffed in a large, flat round bun or wrapped in flatbread. They usually cost under 3 euros, which I figure is a great deal for fast food that actually tastes fantastic and includes actual vegetables with your protein. And it is tasty - sometimes I just crave chicken döner, but I have never, ever found it in the U.S. Maybe I should open a shop...

But in the meantime, I will enjoy it here as often as I like! Oh delicious döner, you never let me down.

It's A Beatiful Day

I admit that I came up for the title of this post before the rains hit this afternoon. But for the past couple of days, Berlin has been a summer wonderland. On Sunday, the Tiergarten, Berlin's vast, wooded central park, was filled with people enjoying the warm weekend, and the "Grill Gebiet (grilling areas)" were filled with families warming up the coals on their three-legged portables grills. The smell of kebabs was just starting the fill the air as I passed through. There is a huge Turkish population in this city, and they appeared to be the most enthusiastic picnickers, as many generations came together around the grill, with grandmothers in colorful headscarves sharing the table with grandchildren dressed in the colorful H&M style of all European teens.

The neighborhood where we are staying, Prenzlauer Berg, was also a happening place to be. Lines formed out of the local waffle and ice cream shop, Kauf Dich Glücklich, and the candy colored chairs on the patio were filled with people enjoying a sort of hip German Sunday brunch. Prenz'l Berg is nothing if not hip, and where better to walk along leafy streets and survey the street cafe scene spilling onto the sidewalk to make the most of a lovely day? An evening spent in the local Biergarten, Prater, with my guide, Katka (we were working, of course) felt like the only way to end such a day.

Of course, such times don't last forever; the grey skies have returned. But I'm from Seattle, and a couple good days are all I need and I'm set for the week. Berlin, I couldn't have asked for more.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Wilkommen ins Berlin!

I've left sunny Spain for sunny Germany, and while I'll definitely miss the pintxos, I feel ready for beer and doners. But I have to say, my introduction to my time here last night was not so glorious. The flight from Palma de Mallorca, where I was connected after a quick hop from Bilbao, was slightly delayed, and once off the plane we all stood watching the baggage carousel go round and round in very close quarters. Two flights had arrived simlutaneously, it was late, and I was surrounded by Germans who wanted the same two things I did: to get their suitcase and get out of here.

Of course, I normally don't check my bag, but I have a little liquid souvenir this time, so I had no choice. Finally it appeared, and I headed out to catch a bus heading downtown. By this time it was already after 11:30, and I felt like death warmed over.

Go figure that I got what must have been Berlin's rudest bus driver. When I boarded the bus and attempted to very politely ask him a question about where best to disembark for my destination (in German, naturally), he irritatedly mumbled something completely unintelligible, waved me away and did not even glance in my direction. Well! Welcome to Berlin, indeed. I was too tired, not to mention stunned by the fact that I understood not a single word he had said, to follow up, so instead meekly found a seat.

Fortunately, the bus trip was fast and easy, and after getting off at the last stop I finally felt that I was in the home stretch. The hostel I stayed at, Hotel Transit Loft (which, by the way, is awesome), was clearly marked on the little Rick Steves map for hotels and restaurants in the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood. Or so I thought. But sinister forces were at work, and Hotel Transit Loft was nowhere to be found. It looks like our guidebook could use a little correction with this map - not a very pleasant surprise when roaming unknown streets after midnight with all one's luggage.

But the people on the streets of Prenzlauer Berg speak both clearly and politely when questioned, so after talking to three or four people, with the help of the address provided on the email I had printed from the hostel, I made it to my destination around 1am. The young woman at the desk was cheerful and helpful, even letting me know that if it was too loud (since my room was adjacent to the common area which hosts an all night bar) I just needed to let them know. I assured her I was so tired that it would be no problem, and I was right.

And now, fortified with a good German breakfast of whole grain bread, cheese, yogurt, and coffee, I'm off to rediscover Berlin!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Fear of Falling

I've always had a fear of heights, but it's never been enough to keep me from a good viewpoint. This morning, those tour members who wanted came along with us to take the funicular up to Monte Igueldo for the best view San Sebastian has to offer. For an even better view than the one from the top of the funicular, you can climb the tower that tops the hill, offering 360 degree views out over the ocean as well as the town. Why, I wondered as I inched my way to the edge of the tower, do I do this to myself? But one look at the ocean, and I remembered.

I had a similar experience climbing the tower in Barcelona's Sagrada Familia temple last week. As Gaudi's unfinished masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia offers two elevators that take visitors above for an up close look at the intricate stonework and a bird's eye view Barcelona. While the wait for the lift to the first tower was at least an hour, the line was nonexistent for the other. How could I resist?

It was worth it, no question about that. You could almost reach out and touch the stone doves that appeared about to take flight from a central pinnacle. The worst part, I discovered, was actually the climb back down, as the lift for this particular tower takes guests one way only and you have to make your own way to the ground. A narrow, seemingly unending spiral staircase was clausterphobicly tight, and worst of all there was no central column protecting me from the view below. Like a coil of ribbon, the stairs wound their way down to the main floor, which I greeted with knees shaking.

Over water, however, I feel much more at ease. Never mind that falling one hundred feet to the ocean below would feel like hitting solid concrete, there is something calming about its presence. With today's beautiful weather, everyone in San Sebastian seemed to agree, as people stolled the beach and took off their shoes to dip their feet into the Atlantic. A few brave souls were even swimming, although one little puppy was too frightened of the incoming surf, as gentle as it is along the protected Playa de la Concha, to retrieve his stick. Every time a wave would come lapping onto the shore, he would run back to avoid the rush of water. His owners, not giving up, threw the stick further down the beach and finally, timing his attempt exactly with the waves, the pup dashed out and ran back triumphantly, stick in mouth.

In thinking about it, I realized that I'm perhaps not so different from the puppy when it comes to heights. I may balk and I may take my time, but eventually I'll get to the edge and retrieve my reward.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

At the Guggenheim

Enough with food! Let's talk about something else. After all, I don't want to give the false impression that there's nothing to do in the Basque country other than eat (although really, would that be a bad thing?). The last couple of days on the tour have been very busy, and I just haven't had the time to write. After a pleasant trip to Gernika on Monday, Tuesday was a very full day spent in Bilbao, the largest city of the region, a formerly industrial city that has transformed itself into a modern powerhouse of modern art.

Most people have probably heard of the Guggenheim, if for no other reason than the controversy that was created when Frank Gehry's architectural masterpiece was revealed to the world in 1997. No matter what the opinions may have been then, so far the place seems to have withstood the test of time, kicking off a renaissance of new art and architecture in the city center and along the river. Personally, I love it. From every angle the museum offers a new perspective, with graceful titanium walls curving voluptuously to the street below. Many would say, and I would agree, that the building itself is the Guggenheim's greatest work of art.

Inside the museum, you never know what you might find. There are a few permanent exhibits, but much of the space is devoted to enormous temporary exhibits, currently including China's Cai Guo-Qiang (perhaps best known for creating the opening ceremony pyrotechnics for the Beijing Olympics) and Japan's Murakami (well known for his crazy, often psychedelic, anime influenced works). The tour members, well... some of them loved it. Some of them didn't. I think (hope) all, however, were at least happy to see the famous building up close and in person.

The great thing about modern art is that it can be about absolutely anything, in any style, and all one has to do is stand back and look. Maybe you'll love it, maybe you'll hate it, but any reaction is allowed. For me, it's a break from the psychological heaviness of a museum of the Old Masters. It's the junk food of the art world! Well, that's an exaggeration, and there is certainly modern art out that carries important, and sometimes disturbing, messages. But overall, watching cars explode in a shower of blinking lights overhead, or getting lost in the creepy yet cute faces of Japanese cartoon characters recharges me after days of history, culture, and "important" art. And with the many museums of Berlin only a few days away for me, the Guggenheim was just the break I needed.

How to Get a Michelin Meal for 30 Euros

OK, I was determined that my next blog post would not be about food, but you know what? Sometimes you just have to go with the moment and write what's on your mind, and my mind (not to mention my stomach) is filled with memories of tonight's dinner, an excellent meal at Kursaal in San Sebastian.

When researching the San Sebastian restaurant scene I came across Kursaal, which actually houses two sibling restaurants of the same name in a modern, multipurpose structure just across the river from our hotel. The chef, Martín Berasategui, has been awarded one Michelin star for this venture, making the fact that you can choose a five course tasting menu (including wine) for about 30 euros in the ground floor gastropub nothing short of an amazing deal. Heck, in the U.S. the wine I drank could well have cost as much.

Six adventerous tour members chose to come with me, and five of us chose the tasting menu. Starting with a slice of spider crab cake artfully arranged with a single leaf each of arugula and chard atop a swil of herb infused cream, the meal did not disappoint. While two of the party were uncertain about this menu, they were able to choose from among the many items on the menu of the day to create their own three course meal, a great option that allowed everyone to leave happy and full.

And lest you think tasting menu means course consisting of no more than two bites, take note that our courses were considerable more substantial. Following the crab cake we were served a lovely bowl of cuttlefish cooked in its own ink, which was sweet, salty, and almost fork tender, followed by a dish of two canneloni with a delicate yet hearty meat filling. This was the substitution for the veal dish that appeared on the original menu that was apparently, but we assured our waiter that the chef was welcome to bring us anything - substitutions were no problem. As one bottle of wine was finished, another one silently appeared, keeping us all happy as we visited between courses.

The last two courses were companion dessert dishes. One, an elegant slice of French toast that had been bruleed to create a carmelized sugar crust that cracked under the spoon, was served alongside a silky scoop of iced cream, while the other was a refreshing pear sorbet topping a jumble of miniature cubes of pear and a few precious candied pistachios.

So now, as it is almost time for bed, I'm still thinking fondly of dinner - the food, the comany, and the wonderful town of San Sebastian itself. I'll be leaving in a few days, and then my meals on my own will probably switch to primarily chicken doner kebabs and beer (not that I'm complaining - I love chicken doner kebaps and the Germand and Czechs really know how to make beer). But San Sebastian, you'll always have a special place in my little foodie heart.

Monday, May 18, 2009

How Further to Eat in Basque Country

Traditional Basque society was matriarchal. Women ruled the home (including the purse strings), while men worked, often as fisherman. When they got home, however, the wives were in charge. What's a poor fisherman to do? In San Sebastian, they chose, logically enough, to start their own men's clubs, a place where no woman was going to tell them what to do. What might not be so logical, to some, is that the clubs they chose to start were.... cooking clubs.

OK, obviously there's more going on in a Basque gastronomical society, as these clubs are known, than cooking. But, as the name gastronomical society suggests, food truly does play a major role. And if you've read my previous posts about food in this region, this should come as no surprise.

Nowadays, the rules of the clubs have relaxed a bit, and while women are still absolutely not allowed to set foot in the kitchen and cannot be members, some clubs do now invite women in to dine. These are still exclusive places, however. Eating at an txoko (pronounced "cho-ko), the Basque (Euskera) term for the clubs, requires the invitation of a member. And somehow, we've managed to get that elusive invitation for our tour groups. The first night's dinner of the San Sebastian tour takes place in a local txoko, where our tour members are plied with some introductory tapas, followed by a four course meal and a tour of the txoko. It makes for a fabulous start to the tour and introduction to the importance of food in Basque culture.

Today, I continued my culinary exploration of this region when we stopped for lunch in the tiny fishing village of Getaria on our way to Gernika. The guide and I split a fantastic, not to mention enormous, cut of fresh fish desribed on the English version of the menu as "nape of hake". Hmm... think "halibut cheeks", and you would not be too far off. This was one of the specials of the day, where one kilogram portions (enough for two or more) of fresh caught fish (mainly whole fish, although not in the case of the hake) are just waiting to be chosen, at which point they will be grilled to perfection on an outdoor charcoal grill for your eating enjoyment. When choosing one of the whole fish, you will even have the uncooked specimen brought to your table for your approval before grilling.

Well, as stated about, the fish was excellent, possibly the best I have ever tasted. With soft, sweet meat, barely cooked through to the middle, but nicely charred on the edges, this was a fish to win over anyone who has criticized the average filet as being "too fishy". As is typical in Europe, the eyes were still attached, although in this case, since the fish was butterflied to reveal the juicy meat, resting on a pool of olive oil, you had to turn the filet over if you wanted to check them out. Yep, I noted on inspection, it doesn't get much fresher than this.

And now, almost eight hours late, I am still full! But maybe I'll have room for some pintxos in a little while... just a couple. Yeah, just a couple.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Pintxo Paradise

This morning, the streets of San Sebastian are almost empty. Being Sunday, few places are open, and the alleys that were bustling with life last night are now a wall of closed doors. Still, one good breakfast option attracts a small crowd, and I head there with my tour guide, Robert, for a breakfast of brioche and cafe con leche. The brioche tears into tender, buttery layers beneath its dark, carmelized exterior. It is a perfect breakfast treat.

And the food last night didn't disappoint, either. This, in fact, was my first true pintxo crawl, as we stopped by various bars, elbowing in to choose from among the artistically arranged platters of pintxos: fresh, white fleshed anchovies that tasted only of lemon and the sea, a sliver of Spanish ham topped with juicy mushroom and shrimp, whole mushrooms cooked to complete tenderness and infused with garlic, their juice bathing the bread on the toothpick as if it had been dipped in au jus, and a Spanish tortilla unlike any I have had so far, one that tasted purely of well seasoned potato morsels, the egg that bound it barely detectable. Where but in San Sebastian could we have such a meal? Robert, who should know, claimed the pinxtos here really are the best in Spain, and even though I lack the necessary experience to make a judgement, I believe it.

Since it was Saturday night, the bars were especially popular, the narrow streets filled with people out for an evening with friends, their chatter providing the soundtrack for the night. And despite its reputation within the food world, San Sebastian is still a place where locals - not tourists - dominate the scene. Perhaps that's one reason why the food is so good?

Tonight our tour group will meet for the first time, and gather for dinner at one of the traditional Basque gastronomical societies, a very special event as one can only dine at such an exclusive club, where the male members cook all the food, through an invitation. I can hardly wait.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

San Sebastian So Far

This morning, I narrowly avoided missing the 7:40am train for San Sebastian. Now that I've made it, I feel a mixture of relief and excitement. Upon arrival, I was greeted by the familiar salt smell of the ocean - here was my first glimpse of the Atlantic! Much like the Oregon coast of my home, the wind picked up force as I drew close to the shore, bringing with it a definite chill despite the sunshine. Deep turquoise waves, blue skies, and green trees showing off their new springtime leaves; who could ask for more?

Well, you could ask for good food, and you'd definitely get it. Here in San Sebastian, the pintxos rule. And from my limited time here so far, they don't appear to be catering to the tourists, but rather the locals. Heading out from the hotel around 2pm, the beginning of peak lunch hour in Spain, the pintxo bars lining the streets were bustling with life. While my original intent had been to get a sandwich, I couldn't resist the pintxos. A block from the hotel, I chose a basic place with pub atmosphere, choosing one pintxo topped with a seafood salad, another with egg salad, and a spike of olives, peppers, and anchovies on a toothpick. Due to my lack of Spanish skills, I also managed to end up with a Heinekin instead of white wine, but the beer was actually a pretty good accompaniment to the salty olives and anchovies.

Ah yes - my Spanish deficiencies. I seem to know just enough to get me in trouble. Actually, I can often understand what people are saying to me fairly well, but find that I'm unable to respond in kind. Simple one word responses work best: si, no, bueno, etc. But even there I make mistakes. "Certo?" I replied in Italian yesterday when a woman seated next to me at La Boqueria told me that Juan was "lo mas mejor (the most important)" one in the market. And last night, when I called the shrimp at the tapas bar "camarones", I'm fairly certain the man behind the bar thought I had no clue what I was talking about - not that his assumption would be wrong. While I remember learning to call shrimp camarones in Spanish class, it seems here they are referred to as "gambas", closer to the Italian word for the same.

I also realized that my high school Spanish classes of fifteen years ago did not prepare me for travel in Spain. Sure, I came to Spain on a class trip when I was 16, but those circumstances were entirely different. For one thing, I wasn't ordering wine. It's from my botched attempt to order "uva blanca (or did I say vino bianca?)" that I wound up with today's Heinekin. My garbled words and confused expression must have led the waitress to figure that what the tongue-tied foreigner really wanted was a beer.

But I will keep trying, and hopefully some improvement will come. In the meantime, it's a good thing I'm not a picky eater - I never seem to know what I'll end up with!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Walking the Gourmet Way

As a special treat, I decided to book myself a place on the "Gourmet Walk" offered by Barcelona Walks through the city's TI. A group of around 30 people met at 10:30 and were given turquoise earphones and a little white transmitter that mimicked an Ipod in shape and color. Once our guide, Bernard, had determined that everyone could hear him, we were on our way.

This was my first walking tour in Europe on my own, as I'm usually keeping a discreet eye on all the group members for one of the Rick Steves´ tours whenever I'm in this kind of situation, making sure no one loses the group. This time, I only had to listen to Bernard desribe the many mouthwatering foods we came across on our walk, along with a few tidbits about the local architecture and history, and a simple recipe for that classic of Barcelona dishes, pan con tomate. I can't wait to try it at home.

But more than anything, we saw chocolate - lots and lots of chocolate. Unfortunately we didn't get to taste any, but we were given delicious fresh fruit salads from La Boqueria market and a ticket for two tapas and a drink at our final destination, the Saint Catherine's market. I also made a quick stop during a free time at La Boqueria to take the obligatory photo of Juan, owner of the Pinxto Bar, smiling while giving the thumbs-up signal, just like in Rick Steves' show. I also bought an absolutely amazing pastry from him, crisp and flakey beyond any French pastry I've had, and filled with just the right amount of cream.

All of this coincided perfectly with the fact that I was starting to feel a little better, bringing back my interest in food. At the bar in the market, I sipped on red wine and enjoyed two Basque-style pintxos, one topped with sausage and carmelized onions, the other with eggplant, peppers, and a creamy goat cheese. Pintxos (pronounced peenchos) consist of any variety of toppings served atop a slice of baguette, usually with a toothpick stuck in the middle, enabling you to pay when finished by counting the number of toothpicks you have acquired. Needless to say, I'm looking forward to enjoying a great many pintxos next week while in San Sebastian, the gastronomic capital of the Basque region.

Along the tour we also were able to see a working 150-year-old oven used for roasting nuts, the only one of its kind in Europe. I bought some samples to bring home, so we´ll see how this technique works. Tonight I headed back to one of the shops Bernard had pointed out on the tour, this one specializing in hot chocolate with churros. Ah, heaven! The chocolate was like a silky, molten pudding, and the fresh churros only lightly sweetened with a sprinkle of sugar were the perfect accompaniment. But I really could have used a partner to share the chocolate; not that I wasted any of it, mind you, but such a rich dessert is, in my opinion, best appreciated in a few small bites to savor.

Following dessert with some tapas, I chose patatas bravas and pulpos (octopus) at a bar in La Ribera. Only here again I was confounded by enourmous servings that filled me up and were clearly ideal for sharing. If only Michael were here (although there is no way he would touch the pulpos - I'd still have those little creatures all to myself)!

Still, I feel as if I am finally getting into the foodie world of Spain, and it just whets my appetite for more. After a good night's sleep and an early train trip to San Sebastian, let's hope I'll feel even better and ready for the gastronomic delights ahead. And if you enjoy food and are ever in Bareclona, take the gourmet tour; it's two hours very well spent.

A Morning Ramble

Today all Barcelonans should be smiling, because not only did they win an important football match, but the sun has returned as well. Blue skies greeted me this morning as I headed out to La Rambla for a morning stroll.

The famous street was relatively quiet before nine. The flower shops were carting in their wares, and the many street performers were meticulously applying makeup and arranging their props, oblivious to any passersby. One couple sat serenely before a pair of enormous wings spray-painted gold and black, the man with his head on the woman's lap, turned away from the foot traffic as they caught a few last moments for themselves before the day's work began. On the return trip up from the waterfront, the woman was nowhere to be seen, but the man's face was still hidden, this time under the collar of a shirt and tie, while he held his new head - one oozing plastic blood from where it had been supposedly severed - serenely on his lap.

Even at this time, La Rambla, named for the Arabic word meaning stream, is a never-ending river of people, although later in the day the flow will become slower as crowds through around the performers and kiosks, making a trip down this street a maze through the throngs. And if FC Barcelona wins again, you can bet their fans will be celebrating by the fountain at the top of the path no matter what the hour. But I prefer the openness of a morning ramble, and this morning was the perfect occasion.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

When It Rains, It Pours

This evening, I was about to step out of a Barcelona metro station when I noticed that the weather had turned from merely overcast to dumping buckets of rain. With half a dozen others, I scrunched up in the small entrance, eyes fixed on the stairs just outside, hoping this would only be a fifteen minute shower.

Eventually, I just had to make a run for it. Fortunately I was only a block from the hostel, where I was able to grab my umbrella before heading out on a twenty minute search for the local phone shop. Everywhere people were huddled under doorways, while the brave few ran quickly by under their umbrellas. It gave me a good chance to ask - on four different occasions - just where the street for this phone shop was, which I figured was a good opportunity to practice my Spanish. Besides, today is my husband's birthday, and no little rainstorm was going to keep me from making this call. Nor was the fact that I myself am currently under the weather.

Yes, I'm afraid I'm sick; it's not just the jet lag. Despite the fact that I stayed in bed until noon today (which, for me, is absolutely unheard of), my body and brain have been lagging all day, and my throat persists in being sore. It was a relief, after having made my phone call, to sit in a bar eating a zucchini tortilla (that's Spanish for omelet), traditional Barcelonan tomato bread, and drinking hot tea. Sadly, it will be another early night for me, as I'm determined to nip this in the bud. I feel suspiciously like I did when I was sick for more than week earlier this year, and that's an experience I can do without while on tour.

But despite my long stay in bed last night, I can't claim to have slept particularly well. The good news is that I believe Barcelona must have won their football match last night. I was awoken in the middle of the night to sounds of cheering, clapping, and endless honking horns that seemed to go on for an hour. It sure sounded like fun, just not fun for me at that particular time. After things quieted down, I still slept fitfully until the morning traffic picked up and the city came back to life as its noisy self, at which point I lay in bed wondering why I had to be born such a light sleeper.

Due to the weather and my general lack of ambition for anything too active, I chose to visit the Catalan National Museum and the Miro Foundation today, well worth the trip just to see Miro's enormous tapestry of abstract blues, yellows, and reds hanging in the gallery. Tomorrow I will have to be a little more lively, as I've booked a two hour gourmet tour that meets at 10:30. In the meantime, I think my bed is calling me.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Barcelona im Augenblick

You know you have jet lag when you step out of your hostel in Barcelona and open your guidebook to find a map of Munich. Whoops! Fortunately, the hostel has only half a block away at this point, so I was able to easily go back and swap Germany for my Spain guidebook - much better!

But that gives you an idea of the state my mind is in right now, so please forgive any grammatical or spelling errors you may find. The title, "Barcelona im Augenblick" (Barcelona in the Blink of an Eye) gives further insight to my mental state, since flying across the Atlantic to Frankfurt on Lufthansa has unfortunately put me in German mode. Now that I'm in Barcelona, I'm still hearing German everywhere (including right now as I type this; there is a group of Germans at the hostel). Go figure, Barcelona has a lot of Germans. Somehow I'm not surprised.

But there are also plenty of Barcelonans, and upon leaving the Hip Karma Hostel with the correct guidebook, I soon found myself immersed in La Ribera neighborhood, walking through narrow streets lined with wrought iron balconied apartments, the balconies across from each other so close that two lovers could almost manage to touch over the heads of passersby below. The streets themselves were teeming with children creating makeshift games using anything from a soccer ball to a crushed water bottle, and teenagers of all backgrounds in tight jeans lounged on benches. This was a real neighborhood, from the mothers pushing strollers together on an evening walk, to immigrant run stores selling discount clothes for five euros. Castillian, Catalan, and other languages were tossed about with abandon.

When I came across a shop selling gorgeous sundresses for 35 and 40 euros, I knew I was nearing the tourist zone. Sure enough, the shops were posher as I neared my final destination, the Picasso Museum, although the neighborhood wasn't above the occasional tacky tourist traps. The entrance to the museum itself was practically hidden along one of the narrow alleyways, but marked by the nearby art print shops.

Despite my tired state (and despite the loud German teenagers), I enjoyed the museum, which showcases Picasso's development as an artist from childhood on. Two rooms were devoted to his interpretations of Velazquez's Las Meninas. A painting close to my heart, Las Meninas was the first truly great masterpiece I saw in a European museum, and I found Picasso's take on the subject fascinating. A friend of mine had found these paintings "shocking", but to me they were alternately joyful and thought-provoking. Picasso managed to capture the scope of the piece while giving it his own decidedly unorthodox twist.

Unfortunately, my trip to the museum was followed by a near pickpocketing experience and a trip to the Sants train station, where I waited in line for one hour to purchase a ticket for Friday to San Sebastian. So now that I've managed to stay up far later than I'd planned, I think it's time for a quick bite to eat and a long sleep in my cozy, curtained hostel bed. Hasta mañana!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Loose Ends

As any trip nears, the list of things to get done tends to get longer, not shorter. At the same time, more and more is crossed off the list, not because the tasks have been completed, but because, realistically, they just aren't going to happen. And in the meantime, while I figure that out, things that should be happening get postponed, and the deadline draws ever closer.

I will be leaving my house for the airport in less than 36 hours and have yet to pack. Heck, I have yet to create my packing list! Do not mock the packing list; every time I don't use it - and I mean really use it, not just type one up and decide I have now memorized the list and erroneously believe I no longer need to refer to it - I forget something and end up having to buy travel alarm clocks and batteries in Haarlem that don't work (gee, isn't it fun when the tour guide is late to breakfast), or getting drenched to the bone in Rome because I didn't bring a poncho or an umbrella

So what have I accomplished? Well, I cooked up a storm for Michael and Ryan's joint early birthday party on Friday night - hooray for the new pasta machine! I have successfully obtained a functioning camera, one that I'm borrowing from a friend since I don't feel ready yet to plunk down a couple hundred or more on a new model. The front yard has been weeded, and an attempt was made to mow the jungle that some might foolishly describe as a "back yard". I was able to meet up with several of my friends for some one-on-one time, and I remembered to call my Mums to wish her a happy Mother's Day (phew! I'll have to get her a gift in Europe). Michael and I managed to get out with the Lucy dog for some quality time in the sun at Green Lake and Carkeek Park over the weekend, and we also successfully installed our guest bathroom sink and bought a new light fixture. And, perhaps best of all, I get the treat of snuggling with a squeaky clean dog tonight - Lucy has had her monthly bath!

That leaves what I haven't accomplished. The packing, of course (I better get cracking!). And I still haven't posted my final fabulous five tightwad travel tips! Believe me, I started that post long ago, and these are some good ones! I promise it will arrive... eventually. As for the so-called mowing of the "back yard"... well, some is better than none, right? That's a task and a half that will have to wait. And speaking of waiting, we still haven't come close to finishing the paint job on our bathroom cabinet doors. Let's just say that Michael has a lot of sanding ahead of him while I'm gone.

But all in all, I feel pretty good about things. I didn't read all the books I had planned, largely because I ended up aither biking or driving to work recently, and those hours on the bus are usually my prime reading time. I definitely need to complile a good list of restaurants to try in San Sebastian; that town is a foodie paradise! Still, I'm confident it will work out. At least, if I get off the internet NOW and actually get to the task at hand.

Sure, it's little work now and a late night, but the fun is just getting started.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Gone to Look for America

In fewer than six days, I'll be on a plane, headed across the Atlantic. While it won't be an especially long trip (last year I was gone for almost seven weeks in one go), I still can feel myself getting a little misty at the thought of leaving. Everything takes on more significance: this will be my last weekend, my last day in the office, my last chance for good Asian food, and, tonight, my last live music show in Seattle. I very seldom get homesick while traveling, but as my trip approaches I become introspective and more aware of my surroundings. The advantage, I suppose, is that I seem to work through any feelings of missing home before the plane touches down on foreign soil.

It was therefore fitting, I felt, to be listening to American roots music tonight. Greg Vandy kept me company with his weekly show, The Roadhouse, on KEXP as I drove to the Tractor Tavern. It was the perfect way to get in the mood for a night of folksy, Nashville-tinged with a West Coast-slant American music. Country, folk, jazz, and blues: this is the homegrown music of our nation, and sometimes nothing feels better than to sit back and listen with a beer in hand.

Somehow this kind of music has gathered something of a hip following of late, but you can still hear it when a musician puts their soul into it. The final group of the night, the Bittersweets, made me feel exactly like their name - a little wistful, a little melancholy, but definitely sweetly satisfied.

This is my America, and I'm going to miss you. I may forget for a while after I step on that plane, but I'll be back, and it will be good to be home.

Saturday, May 2, 2009


I have a new favorite restaurant.

Finally, having anticipated a visit since, quite literally, months before the place opened, I made it to Poppy. Now, those who have been to my house in the past year or so may notice that I seem to have a bit of a fascination with the brilliant red blooms, so perhaps it is only to be expected that Poppy, the restaurant, would be, as Anne of Green Gables would put it, a "kindred spirit".

Now, Poppy has gotten its fair share of mixed, or even downright hostile, reviews. Most of these reviews, I noticed, seemed to have been written during the first few months of its inception. Any new restaurant needs time to get its groove going, but in the case of Poppy, the expectations were pressure-cooker tense. Jerry Traunfeld, former executive chef of the Herbfarm, where dinner costs a cool $200 per person and is a four hour event, was finally going to open his own restaurant. And it is not the Herbfarm. Really, did you expect a $32 dinner ever could be?

Avid restaurant review reader that I am, I'd heard it all: the decor was cheap, service was bad, food was mediocre, concept didn't work. But everyone I knew who'd actually been to the place raved about it. When Michael and I finally made on Thursday (conveniently, and unexpectedly, timed to coincide with the Dine Out for Life AIDS fundraiser), Lewissa joined us, having been once before and loved it, and was so excited she could not stop dancing in her seat.

And now that I've been, I can't wait to go back. The concept is simple, but unique (at least for Seattle): order a thali, a platter of ten individual dishes inspired by the Indian tradition, for $32. The menu is set and changes at least weekly, following seasonal ingredients, which is where you really see the Herbfarm influence. For many couple, splitting one thali makes a perfectly filling meal when joined with an appetizer and dessert or two. Also on offer are "smallies": thalis with only seven dishes, ranging in price from $20 to $24. For many, one smallie would make a good meal, but it's hard to resist the full option.

And really, where can you get such variety with such quality ingredients for $32? It's like an entire tasting menu, but all served at once. Tasting menus, however, tend to cost upward of $50 per person, so to me this was a deal. Others may disagree, but that's the beauty of being able to make up your own mind, don't you think?

So on to the actual food: it was delicious, fun, inventive, and unlike anything I've had anywhere else. Michael was a little skeptical at first after reading the menu, but soon he could be heard saying, "I wish I had a big bowl of the rhubarb pickle so I could just eat and eat it." The eggplant fries appetizer was also a hit - so light and crisp, drizzled with honey and sprinkled with sea salt, that no one seems to be able to resist them, even those who profess an intense dislike of eggplant. Other highlights included an incredibly tender halibut in herb sauce, risotto with nettle and lovage that was as green as spinach from the spring herbs, a creamy, melt-in-your-mouth leek and green garlic fritter, and a salad of cress, pea shoots, and radishes. As Michael commented at the end of the meal, we felt so satisfied, yet still as though we'd eaten a pretty healthful meal.

Sadly, we were all too full for any desserts, which I hear are fabulous. And even more good news for those who would like to experience Poppy without spending what is, for most of us, still a significant outlay of cash: they have a happy hour! Two, to be precise. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays, the early happy hour lasts from 5 to 7 in the bar, and includes $5 five item thalis, of both the savory and dessert kind, as well as drink specials. Then, in the evening, happy hour resumes at 9 in the bar, this time with $6 naan-wiches and more drink specials on offer. Seriously? How can you beat that? I'm sure you'll find me at the bar during one of these times before too long.

And, by the way, I love the decor. And our servers were great. No complaints here. Anyone want to join me for a thali?