Thursday, August 31, 2006

Moving

In the next few weeks, Andrew and I will move to a new apartment in Barcelona. We haven't yet found a place, but now that the landlords and brokers are back in the city after their extended August vacations, Andrew has started visiting some possible new homes. It's exciting to think about moving--a new place to call our own--and it's always nice to get to know a new part of the city. We know a lot about Barcelona now, and have a good idea of where we'll be happy. It will be fun to apartment-hunt together when I return next week--a perfect way to see the hidden parts of people's Barcelona lives, taking place beyond the etched faces of the buildings.

When Andrew moved to Barcelona last August, finding an apartment was a different story. Neither of us knew the city, and Andrew didn't yet know what the neighborhood around his school was like. And we felt rushed to get settled; we were staying in hotels and spending hours in the EasyInternet cafe, looking at apartment listings online. We saw so many apartments, and Andrew found one he loved; but the broker wanted six months' rent, in cash, up front, as a security deposit. Heartbreakingly impossible. The apartment he finally chose is the one that's now ours. On moving day (suitcases lugged from hotel to apartment), Andrew got food poisoning. We had no sheets for the bed, not even a glass to drink from; we made a desperate trip to Ikea to buy the essentials. And I went back to the U.S. two days later, a difficult departure to say the least. Ah, memories.

Last week, Andrew looked at a place in the Barri Gotic--in the same building, strangely, as an apartment we looked at and liked last year. Last year, the apartment's flaws were a too-high price and overly girly decor; in this year's apartment, the ceiling of the very cute apartment was four inches from Andrew's head. We both want to live in this building--it's charming and old, in a lively, cafe-filled part of the city--but perhaps it's not meant to be. Our home, this time, will be elsewhere.

We'll miss our apartment. Today Andrew found it on a listings site, a description and photos right there for anyone to see. One of the photos is the view from our bedroom window, the view that always makes me feel like I'm really in Spain. Both of us felt very sad.

Wing Night

One of the best things about being back in the U.S. is that everything is so much cheaper. Barcelona isn't a particularly expensive city, but the euro/dollar discrepancy means prices are just a bit higher than they should be. Here, though, there's Target and Gabe's, which means I can pretty much shop whenever I want to and not feel too guilty. And I don't even have to do any mental conversions to figure out how much things cost in dollars. Everything's already in dollars.

Then there's Lynn's, a (very) local bar/restaurant where I had dinner last night. Unlike other local places, where heads turn whenever a non-local (or a non-regular) walks in, Lynn's was pleasingly dismissive of our small family group; everyone's eyes were on the baseball game, not us. It was 25-cent wing night, but even on a non-wing night, the prices are ridiculously low: the four of us each had a dozen wings; we ordered three pints of beer and one iced tea; and we shared a gigantic order of Lynn's homemade potato chips--and our bill was $21. That's just over $5/person. Amazing (and the food was good, too).

Funnily enough, Lynn's is about two minutes from our house here, and we never even knew it existed. It's tucked away on Wine Street, in the middle of a quiet residential street. You'd think we were living in our own twisty, medieval city, with unexpected finds around every corner.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Jamon

When you live in a place not many people have been, it can be challenging to find the perfect story or detail to illustrate what your life—or life, in general—there is like. “How’s Barcelona? What’s it like there?” I’ve been asked these questions countless times since I’ve been back in the U.S., and I always answer in the general—“It’s great; it’s a beautiful city.” These are hardly evocative or satisfying responses. Providing more detail—about, say, the weird architecture, the extremely late hours for eating meals, or the fact that many people don’t speak Spanish but Catalan—gives a better sense of the city but not necessarily a vivid mental image. But I’ve learned something from hearing Mom and Dad tell people about their visit to Barcelona: the perfect way to grab attention is to describe the jamon.

Jamon iberico—Iberian ham—is a regional specialty, ridiculously expensive and ubiquitous in Barcelona and beyond. It’s basically a type of cured ham, expensive because of the elaborate and lengthy curing process and the luxurious, indulgent way the pigs who become the ham are treated before they’re killed. Cured meats, I realize, are delicious but just not that interesting. What’s interesting about the jamon, however, is the way it’s stored, sold, and served: in leg form, hoof intact, hanging in large groups of other legs from shop ceilings or secured to café bars to be carved-to-order. There's no mistaking what it is: it's a pig’s leg, hoof through haunch, sometimes sheathed in a net, sometimes hung simply from a rope.

They’re everywhere in Barcelona, from the smallest local butcher shops to the largest market on La Rambla. And now they’re even in the New York Times Magazine, featured this Sunday in an article by Rob Walker about buying jamon iberico online—jamon’s first foray into the American market (at a price of around $1,000 per leg). The illustration with the article featured a jamon in a carving vice, sitting on a table alongside what looked like Jell-o molds and pasta salads—just another picnic snack.

The detail that works—that makes jamon a perfect symbol of Barcelona’s quirkiness—is that hoof. You don’t see too many hooves in an American grocery store. And you definitely don’t see this, featured prominently—sassily—at a little café near our apartment:

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Barcelona, Hostess Extraordinaire

Though Barcelona is now one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe, it wasn’t always this way. Before the 1992 summer Olympics, which the city used as an excuse for a complete transformation, it wasn’t so sought after; the beautiful architecture was still there, and the sea, and La Rambla with all its sights and sparkle, but it wasn’t a place you’d necessarily want to visit. The industrial city hadn’t really found its footing in the modern world. Thanks to the influx of money that came from winning the Olympic bid, however, the local Barcelona government was able to revitalize the city’s entire infrastructure and economy. The revitalization was all-inclusive, transforming not only the area around the Olympic buildings but also the airport, train stations, city center, and harbor.

Barcelona had won the hosting over cities including Paris and Amsterdam, and the 1992 Games proved to be remarkable. For the first time in thirty years, no countries boycotted or were banned from the Games. Germany competed as a unified country for the first time; South Africa, having been banned from competition since 1964, participated; the break-up of the Soviet Union led to the inclusion of newly independent nations, including Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia; baseball counted as an official sport for the first time; and the Dream Team debuted, impressing everyone and trouncing every other team that crossed its path.

Each Olympic city offers its own charms as a backdrop to the Games, but Barcelona seems to have been particularly remarkable. The Olympic Stadium and pools were constructed on the top of Montjuic, one of the highest points in Barcelona, with amazing views of the city spread beneath it. The diving pool, in particular, is breath-taking: it’s set on the side of the mountain, and being in the pool feels like you’re floating over the streets below. The diving pool and the swimming pool next to it are now open to the public—the shadow of the Olympic rings is still visible on the side of the entry building—and Andrew and I swam there one afternoon. Our apartment is on Montjuic, quite close to the Olympic constructions, and Andrew spotted the pools on a run one night.

I remember watching the Olympics in 1992, but I remember nothing about Barcelona. Fifteen years ago, to me, Barcelona may as well have been the moon. Where it was, what it was like, what made it different from other cities, why I should care; none of it registered. Little did I know I’d one day live within sight of the Olympic buildings, that I’d soon personally appreciate the revitalization the Games brought about in the city. That one day I’d be swimming in the very pools shown on TV.

Besides the Olympics, Barcelona holds another hosting distinction: it was home to the World’s Fair in both 1888 and 1929. In 1929, the Fair saw the construction of the amazingly grand Palau Nacional on Montjuic—an immense, turreted palace situated at the top of hundreds of steps and flanked by countless fountains, including the Font Magica. A notable aspect of all World’s Fairs is that the “pavilions” created for the event must be brand-new. After the Fairs, most pavilions are destroyed; less often, the new structures become a true part of the city. (The Eiffel Tower is one of these exceptions: after the Paris World Fair in 1889, the city kept it up, despite calls for it to be destroyed.) The Palau remained, but it fell into disrepair. When Barcelona won the Olympic hosting for the 92 Games, the Palau found new life as a museum of Catalonian art. It’s now one of the grandest structures and one of the best museums in Barcelona. (And Andrew and I can see it from our bedroom balcony.) The Olympic Stadium, too, was actually created by refurbishing a pavilion that had been built for the 1929 World’s Fair.

Two grand, global events, one Spanish city—in the past month or so, a question has come up: What other cities in the world have held both the Olympics (summer or winter) and a major World’s Fair? Surprisingly few, we discovered. In fact, only six: Barcelona, London, Paris, St. Louis, Melbourne, and Montreal. It’s an interesting distinction, one it seems more cities should hold. The fact that Barcelona is one of the select few adds to the unique, often strange nature of the place, suggesting—as does the crazy architecture, as do the bizarre sights on La Rambla, as does the sense that this is, for a lot of backpackers, the end of the road—that there’s a hidden layer to Barcelona, more than meets the eye.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Coal Queens

I never paid much attention to the Coal Queen pageant. When I was in high school, the Coal Queen pageant lacked the excitement of, say, the run for Homecoming Queen; it was just another pageant, held in a town nearby. I’m sure, however, that I marched with my clarinet (the most hideous of instruments) in the parade for the King Coal Festival—if indeed our marching band was involved. If there was a King Coal parade, I’m sure our band was there.

Notably, there are former Queens and Queen-hopefuls in the family. One aunt was a contestant in the Coal Queen pageant in 1971. Another aunt was the Scottdale Centennial Queen in the mid-1970s. And Molly herself was Queen: Homecoming Queen. (But she’ll almost certainly deny it.)

Little did I know how big a deal the Coal Queen pageant actually is to other girls in other towns. This weekend, we went to a screening of a new documentary called The Bituminous Coal Queens of Pennsylvania, directed by David Hunt and distributed through a new Netflix film series, which gives independent filmmakers a chance to bring their films to the Netflix audience. Bituminous Coal Queens focuses on a former Coal Queen who now lives in L.A. but who returns to Carmichaels (a small town near Connellsville, population in the low 500s), along with other former Queens, for the 50th anniversary of the Coal Queen pageant. Interspersed with their reminiscences, as well as very interesting interviews with coal miners and footage of the work they do, is the drama of the 2003 Coal Queen pageant—the preparations, the nerves, the rehearsals, the costumes, the angst, and the intense desire to be Queen.

The film was pure southwestern PA. Misty, rolling hills and hearty farmland juxtaposed with sequined, Vegas-worthy dance costumes; festive parades consisting of a few sparse marching bands; a formal banquet held in a fire hall. Pork-and-kraut sandwiches at a street fair. The reluctance or ambivalence of anyone to leave the area and make a life someplace new. The portrait Hunt painted was in no way negative (amusing, yes). Instead, he documented one of the stranger traditions of southwestern PA and put it in context: the deeply-rooted coal-mining history that defines the area.

Not many people pay attention to southwestern PA’s people or way of living, and we were thrilled with the film. You can read more about it online (http://www.coalqueens.com/) or—better yet—rent it from Netflix.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Boqueria

The Boqueria market is one of my favorite things about Barcelona. It's the craziest, fullest, most interesting market I've ever seen, with aisle after aisle of vegetables, fruits, meats, fish, breads, candies, and more. Much is unrecognizable; there are lots of exotic fruits, including one with spiky skins and black-speckled flesh inside. The fish booths are indescribable: piles of shellfish of every shape and size; gigantic fish lined up in rows, their beady eyes staring at the crowds; lobsters, crabs, and all sorts of tentacled creatures moving their claws and antennae idly. In the meat stalls, lambs' heads--eyes still intact--nestle up to livers, sausages, and many other things I avoid scrutinizing too closely. I've never actually bought anything at the Boqueria, other than an occasional fruit drink, gelato, or snack, but I have dreams of putting together elaborate meals made solely from Boqueria riches. One of these days.

The Boqueria is on my mind today for a reason: In this week's New York magazine, there's a restaurant review of a new restaurant in New York City named, yes, Boqueria. The menu, explains the review, reflects the offerings of the Boqueria market in Barcelona. The restaurant follows an array of new dining options that reflect New Yorkers' "appetite for all things Spanish." The thought of this restaurant slightly unsettles me, blurs the lines between where I live now and where I used to live, and which place I miss when. When I'm here in Connellsville, I miss New York and Barcelona both--New York because it feels closer here; Barcelona, of course, because Andrew is currently sleeping in our apartment there. If we one day wind up back in New York, we could go to the Boqueria restaurant--but we'll have a fresh memory of the real Boqueria; we don't need a spinoff to indulge our love of Spain. And going to the Boqueria restaurant will hardly help any sad feelings we might have about having left Barcelona, just as the Hard Rock Cafe and the one small bagel shop in Barcelona fail to help our occasional pangs of missing New York.

Seeing the Boqueria mentioned in the magazine reminded me of how unusual it is to know a city intimately, a city that others may only visit. I feel this way about New York, of course, but New York was a part of my life for so long I got used to being inside of it. Seeing it in movies or ads--the Brooklyn Bridge was recently featured in an ad for a Spanish bank--makes me homesick, not awestruck. Barcelona, on the other hand, is new. Just last year, it was just a name on a map; now, I know the sights and streets, the food and markets, even some of the language. When I catch sight of it someplace--in a magazine, in the Times--it startles me. Hey, I realize, I know that place. And not only know it--my shampoo and sandals, a stack of my books, and a heap of my clothes are there right now.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Between Worlds

Being between worlds is creepy. Home but not home; among my things, but my things still in boxes; a few weeks to relax, but a plane ticket and passport ready for action. Andrew's back in Barcelona, in the desolate city that Barcelona becomes in late August; most people are still on vacation, so the streets, metro, and even his office are empty. He said it's cooler now, and rainy, which is much different from the Barcelona we left two weeks ago. He's alone in our apartment, and the whole image--of the empty city and the apartment, which, like any other home, always feels a bit ghostlike when it's been closed up for a length of time--makes me shudder a little.

We're between seasons, and there's a nervy first-day-of-school feeling in the air, even though, for me, the only school starting up again will be my Spanish classes when I return to Spain. And we're between stages in our Barcelona life, Andrew's work and my travel-craziness winding down, with our normal life soon to be on its way back. Job interviews, new trips, and the next round of visitors will mark this fall; all of that's to come. Right now we're between things, finishing things up, making tentative new plans. It's not wasted time by any means. But I feel like I, at least, have stepped outside of my regular life and disappeared for a while, here in the Pennsylvania mountains, quiet and dark, a place so familiar that it's somehow unsettling to actually be back.

Gabe's

I've been in Connellsville for two days, and already an important item has been crossed off my "To Do" list: Go to Gabe's. Obviously, this was a priorty upon arriving in PA. On Saturday, I went to the Greensburg Gabe's; sadly, however, I found only two things: a Theory skirt and a pair of Blue Cult jeans. Both were good deals, but far from the breathtaking Gabe's bonanza that, now and then, befalls us all. Hopes are high for the Uniontown Gabe's in the next few days.

Shopping with a luggage limit is difficult, to say the least. I need to stock up: on shoes, on beauty products, on household goods we can't find (or can't afford, oddly) in Spain. But how can I pack a set of towels in an already-full suitcase? How can I bring back picture frames without shattering the glass? If or when I buy new boots for fall, I'll need to fit them in alongside the boots I already have here, which I haven't yet moved over to Spain. The high cost of shipping things over renders any intention of saving money pointless.

But all this is beside the point. Home again, with much shopping ahead, I'll worry about the packing later.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Home

Our two weeks in Jacksonville have come to a close, and we were both sad to see them end. Andrew flew back to Spain on Saturday, while I have a few more weeks in the States, in Connellsville. We had a lovely vacation in Florida. We took a few trips to the beach, and saw a baseball game in Tampa; we had lots of nice meals out, and cooked a few times at home. And we spent lots of time just relaxing, reading, and watching TV.

It was strange to come back, to see the abundance of products in the grocery store and other quintessentially American sights, and, now, to be back in Connellsville among the boxes I left here when I moved to Spain in April. It's a transient period, but an exciting one. For now, I'm among familiar things--touching base before heading back to Spain, and happily getting ready for whatever new places and experiences are in store for us in the months ahead.