Thursday, October 26, 2006

Una Aventura Pequena

This afternoon, a man from an internet company came over, ostensibly to install internet and cable TV in our apartment. Not surprisingly, he wasn't able to do it; perhaps we'll work it out next week. After this had been established, I walked with the man to the apartment door. There's a small "foyer" area outside our door, which you have to exit by way of another door before you get to the hallway, and I stepped into this foyer to turn off the light after the man had left. My apartment door slammed behind me. I was locked out.

Thankfully, I was wearing shoes. But I had no cell phone, no money, no glasses, no reading material. Andrew, the only other person with keys, was at school. The woman who serves as a doorperson a few hours each day had already left. I had things to pack for Marrakech; I had things I had to do.

I went to a cafe next door and explained--in Spanish!--that my keys were in my apartment and I had no phone or money. I asked to use their phone. They didn't seem amused or charmed by an American girl in minor distress, but at least they let me make a call. However, Andrew was on his way into class and wouldn't be home for 3 hours. "Just have a coffee and wait for me," he said. We hung up, and I looked around. The only possible thing to read for those 3 hours was a Spanish yellow pages. The afternoon stretched before me.

Before I left my building, I'd jammed another phone book into the front door so I could at least get back into the lobby. I milled around the lobby for a while, wondering what to do next. Then the elevator opened, and it was Teri, the doorwoman. "Hola, hola!" I said, accosting her. I explained--in Spanish!--that my keys were in my apartment (I have no idea how to say "I'm locked out") and asked if she had keys to all the apartments. She did not. But she was very concerned, and she seemed to know what to do. She buzzed the apartment across the hall from mine, the apartment whose terrace is next to ours, and brought me upstairs. She explained my plight to the girl who answered the door, and I was led through the apartment to the terrace. There, beyond the tall spiked barrier, was my own terrace, and the open door to my living room. I understood what was happening when the girl dragged over a small ladder. I threw my Birkenstocks over the fence, hiked up my skirt, and scaled the barrier, leaping home.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Of All the Gin Joints in the World...

Tomorrow, Andrew and I are embarking on a true travel adventure: we’re going to Morocco for just over three days. Though the title of this post would suggest our destination is Casablanca, we’re actually heading to Marrakech, where I’ve wanted to go for a very long time. Andrew had actually planned this trip as a birthday surprise; however, a poorly timed walk down Andrew’s hallway in Jacksonville resulted in my overhearing Andrew discussing the trip with his father. But no matter: knowing the destination meant we were free to talk about and anticipate the trip together, and I’ve spent the last several days scouring our guidebooks, trying to imagine us fending off aggressive vendors in the souks, drinking mint tea, eating tagines and couscous. And I’ve realized that my fledgling Spanish has pretty much supplanted my fledgling French. Gracias. Merci. Hola. Bonjour. It’s going to be a memorable trip…

Friday, October 20, 2006

Hotel Away from Home

It’s a bit unsettling to realize how fully reliant we are on the internet here in Barcelona. I need email to do my freelancing work; we need the internet to plan our trips and flights; I need it to read the New York Times. We do not yet have the internet in our apartment. Andrew can use the computer lab at school, and though I can check email at my language school, I can’t send documents, download anything, or spend a leisurely time writing emails, since there’s usually a line of people waiting to use the computers. And there are lots of things Andrew and I need to look up together, such as riad selections for our upcoming trip to Marrakech or flights home for Christmas.

To survive, we’ve made ourselves regulars at Hotel Omm, a cushy hotel just around the corner from our apartment. The lobby of Hotel Omm is full of plush couches, ambient lighting, and a bar; more importantly, there’s free wi-fi. We don’t have a computer that is wi-fi capable (Andrew’s computer crashed irreparably several months ago, and mine is too old), but Andrew has borrowed a computer from a friend (and we’ve learned to work around the Norwegian characters on the keyboard). Every day, and sometimes twice a day, we go to Hotel Omm with the computer, sit down on a velvety couch, order a beer or a café con leche, and do all of our internet business. Sometimes—usually—we stay for an hour or more.

So far, the staff at Omm haven’t seemed to mind, even though we’ve clearly made the hotel lobby our second home. We spread our things around us—lists, guidebooks, articles, cell phone—and never order more than one drink each; but if they’re displeased, they haven’t shown it, or at least not enough to make us stop going. I’m starting to feel that Omm really is our second living room. It is a tranquil, comfortable place. But I will be very glad when I’ll be able to check my email without putting on shoes, packing a bag, and ordering a €3.50 café con leche.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Amsterdam, Part IV: The Quest for Bittenballen

On Saturday, we rounded out a long day of walking around the city with a few stops into cafes for sustenance. We were determined to try bittenballen, a kind of fried meatball that’s the Dutch bar-food equivalent of jalapeno poppers or wings. At our first stop, we had the requisite Heineken, bittenballen, some Dutch cheese, and some olives (though Spain definitely does olives better). At the next charming café—they seemed to be everywhere—we had only Heineken. We’d been in the Jordaan, and we then wandered back to the canal area, thinking we’d get tickets to a movie. Instead, we found ourselves craving more bittenballen. What followed was a long, arduous search for the perfect café in which to spend the rest of our evening. There were lots of cafes, but not all had bittenballen; not all had the vibrant crowd we were looking for; not all seemed quintessentially Dutch. We peeked into café after café; an hour passed, maybe more. Finally, we found a café that met our requirements, more or less—most importantly, more bittenballen.

On Sunday, we wandered around the city a bit more, and even saw some of the marathon (our purpose for being there—but an injury forced Andrew to forgo the running). The day was cold—not the crisp fall temperature we’d been enjoying, but actually cold—and we took refuge in the Heineken Experience, a tour/marketing extravaganza in what used to be the Heineken brewery in Amsterdam. The history of the company was interesting; more interesting was when we filed into a room with other visitors and a voice announced, “You know what goes into a Heineken beer bottle. But what does it feel like to be a beer bottle?” We then watched what happens to bottles in a bottling plant from the perspective of a beer bottle. The tour ended with beer. Then we went to get more bittenballen. And then—sadly—it was time to go home.

Amsterdam, Part III: A Cozy Life

When we arrived in Amsterdam on Thursday, it was very late. By the time we’d walked from Centraal Station to our hotel and dropped off our bags, it was almost midnight. The streets of Amsterdam were quiet, but we set off with our map, intending to find a café where we could welcome ourselves to the city with a beer and some food. It’s disorienting to arrive in a new city at night, with no idea what sections or streets we should seek out or avoid; my three-year-old memories of a charming, lively Amsterdam didn’t mesh with the eerie, dangerous-seeming streets around us. We bought some food at a snack stall—a hamburger and Vlaamese frites—and went back to our hotel.

But the days that followed were, happily, more charming and fun than those first few hours seemed to promise. We went to the Rijksmuseum, which is mostly closed for renovations but has its most famous works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and others on view in one section. We took a canal tour by boat and floated under bridges and past canal houses. We walked for miles, exploring the Jordaan neighborhood and the canal belt. And everywhere, we dodged bicycles—everyone rides a bicycle in Amsterdam—and spied in Amsterdammers’ huge, uncurtained windows, where the lives taking place inside seemed immensely charming and happy.

Besides the canal house windows, we got two additional inside looks at Amsterdam. We went to the Van Loon museum, which is a 17th-century canal house that’s been restored to its original style. A strange little video, narrated by the eighty-plus-year-old Van Loon heir, introduced us to the museum; then we were free to wander around by ourselves. The house was gigantic, with twenty-foot ceilings, intricate moldings, wide wooden-planked floors, and floor-to-ceiling windows gazing out onto a canal. There were hidden doors leading to the guestroom, which an ancestor once used to visit his mistress, and fake doors that had been installed to keep the “symmetry” of a room intact. There were also some immensely powerful allergens in the house, and I could barely see for all my sneezing and horrifically itchy eyes. But that’s neither here nor there.

Our second inside look at Amsterdam was at the houseboat museum. There are over 2000 houseboats in use in Amsterdam, lining the canals. Some are truly boats, while others look like floating ranch houses. We toured a boatlike house that had been occupied until 1997. It was surprisingly large, and quite cozy; apparently the first thought most people have when they visit is I want to live on a houseboat! and the brochure stated plainly that no houseboat mooring spots were available in Amsterdam, and even if a houseboat goes up for sale, it’s nearly as expensive as buying an apartment anyway. Nonetheless, there were a few “houseboat for sale” photos in the museum. The houseboat, though cozy, was also ever-so-slightly swaying, so I’m afraid living on a houseboat isn’t really an option for my seasickness-prone self.

But the cozy fall weather, the almost complete absence of tourists, and the general charm of Amsterdam made us think it could be a viable place to live, if the opportunity arose. It’s the kind of city that feels instantly like home (as long as you don’t arrive in the middle of the night). I read in a guidebook that this cozy comfortableness is called gezelligheid, a Dutch word that has no exact English translation. Our few days in Amsterdam were undoubtedly gezellig.

Amsterdam, Part II: The Whip

On Friday night, shortly after darkness fell, we set out for the red light district. We weren’t alone. The quiet streets of the eastern and central canal belts soon gave way to a Vegas-like swath of neon lights and coffeeshops, filled with tourists. We turned down a side street lined with the red-lit windows of the prostitutes’ quarters; the street was so narrow we couldn’t have stretched out our arms. Around us, the lingerie-clad prostitutes stood idly in their windows, seeming unfazed by the early-hour tourists who were obviously there simply to gawk. One woman was checking messages on her cell.

We emerged back onto the main street and were confronted by two things: a large Japanese tour group, led by a guide holding a large flag, winding their way into the narrow streets; and a brass band playing rallying songs more suited to a parade than the red light district. This part of Amsterdam is like a carnival gone wrong—a confluence of all things normal and strange, shocking and ridiculous, a normal-seeming tourist quarter with not-normal-at-all around every corner.

We detoured around the band down another narrow lane, ready to leave the red light district and find a place for dinner. Around us, again, prostitutes stood and waited. One woman held a whip. As we walked past, she stuck her arm through the open doorway of her quarters and put the whip on Andrew’s neck, beckoning him inside. “No—no—“ Andrew said. He was wearing a brown corduroy blazer and a navy blue v-neck sweater. We escaped unfazed.

Amsterdam, Part I: Aalsmeer

On Friday morning, we got up at the crack of dawn to catch a bus for Aalsmeer, a tiny village about an hour outside of Amsterdam. We wanted to see the flower auction, held daily in a huge commercial pavilion, where billions of flowers are auctioned off every year. Flowers come to Aalsmeer from all over the world, including Africa and Asia; are auctioned off; and are immediately transported to whatever country has claimed them—within hours, they could be in France or Spain or even the United States.

Not many tourists make their way to Aalsmeer, but the auction complex has a catwalk system set up so the tourists that do come can watch the action from above. Below us were millions of flowers, arranged by type and color on carts. It’s all very industrial—the flowers are held in plastic containers; the carts that hold the containers are metal; the floors are concrete. The carts hitch together and are pulled around the complex—the size of 160 football fields—by powerful scooter devices. The complex is so large that employees ride bicycles to get from one place to another. But amidst the commercial sprawl and the mechanical equipment were roses and gerbera daisies, mums and lilies, strange orange Japanese lantern-type flowers, even pumpkins and gourds in keeping with the season. The flowers are all evaluated for quality so each plastic bucket was filled with perfect, vital blooms.

Speed is everything in the flower trade, and the auctions move fast—the flower auction if a Dutch auction, which means the price starts high and quickly descends. The auctioneer, rather than call out increasing bids, sets the starting price. Bidders, arranged in stadium-style seating, hit a button when they want to stop the price and buy the lot. If they wait too long, hoping for a lower price, they’ll lose the flowers to another bidder. If they hit the button too soon, they could pay more than necessary. It’s a nerve-wracking system, and it moved so fast I could barely follow what was happening. Each lot of flowers, with copious details about origin, grower, flaws, type, and price per stem, is shown on a large screen while the flowers themselves, in plastic buckets, slide into the room on large carts moving on mechanized tracks. The flowers never stop moving—they’re bid on as they zip from the room, while another lot of flowers follows fast on their heels. Thousands upon thousands of carts wind through the room each day.

We hoped to find some fresh flowers in the gift shop before we left, but the gift shop plainly showed the dearth of Aalsmeer tourists: the shop contained only a few faded postcards and some dusty trinkets. But later, back in Amsterdam, we looked at the flowers in the many bloemenmarkets with new eyes, knowing where they may have begun their journeys to that particular corner of the world.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Spanish Update

My Spanish has progressed to the point where I can carry on a basic, rudimentary conversation and, usually, make myself understood. This is, of course, progress. But the progress is frustrated by a wild array of verb tenses which make saying anything a laborious process of figuring out what tense to use and then considering the many irregular verb forms I may confront. Flashcards are in order, pronto.

Despite my developing confidence in trying my Spanish in the real world, my brain still short-circuits regularly. Leaving my apartment building last week, I ran into a neighbor coming into the building. Amiably and boldly, I said, “Hasta manana!” which, since it means “See you tomorrow!”, makes no sense whatsoever. “I mean, hola,” I said. “Hola. Buenas dias.” She gave me a pitying, though indulgent, smile.

In class, predictably, my textbook Spanish is quite a bit ahead of my marble-mouthed American pronunciation. My teacher told me on Friday that my vocabulary and grammar are good, but that I need to work on my pronunciation. Sometimes I wonder if I’m even physically able to ever pronounce Spanish correctly, while the French and Italian and Swedish people in my class seem to have no problem.

This week Andrew and I go to Amsterdam, so I’m not taking classes. Next week, back to it. Poco a poco, all the Spanish teachers say—little by little.

Then and Now

Our first fall visitor, Matt, a friend and former co-worker from New York, arrived last week and, so far, has seen an admittedly interesting slice of our life in Barcelona. On Thursday, we took Matt to a dinner celebrating the upcoming and very small wedding of a Swiss friend from Andrew’s class. The dinner was outside of Barcelona, but what we expected to be just a few tram stops away turned out to be further out into the Barcelona hinterlands than we’d expected. Once there, it was a lovely event, with drinks first and then a sit-down dinner for all the couple’s friends from Andrew’s school. After dinner, unplanned and unexpected, several people volunteered to sing wedding songs from their home countries—a cappella, in a roomful of eyes, basically my worst nightmare. We heard songs in Finnish, Nepalese, Russian, and Japanese. Later, the Japanese singer admitted that he hadn’t known any wedding songs and so had chosen a song schoolchildren sing. Obviously, no one knew the difference.

This weekend, we went with Matt to a bar to meet a friend of his who is studying in Barcelona, though Matt couldn’t remember at what school. It turned out that this woman is a first-year student at Andrew’s school—Andrew had actually met her once—so the bar was filled with a strange mix of first-year students invited by Matt’s friend and a few second-year students Andrew had invited to meet us there. A couple from New York were there as well, visiting Matt’s friend. A collision of worlds.

One of the interesting things about Matt’s visit is that he’s one of the only people to have truly seen the then and now: he was friends with both Andrew and me before we began dating; he worked with us for nearly a year after that; and now he’s visiting us in Spain. It’s not a usual sequence of events.

In a few days, we’ll all be on to other places—Matt to Lisbon, Andrew and I to Amsterdam. For now, there’s Gaudi to see (Matt); Spanish to learn (me); business cases to read (Andrew). And one-euro turbio to drink as a nice evening reward.

Friday, October 06, 2006

October in Barcelona

It’s October in Barcelona, a perfect time of year. It’s still warm—the days start chilly and dark but by noon the sun is out and hot—but there are cool gusts of wind and fluffy clouds that make the days more pleasant than they were in high summer. Yesterday, the wind was so intense that the tall winged doors of the apartments in this building and around the courtyard slammed loudly open and shut, unsupervised and unsecured, so violently that I heard crashing glass above me and, later, disgusted sweeping.

Most of the tourists are gone now, though the Bus Turistic still sails around the city with sun-glassed travelers on the open top and La Rambla is still (always) bustling. However, it’s a slower bustle than summer, and there’s an impending sense of the city settling in, shoring up for the coming fall and winter. I feel settled: unpacked and getting my bearings in a new apartment and neighborhood (a stroll brought pleasant surprises, including a Nine West store, a beautiful church with a tranquil courtyard just off a busy street, and a dry-cleaner’s); plowing through increasingly difficult Spanish (and feeling like a mainstay, knowing I’ll still be around next month, the month after that, while my classmates are in the city for only a week or two); planning for trips and visits (the first of our autumn visitors arrives tomorrow; next week, Andrew and I go to Amsterdam); and spending pleasant days and evenings reading, crocheting, eating meals on the terrace.

Last year, I visited Barcelona at the end of October. The day I left, I walked on La Rambla before catching the bus to the airport; it was a cool, bright day, and most of the leaves on the sycamores that line the street had changed to faded green or yellow. I had the sense of being in a strange half-state, getting ready to leave the city but at the same time trying to imagine what it would feel like to be there permanently, to call it home. The city felt familiar—it was my third visit in three months—but I felt very much outside of it, with my backpack heavy on my back and euros for the bus fare jangling in my pocket. Within hours I’d be far away, tucked into the undefinable spaces of airport and airplane, between time zones and languages. There was a solar eclipse that day, and up and down La Rambla people stood and stared through dark foil lenses at the sky. That was how I left Barcelona: city cool and blinding-bright, crowds craning their necks to the sky, foil glinting, in the air the frisson of something unusual about to happen. That was October.

The Move

We’re moved! We actually did it. In three days last weekend, we managed to get all our stuff from one apartment to the other (five carloads); to clean and turn in the keys to our old apartment; and to go to Ikea to buy few essentials, such as an armoir and a bed frame. Actually moving was tricky. At the old apartment, we sent elevator-loads of boxes and bags downstairs, then carried them out to the car; at our new place, there’s no street-side parking, so Andrew parked on the sidewalk, flashers flashing, while we ran everything inside, loaded yet another elevator, and finally pushed everything into the new apartment before running back downstairs and doing the whole thing over again.

It was an exhausting few days, but things are finding their way to their rightful places, and we have a real bed now rather than a mattress on wooden pallets on the floor. Sunlight is streaming onto the terrace. The place is feeling like home, even though there are a few small problems. We won’t have internet access or a landline phone for several weeks; we don’t know where to take our garbage and recycling; there is a dearth of electrical outlets where we need them to be; and our small shower stall makes showering undeniably difficult, with an unsteady shower head that won’t stay up, no place to put shampoo and soap, and the tendency for water to get absolutely everywhere. But it is a charming, cozy space, and we’ll work out these small problems one by one.

For now, I’ll enjoy my lunch on the terrace, sitting at the heavy stone table, surrounded by plants. A black cat peers at me through the wrought-iron railing that separates our terrace from the next; perhaps I’ll find her in the apartment one day. This is the kind of apartment one imagines when thinking about living in Spain.