Monday, March 26, 2007

Turista

Now that the possibility of leaving Barcelona is growing more and more real, I feel as though I’m coming full circle—making lists of touristy things to do in the time that remains, getting ready to explore the still-unseen parts of the city while I still can. Daily life easily took over the past eleven months; and though I’ve still seen new things now and then, my Barcelona life no longer parallels the route of the Bus Turistic. As a result, however, there are gaps: the Mies Van Der Rohe pavilion, which was just across the street from our old apartment, is still a mystery. Several museums, a handful of must-try restaurants—these remain to be experienced. Until today, I hadn’t even seen the Barcelona Cathedral, with its resident flock of geese.

The Cathedral was at the top of my list, so this afternoon I took myself on a touristy errand between working on a freelance article and going grocery shopping. I’d tried to see the Cathedral last summer, when Mom and Dad were visiting, only to be turned away at the door for wearing a sleeveless shirt; this time, I was amply, purely clad in a winter jacket and scarf. The Cathedral deserved its position as number one on the “must see before leaving” list, both for its beautiful interior, with the lineup of saints’ chapels along either side, and for the geese in the courtyard, who honked and flapped their wings and generally took pleasure in preening and posing for the cameras.

On Saturday night, Andrew and I stopped in at Bar Tomas, which reputedly has the best patatas bravas in the city. Andrew had been once before, but I hadn’t; and the accolades are well deserved. Another one to cross off the list, we told each other, satisfied, as we walked to dinner. Later we discovered that Bar Tomas—among others we thought of—hadn’t even made it on.

When I left New York, I didn’t make a list. There were things I did as a kind of farewell—the MoMA, the Met, the Brooklyn Heights Promenade—but making a “must see before leaving” list seemed, somehow, too final. Seven years in New York and I didn’t come close to seeing everything; a year in Barcelona—ridiculous even to try. Perhaps there’s something to be said for leaving things undone—reasons (as though we needed more) to ensure we come back.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Siren Song of BINGO: Part II


I won. Twice. Almost 100 euros. This, perhaps more than anything else, raised the hatred of the BINGO patrons for our group. And we were hated, intensely. But wow, was it fun.

We met our group at a bar across the street from the BINGO parlor. Surprisingly, seven people—in addition to me and Andrew—showed up. “Aren’t you excited?!?” we asked them. They were dubious, to say the least; some suggested we just go out to dinner. The two Spanish friends repeatedly tried to warn us what we were in for. Nonetheless, en masse, we went to BINGO.

Before entering the BINGO room, we had to present our driver’s licenses to a woman behind a desk, who recorded all kinds of information. This caused some problems, because our group consisted of people from Italy, Greece, England, the U.S., and Spain; it took some time for her to acclimate to each new license. I looked around the “lobby”: some neon, some horrific pictures of the food available (despite Andrew’s and my original enthusiasm for eating dinner at the BINGO hall, we were quickly outvoted on that idea), a menu (dinner costs just 3.50 euros), and a variety of what seemed to be gift items for purchase on the counter in front of the woman’s desk. These items consisted, not least, of ceramic toilet brush holders and plastic boxes of toothpicks.

I’d imagined the BINGO parlor to be a cross between a casino and a church basement—tables arranged in a large square with the caller in the middle, with lots of plush seats and neon. In reality, the BINGO room looked like a school cafeteria, with four-person tables arranged in rows, bright fluorescent lights, linoleum floors, and industrial-looking food served on plastic trays. We immediately drew ire for trying to pull up extra chairs to a table; this was not allowed. In the confusion of dividing ourselves among tables and getting situated, the BINGO-card seller came by. “Tres?” she suggested. The cards were small; we agreed that yes, we’d each take three cards for the first game. She quickly took our money and then, with no warning, the calling began.

To say that the numbers were called fast doesn’t begin to describe it. We all (well, not the native Spanish speakers) panicked, unable to keep up as we searched our three cards for the numbers. Not only could we not comprehend the numbers fast enough—but no one understood how to play. At the bar beforehand, one Spanish friend told us you could only do the linea—just one line straight across. I was confused, remembering well the many BINGO options at the St. Rita’s Church Fair—vertical, horizontal, diagonal, four corners. This was not the case. Each BINGO card at the BINGO parlor was small—about eight squares across and four down—with no BINGO written across the top. The numbers appeared to cover the cards at random. And it was true: the only option for a win was a linea. Once someone won the linea, the calling continued for BINGO—all numbers.

Trying to keep up with the warp-speed calling on three cards was ludicrous, exactly like an anxiety dream, and there was much laughing and “What number did he say??” and commenting. This was not allowed, and we were angrily shushed. The room had to be, at all times, perfectly silent.

When the first game was over—perhaps one of our group would have won, had we been able to keep track of anything—the card-seller came over, smirking. She knew full well we wouldn’t be able to handle three cards. We bought just one card each this time, and asked another worker for an explanation of the rules. He explained the linea and the BINGO. He explained the way numbers were arranged on the card; and we all found electronic boards or TV screens in our line of vision so we could actually see the numbers being called.

We played again. The numbers became clearer; I got into the BINGO frame of mind, calm and efficient. But then they’d say a number like “sesenta siete seis siete” or “setenta y dos siete dos” and Andrew and I would look at each other, baffled. Andrew told me during the next break that anytime they called a number in the 60s or 70s, they’d repeat it by saying each digit, since the words for 60 and 70—sesenta and setenta—are so similar. So 63—sesenta y tres—is repeated as “seis tres.” Sesenta y tres seis tres. BINGOese.

I don’t know how many more times we played before I suddenly found myself marking off the last number on my card, throwing up my hands, and shouting “BINGO!” “BINGO!” echoed everyone at my table, getting the monitor’s attention. Hateful glares came from every direction, from the locals who were not amused—in any way whatsoever—to have us in their realm. I won around 30 euros; there had been two winners. I was extremely pleased.

We played a round, sat out a round; played a round. Suddenly, I had just one number left on my card. Dieciseis, dieciseis, I chanted quietly. “Dieciseis,” the caller announced. Once again, I threw up my hands (a BINGO reflex, I guess) and shouted “BINGO!” “BINGO!” Andrew yelled, pointing at me, getting attention. He told me later that the monitor gave him a look of absolute incredulity, as if to say, Her again?? Does that girl even speak Spanish? Indeed, I had BINGO once again. This time I won around 50 euros. Luck was with me.

Someone else in our group won a linea; we ordered a round of drinks; we were shushed some more; we were reprimanded for taking a group picture (no pictures allowed). Eventually, we decided it was time to go.

On the way out, we could choose a gift—they weren’t for purchase after all. Andrew and a couple of other people chose the ceramic toilet brush holders. I chose a scarf. Some others chose toothpicks. It was completely strange—but it turned out to be a really fun time. It was a weird thing for a group of MBAs and partners to do on a Tuesday night, and we were hated, but everyone went into it with a spirit of adventure, mostly willing to be swept up in the absurdity of it all.

But as for luck—nothing absurd about that. The other night, Andrew won a poker game; and now my BINGO wins. I don’t think we’ll return to the BINGO parlor. We need to harness this luck and move on to bigger, more lucrative, gaming endeavors. The Barcelona casino is next.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Siren Song of BINGO: Part I

For the past year, we’ve eyed them: the neon-lit BINGO emporiums that seem to be on every block in Barcelona, especially the one down the street from our apartment. BINGO. Everywhere. What’s so Spanish about BINGO? Do people really go to these places? And is it true that there’s cheap food and beer?

Tonight, Andrew and I will find out the answers to these questions. BINGO is on our list of “Things To Do Before Leaving Barcelona,” and we’ve made a plan to cross it off tonight. Andrew invited a group of friends, but, for some reason, the response has been lukewarm; two of his Catalan friends seem to have warily agreed to join us, but we may very well wind up playing BINGO ourselves. Let’s hope it’s in Spanish, not Catalan.

Tonight, I vow to pay off our wedding from BINGO. Victory is ours, I can feel it.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Thoughts on Soccer, and Puyol

The end of Andrew’s MBA program is approaching, which means an escalation in activities, dinners, parties, and other events. This weekend, MBA students from several other business schools came to Barcelona for a series of parties and team sporting events, leading to a lot of late nights and a few rather interesting spectacles. For example, the students from a school based outside Paris wore black berets the whole weekend. And at the sporting events on Friday, a big London wealth management firm had a presence at the site. “Are they still looking for new people?” Andrew asked a friend. “No,” he was told. “They’re here to offer their services.” In other words, it's MBA graduation time.

Last night, a local club hosted a party for the MBAs. However, informed that no one would come because there was a big Barcelona—Real Madrid soccer match on, the club set up two huge screens and everyone showed up right on time—10pm—to settle in for the game. And it was a great game, each side scoring fast, with Madrid finally up by one when there was just a minute left. Somehow, Barcelona managed to score at the very last second, with their nineteen-year-old prodigy player scoring his third goal of the game to tie up the match 3-3.

I still don’t know all the intricacies of soccer rules, trivia, and rivalries, but I do love watching it—the first time I’ve ever liked watching a sport. There are a lot of reasons why; but mainly, this season, it’s Puyol. Puyol is a Catalan player with a dynamic, leonine mane of curly hair who plays with such fiery passion that it’s clear he would die—or kill—for the team. He does nothing halfway. Each move he makes is extreme; he feels every second of the game—of life—in his very soul. The expression on his face at all times is one of deep, immeasurable intensity. I’ve never seen him smile; indeed, I doubt Puyol has ever smiled, and I have a very clear image in my head of Puyol as a small child, prone to inconsolable crying jags and fits of outrage, gazing out at the world with a permanent look of defiance, challenge, and even menace. He embodies all that is Catalan—the larger-than-life attitude, the unrelenting intensity, that seem to me to characterize Barcelona itself.

Each time I see Puyol on screen, I laugh, imagining his navigating life off the field. Puyol seems to have no modulation in the intensity of his reactions. I can see him confronting day-to-day tribulations—getting the wrong change from a taxi driver, missing a bus, finding that the grocery store has run out of milk—with the same extreme fervor that he exhibits during matches. I cannot imagine what it would be like to date or be married to Puyol. I’m sure every moment would be dramatic.

I like other players too. Last year, my favorite was Ronaldinho, because of his calm grace and his unrelenting smile. This year, I also like Messi, the nineteen-year-old player from Argentina. He is such a good player; yet he always looks like he’s just rolled off the couch, and is on his way back to another nap. He has a slightly rumpled nineteen-year-old’s look, like he would have arguments with his mother about cleaning his room.

The club was full of MBAs, their partners, and other hangers-on, and everyone watched the entire game intently no matter where in the world they were from. I overheard an American remarking during the game, “People in the U.S. would think it was weird to set up screens in a club to watch football. But here, for soccer, it’s normal.” It’s just one of a long, long list of reasons why Andrew and I feel so dreadful when we acknowledge that our time in Spain may be coming to an end in the next few months. There are so many reasons why we don’t want to leave. Puyol and the rest of FC Barcelona are the least of them.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Put It On, Put It All On

The trip home from Edinburgh counts as one of my most irritating and ridiculous airport experiences ever. I packed light for this eleven-day trip—just a backpack and a small shoulder bag—yet at the Edinburgh airport, just before I got to security, having passed through two checkpoints already with nothing said, a woman stopped me and said I had to stuff my shoulder bag into my backpack or else go back to the ticket counter and check one of the bags. “One bag per passenger,” she said. “Women can’t have a purse?” I asked desperately. “One bag only,” she said.

There was no way to fit even a lipstick in my overstuffed backpack, let alone squeeze in the entire contents of my shoulder bag (laptop, glasses case, wallet, huge book). But I refused to check a bag—I’ve sworn off checked luggage since Andrew and I had our bag “delayed” on a direct, two-hour flight from Venice to Barcelona. I left the security area and found a chair. I opened the backpack and proceeded to put on every sweater I’d packed. First a pink sweater over the long-sleeved black shirt I was wearing under a blazer. Then a white sweater. Then the blazer back on. I needed more space, so I tied two sweaters around my waist. Finally, finally, I could shove the bag—just barely—inside. The backpack wouldn’t zip, but I knew I’d have to take out the laptop and my one-quart resealable baggie of liquid toiletries once I got to security anyway, so I just carried the backpack in my arms. This time, the woman waved me through. I heaved myself through security then carried an armload of my belongings to a quiet spot and put myself back together. I never like flying but this counts as a new low, a more intense collision of stubbornness (I will not check a bag) and undeniable, immeasurable, I’m-never-flying-again hassle. There has to be a better way.

Edinburgh

On Thursday, when I told my B&B host in Galway that I was headed next to Edinburgh, his whole face lit up. “I’m from Edinburgh,” he said. “You’ll love it there. It’s beautiful. It’s—like Paris.” It was a bold statement. I was ready to see if it were true.

Getting to Edinburgh—more specifically, to my B&B in Edinburgh—was the part of this trip I’d been dreading. First, a bus from Galway to the Shannon airport; then a flight to Edinburgh; then a bus—some kind of bus—from that airport into the city center; then, somehow, finding my B&B which was a little outside the center. However, all went smoothly, I found my way, and soon I was on the B&B’s doorstep, proudly ringing the bell. Then ringing again, and again. It was dark by now—nearly 8pm—and I had no cash and no cell phone. But before I could work myself up into a frenzy of fallback plans, the B&B owner came apologizing through the front gate. Then I really was inside, in a beautiful, ornately ceilinged, and very chilly room. Edinburgh.

The next morning, I was served a hearty Scottish breakfast at the B&B—bacon, a fried egg, fried mushrooms, a grilled tomato, baked beans, cereal, toast, orange juice, and coffee. I thought I was the only guest but two men came to the breakfast room later. One requested no egg with his breakfast; the other said he wanted nothing related to either meat or dairy. The B&B woman looked at him blankly. “The mushrooms are cooked in butter,” she said. “Is that okay?” The man said no. “I don’t know how I’d cook them without butter,” she said, genuinely puzzled. The man suggested olive oil. I found the whole exchange funny.

Fortified, if a bit overfull, I set out to explore. Unlike in Galway, I had a long list of sights to see and places to visit; I started at the castle, a dark looming monstrosity that overlooks the entire city. My first thought at seeing the Old City was—this is not like Paris. The Old City is beautiful, but in an entirely different way than Paris. There were no small tables and woven chairs crowding the sidewalks, no exquisitely formed wrought-iron balconies, no wide lovely boulevards or romantic streetlights. Instead there were narrow streets and even narrower hidden stairways and doorways, all shadowed by tall, dark-stoned buildings and that looming castle. It’s said that Edinburgh is one of the most haunted cities in the world, and indeed it did feel that way. My first night there, I even had a terrifying dream in which a ghostly woman stood over me in my bed at the B&B, then touched me on my hip to wake me up—I woke up ready to scream. It didn’t help that though the day started sunny, the cool shadows and gray clouds soon overtook the sky, leading to an afternoon and evening of cold rain.

I saw a lot in this haunted city: the castle, several museums, the Royal Mile, the Palace of Holyrood. I had soup for lunch and tea for a break from the rain and takeaway fish and chips before I joined a walking tour that night called the “City of the Dead.” The tour is the only one in Edinburgh to have access to an area within the Greyfriars Cemetery that has the most recorded incidents of paranormal activity in the world—over the past few years, hundreds of tour-takers have reported burns, bites, and bruises, and nearly two hundred have been knocked unconscious during the tour. I felt primed to have an “interaction,” as the guide called it, especially after my creepy dream the night before; but the poltergeist was quiet that night, and our tour ended without incident (to everyone’s disappointment). An interesting side note to the tour—our guide pointed out an apartment window that overlooked the cemetery and told us this was where J.K. Rowling lived when she wrote the first Harry Potter book. Beyond the cemetery, well within her view, is an immense and amazing castlelike boarding school, much like Hogwarts. Interesting to see where her inspiration may have come from.

The next day I walked miles—through several more museums, then through the New Town, and then more exploring in the Old Town. I had a beer at Greyfriars Bobby, a pub dedicated to a small dog who, according to legend, kept vigil on his master’s grave in the nearby Greyfriars Cemetery for fourteen years. Again, the day started sunny but cold, then turned to rain later in the day. I ended the day, legs aching, with a Nepalese dinner near the B&B, feeling relieved that I could head home now but also happy that the trip had been a success, that I got to see two new countries and add another notch to my “solo travel” belt.

Incidentally, this is also officially the end of the crazy mish-mash of one-way tickets and carefully timed return flights that began when I headed to the U.S. for Thanksgiving. I've finally thrown away the last of my stack of flight-information printouts; and now a new wave of trips (and there are many to come in the months ahead) can begin.