Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Madrid II: Calm Before the Storm

Barcelona had been summer-warm and sunny, and we were shocked to find that Madrid was not only rainy but really, really cold. Not the weather for my sandals, or anything else I’d packed—it was my worst packing job ever. Thank goodness for my Sevogia-purchased sneakers. The last two days of the trip were cold but rain-free, however, so we still had plenty of opportunities for lounging in plazas, soaking up sun. Though the Plaza Mayor is lovely, I preferred the Plaza de Santa Ana, a smaller plaza close to our hotel in Huertas. Lively and full of families and couples, it was the perfect place to sit in the sun and drink a café con leche or a cerveza to kick off a tapear or while away the afternoon. An accordion player strolled from table to table; he played some Frank Sinatra for us, singing the words in Spanish. We cannot leave, we kept saying to each other in the plaza. We can’t leave Madrid, and we can’t leave Spain.

We ate well in Madrid. We had menus (a set-price three course meal) for lunch; we had croissants for breakfast. Our first night, we had churros y chocolate then stopped at a great place called Ceverceria 100 Montaditos—a stand-up restaurant serving 100 kinds of small sandwiches. One night we did a tapear that included patatas bravas (not as good as Barcelona’s), olives in the Plaza Mayor, some amazing chorizo, and a final stop at a bustling Galician restaurant where we had fried calamari and a plate of steamed clams. We can’t leave Spain, we said as we drank our bottle of wine and let the evening slide by. We can’t leave Europe. We can’t leave Spain.

I felt truly sad yesterday, when we reluctantly left our perch in the Plaza de Santa Ana and headed to the airport—almost as sad as I used to feel when ending a trip to Barcelona meant saying goodbye to Andrew for a few weeks. Obviously, that kind of goodbye plays no part in this. But now that we’re back in Barcelona, we’re in the final stretch. Decisions must be made. Plans must be put in place. A complex piling-up of plane tickets must begin. Knowing all of that was ahead made it very hard to leave Madrid.

Segovia

On Saturday, we took a bus to Segovia—we wanted to do a day trip someplace that Andrew hadn’t been, since he’d been to Madrid several times before. Once again, it was unbelievably cold, and even rainier than it had been in Madrid. My feet, still clad in sandals, were soaked immediately upon leaving the bus station. Fortunately, there was a chino (the politically incorrect name for a corner store) right across the street, where I was able to buy socks and sneakers—surprisingly cute for just ten euros. Warmth.

Segovia was charming, even in the rain, and we saw the large Roman aquaduct that runs through the main square and visited the cathedral and the castle. At the castle, we made the precarious climb into the tower—precarious because the spiral stairway was narrow, and it was the way both up and down. Of course, there was no castle employee to organize any kind of system; it’s Spain. People were squeezed into the tower, pressed against the wall to let others up or down. Claustrophobia lifted an eyebrow, wondering if it should spring into action; fortunately, the climb wasn’t long enough for that.

The highlight of our Segovia sojourn was lunch at the Mesón de Cándido, reputed to be the oldest tavern in town and famous for its cochinillo—roast suckling pig, a specialty of the region. We were both a little wary of the suckling pig, fearing that it might be carved at the table, with its head on display, or even served to us with the head. This may have proved difficult to bear. Fortunately, after we finished our sopa de castellana (a kind of bread and egg soup) and setas segoviana (Segovian wild mushrooms), we were served portions of the pig—with no head in sight. Andrew, however, had two little pig’s feet on his plate, which we tried to ignore.

Outside, it was raining, and we took our time enjoying our cochinillo and bottle of red wine. When we neared the end of the bottle, we began (once again) mourning our departure. “We wouldn’t be having suckling pig and a bottle of wine on a Saturday afternoon in the U.S.,” Andrew said. “We’d probably be mowing the lawn.” “Or fixing the screen door,” I added. These are two activities that come up a lot in our discussions about moving back to the U.S., which we tend to link with moving to Sacramento. “Can you even get suckling pig in the U.S.?” I asked, ignoring the fact that we’d never even really wanted suckling pig until today, and that we were both wary of the pig’s crispy roasted skin, and that, given the choice, we’d likely order something other than suckling pig. It’s not, of course, the suckling pig that matters. We’re at three weeks and counting, and we’re starting to dig in our heels.

Madrid I: The Big Three

As our time in Spain comes to an agonizing close, it’s fitting that our penultimate trip was to its capital. This weekend—finally—I saw Madrid, which I’d vowed not to leave Spain without doing. And the effect it had was that we are more reluctant than ever to leave Spain at all.

Everything I’ve ever read about Madrid talks about the “big three” museums—the Prado, the Thyssen-Bornemisza, and the Reina Sofia—so visiting these was at the top of my list for the trip. Andrew had seen them all before, years ago, but he was more than willing to visit them again.

Our first stop: the Prado. The collection is simply too large to cover in one visit, so we decided to focus on the big three—El Greco, Velasquez, and Goya. This was more than enough territory to cover, and there was a lot to take in. I hadn’t known, for instance, that El Greco is actually a nickname—“the Greek”—for Domenikos Theotokopoulous. I hadn’t known that Velasquez devoted so much of his work to dwarfs and other freakish figures—wandering through his galleries made me wonder if he hadn’t been an influence in some way on Diane Arbus. And Goya’s “black paintings” were a surprise as well, sinister and disturbing. In each of these galleries were small vending machines selling small, in-depth guidebooks on each painter’s works (we bought them all), so we definitely got a full dose of art exploration during our visit.

Two of Madrid’s museums is too much for one day, but we squeezed in the Thyssen anyway. It’s a truly eclectic collection, spanning many different time periods and styles; but it’s interesting to see many of these painters in such close proximity to one another. Art fatigue led us to walk through the galleries much more quickly than they deserved, but there’s only so much you can take in on one day.

We saved the Reina Sofia as well as the Sorolla museum for other days. The Sorolla museum was as interesting for the paintings as for the house in which they’re hung—it’s the house where Sorolla lived and worked, with a huge, airy studio and lovely Moorish-style gardens outside. Andrew and I both love Sorolla’s peaceful, light-filled paintings of windswept women and children on beaches.

The Reina Sofia, of course, houses the Guernica, but the museum is much more than just this. The building itself is lovely—by far, for me, the nicest of the big three—with galleries surrounded by a window-lined hallway that overlooks a lush courtyard sculpture garden. There are several rooms of works by Dalí and Miró, two artists I feel a particular affection for simply because I feel like I’ve had such in-depth experiences with both—Miró at the dedicated museum here in Barcelona, and Dalí in our weekend trip through the Dalí Triangle in November. Seeing new works is always a treat. And there are roomsful of Picassos, including a long series of women crying over their dead children—an image that appears, strikingly, in the Guernica, and which seemed even more affective after being repeated in paintings throughout the gallery.

Just like Semana Santa and the tapear in southern Spain and the Modernista architecture in Barcelona, the remarkable museum-going is what, for me, sets Madrid apart from the other cities. Madrid holds its own art-wise with New York, London, and Paris, and it’s one particular reason—among many reasons—why I’m happy we made the journey.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Breaks Like Glass

Monday morning was a confluence of disasters. Not only was our terrace door’s broken window still jagged and covered messily with a spread-apart El Corte Ingles shopping bag, but it had poured overnight and the drain on our terrace had ceased to function. A deep, muddy pool had formed in the corner of the terrace. The apartment was also a mess. Of course, this was the day Andrew received a text message from our apartment’s management company, informing him that someone would be coming by today to show the apartment to a prospective renter.

This was not good news. Since renting this apartment, we’d learned that the guy who runs the management company is in the habit of bilking many of his renters for as much money as he can take from them, knowing that most of them are international students who usually leave Spain after graduation and have little recourse—or desire—to chase their money down. A couple of weeks ago, we learned that two friends who’d rented from him last year had gotten so angry at his runaround that they called the police (the couple are two New Yorkers—he should have known better) and set a court date. He freaked out and gave them their money.

So Andrew and I have been preparing for a showdown, and our case would, obviously, be weakened by the fact that we’d broken a window. We’d planned on just getting it fixed and having no one be the wiser. Now Andrew had to call the company and tell them what we’d done. I poured Spanish Drain-o over the terrace drain. And we still had to get the window fixed.

We’d counted on our door lady to know who to call. She had no idea. But I’d picked up a copy of Barcelona’s English-language magazine this weekend, and in the back a few “tradesmen” were listed in the classified ads. Yesterday, I called one named Ian. “This happens all the time,” he assured me. “The glass windows in these old doors are so thin; when the wind blows them shut they break like…they just break like…well, they break like glass.” Indeed. He showed up this morning and cleaned the window’s wound; tomorrow he’ll install the glass.

“Is there a normal price range for this?” Andrew asked this morning. We weren’t sure if a British handyman would be more or less likely to try to rip us off. He named his hourly rate, very reasonable (to us), and said the glass would cost just 5 or 7 euros. “Oh, good,” Andrew said with relief. “We were expecting to pay like 500 euros for this job.” You could practically see Ian kicking himself.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Temps de Flors

Yesterday, Andrew and I and three of his friends went to Girona for the Temps de Flors, the annual flower show where the interior courtyards of private homes are opened up and filled with flower displays. It was so nice to be back in Girona—the last time we were there, we got engaged—and I really think that if I had to choose anyplace in the world to live, Girona would be at or near the top of the list.

The flowers weren’t what we expected. The displays were more artful than bountiful—one featured plaster hands reaching out from a swath of grass, like they were rising from the dead; another featured single gerbera daisies tied to the ends of giant orange balloons—but it was fun to see these otherwise hidden spaces. On the steps of the cathedral, large balls covered with moss were arranged as though they were cascading from the top; and on the steps of another church, flowers and grass covered the steps from top to bottom in a blocky graphic design, which was more the sort of thing we expected to see.

Later that night, we went to a club at the beach to see Moby DJ. We were looking forward to seeing Moby in person—had even gotten tickets in advance—and were then subsequently so crushed and pummeled by the Ecstasy-blurred crowd that we wound up leaving halfway through, at the unheard-of hour of 3:30am. That was shamefully early for Barcelona; outside the club, people were lining up, waiting to get in. I felt old.

One thing we couldn’t complain about was the volume. After our experience with the eardrum-shattering sound at the club in Romania, we’d come prepared with earplugs that Andrew picked up beforehand at a pharmacy. Unsure of the vocabulary word for “earplugs,” Andrew explained to the pharmacist that we were going to a concert and wanted something to put in our ears to protect them from the sound. The pharmacist was flummoxed. “But then why are you going to the concert?” he asked. “That’s ridiculous.” He reluctantly agreed to sell Andrew the earplugs. “I don’t understand why you’re even going if you can’t hear anything, you absurd, safety-obsessed American.” I wasn’t there during this exchange, and I’m making up the last part, but that was definitely the gist. And indeed, not one other person at the club was wearing earplugs, even though the bass was absolutely painful without them. Once again, I felt old.

The Window

Earlier this week, as I was closing the terrace door, Andrew observed from across the room, “Every time you close that door, I think you’re going to put your hip right through that window.” Each of the tall French doors that open onto the terrace is made up of three large panes of glass. Getting the doors to latch properly takes a bit of effort.

I rolled my eyes. “I’m not even touching the glass,” I said. “I’m touching the frame. I think I know how to close my own terrace doors.”

Yesterday, as I closed the terrace doors, I put my hip right through the window. There was a hideous crack and shattering, and huge, wedge-shaped pieces clattered to the ground on both sides of the door. I screamed and froze, waiting to determine if I was okay, to see if I could feel blood trickling from my bare feet or bare arm, and looked to see if my dress was shredded. Luckily, and I’m not sure how, but I was not injured, save for the tiniest of snags in the skirt of my dress.

What a stupid pain. As if we didn’t already have five million things to do before moving back to the US, we now have to figure out how to replace this window. Incidentally, weeks before moving out of our other apartment on Montjuic, Andrew put his feet right through the mirrored top of our coffee table. It’s fitting here, I suppose, to wreak a little havoc—we won’t be leaving this place without some wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

One Month

One month. We’re leaving Spain in one month. No more dithering; no more idle half-planning. We’ve booked our tickets back to the US, and we’ll be there in exactly one month.

The exact “where” is still uncertain. We’ll make our US debut in Pennsylvania, for a friend’s wedding, a family reunion (the Littells will meet the whole Orlando clan), and a whirlwind week of dress-shopping and other wedding planning. And after that—who knows? Either (very) north or (very) west. If we go north, we have a house to live in; if we go west, an apartment search will have to begin. In just a few weeks we’ll be true nomads, our few belongings slung in bags over our shoulders, booking last-minute plane tickets to wherever it is we need to be. We consider it an accomplishment (of sorts) simply to know a date when our feet will hit US soil.

The accomplishment is bittersweet. We stared at the “purchase” button on Orbitz as we booked our tickets, unable to click it for several long moments. And at the beach this weekend, snoozing happily in the sun, we suddenly heard English with an unmistakable Californian accent. “Would you guys be pumped if I turned the music up?” asked a conspicuous Californian, his hair swept up into a kind of knit cap that was completely inappropriate for the beach. Andrew and I shuddered. Are we going to start saying things like that? we asked each other, horrified. We vowed that the second it happens, if it happens, we’ll drop everything—just leave it, leave the apartment, leave our bags—and head instantly to the airport to come back East.

To anyone from California who’s reading this blog—apologies. Obviously, that’s a silly stereotype; we know there are wonderful things about the West Coast, and that we’ll undoubtedly find a lot of things to love if we wind up there. The point is this: it won’t be Barcelona. No place will. It's going to be a very sad departure.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

A Withering Quest at Corte

Today, preparing to host a little poker night at our apartment, Andrew and I reluctantly walked down Passeig de Gracia to the Plaza Catalunya outpost of El Corte Ingles, Spain’s gigantic department store chain. Though you can find pretty much anything at Corte, both of us dread going there, for two main reasons: first, because everything is ridiculously expensive; and second, because everything is impossible to find. Superglue; power surge protectors; bath towels; a CD player; sun-dried tomatoes—we know that they are in the store, somewhere. But there’s no guarantee we’ll find them (or can afford them if we do—two years ago, when Andrew needed bath towels, the prohibitive price meant he had to make do with the two he’d brought with him from home until I could bring him Target-bought towels during one of my visits).

As a side note, after two years, we have yet to find a hardware store. I had to bring picture-hanging nails from the US when I returned after the holidays.

Anyway, our search today was for poker chips. Though an entire half-floor is dedicated to games, poker chips and playing cards were nowhere in sight. Not knowing the word for “poker chips” made asking for help a challenge, but Andrew successfully described what we needed. We were redirected to the ground floor, where there’s a small section to the left of the perfume/cosmetic department dedicated solely to “adult” games—chess, poker, and dominoes. There was also a tray of Bic lighters, and a strange assortment of FC Barcelona soccer paraphernalia. They did not have a regular set of poker chips.

Tired of Corte already, we nonetheless persevered to the lower floor, to the supermercado. We’ve shopped here quite often, yet the Corte retains its ability to flummox. Nothing is where it should be; or, if it’s there, it’s hiding. First quest: drain unclogger. Before entering the main shopping area, there’s a section solely for cleaning products; we found the drain unclogger there. Inside the main store, the withering quest for the rest of our list items continued. There are no fewer than three separate areas stocked with various types of crackers, and no fewer than four separate sections for different versions of cheese; this all inspires a kind of shopper’s rage. Shopping at the Corte is exhausting, and we always exit the store in a kind of desperation for open air.

I have never shopped in a place as confusingly organized as the Corte. But things like good fresh produce and sun-dried tomatoes—things that only the Corte can provide—keep us going back again and again, against our will.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Impromptu

Last night, Andrew and a friend who is also his business partner had an evening conference call with a potential website builder who lives in Greece, and we planned to have dinner together here at the apartment afterwards. We set the table on our terrace, adding a new element: a bed sheet draped over the metal rods that arch over the terrace in a kind of nonexistent canopy. After finding—for the second time—that a large piece of heavy iron from an upper balcony’s railing had plunged down to our terrace, we’ve grown alarmed at the prospect of someone getting clocked in the head with falling debris. Hence the bed sheet. In a way, it looks almost Mediterranean-beach-cabana.

For dinner, Andrew made a pasta with chicken and sun-dried tomatoes. “Where’s you find the sun-dried tomatoes?” the friend asked, having searched fruitlessly for them himself in Barcelona. We always get them at the mega-grocery store at El Corte Ingles, though it’s always an adventure: they usually only have one or two jars, and the jars’ location always changes. Spain, Spain.

Before dinner, Andrew and I had decided to invite a few people over for a drink later on; Andrew texted some of his friends, assuming no one would show up since it was so last-minute. I’d gone to the grocery store and idly bought a bag of chips, two bottles of wine, and two six-packs (total: 11 euros—I love Spain). At ten, the door started buzzing and buzzing, and soon there were fifteen people on our terrace. Our impromptu get-together turned out to be a lively little affair, which ultimately moved inside after we were angrily shushed at midnight by the upstairs neighbors.

A few people snacked on leftovers from dinner. “Where’d you find the sun-dried tomatoes?” another friend asked. Seems we’d unearthed a kind of hidden treasure.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Saturday in Barcelona

Yesterday was a strange day weather-wise: blue-skied and sunny in the morning and afternoon, then dark and pouring-rain from late-afternoon on. Andrew and I set out on a long walk at the tail end of the niceness, then found ourselves pursued by threatening rain clouds midway down the Rambla. Fortunately, our destination was close: the Columbus monument, a tall column with a statue of Columbus perched on top that serves as a kind of exclamation point at the bottom of La Rambla, just before the port. It’s possible to take an elevator to the top of the monument, which we’d never done before; and we set out yesterday determined to cross another item off our ‘things to do before leaving’ list.

The rain held off as we rode the elevator to the top of the monument, accompanied with a long-haired man who operated the elevator with a key. Andrew spoke a few words to him in Spanish, and the man asked where we were from. We established that we were from New York but had lived here for two years. “Two years?” the man said incredulously, putting a hand on Andrew’s shoulder. “Two years?” I was unsure about what was prompting his reaction; perhaps he found it odd that we were doing such a touristy thing in a city that was our home. But then he said, gravely, with only a mild hint of a smile, “Two years—and you don’t speak Catalan?”

The man then said, “Castilian—eh. Castellanos are—” and here he held his hands up to his temples, miming bull horns—“They are bulls, you know? Barcelona is Catalan. I am Catalan.”

We reached the top of the column. The sky was full of rain clouds, but we could see the Rambla snaking through the city, a tree-filled crevice among the pink and beige and yellow buildings. In the distance were the Sagrada Familia, the National Palace museum, and the sea.

Back on the street, heading for the metro stop at the end of the Rambla, we found our eyes pulled—against our will—to a man waiting across the street for the light to change. He was an older gentleman, completely naked save for socks and tennis shoes, with a Speedo tattooed over the Speedo portion of his body. Heads turned; Is he--?; That guy’s naked! He crossed the street, unconcerned. This was, by far, one of the Rambla’s strangest sights yet.

Snail Mail

It’s official: Spain has the slowest mail in the world. I knew it was slow—a birthday gift sent to me by a friend took almost two months to arrive—but slowness has now been taken to a new level.

Yesterday, Andrew went to campus to clean out his mailbox one final time, and he found a letter—a letter I’d been waiting for since last September. It was an ATM card that had been sent to PA to replace my expiring ATM card, and which my father had mailed along to me here. Not receiving that card was a huge fiasco, requiring many phone calls to Citibank to have a new card issued, as I was on my way someplace—Amsterdam? Marrakech?—and really needed to have access to cash.

That story’s long over. But it seems the little letter was still, all this time, making its snail-slow path across continents—or simply sitting in a bin in a Spanish mailroom. Something tells me it had lots of company.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Decisions, Decisions

In high school, I played Jack’s Mother in Into the Woods. I love the show (somehow, still, after our production of it; it’s a resilient show, one could say that much), and one of Cinderella’s lines has always stood out as a favorite: You know what your decision is—which is not to decide.

With graduation now past, and with Andrew’s classmates heading off around the world to start the next stage of their lives, I feel very much that we’re in Cinderella’s state, flummoxed by decisions about what to do now. The most dreaded of all questions—“So, what’s next for you?”—comes our way many times a day here. Though it’s a difficult question to answer, it’s not an angst-ridden kind of difficulty; instead, it’s difficult because it’s just so unbelievably complex. Our answer depends—will depend—on a series of If this, then this…If that, then this other thing. The this’s and that’s, which will become clearer in the weeks ahead, will determine coast; home; path; landscape. Northeast or West Coast? Bustling state capital or isolated woods? Employee or self-employed? Luckily for us, the choices are all good, and not necessarily mutually exclusive; and we’re excited about the various options. But a lot of things—okay, all things—are up in the air.

Molly told me recently that she can’t talk to me about our staggering flowchart of future plans because it makes her too stressed out. And I agree: our vast landscape of contingencies is a little overwhelming. (And wedding planning is another great beast entirely.) Andrew seems to take solace in what we can’t do—i.e., force plans into shape—and is much better than I am at taking it day by day. I, for my part, try to see at least far enough into the future to make sure we won’t find ourselves without health insurance in the middle of July.

We know one thing for sure: we’re leaving Barcelona. And though we’re very, very sad, it’s begun to occur to both of us that staying on might very well start to feel like we’re the last guests to leave a party, lingering long after our welcome has worn out. There’s something to be said for staying, especially since this is a city we’ve come to love. But there’s something to be said, equally, for moving on, and starting the next thing—whatever it is—somewhere new.

In Into the Woods, Cinderella solves her dilemma by not solving it; she simply leaves a clue for her prince, stepping resolutely out of her glass slipper and brushing her hands of the whole thing. Unlike Cinderella, we’re willing—eager, even—to make our decisions. And it’s difficult to be patient while we wait for the many disparate pieces to fall into place.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Graduation

The thing that brought us to Barcelona—Andrew’s MBA—has, unbelievably, come to an end. This weekend was graduation, and Andrew processed with his classmates to receive his diploma, applauded by me, his parents and sister, and a family friend. It was such a huge life decision for Andrew to make—whether to do the MBA, and where to do it—and it has all been such a great success. The next chapters are going to be very exciting.

Graduation was a very nice affair, with families there from all over the world. Now many of Andrew’s friends have left the city, on their way to other places to begin their post-MBA lives. We’re still here, for now, and in no way ready to leave. We had a lovely few days with Andrew’s family, even fitting in a concert at the amazing Palau de la Musica Catalana, one of the most ornate Modernista structures in Barcelona, which had been on our “to do before leaving” list. We sent back three enormous bags of stuff with his family, feeling sad to make even this gesture—a minor one, to be sure, of winter clothes and already-read books—towards departure. We have only a slim idea of where in the world, or when, we’ll see these bags again.

On Monday, I explored still another new place in Barcelona: the inside of a bridal salon. I’ve been drooling over the dresses in the window of the amazing Spanish store Pronovias since I moved to Barcelona—and my engagement ring finally gave me my golden (white-golden) entry ticket. Andrew called and made an appointment for me last week; and on Monday afternoon, I was buzzed into the shop with Andrew’s mother, sister, and family friend.

The night before, I’d looked up some wedding dress vocabulary words—sleeves, lace, straps, strapless, wedding date. And indeed, the entire encounter was in Spanish. I looked through the heavy books of dresses and chose the ones I wanted to try on; and as I tried each on, I explained to the girl helping me what I did and did not like. Fortunately, dress-talk lends itself quite nicely to mime; but I did, surprisingly, fare quite well with the Spanish and found a (very, very expensive) dress that I loved. I have the dress’s name written on a little Pronovias card, with the store’s phone number. Call me, the “Eco” suggests. I want to see you again.

In any case, once again it appears that I actually have learned some Spanish. No matter where we are next, I need to keep it up.