Saturday, August 30, 2014

Scenes from the Festa Major de Sants

It's widely acknowledged here in Barcelona that the summer festival in Gracia that I wrote about last time, is the one for the big crowds and the tourists. But the summer festival that's for the locals is the one in my own neighborhood of Sants. When we moved to this neighborhood, we had no idea that it had a certain reputation and we knew nothing of its history. We later learned that this was a former industrial hub in the city and that families who live here have lived here for generations meaning that there's a strong community spirit here. Today, our neighborhood has also gotten a reputation for being home to many young hippies, plenty hipsters (artisanal beers at Homo Sibaris anyone?) and fervent political activists (yep, this was the neighborhood where the rioting took place a few months ago over the demolition of an occupied city building). All of this is very interesting to know of course (or it is for me anyway), but let's move on to the festival and the street decorations, shall we?

Here are some scenes from the Fiesta de Sants:

First up, a medieval themed street in Carrer Alcolea de d'alt complete with swords and shields, darts, and a castle. These made up flags with dragons made me feel like I was in Game of Thrones or something. 

A tribute to Barcelona's beloved architect, Antoni Gaudí, with a mini version of Parc Guëll on Carrer Vallespir.  You can't see it very well, but that's actually water coming out of the iguana's mouth. Clever, eh?

I told you our neighborhood was political. So why not a satirically themed Communist North Korea street on Carrer Alcolea baix? It was funny and mildly disturbing at the same time. 

More from the communist street. There was a tank, this fighter plane, a checkpoint and fake propaganda pinned up here and there 

In our day and age, the designers of the themed streets fully expect people to post to social networking sites so they created a 'selfie' backdrop here. I hate that that word's been adopted into the Spanish language. The English one too actually. 

Carrer Roses was decorated with a comic book theme. Specifically, the long running Spanish comic 13, Rue del Percebe. It was so well done! I instantly went home and looked this comic up because, not being from here originally, I'd never heard of it. Here's a close up of one  of the boxes:

 I loved finding the mini details like the picture hung on the wall, the sconce, and the flowers on the balcony. 

There's so much more to the festivities than the street decorations. There are concerts, dancing, water balloon fights, paint fights, puppet shows, face painting, balloon animals, and more. It's a lively but noisy time to be in the city. Sometimes the festivities go on until the wee hours and the Professor and I complain to each other about the noise of the crowds and the loud, dated music (the YMCA AGAIN?! What year is this?!) But really it's a lot of fun. 
 And it's also a great opportunity to buy yummy fried foods and food on a stick. 

And dance around with your squealing, happy baby to disco music under strings of lights.

So that's what we've been up to lately. Here's what we did last week in case you missed it. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Scenes from the Festa Major de Gracia

As I've written before, summers in Barcelona can be a bit of a bummer. But the hot and boring days are interrupted every August with the arrival of the neighborhood festivals known as the festes majors. These are enormous block parties organized and carried out by several districts in Barcelona. The festivals distinguish themselves from the average street fair by having elaborate, sometimes totally over the top decorations always within a certain theme. So one neighborhood can be decked out in Super Mario Brothers decorations and another can feature African safari or something. When I say decorations, I don't just mean paper streamers and balloons like at a child's birthday party. I'm talking about enormous structures, made of plastic, wood, often paper maché, and tons of recycled products. These are decorations that the various committees of every neighborhood spend all year working on from one festa major to another. These decorations bring people from all over the city to a specific neighborhood to marvel at the ingenuity of the creators while listening to live music, drinking some beer, and hanging out with their families and friends. Last week, we headed over to the neighborhood of Gracia, which many locals think has the best festa major, to check out this year´s decorations. The themes ranged from Willy Wonka to zombies.

Here are some more we liked: 

This was the Bollywood themed street. Looks fun, right? I loved the vibrant colors. In addition to the lanterns and the jewel toned sashes everywhere, there was a Taj Mahal-like entrance and pictures of famous Bollywood stars (I'm assuming they're famous anyway, I'm not an authority on the subject) and ....

this paper maché elephant! He was set up on the other end of the Bollywood street bidding you farewell. It was huge! The decorators really went all out here, I'd say. There's a contest for best decorated street and this one came in second place.

This Amazon themed street won first prize in the contest. It was decorated with birds, a crocodile which you can see on the right side and tons of fake foliage made of recycled plastic products like water bottles. The best part was that as you exited, water misted down at you which most kids got a huge kick out of-except for Roman who got freaked out. 

These origami cranes were from another street decorated entirely in a Japanese theme. There were paper lanterns, geisha, and samurai swords. The Professor joked that if it only had a sushi station, it would have won his vote. 

When the Professor and I walked into this street, which was called, simply, 'W', we were a bit bewildered as to what the 'W' referred to. There were odd, fantastical decorations all around. We were thinking, Dr. Who for a bit before we saw this chocolate fountain. Then we had a joint a-ha moment- Willly Wonka!

This picture cracks me up a bit. Roman obviously doesn't know how to do a carnival cutout so he was shrieking and squirming as the Professor tried to hold him up and stick his face more or less in the hole. The whole time, I'm calling to him to look at the camera and smile as a line forms behind me. Parents can be pretty crazy, I reflected later. 

So that was our weekend at the Gracia festival. Stay tuned this week for pictures from the Festa Major de Sants, my neighborhood!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Travel tip: Bring back food!

Okay, this is not actually a tip that is intended to make your vacation easier or facilitate your travel in any way. It's a tip to help you souvenir shop because I, for one, used to find that one of the most stressful parts of traveling. Of course it's not up there with delayed flights, communication barriers, or toddler melt downs in train stations. But when I first started traveling, I would walk around a new city trying to keep my eye out for things that would make interesting, thoughtful but relatively inexpensive gifts; it was like Christmas shopping in a foreign country-argh!

So a few years ago, I picked up a tip from my sister, an inveterate traveler herself: go to the supermarket for your souvenirs. Basically, this idea is rooted in the fact that many people love foods from different countries because they're a novelty and because these foods are either not available or prohibitively expensive in other countries. As a bonus for the traveler, these gifts will be cheaper than something you buy in a souvenir shop and it will be more convenient because chances are at some point during your trip, you will visit a supermarket.

Think about the possibilities! You could bring back a hard to find liquor, unusual desserts (like red bean cakes which I've received from China), or Lay's potato chips with jamón serrano flavoring (from Spain, of course!)

For my part, I have brought back homemade turrón (a typical Christmastime sweet here in Spain), bags of Juan Valdez coffee from Colombia, and recently from my trip to France, Bonne Maman jams in unique flavors like chestnut and rhubarb.

Of course, there are some limitations as to what you can bring back to your home country so make sure you check first (for American readers, here's a link to the TSA foods page). But this is so much better than the usual stuff people bring back from their travels (another refrigerator magnet? groan), at least in my opinion.

What do you guys think? Do you bring back food? If so, what from where?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Scenes from French Catalonia: Perpignan, Collioure, & Ceret

Over the weekend, the Professor, the little one and I returned from a short but delightful vacation to French Catalonia. This is the region of France closest to Spain just on the other side of the Pyrenees; an area which, although technically a part of France, still identifies culturally as Catalan. (If you want to read more about the simultaneous existence of the French and Catalan cultures, I found this article fascinating). We took the high speed train from Barcelona to Perpignan where we stayed but we made day trips to the seaside town of Collioure and to a tiny, artistic town nestled at the foot of the Pyrenees, Ceret.

Before I share our pictures and the details of our stay, I have to mention that this trip came about in a totally backwards way. Normally when planning a trip, you first decide where you want to go, then you look for your accommodations, then you determine your means of travel. When I started planning this trip, I started looking for accommodations first without giving much importance to where we would visit. I knew I didn't want to travel too far from Barcelona (two hours on the train max) but there are just so many scenic towns around here (I'm not trying to brag. Seriously!). I considered somewhere on the Costa Brava and looked at many places in Southern France. I was scouring Airbnb for hours every day looking for an appropriate place. I wanted to stay in an apartment that was itself child friendly and in a family friendly city which basically just meant that the city had plenty of parks, supermarkets in walking distance and plenty to do. I finally discovered this place for rent in Perpignan and it was perfect for us. I wouldn't say that Perpignan is a must-see tourist attraction though it does attract many tourists especially at this time of year. It's a decent size city so it has many restaurants, cafes, nightlife, and high quality shopping but still with a village feel. It also has a major train station (Salvador Dalí reportedly called it the 'center of the world') and it offers coach bus service to many of the surrounding villages for only 1 Euro. For us, it was the perfect destination!

Here are some scenes from our trip:

(Update: Found the photo of the canal! Here we are!)

This is the city center in Perpignan all decked out for the music festival which is every Thursday night throughout the month of August and some of July. On the left is a lovely canal that runs through the city. I thought we got a picture of it but apparently not.

This is one of the main tourist attractions in Perpignan, Le Castillet but we only saw it from the outside. When we travel, we rarely do the touristy stuff unless it's something major that we haven't seen before. We normally just prefer to explore a city the way the natives would. Nevertheless, I thought the castle was quite pretty at nighttime. 

Perpignan has quite a few good restaurants that serve a mix of French, Catalan and Spanish food. We can eat tapas anytime we want in Barcelona, so we chose to eat at places that did mostly French food. Roman was especially thrilled that all the brasseries we visited served his favorite dish--pommes frites (french fries). 

Snails! There was a farmer's market in the Place de la Republique every morning and we'd frequently stop by some of the vendor's stalls to buy fruit and just ogle vegetables really. We weren't brave enough to order any snails but they serve these in Spain too so we have time to warm to the idea. Have you tried them? What do you think? 

We always make a point whenever we travel to find local parks for Roman to play. It's an opportunity for us to have some downtime and for him to run and explore and interact with other children. In Perpignan, as in other parts of France we've visited to date, you can find such pretty ones! This one is in a square called Bir Hakeim a little outside the downtown area. It's obviously a great place to go if you have kids but even if you don't, it's quite a large park with trails, fountains, and plenty of grass so it'd be perfect for a picnic under a shady tree. 

I feel it's compulsory whenever in France to ride a carousel because you can always find one in a park or a plaza. This one is in the Place de la Republique and as you can see Roman was enchanted. He rode it twice and would have loved a third go round but we dragged him away. He didn't go quietly as you might have guessed. 

Front row seats! This was the night of the music festival and there were musicians, acrobats, and dancers all over town. We particularly liked this group, whose music I'm not even sure how to describe. You can check them out if you like: Les Brank'Ignobles. 

Outside the Cathedral of St. Jean, there is a marble fountain and because of its circular shape, Roman wanted to run around it a few hundred times. But at least he stopped to pose for this picture. He's getting much better at holding still for the camera and has even learned how to say 'cheese'. 

This was day two in Collioure. Apparently this place is not as much of a secret as I thought! There were as many tourists as there were pebbles on the beach. As we walked down the narrow streets, we were literally elbowing our way through. You can see the attraction though, right? The water was so blue and clear and the setting is just beautiful with this magnificent castle on one side and an old church on the other. 

The port was so charming and colorful. We loved the brightly painted boats. 

A shot of me and my little darling at the water's edge. On the one hand, the beach in Collioure is perfect for little ones because it's very shallow and the waves are small and gentle. But on the other hand, the ocean floor and the beach are covered in scorching hot pebbles and that can make it hard for little feet. Roman, for one, was not a big fan. He's just a Barcelona baby who's used to the sand. P.S. I have the craziest tan, I know. I was hoping my back would get some sun to match my shoulders but alas...

We didn't manage to find a single park or playground in Collioure and that was tough on Roman because he couldn't play on the beach since the rocks were too hot and too hard on his feet. So we found this little plaza for him to burn off some energy and he excitedly ran around for over half an hour while the Professor dutifully followed him. 

On to Ceret! I have to say, this town was my favorite one by far. It's so charming and quaint and undiscovered. There weren't throngs of tourists, because really, there's not that much to see. The city boasts one art museum (but it's a good one) and has neither a train station nor an airport. The only way to get here is to drive or take a bus. This makes it feel like a secret, special place and for us, it was. 

Ceret was a hub for many artists, most notably Picasso whose name can be seen in many parts of the city from squares to cafes. As you walk about, you can see why so many artists came here. It's so beautiful you just have to stop and paint it like this man above. 

 I loved this charming little detail on the corner of the building.

Throughout our trip, it was strange to hear French being spoken all around us but yet we saw such strong Catalan pride. This picture was taken of a house in Ceret that had decorative tiles all proclaiming this sentiment. In clockwise order they read, 'I am Catalan,' 'This is a Catalan home', 'Here lives a supporter of the Lille Metropole' (a football team), and 'Here lives a supporter of the Catalan dragons' (a rugby team).  

All around the city center, there were leafy trees which shaded us from the summer sun but also made the light so much softer. I loved the way this building mirrors the graceful curves of the trees in front of it and they even match in color.

Speaking of matching colors, I thought this little house with its matching door and flowers was so cute. Throughout the city, there were brightly painted shutters, doors and even lampposts. As we were walking around town, the Professor and I  couldn't help but debate which color we would paint our front door if we ever moved here. I said fuchsia or aqua but the Professor plumped for bright green. 

Lastly, I leave you with a shot of the little one on the train on the way home. Roman's favorite part of the journey no doubt. 

So that was our mini-vacation! What about you guys? Go anywhere fun?

Monday, August 4, 2014

Preparing for the summer exodus

When the little one was born in July two years ago, I was so grateful that the Professor had the month of August off so that he could stay home with the baby and I. I was even more grateful when I found out that my in-laws would be coming to visit for the entire summer. But when August rolled around, we realized the big downside to having a summer baby in Barcelona. Basically, the city shuts down for an entire month (and sometimes the first two weeks of September) as everyone takes their summer vacations all at the same time. So if you're here in August, you're stuck in the hot and humid city with a bunch of tourists and many of your favorite shops and restaurants and cafes are closed for a few weeks. (Note: this doesn't apply to all businesses of course, just the small ones like bakeries, butchers, clothing boutiques, small bookstores, and the like). 

As if that weren't inconvenient enough, schools are also closed from mid-July to mid-September so you can imagine how parents feel about summer vacation. There are of course day camps you can put your kids in but most of those end on July 31st. After that point, you're on your own. The Professor and I were still working through July so for a few weeks, it was a revolving door of childcare around here as the Professor would stay home while I worked and I would stay home while he worked.  Because there's no school, Spanish parents don't have much of a choice except to take the month off work and take a vacation with their families. After two years here, I still kind of marvel at this. For Americans, the idea of such a long vacation is a little overwhelming. You're almost thinking, but what will we do? Just go to the beach every single day? To be totally honest, the Professor and I were a little panicky as summer approached imagining Roman cooped up in the house watching TV all day and playing all by himself (he has no family here and all his friends are on vacation). But we're doing our best to make sure that he has an enjoyable summer. During the day, we try to keep him busy with trips to the park, pool, library, mall and other places around town. Sometimes we just hop on the metro or a local bus and get off at any stop we want just to indulge Roman's love of all modes of transportation. Hopefully he'll remember this summer as a time where he learned how to color on the sidewalk, chase bubbles, squash water balloons and build sandcastles.

We are going to be taking a mini-vacation to France this week (only five days. But still!) and then we'll get back to exploring our adopted city with our little summer boy.  

Stay tuned!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Two years old!

A few weeks ago, the little one turned two years old -cue the trumpets! We celebrated the day with a picnic in the park and a small group of friends, some Spanish foods (tortilla de patata, chorizo, queso semi) and the Professor's now-famous carrot cake. I don't know if other parents feel the same way, but in the days leading up to Roman's birthday, I felt that the celebration would be for us as much as for him. It's true that he was the one who did the aging but we were the ones who survived! The development that children go through from one to two years old can be full of extreme and sometimes conflicting emotions: giddy happiness and sudden sadness, uncontrollable desires and little restraint, a thirst for adventure and a need for stability and order, surging autonomy and the need to be held and cuddled. It's an exciting but tumultuous time for both little one and parents and for that reason, we deserved that cake as much as he did.

Despite the tumult and constant changes, he is still the biggest source of happiness in our lives. He makes us laugh with his laughter and his joy at mundane things (a whisk! How fascinating!), he makes us grin when he dances or sings or tries to read aloud to himself, he makes us proud by eating all his food and sharing his toys at the playground, and he makes our hearts melt when we see him peacefully sleeping with his butt in the air or when he gives us an unsolicited hug and kiss. Here are some more things we've learned about him/love about him in his second year of life:

To my giggling speed racer, my balloon lover, my sweet-toothed chocoholic,

You live in a state of near constant motion. You love to walk, run, climb, chase and be chased. A few months ago, your papa and I indulged your need for speed by buying you a toy that you had been coveting for some time: the moto. I'm not sure what the name for this toy is in English. It's a plastic motorbike that's very popular with toddlers here. No kidding-every single little kid has one. I can't describe the look of ecstasy in your eyes when you first saw it. You sat on it and went tearing off down the street and I had to run after you. It was then that I realized what a foolish purchase this was. There are many reasons you love this toy and those are the same reasons we hate it: you get to decide the pace that we travel at, you can ditch us if you really want to, and you can decide when and how many times we should stop. However, since those early days when your moto was still a novelty, your love has waned a little and now you're generally well behaved and will listen to your papa and I when we tell you to slow down or stop and look both ways. 

Because of your love of motion, it's perhaps no surprise that besides the moto, most of your favorite toys are ones with wheels. Like a stereotypical boy, you love trains, cars, buses and motorcycles and you excitedly point these out to us when we're walking around the city. Because of your love of the Thomas the Train cartoon, you also love to ride the metro since you think it's a steam train. Whenever we ride the metro, you love to watch in anticipation for the train to come barreling into the station and you grin and wave hello. A few times, the driver has waved back and honked the horn for you which basically makes your life complete.

Your communication skills are coming along but for the most part you still speak a language that really only you, your papa and I understand (sometimes just you actually). You say some words in Spanish including, 'agua' (water), 'leche' (milk), 'gracias' (thank you) and 'sí' (yes). You say a few words in Catalan, including 'seu' (sit down) and 'pa' (bread) but you understand Catalan more than Spanish. At home, we speak to you in English so that is the language you know the most words in. But you say them your own way. So only your papa and I know that when you say ´boo´ you mean to say either 'boat' or 'bird', and that when you say 'momo' you mean to say 'Nemo' which is how you call all fish. You know the words for all parts of the body, many animals, all forms of transportation, and a few foods (bananas are 'nanas' and watermelon is 'mamamelo'). 

You're generally a good eater but you go through phases of disinterest. There was a week not too long ago when all you wanted to eat was yogurt, bread, cheese, milk and a few fruits. But then you go back to your usual voracity. You love steak and rice, tuna straight from the can, scrambled eggs, creamed soups (broccoli or cauliflower), rosemary chicken, french fries, carrot smoothies and all fruits indiscriminately. Your favorites constantly change. There was a time when you loved hummus, sweet pea pesto and guacamole. Now you eat none of those things. Sometimes you'll eat three tomatoes in one sitting and a month later you don't want to even look at one. We're learning to accept these things with calmness and indifference although it used to frustrate us. Tastes change and we're rolling with it. 

You love to watch TV. I should probably feel guilty about this but I don't because you really don't watch that much except for lately since it's summertime and there's no school. You love Winnie the Pooh, Thomas the Train, Dinosaur Train, Bob the Builder and Curious George. You interact with the TV and it always makes us laugh. If something bad happens in one of your cartoons, you yell, 'OH NO!', you like to dance and sing along whenever there's music and you like to wave hello to your favorite characters. You can watch the same episode of the same show over and over again. Your papa and I can recite entire episodes and we know every show's theme song by heart. We're parents, what can I say?

I'm not sure if I can safely say this quite yet, but you seem to be an introvert. You used to be a much more sociable baby but now you definitely prefer familiar faces. Whenever we're in a large group, you get anxious and fussy. You prefer individualized attention rather than a bunch of people staring at you and trying to interact with you. We noticed this especially during your birthday party when you didn't want anyone to sing to you and you ran away from the party frequently because you felt overwhelmed by all the attention. You also don't like being put on the spot. We talk with our families on Skype almost every day and you run away from the computer so as not to be forced to say hello and goodbye. But then again, sometimes you develop friendly attachments to strangers who somehow win your confidence. You're unpredictable like that. 

As I mentioned above, you do experience extreme emotions. You have a few different cries and your papa and I have classified them like so: 1) the cry you use when something is actually bothering you or hurting you. This is your 'legitimate' cry 2) the 'big pouty' cry where you cover your eyes so that we can't see that there are indeed no tears and you're just faking to get what you want 3) the 'running pout' which is basically the second cry but while running away from us in order to make a point. If you were a teenager, you would go into a room and slam the door behind you 4) The 'system failure'. This one is where you lie on the floor and sob audibly and dramatically into the hardwood. This one is impossible to ignore so basically we have to go to you, pick you up and cuddle you for a bit while you compose yourself before telling us what's wrong. This time of your life has been called the 'terrible twos' but I don't care for that term. It implies that there's something negative in your behavior. It's true that soothing a crying toddler is not the most pleasant aspect of parenthood. But if you take the time to learn about your child's development at this age, you realize that they are upset because they can't communicate with you or they feel you are neglecting or ignoring them and this makes them frustrated, angry, and sad. If you accept this, you can understand their behavior and it becomes so much easier to help them. Instead of feeling irritated, you feel sympathetic.

Well, that was a pretty long letter and yet there's plenty I haven't mentioned. I guess it's pretty obvious that your papa and I just can't get enough of you. We love you very much little chickpea.

P.S. Here are the letters I wrote at eighteen months old and one year old in case you missed them. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

'Go fry asparagus' and other weird things we say

Have you guys ever thought about all the idiomatic expressions we use in English and how confusing these must be to a non-native speaker? Think about how you would explain to someone what it means to 'hold your horses' or 'keep your hair on' or 'paint the town red.' Imagine how someone might look at you if you told them to bring an umbrella because it's raining cats and dogs outside. Because I teach English here in Barcelona, I encounter a lot of this confusion with my students and it's hard not to laugh a little as I try to explain something that really makes no sense at all. So let's turn the tables, shall we? I recently discovered a Spanish company that literally translates Spanish idiomatic expressions into English with hilarious results. Here are a few of my favorites (all revolving around food!). Let's see if you can guess what they really mean!

This is my absolute favorite one, I have to admit. In Spanish this expression would be, 'Ve a freir esparragos' but it's not literal so don't put any oil in the pan just yet! This is basically a more polite way of telling someone to go away, or, as we would say idiomatically in English, 'Go fly a kite'. If you want to be vulgar you could say, 'Vete a la mierda' which in English would be the same as telling someone to go f*** themselves. But I prefer the asparagus, don't you?

This is a super adorable expression--one that could easily go on a Valentine's day card or in your wedding vows (in Spain anyway. In English this would be a bit strange). In Spanish this expression is, 'Contigo pan y cebolla', and  it means something like 'With you through thick and thin' or 'in good times and bad'. Sweet, huh?

In Spain, everything is about milk. This expression, is 'Hoy va a ser la leche' which means today is going to be awesome. If you want to tell someone that you really like them or that they're really cool, you can also say, 'Eres la leche' or 'You are the milk'.  If someone is in a particularly bad mood, you can say 'Tiene mala leche' or literally, 'He has bad milk'. What is behind all this milk talk? I have no idea. Being lactose intolerant, I can't see the appeal, I guess. 

You can probably guess what this means, right? In Spanish it would be 'me importa un huevo' which basically means 'I couldn't care less.' Or, more vulgarly, I could give a f***.  I've also heard people say 'Me importa tres pepinos,' which I like even more. This translates to, 'I could give three cucumbers.' Let's all start saying that. It could be a thing!

I hope you guys got a kick out of these. Got any favorites? Please share below!

P.S. If you guys like these, there are tons more on the A Truth As A Temple website. They print these graphics and phrases on mugs, aprons, notebooks, tote bags and more. Check them out!