Friday, November 28, 2014

When the lights go on

Something magical happened last weekend in Barcelona. Christmas lights went up all around the city a few weeks ago and just last Friday, they were finally turned on! It seems the holiday season is already upon us and I, for one, am so excited. It's so enchanting to walk underneath the lights and see twinkling and a bit of sparkle everywhere you turn. I'm sure it can charm even the biggest curmudgeon.

A good friend of ours took these lovely pictures of the lights around town and kindly permitted me to share them with you guys here. I hope you enjoy!

P.S. A belated Happy Thanksgiving to all my U.S. readers. I hope your hearts and bellies are full. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Scenes from Aix en Provence

Two weeks ago, the Professor had to present his research at a conference in Aix en Provence and the little one and I decided to tag along. We thought we'd see the sights in and around the city center and then maybe take the bus to nearby Marseille and explore somewhere else. Well, our trip didn't pan out exactly as we planned. Roman's stomach virus lingered longer than we expected and just as he was getting better, he caught a nasty ear infection. The pediatrician prescribed an antibiotic for his ear which cleared up the infection straight away but made his already sensitive and wobbly stomach even more sensitive and wobbly which made him not want to eat and throw up whenever he did. So we scrapped the plan of going to Marseille but we got to know little Aix really well and if I tell you that despite the fussy, vomiting toddler we had a nice time (again, under the circumstances) maybe that'll give you an idea of how lovely this city is. 

Here are some scenes from our trip:

To start things off, here is probably the most iconic image of Provence. A little café with the typical wicker chairs and of course an old guy with a beret sitting with a cigarette and a newspaper. 

When we checked into our hotel and received our complimentary map of the city, we saw that almost all of the recommended sights were fountains. Apparently this is the city of a thousand fountains and no kidding, there's at least one every few blocks. This one above was my favorite. Not because of the fountain itself but because of the whole picture: the moss on the base, the green peeking through the pebbles on the ground and the contrast of the bluish grey doors against the warm tones of this old building. Isn't it charming?

A shot of Roman sleeping next to one of the thousand fountains. The poor little one. This was the first day of our trip when he was feeling the worst. All he wanted that day was to be walked around and around so that he could sleep and I was happy to oblige since it seemed like the only thing I could do for him. I'm not exaggerating when I say that I sometimes walked for three or four hours straight just to ensure that he slept as deeply as possible. I could only ever stop for a few minutes at a time since the lack of motion would immediately wake him up.

The good thing about walking around and around was all the window shopping I got to do. When it comes to window shopping in France, my favorite things to ogle are the boulangeries and patisseries. Pastries are an area where the French beat the Spanish, no contest. I think this picture speaks for itself, don't you think? 

Basically, we come to France to eat. We're not very fussed about the cathedrals or the museums or the palaces. But you can bet your life that we take advantage of our surroundings in all things culinary. Especially dessert wise. This is at the Béchard bakery on the Cours Mirabeau. If you go, try the calisson. After all, the cakes are too big for sidewalk snacking :) 

Above is a picture of the best, accidental find in the history of people accidentally finding things ever (that's right, Signor Columbus). While out walking one day, I decided to head down a tiny street off busy Rue Espariat and I found this little gem. It's a cafe run by and for expats with all of the familiar foods from England and the U.S. It serves tea, cakes, and bistro fare but the best thing about this place is the free wifi and the kid's playroom. For me it was like an answer to a prayer. Whenever we were in our hotel room, Roman would fuss and whine because he was bored but I couldn't take him to the park because he was sick and it was cold out. So it was wonderful to find this place where I could sit quietly and sip a mint tea while my little one played with cars and trains and pop up books. We made sure to visit once every day that we were in Aix. In case you're ever visiting this part of the world with little ones, I highly recommend The Provence Shop on Rue Victor Leydet.

A shot of my little one in the playroom of The Provence Shop. The toys are very well loved and most of them don't have batteries but that hardly matters to little kids or parents. Roman was entertained so I was happy. I just have to mention one awful thing that happened here. It still makes me feel a bit horror-struck when I think about it. On our second day in town, I stopped by the cafe in the hopes of trying the lunch (all I'd tasted the day before was the tea and banana bread which was delicious). Just as soon as my salad was served, Roman started vomiting all over himself. The Professor was at his conference and I was alone with a child covered in sick. It was terrible. I used up half a bag of baby wipes cleaning him off while he cried. The lady who runs the shop rushed over to help and I was so grateful to her not only for her speedy response but also for the fact that she was so calm and casual about the whole thing. For some reason, I was embarrassed when it happened-- the way you get when your child has a temper tantrum in public. When those kinds of things happen, I think we feel vulnerable and exposed because they reveal how little control we have over a situation when we feel like we should be on top of things all the time. So I felt ashamed and grossed out (I never touched my salad) and worried about my son. But the cafe owner was unflappable and helpful and that just meant so much to me. 

Asleep again on day three of walking about town. Looking back over all my travel posts, I realized that I have so many pictures of Roman asleep in his stroller. I could start a Tumblr devoted to them. I could call it, 'The interesting things Roman never saw because he was asleep but wouldn't remember anyway if he had been awake because, let's face it, he's just a toddler.'

Most of the time we were in Aix, the weather was lovely with lots of sun and only a mild chill in the evenings so it was the perfect walking weather. Everyone makes a big fuss about Provence in the summertime when it's lavender season and everywhere you go there are shades of shocking purple. But I have to say that Aix in the fall is probably just as delightful. There's not that many tourists, the trees are just sparse enough, and there seems to be a lovely autumnal hue on all the buildings. 

Of course, every autumn day can't be a sunny one so when the weather turned wet and cold on the last day of our visit, we were happy to escape inside Le Pain Quotidien. This chain serves wonderful organic foods but I have the feeling most people actually come here for the waffles and hot chocolate. We spent at least a good two hours here having lunch and dessert, enjoying the ambiance and free wifi while Roman played with a little French boy who had also brought along some Matchbox cars to play with. The kids raced their cars along the long table and giggled like little maniacs. What I love about this age is that there's no language barrier. As long as there are toys, kids will find a way to communicate. 

Walking around the streets of the city center, I saw this sign repeated a few times. It made me laugh so I thought I'd share it. I've seen signs for deer crossings before but never one for wiener dogs. What privileged animals to get their own designated part of the street! 

This drawing is painted on a window of a bar. It seemed to represent what a trip to Aix should look like. Two people sharing a bottle of wine and deep conversation over a friendly game of cards. 

A shot of the city center at night. When I say night, I mean five thirty or so when the sun went down. Ah, winter. At least it still looked pretty, right?

So that was our trip! We'd love to visit again someday, hopefully when we're all well. Have you guys ever been? What did you enjoy about it?

P.S. Here are some scenes from our last trip (also to France), in case you missed it.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Keeping it Real

It occurred to me that I gush over Roman a lot on this blog. I write about how much happiness he brings me, how cute he is, and the sweet little things he does (the latest heart-melting thing: he wriggles onto my lap, lays his head on my chest and gives a little contented sigh). But there are a lot of challenging, frustrating, and downright disgusting things he brings to my life as well. The latest case in point: he vomited on me three times Monday night. Yep. It was awful.

The little one caught some kind of stomach bug and all Monday evening, he was clutching his tummy and grimacing in pain. We didn't know what to do for him and we figured that putting him to bed early would be the best thing. Contrary to habit, he didn't fight us and that should have been a warning sign that he was feeling really bad. Less than twenty minutes after I put him down, he started crying for me so I went in and picked him up. No sooner had I pulled him onto the bed with me than he started hurling all over the both of us and all over my bed.  I just stood there, totally covered in vomit and shouting for the Professor who came running. At that moment, I instantly remembered a piece of advice from my dear aunt who warned me what to do in this kind of situation. She told me that if your kid ever barfs on you, don't try to take your clothes off because pulling a shirt over your head that's covered in barf is the worst thing possible. Just get in the shower with your kid with your clothes on. So that's what I did while the Professor cleaned up the mess.

It doesn't seem like it could get worse than that, right? But Roman threw up another four times that night and nobody got any sleep. I spent the night spoon feeding him chamomile tea and doing laundry while the Professor held him and watched Finding Nemo for the hundredth time (I love that little fish. He's the only thing that made Roman stop crying). After vomit number 4, we finally got wise and put trash bags over the entire sofa and then covered the bags with blankets (see photo above).

Thankfully, our little one is a hundred percent better. The doctor said that it's just gastroenteritis and all we can do is feed him a bland diet and let him relax for a few days so his stomach can settle. My house is back to normal too. The couch cushions have been debagged, all the bed linens plus four sets of pajamas have been washed, and there is no smell of sick anywhere anymore. Hallelujah!

So just in case you thought it was all giggles and cuddles over here, it's really not. But horrible nights like this one make me so grateful for all of the wonderful ones we've had and hopefully will continue to have in the future. You know, the ones with no vomit.

P.S. For another 'keeping it real' post, check out this old one.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

A magical place and a special day

Today I'd like to share a magical place with you guys called  Pudding Cafe in l'eixample dreta. I discovered this place by accident a year ago after visiting the LAIE bookstore which is directly across the street. Through the window, I caught a glimpse of a crazy white and red striped ceiling and was immediately intrigued by the circus-like décor. When you step inside, you feel at once as though you've entered into Alice's Wonderland with the enormous mushrooms that make you feel dwarfed in comparison. There are comfy chairs and enormous tables, cozy sofas in the corners for secret chats with friends, books piled high on every surface and all the drinks are served in dainty, flowery, cups.


Last week, in order to celebrate my birthday, I invited my friends here for cake and tea--my two passions in life! I picked this place for a few reasons 1) the lovely decor 2) it was big enough to fit everyone (that makes it sound like I have a lot of friends, but there were only like 9 people there) 3) the food is delicious and 4) it's a perfect spot for kids. Below is a picture I took of some of my birthday cakes. My idea was that since the portion sizes are enormous, we would order a few different things and share. It was like tapas but with cake, which is even better! We took dainty bites and savored them like sommeliers carefully trying to detect subtle flavors. Then, we voted on our favorites. I have a spot in my heart for carrot cake but the cheesecake got the most votes. (P.S. I have an inner girly girl that doesn't like pink, princesses, unicorns or anything sparkly but cannot get enough of adorable, whimsical, heart shaped plates. That girl's weird). 

As I mentioned, Pudding is a wonderful place for toddlers and little kids. There are plenty of children's books, board games, crayons and paper, some Legos,and other random things lying around to keep the little ones busy while the parents enjoy themselves. Roman probably had as much fun as I did, but that might have been partly because his galpal Amelia showed up.

Just look at these cuties! But don't be fooled by their innocent expressions--these two are doubtlessly up to some shenanigans.

This place is a wonderful little gem in the middle of the city--only blocks away from touristy Plaça Catalunya and yet very few tourists will ever find this place. Even Barcelona natives that I invited had never been here. It's a great place to come and indulge your sweet tooth (dessert makes up 90% of their menu) and chill out with your friends. If you're ever in town, I invite you to visit what has become one of my favorite places in the city.

(Photos: top two from Charhadas, third photo from Milanesa)

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Mind of a Chef

So here's a confession: I watch too much TV. Whenever I'm home alone and need some background noise, I switch on the TV. Whenever I have a block of time where I can potentially pick up a book, I pick up the remote instead. I actually confessed to my sister a few weeks ago that I fear that I'm in danger of becoming an illiterate. I haven't read a book from cover to cover since this year began. And this from someone who used to read a book a month! (By the way I do read a fair bit just not books. I read mostly news articles, op-eds, and blogs. The books I do read, thanks to my son, mostly tend to be about a hippo who has no friends or about a bunch of escaped zoo animals that sneak into the zookeeper's house but, improbably enough, not for the purpose of eating him).

The thing is that when you have a part time job and a two year old, you just don't have that much time or energy to read. When I do have a few hours of free time, normally during that blissful block between when the little one goes down for the night and I pass out on the couch with my glasses on, I prefer to watch something light and short on TV. It's relaxing to sit and let your mind just go blank and also to share that experience with someone else. After all, reading is not exactly a social activity or something you can share with someone unless you're reading aloud or your partner is reading the same book as you and you discuss it with each other afterwards. So, instead, the Professor and I bond by watching TV.

BUT first we have to decide what to watch which gets a little tricky. First of all, it has to be relatively short. Long gone are the days when we can devote 2 solid hours to a movie without falling asleep in the middle of it. Nowadays, we need something that's 30-45 minutes long (and no commercials please!). I also don't want to watch something dark, depressing or deep just before bed so nothing with zombies, serial killers, or zombie serial killers. Then, of course, we have to both be equally interested in whatever we're watching. Tricky indeed.

Recently, we've discovered a show that meets all of our criteria, so I thought I'd share it with you guys. The Professor and I share a love of cooking and learning about food and we're equally fond of chef Anthony Bourdain. I've read one of his books and the Professor and I have seen every episode of No Reservations and his newer show, Parts Unknown. A few weeks ago, I discovered that one of his new endeavors is a show on PBS which features different chefs from around the world and tries to learn a bit about what inspires them and how they come up with new dishes. The show is called, 'The Mind of a Chef' and it's available on Netflix. We've found it both educational and entertaining. The best thing about the show is that it inspires you to get creative and daring in the kitchen which is great if you've been in a cooking rut like I have.

So check it out if you like and then come back and let me know what you thought of it. And if you have a recommendation for something we should add to our Netflix queue, please share!

P.S. I also really enjoyed reading this recent interview with Anthony Bourdain. I'd love to be his dining companion one day!

(Photos of Momofuku, restaurant of chef David Chang who is featured in Season 1)

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Spanish Day Care, Part II: School Lunches

Last week, I wrote about our experience with the public day care system in Barcelona but I left out a description of the school lunches as the post was getting a tad long. I decided it might be better to devote a separate post to them since after all, the lunches are my favorite thing about Roman's school. So here we are- part two of our experience with Spanish day care, the lunch edition!

One thing I found pleasantly surprising is that in school, little Spanish children eat just as Spanish adults do. If you've ever been in Spain, you'll perhaps have noticed that during lunch time, all restaurants have a fixed menu of the day including a vegetable starter, a protein such as chicken or fish, a piece of bread, and a light dessert. Normally a glass of wine or cup of coffee is included in the price. In guarderia, the little ones are served in this same fashion with a first and second course accompanied by bread and dessert to follow. This is pretty different from how I used to feed Roman lunch before he started school. His lunch used to be a simple affair of tuna sandwiches or toast with pesto and hard boiled egg followed by a fruit. At the time, I suppose I was following the American dining ritual of light lunches and more substantial dinners. However, in Spain, it's the opposite--you eat a heavy lunch and a light, quick dinner and this is a habit that is formed, apparently, in infancy.

At Roman's school, lunch is served around noon and at that time, all play stops and the kids put their bibs on, sit down at the table with their classmates and wait for the lunch trolley. I have to admit that I laughed the first time I saw the lunch being wheeled in by the lunch ladies. The trolley itself is really just a metal shelf on wheels but the dishes on the trolley are all covered with these domed, metal dish covers and something about the whole thing reminded me of room service for the honeymoon suite or something. So elegant for little babes! The lunch ladies themselves, I have to mention, are all kind and jovial women who are always greeted with delight by the children. Also, for some reason that I can't quite explain, it matters to me that all the lunch ladies know my son's name--I think it makes me feel that mealtime is personal and even familial.

Not only do the children eat how adults eat, but they also eat what adults eat. There are no hamburgers, fishsticks, or pizzas served in school. Nothing is processed and all the food is cooked on site in the school's kitchen. Above is a picture of the menu from Roman's school. It's in Catalan, so perhaps only a few of you readers can read it, but I will translate some of the weeks' menu for the rest of you. On Monday (dilluns in Catalan) in Week 1 (1a setmana), the children eat rice in a broth with carrot and zucchini as their starter, then a simple omelet, a salad and a seasonal fruit. On Tuesday (dimarts) of the same week, they eat a puree of vegetables, a beef stew, salad, and seasonal fruit. On Wednesday (dimecres), spaghetti with mushrooms, grilled fish, bread and fruit for dessert. If you notice from the menu in the column titled 'Berenars', the children also get a snack (normally served around 3pm after nap time) which is normally yogurt, more fruit, or a cookie. On Thursdays for snack time, the kids eat coca which is a typical Catalan sweet bread with sugar sprinkled on top.

This is a pretty amazing menu, isn't it? It's certainly a far cry from the sloppy joes and pizza with creamed sweet corn that I remember from my youth! I can't tell you how much I appreciate that my son gets to eat so well in school. For one thing, it has exposed him to foods I probably wouldn't have made for him, some of them because they're traditional Spanish and Catalan foods that I'm not familiar with and some of them because they never occurred to me. For instance, I never would have thought of serving a baby a salad with olives in it, yet this is a meal that Roman is served a few times a week (although he normally gives the olives a curious lick and then puts them aside). Another reason why I'm grateful for these quality lunches is because some of the nutrition burden is removed from my shoulders. When Roman eats at school, because the meals are all so well rounded from a nutritional standpoint, I don't have to stress about dinner so much. If I make a simple pasta or a vegetable soup for dinner, I don't worry that there's not enough protein or iron or fiber or whatever in what I made. I know that he consumed these things already during lunch.  The one thing I always try to do is to coordinate what I make with the school menu. So if he ate lentils for lunch, I'm not going to make lentils for dinner. It takes a bit of planning, but it's such a help to only have to worry about two meals a day rather than three.

I don't think many Spanish people are aware of how special the public daycare system is here or how refreshing it is for Americans to see kids eating 'non-kid' foods for lunch. I don't think they know that in the U.S., if you want your kid to eat well, you can't rely on the meals provided by the school which tend to be lacking in quality and diversity. In the U.S., it normally falls to the parents to provide a quality lunch from home and they also have to figure out dinner later.  If parents had less to do, providing three nutritionally adequate meals a day for their kids would be no problem, but unfortunately, that's not the case anywhere in the world. We feel tremendously thankful that there is a system here in Spain that places a high value on a healthy diet for our littlest ones.

So that's part two of our Spanish day care experience. What do you guys think? Is your child in daycare somewhere? What's it like?

P.S. If you missed Part I, you can find it here

Monday, September 15, 2014

Spanish Day Care, Part I

I've been wanting to write about our experience with Spanish day care since Roman began last September but I feared the post would be too long (I have too many opinions on the subject apparently!) and also because I had no image to go along with the post since Roman's school is strictly, but understandably, no photos. But now that he's been there a year--today was his first day back after a two month vacation--I've decided to just get on with it. Prepare yourselves for a long read. :)

Before I get into talking about our experience, I should probably provide a little info on the day care system here. First, there are both private and public day cares or guarderias as they're called in Spanish. The public day cares are subsidized by the government and have a very good reputation. Because of this, the spots are limited and highly coveted and entrance is not guaranteed. Private day cares tend to be more expensive and they can vary widely in quality. But the private ones can be attractive options for parents who work a lot since the schools stay open later, they don't have as many public holidays where the school is closed, and the summer and winter breaks are not as long. We also know people who decide to put their child in private day care because they want their child to be spoken to in English rather than in Catalan which is what children would learn in a public guarderia. You may also go the private route if your child doesn't get a spot in a public school or you missed the enrollment period.

On the other hand, public day care is very attractive to many parents not only because it's very good but also because it's cheaper. I have to mention that Spanish day care isn't even as cheap as public day cares in other parts of Europe BUT while it isn't cheap, it is affordable. Our son attends a public school and we pay something like 300 euro a month, (almost $400) for full time care with meals included. This is nothing compared to what friends of mine back in the States pay. We have friends in Miami who pay $1000 a month for one child and the parents have to provide the meals.

The affordability of Roman's school is amazing obviously, but we're not just happy with his school because of how affordable it is. We also love it because it has exceeded our expectations in so many ways. The teachers are excellent, the meals are prepared on site and are served in courses (I will devote a separate post to the food since this post is already getting too long) and the kids are exposed to all sorts of things that they might not be at home including music,dance, and art. There's no TV watching, no computer time, no screens at all. It's just semi-structured play interspersed with mealtimes and naps.

We especially appreciate the emphasis on doing things independently and picking up after themselves. There is a Montessori aspect in the layout of the classrooms and the required things the little ones have to bring with them to school. In the classrooms there are little chairs and tables, tiny sinks and potties, and each toddler has a designated spot where they hang their washcloths, jackets and schoolbag. Schoolbags must be of the drawstring variety so that the little one can open and close it himself which he wouldn't be able to do with a zippered bag. The school requires the littles to wear bibs with elastic bands rather than bibs with snaps so that the children can pull the bib on and off by themselves at mealtime. They are also expected to put their empty plate on the lunch cart when they're done eating and then wash their hands and mouths at the sink.

From our perspective, day care has been a wonderful experience for both us and for Roman. His school is a safe place for him to run and climb and explore and make a mess which he can't do in our home (or he can but with less abandon). Also he learns from the other kids and imitates them. Sometimes this is bad (like when he learned to hit) and sometimes it's good (like when he learned how to feed himself). For our part, we've been impressed by how much he's grown up and how much of this is due to school. We have a tendency to do everything for Roman because it's easier, faster and cleaner. But in school, because he's taught to do things by himself, we are learning to back off and watch him tackle things on his own. The schedule is fairly structured in Roman's school; the kids play outside in the patio in the mornings, then they come inside to play some more, then they wash up for lunch, eat, wash up again, nap, have a snack and then play until the parents come to pick them up. It's actually been a big help for us to copy the routine he has in school (lunch, then nap, then snack) because we think Roman is more at ease when he knows exactly what to expect and that the routine is the same everywhere.

When Roman first began school, it was pretty hard for me to be apart from him for hours a day especially because he spent the whole first year of his life at home with me. I felt like I should be with him and that he would be happier at home with me. I wasn't working that much at the time and I felt guilty that I had time to take care of my kid, I was just opting not to. I didn't realize how burned out you can get taking care of a baby 24 hours a day every day. It doesn't leave time for work, exercise or hobbies. Also, I didn't consider that while Roman would have a rough period adjusting to being in someone else's care, he would indeed adjust. He now enjoys his school so much that he never wants to leave and sometimes I have to drag him out. He's had so many great experiences at his school--he saw his first puppet show, had his first painting, dance and music class, and made a lot of friends. Even though I miss him when he's in school, I think it's been important that he spends time away from us so that he learns not to take us for granted and for us, the same applies. I've found that we all appreciate each other much more when we're not together all the time and we have time to miss each other.

Finally, I've noticed that since Roman began at his school, the Professor and I feel much more integrated into society than before. We meet up with his classmates and their parents at the local park, we learn about Catalan traditions and holidays and we discover the ways that parenting is similar in the U.S. and the ways it's different. In summary, it's been a learning experience for all of us, but one that we're very happy to have had.

I leave you with a shot I surreptitiously took in his school of Roman in the birthday crown that he and his classmates decorated. He looks a bit pouty here because he doesn't like wearing things on his head, but he actually had a really good day that day. I'm sure he won't remember it in a few years, but this was a place where he was happy.

P.S. Stay tuned next week for Part II about the school lunches.