Monday, July 19, 2010

España and Deutschland: Churches

By the second day in Barcelona, we had the whole luggage escapade our of our system and we were ready to start checking off the boxes on our itinerary of amazing things to see in Barcelona. But where should we start? After doing some quick reading in our tour book, we decided to ponder it further over some variant of ham between two slices of bread at the Barceloneta mercado. Erika had had a coffee con leche with her breakfast the day prior and, although I am not a coffee guy, I decided that one was in order for the first day to really get me going. This was a sign of things to come and let to an incredible addiction that I am still fighting in my heart and mind to this day. Being a coffee culture, I got used to drinking some good stuff, which has set me up for disappointment whenever I indulge on the weekends in midtown.

But I digress. We decided that our first order of business was to check out the insatiable, incredible, one-of-a-kind Sagrada Familia, designed by Gaudi in the early 20th century. He died without seeing it completed, and I will also likely die before it's completed because it's still very much a work-in-progress. Now that I think about it, I find it ironic that we Americans use the term "goddie" (spelled phonetically) with a negative connotation to describe a material thing that is over the top, embellished with thick, ornate, outlandish decorations (much like my definition of the word itself :o). Perhaps this term came from "Gotti" (as in the head of our local mafia family), but more likely it came from Gaudi, who's designs were in fact ornate, outlandish, and over-the-top. Which is what makes this place so controversial, I suppose. Some guidebooks describe his designs as "cake in the rain", which I found pretty accurate.

According to the length of the line and our Rick Steves Snapshot guide of Barcelona (highly recommended, by the way), we arrived right at the worst time, with a line snaking around the corner for the entrance. But, not for the first time, we found the line to be quick moving and in a few minutes we were standing in front of this impressive building in all of its glory. It was almost overwhelming just standing there, so, armed with our audio guides, we took a seat at the base of one of the columns near the entrance (conveniently in the shade since it was toasty) and just took it all in for a few minutes.

It's basically impossible to describe this place. Where's a Graham when you need him? The columns inside the church were unsymmetrical trees of concrete (literally, trees) and the exterior was just breathtaking. I could say that he incorporated nature in his design with spires built like honeycombs and native plants and animals from the Holy-land throughout the exterior, and you would probably cross it off your list of things to see in your lifetime, but that would be a mistake! I literally cannot describe the place, you just have to see it to believe it.

Following a few hours of drinking from the cup of Gaudi at the Sagrada Familie, it was time to see the next church. Euros, they always complain about how Americans love churches and how boring they find them, which I can totally understand. But when we picked up Leif at the Plaça de Catalunya, he was actually excited to see the next church on the list. After mentally mapping out our plan for the rest of the afternoon, we decided that the best thing to do would be to purchase day-passes. Of course, we'd already used our $0.70 metro card ticket twice that day, but surely we would ride it at least six more times that day. I mean, how long can you really stay at a church (especially after just finishing up with the Sagrada Familia)?    

So, we headed off to the next place of worship, which was a bit on the outskirts of Barcelona and a further ten minute walk from there before it appeared before us. This is a place where legends are created and nurtured from a young age until they are released against inferior opposition as teenagers. One of the largest of its kind in all of Europe (nearly 100,000 people can praise the Hand of God on an afternoon), a place where nationality was celebrated and defiance against fascism was practiced on a weekly basis for nearly a half-century, the Camp Nou: The house of FC Barcelona, the best football team in the world. I feel lucky to have been able to visit this place now while they are nearly at the peak of their ability. Where a boy (Leo Messi) who will likely be called the best football player of all time is plying his trade at the tender age of 23.

I haven't been to many football stadiums in Europe, but if I was to pick one to visit (other than Liverpool's Anfield, of course), it would have to be the Nou Camp. While it would be much more exciting to actually go there while the season was in full swing and experience the noise of 97,000 patrons, this would have to do for the time being. FC Barcelona is actually an important cultural icon for the nation of Catalonia. When the fascist Franco plunged the country into civil war and struck down Barcelona and the Catalans, FC Barcelona was one of the last places of refuge for the citizens. Franco outlawed the flag of Catalonia, but the flag was incorporated in the club's emblem, so it really was, and is, a way for them to display some pride in their nationality. Little did I know that the club's slogan "FC Barcelona, More Than Just A Club" is not just some marketing moniker that Nike came up with after all.

We toured the stadium and locker room (as exciting as a locker room can be I guess), we got pictures holding a mock Champions League trophy, we held a press conference in their media room, I got my photo taken with Messi himself, which was amazing since he was actually in South Africa at the same time!), and generally payed homage to all of the greats that have graced the colors of FC Barcelona.

After a few hours at the church, it was basically time to meet up with Leif's girlfriend Melanie (who, conveniently, was in town for a girl's weekend) and head out to the Olympic Port for a seafood dinner. This area, which felt like it was at least a five mile walk from the subway) was basically built for the '92 Olympics and was at the end of the incredible Barcelona beach (which, by the way, we never got to enjoy thanks to the weather and the luggage incident).

So we wandered along the beach, along the snack shacks, clubs, and all sorts of interesting things going on until we got to the pier that held giant outdoor restaurants stacked full of fresh seafood and greasy, over-sunned menu hawkers. I have no doubt that these guys are definitely the Jersey Guidos of Europe (minus The Situation's abs) judging by the way they haggled and got a little too cozy to girls walking by.

We were pretty tired by this time and so we settled into a nice paella plate after dining on appetizers. The ironic thing about it was that we had just walked for over an hour to this place way out of the way based on one of the German's book's recommendation when we learned that none of the Germans, in fact, liked seafood :o). Suddenly, Erika and I become the "experts" on recommending which fish they should eat when they don't like any fish at all. Leif made things easy by ordering a steak, while I hastily described what a monkfish looks like when Melanie asked me what I thought about that for dinner. I recommended the cod, which they found relatively palatable. :o)

It was one of our longer, dryer days (and hot!), but we enjoyed the Germans company for the night. Next time, we'll take them for awesome tapas instead of seafood :o). We took the brisk subway home and crashed pretty hard after wandering around our little village neighborhood's narrow streets a little bit more.

J. Riley, we used our day passes exactly twice, which means we wasted about $15 on the day pass :o|

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

IVF Cocktail Party Invitation

We're having a party at our humble abode, anyone want to stop by for an evening of indulgence and gluttony?

Snacks Available

After the party is the after-party...

J. Riley, Oven opened, bun inserted

Saturday, July 10, 2010

España and Deutschland: First Day in Barcelona

Friday morning, and Barcelona awaits us. I spent the last month studying the city and all of it's sites, but somehow it doesn't feel like we are on vacation. After all, we had no luggage. No clean clothing, no appropriate shoes for exploring, and no desire to get the day going. We hung out at the apartment hitting F5 on the laptop keyboard, hoping that British Airways would miraculously change the status from "We have no idea where your luggage is" (I paraphrase) to "Hey, your luggage arrived as expected at 10:00am, our first flight into Barcelona".

By 10:30, I was fed up and it was time that we start making the airlines pay and at least get enough clothing to last us a day or two. It is very frustrating not knowing when your luggage is going to come, or even if it is going to come, because I didn't want to waste money if I didn't need to, but I just wasn't feeling confident that they had their act together. But Erika was clearly in more dire straits because I at least had some underwear and a shirt that didn't stink too much, but Erika had shoes giving her blisters and no clean clothes. Luckily, we lived spitting distance from a modern shopping center, which I was hoping that we wouldn't need to explore, but it became inevitable.   

We did pretty well, actually. They had an H&M in the shopping center and I was able to get a shirt while Erika found some nice shirts, shorts, under-roos, sandals, and a nice lightweight scarf to get her accessory fix. Prior to going to the shopping center, I was sweating the "Euro tax" thanks to the negative exchange rate, but Barcelona was surprisingly...reasonable! I was expecting to pay one euro for every dollar that an item cost (i.e. a $15 shirt would cost 15 Euros, or about $20). But we found that the prices were more along the lines of costs in the U.S. Maybe a benefit of visiting a country in a major recession?

With the shopping out of the way, we hightailed it back to our apartment to drop the stuff off and change because we had a date with life, and a date with Leif! My German friend is a pilot and had managed to get scheduled to fly out of and into Barcelona for the next three days, which meant he could hang out with us and see the city in the afternoons. But first, the luggage. Of course as soon as we got back from shopping, the airlines said that our luggage had arrived that morning! A few quick phone calls later, and they said that they would deliver the luggage sometime after 6:00pm. That sucked that it would be a while before we got it, but as long as it was coming we were happy.

After getting marvelously lost on the way to our meetup spot in Plaça de Catalunya, we finally met up with Leif for the first time in five years, and Erika finally got to meet one of the Germans that I talk about incessantly. She got her first taste of the Euros with Roland's visit in November, so of course she was looking forward to meeting Leif Knappy.

So, we're hanging out and talking, but what should we do? All of the guidebooks focus their energy on the epicenter of tourism, La Rambla. La Rambla is a long, sweeping pedestrian street that travels from the Plaça de Catalunya all the way to the ocean. It's just the kind of place that I despise, but I figured we had to at least see what all the hooplah was about. As the impromptu tour guide, I explained that La Rambla came from the Arabic word for "stream", which it was back in the days that the Moors owned Barcelona. Of course, as the city grew, the "stream" turned into a sewage system and I guess they got tired of the smell and paved it over. Now, it's a place for street performers, bird salesmen (???), tourist giftshops, and pickpockets. As you travel down along the neighborhood of the Raval on the right-hand side, you come across prostitutes and other questionable characters, which is interesting since this is tourist centro. 

So, we cruised down La Rambla and headed for another prime tourist location, La Boqueria, which is the biggest, baddest, and most awesome market in Barcelona. This place was massive, full of colorful fruits, vegetables, ham, drinking holes, and little tapas bars and restaurants. I was looking forward to checking out the other markets, but I was very very impressed with La Boqueria. After smelling all of the wonderful products, we had to sample some, so we picked up a table at one of the tapas bars and gave the local malted beverages a try and snacked on anchovies (or sardines?), croquettes, ham, and a few other interesting small plates of food. They were good, but a little greasy to be honest. Of course there would be more tapas and better tapas later in the trip, but this was a nice way to ease into the local cuisine.

Sitting in the blazing sun while snacking and drinking, I realized that I had no sunscreen on, which would be definitely be a problem. I usually slather myself with sunscreen, but seeing as how it was in my luggage and my luggage was coming that night, I was determined to work on my skin cancer rather than pay a few bucks for sunscreen that I didn't even need. That's logical, right? Despite the fact that I would demand to be reimbursed for it from the airline (along with the rest of the stuff we bought that day)? Okay, maybe it wasn't such a cerebral idea, but I actually wanted to see if my epidermis was truly dead and dusted and would refuse to get any color. The result? No color (which is better than red)!!

After exploring La Rambla, admiring and trying to figure out how the hell the levitating men floated in the freaking air, and going up and down La Rambla searching in vain for Palau Guell (one of Gaudi's first designs) and some famous theaters, it was time to head down to the waterfront and relax on our way back to meetup with our beloved baggage. We hung out on some steps leading down to the smelly, polluted water (or maybe it was the cruise line exhaust we were smelling?), and eventually started heading back to Barceloneta and bid adieu to Leif until the next day.

Back in our apartment, it was time to figure out what was going on with our luggage. Lucky for us, our "roommate" was a pretty awesome guy and let us use his phone so that we could make all the phone calls that we needed to in Barcelona to get the information we needed. We had dinner plans that night with one of Erika's friends and, sure enough, the airline decided that that was a perfect target for the delivery time. So our luggage arrived at 10:00am, but they wouldn't deliver it to us until between 8:00 and 11:00pm. Although it was going to cause problems in our schedule, getting our luggage was priority number one, so we cancelled our plans and begrudgingly rescheduled for later in the weekend. It almost worked out better this way, because we had some pig shopping to do.

One of the things that Spain is famous for is their legs o'ham. Much like Italy has their prosciutto, Spain has their Jamon Serrano. I've head a lot about this, and had black pigs jumping over fences and landing between two pieces of buttered bread in my dreams at night. It was definitely on my agenda to eat at least four portions of fatty jamon for each meal, so we embarked on a trip to our local mercado to go pick some up.

Usually, when I visit a city, I try to find out the local customs and visit some more authentic areas (isn't that the dream of every traveler, though?). Typically, it doesn't happen, but we lucked on this trip because our apartment was situated in just such a place. Overlooking Passeig de Joan Borbo and it's constant flow of tourists and locals flocking to the beach, who would believe that just one block deeper into Barceloneta was a  feeding ground for local residents. The mercado, just a few three or four minutes away by walking, was my destination of fairy tales because it was a meeting place of families of the area and inside they had a lovely little market with several jamon stands. We ended up picking one to stick to and it became our ritual to visit this place on a daily basis to pick up a variety of ham to eat for breakfast, snack on, or make sandwiches with. Our meat cutter (scientific term ;o) told Erika all about the different varieties he had such as regular serrano vs. serranita vs. black pigs that were fed only chestnuts, etc. He let us sample the different types and was in no rush to get us out despite the fact that the place was closing down by this point. This: is the life! We matched the jamon up with some cheeses that he had and went across the street to Barceloneta's top bakery where for a small pence, we were able to get some delicious fresh bread that would be our breakfast the next day.

Back at the homestead, we waited for our luggage some more. Finally, at 9:00pm, Ricardo got the call that our stuff had arrived and we rushed downstairs to embrace my handicapped  bag (it desperately needs some new wheels!)!! It was such a relief to finally be able to change into something cool and fresh after two days of offending the people around us ;o).

After our things arrived, we decided to head out to get some sangria and maybe a bite to eat in the immediate area, but Ricardo recommended that we head of to the Born neighborhood, which was the next neighborhood over. We were met with more narrow streets, dark alleyways, and throngs of sharply-dressed people in this burgeoning and fashionable neighborhood. We felt totally out of place with my sandals and baggy shorts when everyone was dressed to the nines, but we wandered around in search of anything that was not jammed pack with people and that had some outdoor seating for us to enjoy in the comfortable weather. The tapa bars in this area were amazing full and it brought a great energy to the area.

At the same time, I felt like the neighborhood had a dark side to it. There were some really dark streets that we walked down and some shady characters that seemed to be around us all the time. After being warned repeatedly about the pickpockets, it really unnerved me when people would walk like two feet behind me. Luckily, I was with Erika (haha!) who had no problem in these situations, which was why she was the one in charge of carrying the cash and any valuables :o).

In any case, we eventually stumbled upon a culdesac that had several restaurants and we settled on pizzas and fresh sangria at Pizza Paco. This area was really hopping and it just felt great to finally be carefree, relax, and enjoy the sites and smells of Barcelona :o)

J. Riley, it was a long first day!

IVF Update

Thirteen embryos have been created. Now they're off to the lab for PGD testing! Assuming it all goes well and statistics are realistic and achievable, the embryo transfer should take place early next week. Erika, for one, can't wait to get this over with, these drugs are horrific!