Thursday, September 27, 2012

Seeing Our Castles in Spain: A Trip to Barcelona

Having already told you about our experience at High Rockabilly, I thought I would break up the rest of our trip to Barcelona into a couple more posts.  At first I couldn't determine if a travelogue was appropriate for the blog because, to be perfectly honest, Barcelona isn't particularly wacky tacky, as we have come to define it.  After sifting through our photos, however, I came to realize that there is wacky tacky to be found in any part of the world, especially if we bring a little with us wherever we go.  WARNING: Be prepared for plenty of pictures!!!

If you're already making this face, now would
 be a good time to close this page.

Barcelona blew every expectation I had of the city out of the water.  I refuse to elaborate too much further because my misinformed surprise at the realities of Barcelona's culture could potentially be construed as offensive - unintentionally, of course.  Okay, one little thing...maybe two.  I live in Southern California, so close to the border with Mexico in fact, that my exposure to Mexican culture is quite ordinary, routine even.  I was more than a little surprised to travel so far yet still see representations of Mexico by way of both people and the six-and-a-half-foot-tall, fiberglass form of Mexican superstar, Cantinflas. 

Albeit a one-handed version
No matter how hard I tried, he ignored my
colloquial request to "put 'er there, pardner."

Cantinflas - in the flesh

It was probably wrong to travel to a country with so many prejudicial expectations, but my imagination is always running in overdrive, so I couldn't help but construct a lengthy narrative of my whole trip before I even buckled my safety belt on the plane.  I have limited experience traveling abroad, but I have plenty of international contacts (trust me), and the general consensus is that Americans are fat - by very definition it seems.  It is hard to argue the point when I am so clearly "American" (ah, the joys of being a stereotype).  Given the mild disdain that I had so cleverly inferred from this characterization of my fellow countrymen, I was truly caught off guard to see quite a few portly Europeans.  Even more surprised after the amount of walking and stair climbing that is required of Barcelonians (?).  Truly, our Barcelona trip can be summed up in one photo...

This photo was taken from the landing at the top of the stairs of our "hotel."
With no elevator, this was our everyday Everest - not really a bad thing
 considering that I found my favorite place in the entire city on our first day...

It was like being called home when I first set my eyes on La Colmena Bomboneria.
Calafell, the locale of High Rockabilly, although a short distance from Barcelona,
felt like an isolated beach town.  It was great for seaside relaxation, but having
 traveled several thousand miles, I was hoping for something a little less familiar,
something a little more European!!!  The marble entry, the glass cases full of
delicious treats, the back-painted, gold lettering - I found my European happy place
in La Colmena.  Did we go every single day and sometimes twice a day?
 I defy you to prove it.

Strangely, it has always been a goal of mine to try real macarons...
sometimes it's the easy goals that are the most elusive.
 I've come close a couple times, but I'm glad I saved myself for Europe!

One thing I didn't want to ask was, "How many macarons is
it polite to eat in one sitting?"  I wanted one of each and then
an immediate refill.  We ate more than macarons though;
 there was the dark chocolate disk filled with citron and roasted
 nuts, chocolate horns filled with chocolate mousse, layered
 hazelnut chocolates, oh, and those rice krispie/citron chocolate clusters.
Mmmmmmmm Mmmmmmmm!!!!
  I wasn't such a huge fan of Spanish cuisine, so I filled up on candy!!!

Okay, so I was doing nothing to defeat the stereotype.
Really, I have been trying to eat a little better lately,
but I was on vacation, right?  Right?!  RIGHT?!?!
Ketchup is our national condiment, so why in the heck don't
 we have ketchup-flavored chips?  They are DELICIOUS!!!
(If we do have them, don't tell me, I'm just
getting over the withdrawals) 

While we were indulging our appetites, we were drawn to a rare site in Barcelona, a vintage store.

The proprietress at Le Swing Vintage was so painfully chic that I assumed
she was going to be mean (always a corollary in my mind).  She was actually
 very friendly and had a great store.

I've been told before that European vintage is even more outrageously priced than
American vintage.  The prices at Le Swing didn't seem terrible but, with the
 exchange rate not working in our favor, we left the shop empty handed.

Most of the store was subterranean.  It looks like the this person is caught
in the middle. 

 With too many hurdles to jump through, I thought it was
impossible to bring this bench/ottoman home - first, it 
wasn't for sale, second, I didn't have room in my carry-on.
In retrospect, I feel like I could have made an offer and 
unscrewed the legs.  BUMMER, that would have been a
great souvenir.

Some of the best money that we spent was on the Barcelona Bus Tour (a definite recommendation if you find yourself in Barcelona).  The buses run frequently and riders can get on and off the bus at stops all over the city to explore landmarks, museums, markets, and various points of interest.

Almost every bus was completely full - until we got on...

One of our favorite stops was MNAC, the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya.

MNAC was built for the 1929 International Exposition.
After climbing about 8,026 steps, we finally made it inside...only to climb
 up two more flights just to get to the galleries!  Good thing I invested in that NOS
Thighmaster and the Buns of Steel videos I found at my neighbor's garage sale.

Fortunately, photos were allowed inside MNAC so we could capture some of the masterpieces.  One gallery in particular seemed to have a very obvious focus, namely death.

A sweet, little baby standing on a skull.

A life-size, bronze figure of a woman who had recently
 stabbed herself in the heart - seductively.

A gored matador

Having a definite taste for the macabre, we indulged in one my favorite pastimes by making the next stop on our bus tour Barcelona's oldest cemetery.

The sleep from which she would never wake.

The weather during our entire trip was hot and extremely humid.
  Of course, on our last day, Gabriel tooted his horn and heralded
 in the most ideal weather possible.  The literal translation of the latin is,
"Suckers, we did this on purpose so it would be harder to go home."

Seriously, the weather was so beautiful that it made
 the angels weep.

So technically, we weren't supposed to be taking pictures in the
 cemetery; I guess they didn't want us disturbing the residents.
We were feeling pretty lucky that we hadn't gotten caught
 until, from out of nowhere, a mangey black cat crossed our path....

The theme continued as we naively disembarked the bus again to check out a local market where the foul odor of death hung heavy in the air.

Not, I repeat NOT, rubber chickens.
Why wouldn't they just have the heads already removed.
What does one do with the head when one gets the foul fowl home anyway?

We unintentionally made like Elmer Fudd and went wabbit hunting.
Yep, those are rabbits.  File this under "things you'll never see in an
American market."

Given all of the death, artistic and otherwise, we were convinced that vegan was the way to go - for dinner at least.  We ended up at Cat Bar in Barri Gotic, Barcelona's Gothic quarter (my favorite part of town).

Our meal of a green burger (a spinach patty with
 marinated zucchini), beautifully prepared potato
 wedges with avocado dipping sauce, and a salad of
mixed, spring greens ended up being our favorite meal
of the entire trip.

Everybody left Cat Bar "feline" fine.
A British couple we met had already eaten there two nights
 in a row and vowed to be back the next night as well.

Beyond vegan food, Europeans definitely get at least two things right,
 sunglasses and shoes.  I was particularly taken by the frames in the
 foreground.  Since I already rock the specs, I never wear sunglasses
 because I'm too lazy to switch back and forth.

La Manual Alpargatera is one of the oldest makers of espadrilles in Barcelona.
Celebrities of every ilk have purchased the shoes that are still handmade onsite.

Mary stands before a wall of espadrilles.
 Overcome by the romance of hemp-soled shoes, we each got a pair,
 but I'm not sure that I am confident enough to show you what I got.
The shopkeeper assured me that they were super-hip and extremely
 masculine, but once I got them home and stuffed my feet into them,
I was feeling like anything but a He-Man.

Inexplicably, they don't make this style in adult sizes!
I know plenty of American girls who would take these in any size.

Espadrilles are the official shoe of Catalunya, or something; we created fun facts like this based on our observations during Catalan Independence Day.  Yep, we were lucky enough to be there on the day that just about every resident of Barcelona took to the streets to declare their symbolic independence from Spain and Marco's regime.

A traditional, military-style espadrille

We set out with no plan and immediately ran into historical recreationists
 taking part in the day's festivities, parades, and protests.

My favorite was the little drummer, girl.

Mary informed me that, rather than a parade leading the way to a Southern-style
barbecue restaurant, this was more likely an anti-police/government protest.
 Boy, was I getting homesick for American food!

Despite news reports around the world (we received a few concerned facebook messages), everything seemed pretty peaceful and we were fearful of neither the protests nor the demonstrations.  It was hard to distinguish a protestor from a reveler anyhow as everyone was draped in some version of the Catalan flag.  We thought about getting a flag to join in the fun, but they were 10 euros apiece.  We settled for the free balloons and the independence themed posters that were being handed out on every corner.

Not meaning to be disrespectful, I folded our poster into a festive paper hat for Mary.
We were the subject of staring the entire time we wer in Barcelona anyway, but once
 Mary donned the hat,  all bets were off and Barcelona Stare-fest 2012 was on!!!
  People stared, pointed, laughed, scowled, whispered, looked confused, and asked for photos.
It was like they had never seen a giant, American woman carrying a guitar, wearing
 vintage-style clothing and a paper hat before.

This photo also shows Mary demonstrating the hundreds of fountains all over town
 that supplied,and continue to supply, usable drinking water for the residents
 of Barcelona (and yes, we took a picture with every single one that we saw).  

The government-sanctioned, Independence Day festivities culminated in a grand ceremony at the beautiful central park, Parc de la Ciutadella.

This piece of civic art/architecture/statuary
in the park had me in awe.

Yes, we have Hollywood, we have Disneyland, but we don't
have anything  like this!  EUROPE!!!

Everyone was on hand including dignitaries, local politicians, and Barcelona's biggest celebrities, the Castellers, or as I referred to them, the "people stackers."




This was the third demonstration of stacking that we had seen and we had only been in town about twenty four hours.  Every souvenir item that we saw referenced the people stackers - usually as the center panel of a tea towel or tablecloth.  The residents of Barcelona get so worked up by the stacking of people that suddenly, without warning, they can - and will - break out into the national anthem.

"Els Segadors" - The Catalan National Anthem

Oddly enough, until that moment, this was some of the only music we had heard in Barcelona.  I had expected (wished for) gypsy guitars and flamenco dancers and folk music and Euro pop, but we got a lot of silence and a bit of American Top 40 when we wandered into retail shops.  Convinced that we would set Barcelona's world on fire with our music, we set to busking.  We picked a pretty well traversed area in front of our favorite Gothic cathedral,  the Catedral de Barcelona, and started singing.  I guess other countries don't appreciate American roots music and western swing as much as we thought they would.

Do you see the single euro in the guitar case?
Yeah, that was me "priming the pump."  It worked like a charm...we left with one euro.
We sang and played our hearts out.
We ran through our entire songbook twice and we still went over
like a lead balloon.  We were beginning to think that the absence of
music was culturally significant to Barcelona.  I almost thought that
 they hated music, until.... 

 We heard the call of jazz, real, live JAZZ!
The New Orleans Ragamuffins
(many more videos of this group can be seen on youtube)

It was not only music to our ears, but our hearts and souls as well. After five solid days of rockabilly followed by deafening silence, we needed to hear something sweet.  The NORs got our toes tapping and before we knew it, we were dancing in the street.  Given the dumbfounded gazes and the frantic searches for cameras, one might have thought that aliens had landed, but it was just two giant weirdos dancing in the streets of Barcelona - and having a great time.  Mary bought their CD, and while we could could have listened to them for hours, before too long, they closed the lid on the piano and rolled it away.  But Jazz wasn't to be the only offering on the day's program...

B-Boys? Acrobats? Rogue, street performers who literally disappear at the
sight of Barcelona PD? All of the above.

It is a well known fact that it takes exactly two to tango.
After the jazz and B-Boy routines, we kept meandering and stumbled across
this tango-playing duo.  I probably don't have to tell you, but
People who had seen us dancing to the New Orleans Ragamuffins (and
 then to the tango music) asked us if we were paid performers.  I wish!
I told them we were just music-starved, American tourists!!!

The rest of these photos (yes, there's more) are less of chronological narrative (actually very little of this post has been in chronological order but how you know that unless you paying very close attention to costume changes) and more a representation of what I deem to be funny - wacky tacky, even - pictures from our adventures around Barcelona.

There were a few moments when I knew I was in Europe.
One of those moments came when I peeked around a corner to
 see this picturesque view of a narrow lane lined with iron balconies,
hanging plants, laundry on the line and an entire family lobbing
 obscenities at a woman on one of those balconies as she
hurled them right back.  At first I thought, "No, that child didn't
 just call that woman a prostitute in front of her parents.  Surely
 their tone is elevated because they are communicating from
in the alley."  As different as the Spanish spoken in Mexico and
California might be from the Spanish/Catalan spoken in Barcelona,
 some words do indeed translate exactly.

Bar Choco Chiqui
 I couldn't find the actual bar, but the old iron sign was pretty
 cool and I wanted some choco chiqui - real bad.

Get a load of those knockers!!!
These antique doors were covered with graffiti.  I think Europeans see so much history around every corner that it doesn't always occur to them how special it all is.  Case in point, shortly after seeing this cool hardware, we saw trashmen picking up a door with all of the hardware intact that was a least three centuries old, and chucking it in the back of their trash-compacting truck.  Have they never heard of architectural salvage?  If we were smart we would go back to Europe on trash digging trips; In California, that "trash" would easily have been worth thousands of dollars!

There was a lot of old and new side by side and I loved it.
  In Southern California we are only just starting to recognize
 our history - such as it is.  Usually, when something gets old we
 tear it down and start over.  I like the idea of breathing new
life into history with humongous coat-hanger art installations!
Similar examples abound all over the city.

Pictures on the moon seem to be all the rage, so Mr. Tiny perched
 himself on this pint-sized moon as delicately as he could.
Unfortunately, by the time I got up, it was completely steamrolled.

We tried to tell them all about American Soda...
Coke, Diet Coke, Coke Zero, Cherry Coke, Diet Cherry Coke,
Coca-Cola Classic, Coke with Lime, Pepsi, Diet Pepsi,
Pepsi Max, Pepsi Next, Pepsi One, Dr. Pepper, Diet Dr. Pepper, Sprite,
 Diet Sprite, Sierra Mist, Diet Sierra Mist, Orange Crush, Fresca, Squirt...
we would have kept going but I thought the hostess' body
language indicated a slight lack of interest.  So much for
cross-cultural communication and understanding!

I despise politics, but as it is closing in on election time here is the US,
 I encourage you exercise your right to vote - for the leader of British Africa???

I love colored light!

I think my real depression set in once they removed The Skyway
from Disneyland.  I was beside myself with joy when, on our way
 up to an old castle/fort, we got to ride in the aerial gondolas.  I was
 trying to get everyone to catch the spirit of excitement but the
 French couple next to me was not having any of it.

Mary, sunbathing at the top of Montjuic, the old castle turned fort.

What?  You're telling me you never pretend to be the Big Bad Wolf?!

A tower in Barcelona's old, industrial section
emblazoned with the word "Kisses."

A GIANT shrimp...
alright, so maybe it's a lobster, but that wouldn't be a hilarious oxymoron.

TA DA!!! A really cool magic store.

I just like this one...that is all.

The display window for a hip clothing store showed us once and for all that
 BVD's are for decorative purposes only - the exception being for use as
a Baby Bjorn for your cat.

Mary made a bunch of new friends while we were there and
 they all went for a really fun ride on an imaginary boat.

This was one our favorite places in Barcelona, the Catedral de Barcelona.
At night it is majestic and spooky; during the day, one can take a tour
and visit the rooftop for 360-degree views of the city.

I really thought this made for a dramatic photo.
  Obviously, as the statue is only lit from one side, the huge shadow
 being cast is intentional.  I wonder if the novelty wears off around 3am
for the residents of this hotel.

Speaking of hotels, this was the entrance to our "hotel."
The beautiful iron and glass entry, the marble wainscoting,
and classical mosaic all spoke to a stately turn of the Century
 building...let's just say the years have not been kind.

Mary and the lady who ran our "hotel."
 You're right, I do keep putting "hotel" in quotation marks, because this
place was no hotel; it made us jealous of the folks staying at a
 Bakersfield Motel 6.  We spent the first hour in the room
simultaneously afraid to touch anything or sit down and totally
 overcome by hysterical laughter.  Nevertheless, the price was
 low (relative to other hotels), the staff was very nice, the
location was great, and we never had any major issues.  In fact,
this little lady (short even when not standing next to a giant)
 filled our backpacks with breakfast pastries on the morning that
 we left so we would have sustenance on the plane.

Heavyhearted, we hopped a cab to the airport for our LONG journey home.  Mary bought many a souvenir, so to make sure her baggage would fall under the maximum weight, I loaded up my suitcase to capacity.  I'll give you one guess as to whose bag was overweight...they say that luggage and their owners start to look alike after awhile. Wouldn't you know that I, the one who packed light and was entirely ready the night before, had to kneel on the cold floor of the airport and sift through my dirty clothes as I layered on shirts, put on two belts, and played Sophie's Choice with my shoes so we could make it back home without the 100 euro surchage!  The nice agent at the Lufthansa desk instructed me to remove 4 kilos from my bag.  Embarrassed, I had to politely ask her what a "kilo" was (blast you American public school education!!!).  The pitying look she gave me quickly turned to scorn when I told her that the only thing Americans measure in kilos is cocaine.  In the end, we redistributed things among the luggage and made it home safe and sound, but not before a heartbreaking layover in Germany.

Here is Mr. Tiny trying to convince himself that a pretzel in
the terminal at the Munich airport is the same as getting to
go to Oktoberfest.  I was really trying not to be too sad that
my only time in Germany was a 45-minute layover...

Spain is a marvel and it really turned all of my expectations on their ear; I guess one can only glean so much cultural information from watching Disney's Ferdinand the Bull and the occasional Esteban infomercial.  Honestly, despite what the song says, I saw castles rising in Spain, that I NEVER would have seen through my windowpane.  In fact, I saw Spanish birds with feathers of blue AND green that had never been waiting for me before.  After a couple weeks of being home, however, I guess it is true that my happiness lies, right under my eyes, back in my own backyard!

"Back In Your Own Backyard" - Russ Columbo

Can you believe that this is not even half of what we saw in just over three days?  Stay tuned for the final post of our Spanish adventure featuring the King of Barcelona's wacky tacky scene, Antoni Gaudi! 

p.s. Do I win some kind of prize for the longest, most-boring post in the history of blogger???

Cheers & Hasta Luego!

Mr. Tiny