After too many months of not enough sun, John and I decided it was time to travel to a warm locale where we could soak up some vitamin D and broaden our cultural horizons (what a cliche) by not just sitting on a beach in the Canary Islands like we did last year, but by taking my aunt & uncle’s advice and heading to Marrakech for a few days. I’d been interested in Morocco since college, when I took a French class on North African literature (or something to that effect). Plus, I really like tagine, dates, and Moroccan mint tea, and the fact that Marrakech was just a 3 hour plane ride from Gatwick was icing on the cake (the very same moist, delicious cake our Riad served us for breakfast every morning).
When we last left our heroes (i.e. me and John), they were exhausted but exhilarated from a day of walking the narrow cobblestoned alleys and the wide, tree-lined La Rambla. Onward to Easter Sunday, which felt much less like Easter than any other place we’ve been to on that date. The Catalans just don’t get all that excited about Zombie Jesus day, it turns out.
We found a delightful brunch place, Federal Cafe. The restaurant could easily have blended in with our favorite breakfast joints in Philly, as the menu encompassed more than just English Breakfasts and boring “toasties” that you’d find around Oxford. Federal Cafe was so wonderful, in fact, that we went back again for our final meal before leaving for the airport on Monday. The coffee was incredible, and the New Yorker evidently left behind by a fellow American traveler made for high-quality, high-brow reading material while waiting for my latke and smoked salmon.
Although Sunday morning was misty, drizzly and a bit cooler than the previous day, we trekked up to the Montjuic Teleferic for a view of the city. At the top of a steep climb, we explored the grounds of the Montjuic Castle, and saw the spot where a former President (of Barcelona) was executed (for being a leftist, naturally).
We also stopped by the Olymic Stadium, which was not too far away by foot, and which pretty much looked like your typical baseball stadium. It didn’t have the gravitas that I was expecting, but was interesting to see nonetheless. We also wandered past the Joan Miro foundation, looked at the queue formed around the block, laughed, and moved on. I might’ve said this in my last post, but I just don’t believe in standing in line, wasting time, when you come to a place to explore and enjoy its sights. Much like I don’t believe in Santa Claus or unicorns (though ghosts are definitely real).
After resting at our hostel to recharge our batteries (our phones and our aching feet, tired by 1 pm), we made our way via the metro to the Park Guell, which was definitely one of the highlights of the trip. A description won’t do it justice, so you’ll just have to wait for the (eventual) photos. I was panicking a little because I purchased tickets for a 2 pm slot, and by 2:15 we were trekking up a mountain (seriously…there was an escalator for assistance, it was so steep) and got a little lost trying to find the entrance. But, we made it in time, and really enjoyed the serenity of the place, which was overwhelming enough to drown out the chaos of too many tourists.
Not too far away from the Park was Casa Vicens, another Gaudi work (I think his first popular structure, a house designed for some rich person). Oddly enough, we were the only people there, apart from maybe 2 other families who briefly passed by to snap a picture. The solitude of this spot made the house seem almost like a typical residence rather than the World Heritage site that it is. I imagined, as I stood there, that the inhabitants of the apartments on that block probably viewed that house just as a typical neighbor’s house. For some reason, I found that comforting.
Next, we passed by the Palau de la Musica Catalana, a concert hall that was probably even more impressive inside than out, but again, [insert my stance on waiting in line]. We also passed by a market, that I thought would be much nicer, but turned out just to be an overpriced, stuck-up place where they didn’t even serve coffee that wasn’t laced with booze (La Princesa). I wasn’t too upset about the detour, though, because we happened to wander by a Bavarian Pretzel shop and picked up a cheese and pepperoni brezel as well as a “Laugenbreze.” It was a poor imitation of what Nurnberg offers, but whetted our appetites for our next trip (May 3rd!)
I thought that the Picasso Museum, free on Sundays after 3 pm, might not be so busy on Easter Sunday, when basically every European country has the day off and isn’t spending it gorging on subpar bunny-shaped chocolate like we do in the U.S. Yeah, I was wrong about that. The queue stretched not one, not two, but three (or more?) blocks away from the entrance, so we counted our blessings that we’d seen enough Picasso in other museums to last a lifetime, and moved on.
A few more stops littered the way to our hostel for another break (we’re old!), including the impressive Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar. That night, we went out for Mexican, which is downright impossible to find in Oxford (Mission Burrito doesn’t come close, local friends). The nachos were somewhat disappointing, and the tacos were decent but lacking lime. Luckily the gelato afterwards, with its crazy flavors (parmesan-vanilla, anyone?) made up for it.
We didn’t stay out very late, but probably one of my favorite moments of the whole trip was during our walk back to the hostel. There was a street performer in one of the alleys, a dreadlocked guy who looked like anyone from my college class, entertaining a gaggle of kids with this stick-and-rope contraption that he used to dip into a bucket of soapy water and blew bubbles the side of…well, those kids who were gazing up at him in awe. As I found myself smiling just as admiringly as those kids, I thought that he probably didn’t have much money, and I didn’t know what his life was like in the slightest, but he was using this small gift, this act, to make people happy. This realization, though cheesy, made me appreciate the simple things I do, and that others do, to spread joy (or at least get someone to smile).
I think that’s a good place to wrap up this trip down memory lane (at least to the memory lane of last weekend), because if there’s on thing that Barcelona represents to me, it’s liveliness. From the architecture, to the leisurely meals of delicious cuisines, to the energizing walking along the steep hills and countless city squares, Barcelona is a city of vibrancy and inspiration. I can’t wait to return.
I really wanted to avoid using the term “jam-packed” in a vacation summary post, but I can’t, so I might as well include it in the first sentence. On our past few trips, John and I have typically taken things on a day-by-day basis, and not really made checklists of places to see. Granted, the last few plane rides have been to Germany and Pennsylvania, and those places are more like secondary homes where we don’t need or want to do the tourist thing.
But this time, I did some research and made a custom Google map, and tried very hard not to be lazy. The map shows the final result of our trip– clearly, “jam-packed” best describes the 60 hours we spent in Spain.
Before I launch into a long-winded account of (nearly) everything we did, I want to share a new realization (to me, at least) about traveling. It sounds great and enlightening and exciting, but it’s also damned stressful. From airport hassles to overeating because everything looks appealing to debating whether to to X first or Y, and then Z– it’s not just some rosy picture of slapping on some sunglasses and coming home in a wiser, worldlier state. Your problems, from work stress to the thoughts that keep you up at night, follow you on vacation, too. There’s a lesson to be learned here about learning how to accept that and declare vacations a success in spite of the messy parts you’d rather leave behind. I’m not sure I’ve learned it yet, but at least I’m comfortable enough with the idea to put it out there.
After we landed in the Barcelona El Prat airport, we hopped on the Aerobus to the city center. We stayed at Spain House Apartments, a hostel that actually stays true to its namesake in that it’s in an apartment building with private rooms. I think I’m finally at a point in my life where I’ve outgrown shared-room hostels, because I have no patience for late-night partiers and gross showers. Yet I’m still too cheap to splurge for a hotel, so this was a good in-between. Our host was a really friendly guy who picked us up from the bus stop, and spoiled us with fresh sheets and towels every day. Apparently we were near the “bad” neighborhood (Raval?) but I didn’t notice. Then again, we lived in Kensington, Philadelphia for a year, where break-ins, crack pipes, and neighbors brawling in the streets was the norm.
On Saturday, we wandered around the block for some Spanish brunch at Rekons. John had a platter with empanadas and a salad that could have fed four. I had a dish of roasted potatoes, topped with serrano jam and brie cheese, that was amazingly delicious, especially considering how simple it was. I felt like I could go home and make this, and it was nice to get a little kitchen-related inspiration.
After digesting and recharging our rapidly draining phone battery (Google album coming soon!), we wandered to Casa Battlo and Sagrada Familia. Before this trip, I was completely unfamiliar with Gaudi’s work, but now I see what all the fuss is about. I felt like I was in a Tim Burton film, or a fantasy world– I’d never seen such dream-like buildings.
We wandered back toward the hostel and happened to pass by a place that I’d bookmarked, so maybe we were subconsciously led here, to La Taqueria, a place that promised (and delivered) taco goodness. They were ridiculously pricey (compared to Veracruzana in Philly, one of the few restaurants I really miss), but worth every cent. Speaking of cents/pence, I was reminded over and over again during this trip just how expensive Oxford is by comparison, so it really did feel like everything (from food to transport to lodging and beyond) was a steal.
Somehow, we still had enough energy to wander to the Arc de Triomf, which was oddly packed with more skateboarders than tourists, and then onward to the Palau de la Musica Catalana, another architectural masterpiece that warranted prolonged gawking. Finally, our feet called it quits and we collapsed back at the hostel for a few minutes, before heading to Barceloneta to get some burgers and tapas at Negro Carbon. The food was tasty and the subway/metro ride there was a nice way to see another part of the city. On our way home, we stopped by a gelato place, Artisa Barcelona. The place was overcrowded and I almost had to beg them to take my money, since customers were getting served left and right but, seemingly, no one had really thought of how to manage the cash register. The chocolate hazelnut cone made up for the chaotic service, though, and we enjoyed the last licks while sitting on the steps of a nearby square, watching street performers balance soccer balls on various body parts. (Yes, it’s soccer, not football).
I couldn’t sleep at all that night, maybe due to the excitement or the uncomfortable bed (any bed that isn’t mine is by definition uncomfortable), or maybe just as an extension of the insomnia that’s plagued me for the last few weeks. But that’s another story, less interesting than the story of Barcelona, which I’ll pick up again later this week.
That should probably be “500 words or fewer,” but who’s going to report me to the grammar police?
All of my London summaries are nearly identical, but I can’t help it:
1. Get off the bus.
2. Get overwhelmed.
3. Get on the bus.
4. Get into pajamas and admit it, you’re a country mouse.
Walking around Oxford Circus (London) reminded me of being in Manhattan, fighting my way upstream like a salmon in a sea of people. I didn’t stop for pictures, but I did stop for some Urban Decay eyeliner in House of Fraser. And a new bike lock in Sports Direct.
We made our way to Borough Market, which was nice but overhyped (/-priced). A makeshift lunch of local/organic/all that semi-elitist foodie goodness plus a nice olive pepperoni baguette hit the spot, and I bought some tomato-chili jam to enjoy back home, plus some Jerusalem artichokes that are very funny-looking but promise to be tasty. And persimmons/Sharon fruit, my latest obsession. I ate the four-pack one by one, on top of the windy London Bridge with juice dripping down my jacket and later, perched on a table in Pret as we drank some caffeinated beverages.
Riding the tube brought back memories of my 2007 (that long ago?) semester in London. I keep saying I’m going to stop by Kilburn Park, but haven’t, and didn’t this time, either.
We then tried, unsuccessfully, to find a decent Mexican restaurant. There appear to be only Chipotles and Chipotle-wannabes in London, and although half the reason we went to the city that day was specifically for Chipotle burritos…well, we weren’t feeling it after all. Luckily we found a charming “Beirut street food” place tucked away in a Soho side street, and we were early enough to snag a table. I had to get the chicken livers (named one of the top 100 dishes in some sort of Time Out feature) and they lived up to their hype. Seriously, I say “chicken livers” and can see you click the little “x” on this site, but something about it just worked (I think the frying, plus the pomegranate molasses). Then we shared this for dessert # 1 (dessert #2? Cadbury mini-eggs and creme eggs. Because I needed a full-on sugar coma).
It was a nice day out, but nothing beats coming home to tea and House of Cards, and that pretty much sums up how the rest of the weekend went.
For a country that purportedly prides itself on not being very religious, England is all about Christmas. Not as much as Germany – which has Heiligabend (Christmas Eve), Weihnachtstag (Christmas Day) and Zweiter Weihnachtstag (the second Christmas day), but close enough. I mean, they started decorating after Halloween. Somehow, I managed to avoid the usual holiday stress of getting exactly the right gifts and having exactly the right plans, and had a really nice time.
Today is Boxing Day, which (much to my disappointment) is not rooted in boxing the crowds at the mall to return all those gifts you didn’t like. Wikipedia, source of all knowledge, says:
Boxing Day is traditionally the day following Christmas Day, when servants and tradesmen would receive gifts, known as a “Christmas box”, from their bosses or employers. Today, Boxing Day is the bank holiday that generally takes place on 26 December. It is observed in the United Kingdom, Canada, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago and some other Commonwealth nations. [Source]
I’m not disappointed that I didn’t get a Christmas box from bChannels. I’d much rather have a day off, to lounge around in my pajamas until 3 pm (not that I’m speaking from experience…), bake gluten-free banana bread, make tikka masala for dinner (this is the best recipe ever, but today I’m using pork instead of chicken), and finally go for a run after 9 long, mostly-bedridden, flu-filled days. Being sick is the worst.
Anyway, it was a very nice Christmas. John got me a gift card to a department store that sells Mac and Urban Decay makeup, which is wonderful because I love that stuff but am too stingy to buy it for myself. I got him some double-chocolate digestives and chocolate (no, really, it’s for him…not me) and finally, a reasonable-sized mug for coffee-guzzling. Because that’s what we do in this house.
I also got us tickets to see Cats tomorrow in centre city Oxford. I’m sure Icarus and Zora will appreciate us badly belting out showtunes and making them dance around in a reenactment after the fact. But, they’ll be spared (for the most part), because just a few hours after the show, we’re hopping on the red-eye bus for the 3-hour journey to the Stansted airport.
Then it’s off to Germany for a few days. Can’t wait!
Part of my hesitation to write, I have to admit, has been because my trip back to the “rebel” country hasn’t been as rosy as expected. To begin with, I woke up with a sore throat the day after arriving, which progressed to probably full-blown bronchitis and is still lingering. That’s a diagnosis brought to you by Dr. WebMD; even though I have some sort of international health care card, I don’t think an actual doctor could have done anything for me.
I got well enough in time for the wedding, and got through the day with smiles and a hefty dose of cold pills. Any way I phrase this will sound terrible, but I have to be honest: there’s a lot of pressure for the big day to be this wonderful, magical event. Months of over-planning and over-scrutinizing are supposed to lead to a carefree, effortlessly elegant day where it hits you that you’re a Mrs. now, and have a Mr. for life, and you celebrate that with your nearest and dearest.
Don’t get me wrong– it was a wonderful day. And it feels fantastic to be married to my favorite person. But from a rushed morning to a delayed ceremony start, to worrying that no one could hear us from that picturesque gazebo on the top of that hill in Chickies Rock Park, to accidentally leaving in that bit about gay marriage that might piss off some relatives, to feeling rushed while setting up the food for hungry guests and not having any idea where to put all of the stuff, to spilling barbecue sauce on my dress on three separate occasions and making the mistake of using a burgundy-colored napkin to blot it out (not my smartest decision), to…just knowing that we didn’t really devote more than 2 minutes to anyone in particular, it just wasn’t all that Martha and David (that’s Stewart and the Bridal mogul to the uninitiated) promised.
I expected that, to some degree. But I still wish I could have done it perfectly, because that’s how I am. On my wedding night, we stayed at John’s mom’s house, and the groom eventually passed out around midnight while I was up until 4 or 5 because I couldn’t stop my brain from flashing images of the day (greeting guests, blotting stains, searching for extra guacamole and tin foil) in front of my eyes.
The icing on the cake (possibly the only item of which there was no leftovers) was that throughout the day, and even a week later, people are still telling me what a great time they had and how relaxed and happy I looked. The pictures will show that, too. So that’s how I will choose to remember it. Still, I felt the need to give you a sneak peek of the “man behind the curtain,” to reinforce that– appropriately, like a marriage itself– things are never perfect. They’re messy and a little chaotic and the key to happiness is learning to embrace all of it.
And then there’s the aftermath. Now that a week has gone by, I can laugh about taking all of the tupperware into the back yard, along with a sponge and a gallon of dish soap, and hosing everything down. And pawning off bags of roasted garlic baguettes, pickled red onions and tortellini salad onto anyone who entered the house. These tasks kept my mind occupied, which I needed. My amazing, genuine and brilliant (to borrow the British slang) mother-in-law isn’t doing well, and I just don’t know how to deal with illness and…well, hopelessness, on my part. I want to make things better, and when I can’t, I either shut down or find a way to distract myself.
One of the distractions, of course, has been sugar. They call it emotional eating for a reason. I suppose there could be worse coping mechanisms, so I’ll give myself a break, but I do look forward to getting back on my bike and off the addictive white substance back in Oxford.
And yet, I’ll really miss it here. I loved spending time with my family (and new family!) I’m leaving just as my favorite season hits. The fine line between summer and fall. The few days where the air has a crisp edge to it, but the leaves haven’t lost their summer luster. The days where we introduce scarves and layers to our wardrobe. Not to mention the pumpkin spice everything.
I’ll miss you, Pennsylvania. But it’s time to go home, and start the next chapter of my life: experiencing my first autumn in Oxford. Oh, and learning how to be a nagging wife to my darling “hubby.”*
*I promise to never use this term seriously.
We have a few minutes until boarding time. I just refilled my coffee (cup # 5? 6?) and my stash of airport snacks is rapidly diminishing. Organic lamb & bacon burgers and steamed sweet potato is a totally normal snack, right?
It’s almost time now. 7 hours plus change, and no excuses not to finish this book I’ve been reading for months. It’s not even a very long book, but flights are the only time I read. Sad, but true.
It’s likely John will tempt me with countless episodes of House, stored on his laptop, but I must stay strong…and read. Reading! It’s for book lovers.
See you on the other side of the pond.