I’ve got a lot of odds and ends saved up from the trip, so here they all are jumbled up into one blog post. Today is my last full day in Spain. Tomorrow (maybe) I go home.
I say “maybe” because my flight from Madrid to Portland stops at JFK in New York on Monday afternoon, right about the same time that Hurricane Sandy is scheduled to stop in New York. I believe that hurricanes take precedence. There is a reasonably strong chance that the airport will be closed and I’ll be delayed somewhere along the way. To add +1 to the difficulty, there’s a transit strike scheduled for tomorrow morning during rush hour, right when I’m heading to the airport. I’ve mapped out a couple of possible ways to get to the airport, but if there’s gridlock above and below ground I could be screwed.
I got to Madrid by taking the high-speed AVE train from Barcelona. It’s wicked fun. 186 miles per hour, and whisper silent. Once the train gets up to 120 miles per hour you think to yourself “This doesn’t seem all that fast.” When it cranks up to 186 mph it’s like “Hooooooly craaaaaaaap!” The train is very modern and comfortable, with tons of legroom, comfy seats, a movie (they showed something in French with Spanish subtitles) and a snack car where you can go get food or drinks or hang out. We made the 400-mile trip from Barcelona to Madrid in 2 hours and 45 minutes, including a stop along the way in Zaragoza. Really a great way to travel.
Everything I’d read about how Madrid feels very different from Barcelona is true. It’s like being in a completely different country (the Catalonians would likely agree). The culture, the people — everything feels different here. Madrid is grittier and older than Barcelona, and Spain’s economic woes are much more apparent.
On the other hand, the architecture is absolutely spectacular. They are not above putting a massive sculpture of horses pulling chariots on just about anything. Walking around town is a never-ending smorgasbord of eye candy.
Since theater here is in Spanish instead of Catalán, I’ve gone to see two musicals since I arrived. The first was called Galicia Canibal, and is based on Galician 80s music (spoiler alert: 80s music sounds like 80s music, even in Galicia). The plot involves a teenage girl who is going through a tough period in her life, and when her aunt — a noted 80s rock star — dies unexpectedly, she lets her aunt take over her body for one day so she can have one last concert. Of course the day runs out just before the concert, but the girl still goes ahead and performs the concert and everyone learns their happy lesson. Despite my shaky Spanish, I did a pretty good job of understanding what was going on, and all the music was catchy. The woman sitting next to me was happily singing along. I’m pretty sure the conceit of the show was the same as Mamma Mia — let’s figure out a plot to give us an excuse to sing popular songs for three hours.
Last night I saw Más de Cien Mentiras. I did not understand a single thing in the entire show. They were speaking Spanish so fast I couldn’t catch anything. Or maybe it was in Korean. I have no idea what it was about. I can report that the singing and musical/dance numbers were very professional. This was on the Madrid version of Broadway — down the street The Lion King (El Rey León) was playing.
A few more odds and ends:
The “Smoking is bad for you” message has not totally reached Spain. Indoor venues seem to be smoke-free, but just walking down the street is a smoke-fest. Between that and car exhaust I know I’m looking forward to breathing some clean air in Portland.
The “Bike helmets might be a good idea” message has also not reached Spain. I’ve yet to see a single bike helmet on anyone.
Doorknobs here are in the center of the door. I have no idea why. From a physics and leverage standpoint this just doesn’t make any sense.
Toilets flush with a button you push or a knob that you pull on the top of the toilet tank. It’s the little things that make travel so exotic.
I never got around to buying a local SIM card while I was here, so my iPhone has been limited to working on WiFi. This means that when I’m out and about I can’t just dial up Google Maps to figure out where I am. I noted in an earlier blog that I keep coming out of metro stations and being completely turned around, and it took me until two days ago to realize that MY IPHONE HAS A COMPASS! I’m an idiot.
Time to go out for one last (maybe) walk around Madrid, which may very well end up at a Real Madrid basketball game. Gotta see how my buds Rudy Fernandez and Sergio Rodriguez are doing.
Note: The following post contains advanced discussion of soccer strategy. Do not operate heavy machinery after reading.
When I found out that FC Barcelona would be playing a home soccer game while I was in town, I had to snap up a ticket. Barca (look at me using nicknames) is currently considered the best soccer team in Europe and I didn’t want to miss the chance to see them play in their 100,000-seat home stadium. Even better, it was a Champions League game against FC Celtic from the Scottish Premier League.
For those not familiar with the intricacies of European soccer championships (i.e. “Me”), here’s a primer: FC Barcelona plays in the Spanish Premier League against other Spanish teams, but over the course of 10 months during the year they also play the occasional game against other teams in Europe to crown the yearly European champion. This European championship is known as “Champions League.”
[I do not warrant that anything in the previous paragraph is accurate.]
On the day of the game I went for a walk down Las Ramblas to the port area. It’s one of the most heavily touristed parts of Barcelona and it was crawling with Celtic supporters. They were not shy about wearing their green and white striped shirts and scarves and socks and parading around chanting for their squad. Imagine if Waldo from “Where’s Waldo” wore green. That’s what they looked like. And they were out in force. I would have guessed that a few people might make the trip down from the UK for the game, but not “All of Scotland.”
SIDEBAR: A British friend of mine tells me that the stripes are not referred to as stripes, but hoops. Oh those wacky Scots.
ABOVE: Gratuitous Barcelona picture. Would have been much cooler if I’d actually taken a picture of the Scottish fans who were pretty much standing everywhere except for where I was pointing my camera. I’m no Ansel Adams.
The stadium is only two metro stops from my apartment, but I gave myself a full hour to get there in case of delays. As it turned out, I’m glad I allowed so much time because as usual when I got off of the metro I had no idea which direction I was facing. You’d think it would be hard to miss a 100,000 seat stadium, but it was nowhere to be seen. I ended up following a couple of guys off the subway who were wearing soccer jerseys, on the theory that they were probably on their way to the game. After a few twists and turns and side streets it occurred to me that maybe they weren’t going to the game and I was about to get hopelessly lost — or they saw me following them and were trying to shake my tail — but after a few minutes we turned a corner and the stadium loomed up ahead, surprisingly close.
The crowds around the stadium were THICK. Trying to cram 100,000 people onto narrow residential sidewalks is not easy. The Celtic fans were out in full force, and I tried to fight my way through them and find the right entrance. My ticket said entrance 4, and I was walking past entrance 21. After a false start in the wrong direction, I made the long walk around the stadium, through masses of humanity, all of whom were chain smoking, until I found my way in. I got to my seat with about 15 minutes to spare.
The stadium is ginormous. It’s also pretty dated. Two small scoreboards on either end and a Jumbotron that was neither very jumbo nor very tron. But the field was absolutely the most gorgeous green grass, and my seat was just above one of the corners.
A huge section of Celtic fans was in the upper deck — there were easily several thousand who had made the trip. In theory, visiting fans are all supposed to purchase a special pool of tickets and be quarantined in one section, the better to prevent scattered riots from breaking out in the stadium. In reality, while there was a huge throng in the Celtic section, many other hoop-clad fans were scattered throughout the stadium.
Although starting times for many performances in Spain seem to be more of a suggested retail price, the game started at exactly 8:45 p.m. on the dot, just as scheduled. There was little fanfare — just a singing of the FC Barcelona fight song and we were underway.
FC Barcelona is good. Really, really good. Amazingly good. In fact, they’re like no soccer team I’ve ever seen before. Every single player is the best passer and ball handler you’ve ever witnessed, and they play a patient, ball control game with dozens of quick passes, long and short. Pretty quickly it became clear what the teams’ respective strategies would be. FC Barcelona was going to pass and pass and pass and probe and look for an opening to try to get a good scoring chance. And Celtic was going to pack nine players onto the defense and try to keep them from scoring. I am not exaggerating when I say that, after the opening kickoff, Celtic did not touch the ball for the first five minutes of the game.
In the 18th minute, Celtic finally got possession of the ball in the Barca end, and after being fouled they lofted a free kick into the box and…
The ball deflected off of a Celtic player and a Barcelona player’s shoulder into the net. Barcelona looked shocked, the Celtic fans went wild and Celtic had a 1-0 lead. To put this into perspective, some bookmakers had Celtic as a 45-1 underdog coming into the game.
The ball control game continued for the rest of the half, with Xavi controlling the middle expertly and trying to set up runs for Argentinean forward Lionel Messi, who is considered by many to be the best player in the game. It looked like Celtic would hold their advantage going into halftime, but in the 45th minute Barcelona snuck a pass through to a forward who banged in the equalizer. All square at the half. The possession statistics: 75% for Barcelona, 25% for Celtic. And that was generous. It was more like 75% for Barcelona, 20% Barcelona retrieving the ball after stealing it, 5% Celtic. Total passes for the first half: Barcelona 448, Celtic 81.
Halftime entertainment: nada, but I can report that Call Me Maybe is every bit as popular in Catalunya.
As the second half rolled along, Barcelona kept trying and trying, passing around and occasionally geting a shot off, but Celtic continued to thwart their scoring chances. In the 90th minute Barcelona worked the ball in and banged a shot off the post, and it looked like Celtic would hang on for the tie.
There were four minutes of stoppage time added on, mostly due to some time-killing phantom injury shenanigans from the Celtic players. Barcelona had a renewed sense of urgency, and as the clock ticked past three minutes Celtic banged the ball all the way down into the Barcelona end. The goalkeeper ran to keep the ball from going out of bounds and lofted it back high into the Celtic end. With just seconds left, Barcelona executed a neat series of passes, snuck a player behind the defense on the left side and banged in a cross for the winner. The Celtic players fell to their knees in agony as the crowd went wild, save for the Celtic faithful who were stunned.
After the restart there were only a few seconds before the referee ended the match and the Barcelona fans and players celebrated in relief. An announcement in the stadium requested that the Celtic fans remain seated until notified, presumably to prevent fans of both teams from exiting at the same time and potentially getting into a riot situation. All in all, the Celtic fans seemed to take it well. They didn’t seem riot prone.
A few additional observations:
The statistics on the scoreboard were in English. I have no explanation for this. Either they were being polite to the visiting team or their Jumbotron scoreboard only speaks English.
For that size of a crowd, they were surprisingly subdued. The Portland Timbers crowds are infinitely more raucous, and the Celtic fans were able to drown out the Barcelona fans for much of the night even though they were outnumbered twenty-fold.
Twenty-Fold would be a good name for a movie about blackjack. Matt Damon needs to get on that.
It was about 70 degrees at game time, and maybe dropped to 68 during the game. Most of the crowd was bundled up like they were at Lambeau Field in January.
For a full description of the match, in a style of writing that is pure poetry, you must read this. Or this.
Here’s a little quiz for those who have been following my blog. If I were going to visit a monastery high up on a cliffside in the mountains outside Barcelona, which of the following modes of transportation would I choose:
A comfortable luxury tour bus driving on a newly-paved road.
A solid, recently-constructed funicular train on a fixed track.
A rickety, nearly vertical ascent in a welded-steel aerial tram that looks like it was last serviced in 1930.
If you chose #3, go to the head of the class.
My past few days in Barcelona have involved a lot of seeing of the obligatory sights, most of which fall under the Jeopardy category of “Holy Jesus That’s Big.” A recap:
If I were building a monastery I’d put it somewhere accessible like, say, next to the Costco. Fortunately, I am not in the monastery-building business (and let me point out that monasteryconstruction.com is still available for the enterprising reader) so we have a bunch of 12th-century monks to thank for building a really spectacular monastery at Montserrat, smack dab on the side of a cliff.
To get there you take a one-hour train from Barcelona, which deposits you at the base of the cliff and in the station for the aforementioned aerial tram. It’s a 10-sided yellow metal box on a cable that runs nearly vertically 3,000 feet up the side of a mountain. I would describe the five-minute ride as “harrowing,” especially at the point where the tram scrapes the foliage on an outcropping 2/3 of the way up the cliff.
Once you reach the top, the monastery is pretty spectacular, as is the view. Numerous trails lead off into the mountains for hikes to smaller chapels; I hiked up to a cross overlooking the monastery, and was inexplicably greeted by a friendly kitty cat that was hanging out up there, as well as a grandmother from Norway who asked me in broken English whether I was a student (no, but thanks) and then spent the rest of her time saying “Poosy poosy poosy,” which is either Norwegian for “Nice kitty” or she was coming on to me.
Thursday: La Sagrada Familia
I met up with my improv friend Noah and his friend Rachel to visit Spain’s #1 Tourist Destination™, La Sagrada Familia. In an attempt to beat the tourist rush, we booked tickets online for the 9 a.m. entry, which in Barcelona time is like booking for 4 a.m. This is not a morning city. Rachel is an improviser from New York (and formerly Boston) and we exchanged the requisite list of improv friends in common. After waiting in line for a few minutes, and then being moved to another line because we were apparently in the wrong line, we got to enter the cathedral. If you’re going to visit one of the most spectacular Catholic churches in the world, doing so in a coterie of Jewish improvisers is not a bad way to do it.
La Sagrada Familia (official name: “Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família y Cerveceria”) was Antoni Gaudí’s crowning achievement, notwithstanding the fact that it wasn’t even remotely close to being finished in his lifetime. Construction started in 1882, and is scheduled to be complete sometime around 2030 (my tip: bet the over). To put that into perspective, they built an entire subdivision behind my house in two months, although it did not contain any stone-carved gargoyles. The ubiquitous construction cranes towering over Sagrada Familia mar what is otherwise a spectacular sight.
Photos don’t really do Sagrada Familia justice. First of all, it is enormous. The church takes up an entire city block, and from various viewpoints in Barcelona you can see its scale rising up in the center of the city. It is spectacular on the outside, and equally amazing on the inside.
If Park Güell was Dr. Seuss, Sagrada Familia is Wizard of Oz meets Star Wars. Walking around the inside and outside of the church it’s impossible to believe that this was designed in the 19th century. It is at the same time impossibly modern and undeniably ancient. If there was ever a case to be made for time machines, Gaudí has my vote.
Friday: Moving Day
After 10 days in my AirBnB apartment I had to move because there were new guests coming in, so I arranged for another place about 3/4 of a mile from my old place. I packed up my stuff, cleaned the apartment and walked to the new place. It’s much bigger, but oddly less comfortable. I preferred the coziness of the old place. When I got here I discovered that the Internet was barely functional, the stove wouldn’t work, there was no hot water and there were these incredibly disturbing photos on the wall in the dark upstairs hallway:
By the next day the rental agent had come by and fixed all the problems, except that the stove is still balky and the photos are still on the wall. At least the internet works now. I’ve come to discover that the main thing I look for in lodging is “solid internet.” I could even live in a cliffside monastery as long as it had a fiber optic connection.
Friday night I went to the finals of the Barcelona Comedy Festival’s stand-up competition. Five of my friends from the Barcelona Improv Group were finalists, so I figured I’d lend my support. Honestly, I had fairly low expectations because back home the amateur comedy competitions I’ve seen have been painfully unfunny, so I was pleasantly surprised when every single person knocked it out of the park. The winner was the only native Catalán, who had a hilarious and self-deprecating routine about not wanting to end up on YouTube and a dream about Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber. His stage persona could be described as “I can’t believe you’re watching me do this” and was utterly charming and delightful. I also won 5€ because we started a betting pool before the judging and I successfully predicted the winner.
One of the things you probably don’t think about until you travel internationally is that most people from other countries have never heard of Portland, Oregon, and have no idea where it is.
For perspective, Portland is the 29th-largest city in America. Can you name the 29th largest city in Australia? How about the 9th largest?*
I find it endlessly charming to get into conversations where I have to explain where Portland is and what it’s like. It makes you reconsider a little bit your place on this vast globe.
*The 9th-largest city in Australia is Wollongong. The 29th-largest city is Wagga Wagga.
Saturday: The Magic Fountain
I slept in on Saturday after a typical late Friday night in Barcelona, then took the train to Castelldefels, a small town about 30 minutes outside Barcelona, to pick up my packet for Sunday’s 10K race. (Language fun fact: The word for race bib in Spanish is “dorsal,” so every time I go to packet pickup I feel like I’m collecting a shark.)
After returning home I went out to see the Magic Fountain, which is a Barcelona landmark. This giant fountain sits in a plaza beneath the art museum, at the head of a long corridor of fountains that leads to Plaça Espanya. During the day the fountain is dormant, but on weekend nights there’s a spectacular water, light and music show. It’s one of the top tourist attractions, which explains why every tourist in Spain was there to watch. The fountain has a bit of a Las Vegas feel to it, but of course with the Spanish touch of being accompanied by Disney music, Spanish love songs and a hint of opera. It really is beautiful, and the view down the corridor, with the backlit art museum towering over the scene, is transcendent.
After the fountain I took the metro to the Palau de la Música Catalana, a landmark theater that was built in 1905 and which is considered one of the most beautiful music halls in the world. I can report that it is every bit as beautiful as advertised, but a number of the seats do not, technically, have a view of the portion of the theater known as the “stage,” so it was a bit difficult to watch the flamenco show I was seeing. Also, it turns out that I am not as big a flamenco fan as I would lead myself to believe. One flamenco dance = cool. An entire evening of flamenco = flamtiguing. I snuck out early to get some sleep.
Sunday: Racing and Teaching
After a 6 a.m. alarm, I caught the metro to the train station and the train to Castelldefels to run the 10K portion of the Marató del Mediterrani. It was over a mile to walk from the train station to the starting line at the old Olympic rowing facility, and my feet were already tired from having done so much walking the last few days. I got there an hour early, so I sat and rested my feet and tried to decide how much of my clothing I should check at the guardaroba and how much I should keep with me in case it decided to monsoon. I opted for “no monsoon,” which turned out to be the right call except that I should have kept my sunglasses because the clouds lifted halfway through the race and it was bright running along the beach.
I was a little concerned that there seemed to be an amazing lack of port-o-potties for the number of participants, but apparently in Spain it is customary (for dudes at least) to haul off and pee in (or near) the bushes anywhere near the starting line, which is pretty efficient when you come right down to it.
The race itself was easy and pleasant. I didn’t really push it and finished within 14 seconds of last week’s time in the Correbarri. Afterward I made the mile-plus walk back to the train station and had an easy trip home. Between four different trains I had to wait a grand total of five minutes; the public transportation here is ridiculously efficient except when they’re on strike.
After a long nap, I went out to teach a couple classes for the Barcelona Improv Group. The first was for their main performance team, and the second was their weekly open drop-in class. The latter was attended by about 25 people, with skill levels ranging from “Hey it’s my first class ever!” to very experienced. It was tons of fun, especially having to explain to non-Americans what scene suggestions like “rodeo” mean. After the class we ran through the rain to a bar, where Ella from Australia played the ukulele and we made up songs about blankets and cheese. It was just like being at McMenamins back home in Portland, except that the food and drinks were served within our lifetimes.
I’m behind on my blogging due to an Influx of Fun™, so here’s a quick catch-up on what’s been happening in Barcelona since we spoke last:
During my pre-travel research period (otherwise known as “Incessant Googling”) I ran across the Barcelona Improv Group, an English-language improv troupe that does shortform shows and classes right here in the big city. I reached out to them to ask about upcoming performances, and they were nice enough to invite me to their show and to ask me if I’d like to teach a class. Since I can never pass up the opportunity to spread my crackpot improv theories worldwide, I jumped at the chance.
On Saturday I met a few of them for brunch at the Federal Café, where we enjoyed tasty food on the lovely rooftop terrace and the kind of funny conversations that are universal for improvisers worldwide. The cast of characters included two Americans, two Brits and a Venezuelan chap. I learned about some of the challenges of running an improv troupe in a country where your entire cast are expats, and was introduced to “squeaky cheese” by Kayleigh, which we all tasted and listened to for squeaking (verdict: delicious, but not very squeaky).
Saturday night was their show. They drew a nice crowd of around 75-100 and played shortform games that would be familiar to anyone in the ComedySportz family, only it definitely was not squeaky clean (or squeaky cheese). They had great energy and enthusiasm and the crowd loved them. The show ended around 12:20 a.m. and I had to head back home to rest up for the next morning’s race. When I got off the metro I’m pretty sure that I saw the driver sleeping in his chair. I’m hoping that the subway is controlled via computer.
I got up bright and early and took the metro to Barceloneta (the beach area) for the Correbarri race. At 7:30 a.m., most of the people on the metro were runners heading to the race. Barcelona is a late, late, late-night town, but not so much an early morning one.
The Correbarri (Catalan for “Neighborhood Run”) is a great concept for a race. Everyone registers according to their neighborhood, and your official race t-shirt is color-coded to where you live. All the neighborhoods compete against one another, and since everyone’s wearing a color-coded t-shirt you can see where everyone is from and cheer on your own barrio. Portland should totally do this.
I met up with a few of the people from the MeetUp running group before the race, but only saw them once or twice along the route, which followed the waterfront for the most part before jogging (get it?) inland after passing the giant Christopher Columbus statue. It was a lovely race, and though my time wasn’t all that great (57 minutes-ish) I really didn’t care because I was enjoying the scenery. My one observation: the minimalist running shoe craze does not seem to have struck Spain; I think I had the minimalist-ist shoes there, and mine are minimally minimal.
After a shower and a siesta I went out to teach improv class for B.I.G. This particular class was an open drop-in mixing the experienced performers along with others who had a range of experience from “a little bit” to “none.” It was also a class of many nationalities (though very few Americans). It was a fun challenge and I ran them through some scenework exercises focusing on making positive choices and acceptance. My quote of the evening, after someone apologized for not following my direction: “This is not sorry time. Sorry time is later.” Luckily, we never got to sorry time.
After class we walked through the narrow, winding streets to a bar where there was an English-language storytelling event. This was the “best of” storytelling from their storytelling season, featuring the top six from the past year. I wanted to stay for the whole thing, but after a day that started too early with the run I ran out of steam and headed for home at intermission.
Yesterday was a sightseeing morning. There’s a hill overlooking Barcelona called Montjüic, and I headed up there for some exploration. To get to the top I took the metro to the funicular (electric train) to an aerial tram. I’m a sucker for aerial trams. If anyone ever wants to kidnap me, you only need to involve an aerial tram and I am yours.
At the top of Montjüic is a castle which was originally built in 1640, then rebuilt between 1751 and 1779. The view from the castle is spectacular, allowing you to see all of Barcelona, the port and beach area and out to sea.
It’s also a reminder that Barcelona is one of the most densely populated cities in Europe, with some neighborhoods reaching 50,000 inhabitants per square kilometer.
After taking the aerial tram back down, I walked though several gardens and the past several museums that were closed because it was Monday and I’m too stupid to do cultural things. The Olympic Stadium was open, however, so I got to see the site of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
After exploring the stadium I walked down past the (spectacular) art museum (which is visible from my apartment) and then past the magic fountain (which is only magic at nights from Thursday – Sundays) and then all the way back home. My feets were tired!
Today I continued my touring by catching the metro and a mile-or-so walk to Park Güell, continuing my never-ending quest to visit sightseeing locations with umlauts. Park Güell was built by world-famous Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, and looks like what would have happened if Dr. Seuss was an architect and could talk a city into letting him build stuff. It’s a big park, filled with fascinating architecture, a spectacular view of the city (from the side opposite Montjüic) and inexplicable parrots. Or maybe they’re explicable, but I didn’t expect to see parrots here. Gaudí is most famous for La Sagrada Familia, a massive ornate cathedral that rises up from the center of Barcelona like a beacon. I’ll be taking a full tour of LSF later this week.
And that catches up what’s been going on the past few days. Tonight is another 10K run and then tomorrow there’s more sightseeing. Also, I need to plan the rest of my trip. Details, details.
Spain is good at basketball. Really, really good. Arguably, other than the United States, they’ve been the best national team in the world over the past few years. Of course that’s like saying “Other than Facebook, MySpace has been the most popular social network over the past few years.” Still, while in Barcelona, I thought this would be a great chance to check out some exciting Euroleague action.
The Euroleague (officially known as “Turkish Airlines Euroleague” due to an ill-considered sponsorship deal) is a conglomeration of teams from countries across Europe and Russia, divided into pools and playing each other in a schedule that I can neither make heads nor tails of. Similar to soccer, teams sometimes move in or out of the league depending on how they finish their season. In addition, the founders of the original Euroleague forgot to trademark the name “Euroleague,” so in the 2000 season someone else snapped up the name and started a competing Euroleague. For a year the Euroleague and the “FIBA Suproleague” went head to head until they merged the following season. If this comes a surprise to anyone who follows European sports, you probably need to get out more.
Fans of the NBA are well acquainted with the Euroleague, as many top players such as Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol and Tony Parker came from there. Blazers fans know Spanish league players Rudy Fernandez and Sergio Rodriguez, and this season will be cheering on (maybe) Victor Claver and Joel Freeland.
Buying a ticket is really, really easy, using Spain’s equivalent of Ticketmaster. The company is also a major provider of an ATM network throughout Spain, so after you make your purchase online you can go to any of their ATMs, insert your credit card and print your tickets right at the ATM. How crazy convenient is that?
The official team name is Regal FC Barcelona — yes, the “FC” stands for “Football Club” since the massive FC Barcelona club that operates the (much more important) soccer team also operates the basketball team (as well as roller hockey, ice hockey, futsal and team handball). They play at the arena Palau Blaugrana, which sits (literally) in the shadow of the massive Camp Nou soccer stadium near Barcelona University in the northwest section of town. It’s a fast metro ride from my apartment.
Palau Blaugrana is no NBA arena. It was built in 1971, holds 7,000 people (maybe) and doesn’t have anything in the way of amenities such as food, beverages or vendors selling giant foam fingers. Its seats make the chairs at an airport gate seem like luxury leather recliners. What the stadium does have is amazing sightlines, since even my 9€ ticket put me mere feet from the court. A similar seat for an NBA game would cost hundreds of dollars.
The stadium was about 3/4 full, including two separate drum sections who alternated drumming and chanting during the entire game. It had more of the atmosphere of a soccer crowd than a basketball crowd — those who have been to Portland Timbers games would recognize some of the coordinated cheers that the drummers led for the audience.
Overall, it’s definitely less of a spectacle than an NBA game. In fact, with five minutes left in warm-ups the players went to their benches and were introduced by the PA announcer (they were all introduced — not just the starters). Then they went back to running layup drills until it was time to start the game.
Barcelona does, however, have its own dance team, just like any NBA squad. They started out in high-top tennis shoes and each time they came out to do a new dance they were in progressively higher heels, until by their final routine I was expecting them to twirl around on a pole and take off their tops. They did not.
The game itself was a bit of a wash. Barcelona jumped out to a 19-3 lead on Germany’s Brose Baskets Bamburg squad and were never threatened for the rest of the match. Barcelona is led by Juan Carlos Navarro, who has captained their national team and is considered one of the country’s best players (he played a season with the Memphis Grizzlies before deciding to return to Spain). The fan favorite was Šarūnas Jasikevičius, a Lithuanian who played in college at Maryland and in the NBA with several teams. He led Barcelona to the Euroleague championship several years ago and just returned to the team this season. Trivia: I think I got carpal tunnel just typing his name.
Brose Baskets was led by Slovenian superstar Boštjan Nachbar, who some of you (Bill Evans) may remember from a decent NBA career. He scored 2o points, while nobody else on the Baskets reached double figures. Brose also featured Casey Jacobsen, who starred at Stanford (ding) and kicked around the NBA for a few teams.
Warning: If you’re not really a sports fan but you’ve read to this point because you’re kinda interested in what I have to say, this next paragraph is going to get super geeky into basketball strategy. Feel free to resume reading after this paragraph.
The European game is more about ball movement than the NBA game. Whereas in the NBA most teams tend to run isolation plays for their stars and let them go 1-on-1 trying to take their defender off the dribble, in the Euroleague there’s a lot more passing and looking for the open shot. What there wasn’t a lot of was running or dunking. I counted zero fast break points and zero dunks. Both teams seemed to retreat any time a shot went up rather than sending guards in looking for rebounds. And even when the Barcelona center got the ball down low without a defender in front of him, he simply dropped in a layup rather than throwing down a dunk. I know they must dunk sometimes in the Euroleague, because the players who come to the NBA seem to understand how to insert the ball into the basket in the manner of a dunk when given a chance. But in this game at least, nobody seemed too inclined to jam one home.
OK, It’s safe to read again.
With four 10-minute quarters, no TV timeouts, a limited number of team timeouts and a general game pacing that felt like the referees were double-parked, the entire game from tipoff to final horn took 93 minutes. This is an hour shorter than the average NBA game, although in fairness with the lack of a live Jumbotron we were denied the entertainment bonanza that is the KissCam. Luckily, on the metro ride home, a frisky couple re-enacted the SitInTheLapKissCam right next to me, so I felt that I got my money’s worth.
So funny thing — after spending the better part of the last month brushing up my Spanish I managed to come to the one part of Spain where Spanish isn’t the first language. Not everyone knows this (I sound like I’m playing Wikipedia) but this region of Spain is known as Catalunya and the official language is Catalán, which looks and sounds like a cross between Spanish and French. For the most part, I can figure it out when it’s written, but I can’t understand it at all when it’s spoken.
Luckily, it appears that most everyone here also speaks Spanish, so when I talk to people they generally start in Catalán and then switch into Spanish when I speak. Everyone appears to understand me, but then again my Spanish is so sketchy that it’s possible they’re just nodding to be polite. For the most part, signs are in Catalán and Spanish, and sometimes English in the touristy parts of town. For many phrases, the Spanish and Catalán are so similar that it’s kinda funny that they bother to write both.
I will spare you fourteen paragraphs on Spanish-Catalonian politics. Google it or wait until we get it as a suggestion in Wikipedia.
Two things I have learned about laundry while in Barcelona
1) Hanging your clothes up to dry right before a thunderstorm does not, technically, get your clothes dry.
2) Removing both clothespins at the same time may be a bit of a timesaver, but it also means that your long-sleeve running shirt plunges nine stories into an inaccessible alley.
I slept in yesterday morning and then headed out to meet my brother and sister-in-law for some sightseeing. Unfortunately, the main sight we saw when we got out of the subway was a thunderstorm, so they decided to head back to their hotel and see the sight of a nap, and I headed back to my neighborhood for a little bit of exploring. This neighborhood is called Eixample (pronounced: “Yonkers”) and was built with careful urban planning instead of the hodge-podge see-what-sticks of many cities.
I quote from the real Wikipedia:
The Eixample is characterized by long straight streets, a strict grid pattern crossed by wide avenues, and square blocks with chamfered corners (named illes in Catalan, manzanas in Spanish). This was a visionary, pioneering design by Ildefons Cerdà, who considered traffic and transport along with sunlight and ventilation in coming up with his characteristic octagonal blocks, where the streets broaden at every intersection making for greater visibility, better ventilation and (today) some short-stay parking space.
It really does seem like a well-planned design, and the wide sidewalks accommodate impressive amounts of scooter parking. Scooters seem to be the preferred method of transportation here, and on many blocks you see dozens of scooters lined up on the sidewalk. It’s a scooter-rama.
They also have adorable trash and recycling dumpsters on every corner, instead of people putting out individual garbage cans. These look like they were built by the Teletubbies.
After an afternoon nap and some work, I headed out to meet a MeetUp group for a run. If you’re not familiar with MeetUp, it’s a website where people can create ongoing or ad hoc groups for most anything. The Barcelona Casual Road Runners caught my eye. They have a group 10K run every Tuesday and Thursday night at 8 p.m., and I thought it might be nice to run with a group of people who actually know the city. Based on my sense of direction, it’s highly likely that running by myself I’d end up in Iceland.
About 15 people showed up for the run, a mix of locals and expats. A couple Americans, a couple Brits, a German and so on. I got my very first European air kiss on both cheeks when greeted by one of the women, and I handled it with the kind of smoothness that says “International incident.”
We set out at a nice pace, and after about 15 minutes I started up a conversation with a guy who was from Colombia, currently studying for a Ph.D. We talked about Colombia (he recommended it as a vacation destination), Barcelona sightseeing and some other stuff that I only half caught because my Spanish comprehension is mediocre at best. He was kind enough to correct some of my grammar without doubling over in laughter.
Unfortunately, he was also a faster runner than me, so the combination of running fast, trying to think in Spanish and also trying not to run off the edge of the pier wore me out. I was flagging by the end. Luckily, I perked up when he asked what I do for a living and I told him I work at TeamSnap and he said “Oh, I know TeamSnap!” It’s a small world, folks.
When I returned from my run I took the elevator up to my apartment, opened the door, turned on the light and there was a giant bug in the middle of the floor. Like two inches long giant. Carefully keeping to the walls of the apartment, I crept around toward my travel bag, where I keep a mini flashlight. I shone the flashlight on the bug from 10 feet away to see if it was moving. Answer: inconclusive.
I then went and got a mop and poked the bug to see if it was still alive. In my last experience with a giant bug (Mexico), the bug had decided to die in the middle of the floor, so I was hoping this was a similarly-minded bug. It wasn’t moving.
I grabbed my camera, so I could either document the death of the bug or the death of me. When I got close enough to take a picture I realized that the bug looked like an ant. A giant ant. A giant plastic ant. A giant plastic ant that my girlfriend had managed to stealthily hide in my running shoes, and which I had somehow managed to drop on the floor before I left the apartment and then failed to notice during the 10 minutes I was walking around the apartment in my running shoes. This is not a big apartment. The plastic bug takes up approximately 1/3 of the square footage.
On the prank scoreboard, it’s Hadas 1, Andrew 0.
This is not a new prank, mind you. Hadas knows that I am not fond of insects, so she went out and purchased a collection of realistic giant plastic bugs — beetles, spiders, etc — which she occasionally sneaks under a pile of papers on my desk or into my pockets just to hear me scream like a little girl. She once managed to sneak one onto my shoulder, leading to a shriek of unparalleled manliness.
Well played. Someone’s getting an off-color t-shirt when I get home.
By totally random coincidence, my brother and sister-in-law are in Barcelona at the same time as me. Well, maybe not that random, considering that I’ve been systematically stalking them since my company moved its headquarters to their hometown (Boulder), allowing me to randomly show up on their doorstep 4-6 times per year. At this point they probably check under the bed every night just to make sure I’m not there.
Anyway, my brother’s company paid for him to come to Barcelona to do a triathlon (yes, they’re hiring), so yesterday we met up at La Boqueria, a fancy open-air market off Las Ramblas, which is the long street through old town that leads from the heart of Barcelona down to the sea.
I took the metro (subway) to meet them. Barcelona has a very, very efficient metro system that runs all over the city, with most trains coming every four minutes. It’s easy to ride, well-marked and crowded. Unlike most subway systems in the US, each line runs on a completely different set of tracks, so when you change lines in a station it involves a long walk up several flights of stairs, down long corridors, up more stairs, down stairs, around several corners and through more passageways before you get to the next train. I am not exaggerating when I say that when riding to meet my brother I spent more time walking in the subway than actually riding the subway in the subway. It’s possible that they don’t even have any trains and this whole thing is just an elaborate ruse to get you to walk around town entirely underground.
The upside to the metro system is it’s super fast to get anywhere in town. The downside is that when I come out of the metro I am completely turned around and have zero idea which direction I’m facing. When heading into Barrio Gotico, the old town of Barcelona which is known for being a maze of twisty streets, this is a recipe for getting lost.
I got lost.
I headed in what I took to be the direction of Las Ramblas, and after a few blocks checked on a map to see how I was doing and I was nowhere near in the right direction. I backtracked, turned left on a street that I calculated would take me in the correct bearing, and after another few blocks checked my progress.
It took another two tries to finally reach Las Ramblas, and when I got there I had to walk in both directions before I finally found La Boqueria. It doesn’t help that Barcelona has enough tall buildings bracketing the streets that there aren’t any landmarks you can see to help you figure out directions. If you could see, say, a mountain, it would help immeasurably. Apparently the Spaniards are just good navigators (see: Christopher Columbus). If I’d set out with the Niña the Pinta and the Santa Maria we would have driven in circles for three hours until finally running through the plate glass window of a local Starbucks (which in Spain is pronounced “Starbucks”).
Meanwhile, the market … it was amazing. Meat markets, candy, the most spectacular fruits and vegetables, tapas, nuts, spices, seafood. And, of course, ham.
Jamon iberico is a national passion here. This is not the rubbery, pineapple-covered monstrosity served at your grandmother’s house on Thanksgiving, but dark, thinly-sliced chewy, spicy cured pieces of goodness. There is a ham store on every corner, and they proudly display their wares with entire legs of ham hanging in the window, with the hoof still proudly attached. I’m not sure how the attached hoof is a selling point; it’s not like when I buy a rump roast I want two cheeks and an anus for veracity.
They slice the ham to order, and also can serve up ham-on-a-stick, ham-in-a-carton or ham-in-a-paper-cone. The ham runs from standard quality up to “you-might-want-to-mortgage-your-house” quality. Also, it’s really delicious. I’ve had several different hams, as well as salami on a stick. If you need your 2 a.m. ham fix, Barcelona has got you covered.
You can also get your fix of “Things that look like props from the movie Saw 2“: Skinned rabbits, skinned sheep heads (eyes intact), giant beef tongues, Miles of Tripe™ and various sea creatures that, if you encountered them while snorkeling, would cause you to scream and move to Iowa. The meat counters are not for the weak of stomach.
After exploring La Boqueria, we set out to do some window shopping in Barrio Gotico. It was hard to focus on the merchandise with all the spectacular architecture getting in the way. The area has impossibly old and beautiful buildings, crammed up right next to each other with narrow streets running every which way. Plus every once in a while you stumble out onto a plaza that has a church which is so dramatic it makes your knees weak.
Barcelona also appears to the lead the universe in off-color t-shirts. If Mom and Dad went to Vegas and all I got was this lousy t-shirt is too tame for you, they have an increasingly offensive repertoire of t-shirts suggesting other things that Mom and Dad were doing on their vacation. Suffice it to say that there were a number of t-shirts which, while possibly reflective of the tastes or opinions of my girlfriend, are not something she would wear out in public.
We also decided that men hate shopping so much that the average guy who buys a pair of pants that are too big would find it easier just to put on 30 pounds than to go back and return it to the store.
After walking for what felt like hours (full disclosure: it was hours) we called it time for siesta when our legs were tired.
I hauled back to the apartment for grocery shopping and to get some work done in the evening. I’m still at work while I’m here, but with the nine hour time difference I’m doing most of my work in the evenings when everyone back in the USA is in the office.
I’m also still completely whacked out on my sleeping schedule. I’ve gotten one solid night of sleep, bracketed around nights of 2 and 1.5 hours, plus the occasional nap. I expect that I’ll get into a normal sleeping schedule just around when it’s time to return to the Portland time zone and start this routine all over again. I’m bringing a cone of ham for the long nights of insomnia.
In the lead-up to my trip, I approached the impending 10-hour Portland to Amsterdam flight with the same sense of doom that one might have when assigned to life imprisonment. It would be — by several hours — the longest flight I’d ever taken, and growing up the joke in Alaska was that Delta (Airlines) stood for Doesn’t Ever Leave The Airport.
Thus, I packed the following for the trip:
15 paleo protein cookies made by Hadas (highly recommended).
Two pieces of chicken, cut into bite-sized pieces (also prepared by Hadas — hmm, I should probably get her a souvenir t-shirt or a matador or something).
Two apples, cut into pieces.
47 hours of audio podcasts.
Every free new season TV pilot offered on iTunes.
Two New York Times crossword puzzles (Friday/Saturday).
A novel (purchased as a gift by Hadas — yeah, I’m going matador shopping)
My laptop computer, with 4-5 hours of battery charge.
I was essentially prepared for any contingency, including flight delays, bad weather or a hijacker diverting the aircraft to Jupiter.
But from the moment I entered the Delta gate, replete with black-turtleneck-clad agents moving the passengers through check-in with typical Dutch efficiency — and looking like extras from a discarded SNL Sprockets sketch — Delta was the model of smooth, easy air travel.
The A330 Airbus was well appointed and shockingly new. They hadn’t even taken the price sticker off the cockpit window. I had chosen a window seat on the theory that I could lean my head against it (the window, not the seat) and sleep, and when I got to my row there were a pillow and blanket neatly stacked under the seat belt. WHAT?
There was an in-seat TV center with free on-demand entertainment, dozens of the very latest movies to choose from, plus audio channels and television. They announced that they would be serving three meals — lunch, an overnight snack, and breakfast, plus myriad visits from the drink cart and duty free shopping.
It was kind of like my usual flights on Southwest, in the sense that both airplanes have wings.
There’s no getting around it, a 10-hour flight is just a long time to sit in an airplane seat. Luckily, with my iPhone and a hastily-downloaded selection of new fall TV pilots offered up for free on iTunes I had literally hours (2.5) of entertainment.
A Brief Review of the New Fall TV Shows That I Watched On the Airplane
The Mindy Project
FOX. Quirky doctor played by Mindy Kaling looks for love and career satisfaction while escaping the rapidly-deteriorating final season of The Office. She spends most of her time running barefoot from various hijinks directly into the hospital to deliver babies.
Pitch: It’s Mary Tyler Moore meets Scrubs!
How long they spent coming up with a name for the show: 1.5 minutes.
Of note: No laugh track comedy. Has anyone ever thought of adding a cry track to TV dramas? I think that would be awesome. There’s my billion-dollar idea for the day. Go get rich.
Emily Owens, M.D.
CW. Quirky first-year resident played by Mamie Gummer (no, she’s white) deals with the cliquish foibles of working at a hospital. Spends most of her time giving herself voice-over pep talks and hanging out with a cast of people who all look like they should have gone into modeling instead of wasting time at medical school. If my hospital had this many good looking people I would spend most of my time trying to injure myself.
Pitch: It’s 30 Rock meets E.R.
Likelihood of lasting past one season: Who knows? It’s the CW. It could run for 20 years even if nobody watches it.
Of note: Is it a comedy? Is it a drama? Let’s just say it’s a “Comma.”
Made in Jersey
CBS. Quirky Italian-American Jersey girl goes to work as an attorney in a high-powered Manhattan firm, outsmarting the other lawyers through a combination of street smarts and Joe Pesci’s accent from My Cousin Vinnie.
Pitch: It’s Working Girl meets The Practice.
Name actor slumming back to TV and looking shockingly old: Kyle MacLachlan.
Of note: According to Google, this series was canceled yesterday after only two episodes. I could be the only person in America who watched it. And by “in America” I mean “Somewhere over Greenland.”
Quirky British detective, played by Jonny Lee Miller, comes to New York to solve crimes using only the power of deduction and the fact that the NYPD investigators are so profoundly inept that he looks like a genius.
Pitch: It’s Sherlock Holmes — in modern-day America!
Name actor slumming back to TV and looking shockingly old: Aiden Quinn.
Of note: The creators of the show are listed as Robert Doherty and Arthur Conan Doyle. I think they should go all Hollywood and list him as A.C. Doyle.
Meanwhile, back to the flight
Around hour four I started getting a really bad headache, and by hour seven I also was feeling completely nauseated. I don’t know if it was the airplane food, dehydration, the uncomfortable chair or Made in Jersey, but I felt awful.
By the time we (finally) made our descent into Amsterdam I felt like it was going to be a struggle to hang on without hurling.
Amsterdam looked green and pretty from the air. I also looked green and pretty. True story: As we were landing, the guy in the seat behind me turned to his companion and said: “So, where are we? Is this like Holland?” Crack a map, dude.
I shuffled off of the plane, feeling sick to my stomach, with a pounding headache. The Amsterdam airport is in English with Dutch subtitles, and I found my way through customs to my next gate. I would not learn until later that you go through customs only once when traveling within the European Union — when I got to Barcelona I was just able to walk off the plane and into Spain.
I had about an hour to kill so I took a photo to prove I had been in Amsterdam and then lay down at the gate hoping to settle my stomach and my headache. No such luck. Eventually I boarded a KLM flight bound for Barcelona, replete with KLM flight attendants wearing a shade of blue polyester that can best be described as “Baby bunting.”
We landed in Barcelona and I reclined on the world’s most uncomfortable airport seats at the gate, for two hours, until I felt able to move again. Then I picked myself up and caught the Aerobus into downtown Barcelona.
My apartment here (thanks AirBnB) is run by a delightful Argentinean expat named Martin who has been in contact since I reseved the place last month and who has been very helpful. For those who recall my adventures to Nicaragua earlier in the year, he also carries the advantage of being “Not a crazy person.”
The apartment is small and comfortable, with a beautiful view of the castle on Montjuich, a mountain overlooking the city. On arrival I walked two blocks to the grocery store to get supplies, then had a fitful night’s sleep as I tried to adjust to a nine-hour time difference.
Yesterday I explored the city, but we’ll save that for tomorrow’s blog when I’ll have more time to write and can update on which other TV series have been canceled. ¡Hasta mañana!