Pocket Full of Jingling Onions

Despite the city’s deployment of the magical SUBE bus pass that obviates the need to hoard change for bus fare, there’s still a fairly major coin shortage here in Buenos Aires. Thus every transaction at the grocery store involves the following steps:

  1. Cashier asks if you have any change to pay with.
  2. You deny it vehemently.
  3. The cashier stares you down, as if to say “I know you’ve got coins in your pocket, bub.”
  4. You stare down the cashier as if to say “I know you’ve got coins in you register, pal.”
  5. You both vehemently deny the possession of coins. Nobody has ever voluntarily given up coins in Buenos Aires.
  6. The cashier grudgingly hands you your change in coins OR comes up with some other scheme.

The “other scheme” is more common than you’d imagine. So far I’ve been given change in hard candies and onions. When I get back to Portland I’m totally going to make decisions by flipping an onion.

All of these high-level transactional negotiations have been tough for me because of the small detail that they don’t speak Spanish in Buenos Aires. I mean, technically it’s Spanish, but it’s like no other Spanish you’ve ever heard before. I’d been told before I came here that the Spanish in Argentina was “hard to understand.” That’s kind of like saying Chinese has some “minor differences from English.” I am not bad in Spanish, but I literally cannot understand anything that people are saying here. It’s heavily accented, slurred, filled with slang and alternate grammar and borrows heavily from Pig Latin. OK, I made that last one up. But even when the context should be obvious — for instance, checking out at the grocery store — I can’t parse what the cashier is saying. You’d think I’d be able to suss it out when the options are basically:

  1. Would you like a bag?
  2. Cash or credit?
  3. Do you prefer your change as two large onions, or three shallots and a scallion?

True story: An orthodontia student from Venezuela joined our Boot Camp class last week, and her Spanish was so clear I thought she was speaking English.

I have now managed to go to two consecutive places (Barcelona and Buenos Aires) with the intention of improving my Spanish, not really catching on to the fact that in Barcelona they actually speak Catalan (which sounds like a cross between Spanish and French) and in Buenos Aires they speak Rioplatense Spanish (which sounds like a cross between Spanish and Klingon).

But I persevere. After Boot Camp last Thursday I walked back to the bus stop with a guy from the class, and during our 15 minute conversation in a mix of English and Argentine Spanish we managed to cover his work, my work, the job market in both Argentina and the US and the relative difficulty of starting a business in each country. Or maybe we discussed fly fishing and where to purchase the best Cuban cigars. I’m still not totally sure.

Quiz de Pub

Every large city around the world has a contingent of English-speaking expats, and Buenos Aires is no exception. While reading through one of the expats’ online message boards I learned about an event called Beerlingual, a weekly bi-lingual pub quiz. That seemed like a great opportunity to engage in my three favorite pastimes: Meeting strangers, drinking beer and looking like an idiot. (Note to those whose browser isn’t rendering the sarcasm font properly — only one of those is among my favorite pastimes.)

A girl from Texas had posted on the board that she was thinking of going to the pub quiz this week, so I messaged and arranged to meet her there to form a team. I made sure to mention my girlfriend 45 times in the message so as not to come across as a weird stalker type who was looking to hook up. I also urged her to invite other friends. Weird stalker types don’t do that, right? It’s been so long since I’ve been weird or stalky.

I got to the bar at 7:15 for a 7:30 pub quiz, failing to take into account that nothing in Argentina starts even remotely at the actual start time. I think we finally kicked things off around 8:15. I teamed up with Mary from Texas and several of her friends, including a brother and sister from Buenos Aires by way of American schools in Dubai and a couple of other Americans from New Jersey and New York. All expats seem to teach English, so the “What are you doing here in Buenos Aires?” conversation is always really short.

The first category in the quiz was “Regional Current Events.” Not having watched last night’s Eyewitness News Uruguay, we flailed pretty heavily. We did better in the remaining categories, including science, The Oscars and art. I was able to flash my nerd credentials a couple times in the science category, including being the only person in the bar who knew what the computer language BASIC stands for (it stands for SCUBA).

In the end we finished fourth out of five teams. The low point was when we all agreed that the best answer to “Who invented the ballpoint pen?” was “Some dude named Bic.” (Actual answer László Bíró.)

Sightseeing at 10 k/hr

While my friends in Portland are starting to celebrate the early signs of spring, everyone here is celebrating the end of summer but lamenting the oncoming fall and winter. Right now I would call the weather here “perfect.” It’s going up to the high 70s or occasionally low 80s during the day, and dropping down into the low-mid 60s in the evening. Or so I estimate. All the temperatures here are in Celsius. We had a Celsius question in the pub quiz and all of us stood around like drooling idiots trying to remember details from junior high science class. I think 75 degrees Fahrenheit is about 34 kilograms.

Anyway, after warm days, every few nights brings high winds or a spectacular thunderstorm; two days ago I woke up and there were puddles of water in the kitchen and bedroom from rain that had blown in under the doors. My security deposit should not be used for investment purposes.

With weather like this, it’s been easy to get out and go running, and in many cases it’s just plain easier to go sightseeing by running between destinations instead of bothering with the bus. On Saturday I went down to Puerto Madero, the neighborhood build by the river that mixes modern steel-and-glass highrises with buildings that look imported from the British docks.

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One of the most recognizable landmarks is Puente de la Mujer, a striking bridge by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. Recognizing a good opportunity when he saw one, Calatrava sold similar bridges to the cities of Seville, Spain and Sacramento, California, i.e. three of the most popular tourist destinations for savvy world travelers.

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Yesterday I went for an eight mile run, highlighted by a tour through Recoleta, Buenos Aires’ poshest neighborhood. Recoleta suffers from much less of the graffiti, piles of trash, broken pavement and other urban blight of the rest of the city. It’s also where most of the tourists stay, so I’m glad I’m not living there. It looked to be overrun with pasty tourists in Bermuda shorts. If I were in the business of mugging tourists, that’s totally where I’d open my mugging store.

I visited La Recoleta Cemetery, which the BBC has hailed as one of the world’s greatest cemeteries and which CNN listed among it’s top 10 cemeteries in the world. (Nate Silver projects it at #3.) Wikipedia describes it thusly:

Set in 5.5 hectares (14 acres), the property contains 4691 vaults, all above ground, of which 94 have been declared National Historical Monuments by the Argentine government and are protected by the state. The entrance to the cemetery is through neo-classical gates with tall Doric columns. The cemetery contains many elaborate marble mausoleums, decorated with statues, in a wide variety of architectural styles such as Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Baroque, and Neo-Gothic, and most materials used between 1880 and 1930 in the construction of tombs were imported from Paris and Milan. The entire cemetery is laid out in sections like city blocks, with wide tree-lined main walkways branching into sidewalks filled with mausoleums. While many of the mausoleums are in fine shape and well-maintained, others have fallen into disrepair. Several can be found with broken glass and littered with rubbish. 

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Many famous people are buried there, including the granddaughter of Napoleon, multiple Nobel Prize winners and Eva Perón, who inspired the Broadway musical Annie.

Besides being a mixture of dramatic and somber, with a side-order of creepy, the cemetery features a large contingent of feral cats who hide in and among the tombs. Overall, it’s an A+ tourist destination, especially because there are vendors outside the gates hawking bottles of agua sin gas that are very welcome to those taking the running tour of Buenos Aires.

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Second Story Buenos Aires

Last night I participated in Second Story Buenos Aires, an English-language storytelling show. The event was in a second-floor (get it?) speakeasy  in the Almagro district, about a 20 minute bus ride from my apartment. It took me about 10 minutes to find the actual joint, as I had the address wrong and was looking for a street-front bar, not a hidden club up a set of stairs with a three inch sign on the wall. Luckily there is free McDonalds wi-fi on nearly every corner, so I was able to refer back to the Facebook invite to get my bearings.

There were six storytellers, a mix of Americans, Brits and Irish. The highlight of the night was a 20-minute story told by an Irish chap about a tour of Mongolia that eventually ended up hundreds of miles out of the way to spend the night in the one-room hut of his driver’s family, watering the driver’s cousin’s camels and finishing with a wrestling match against the patriarch and sons of a nomadic tribe. It was a great story that had the audience’s full attention the entire way. It also made me not so eager visit Mongolia, despite the fact that it’s probably easier to understand the Spanish there.

Afterward I chatted up a few of the folks in the audience, including a gal from Bellingham, Washington who (surprise!) teaches science instead of English. And a gal from Shropshire, England, who was shocked when I said I had actually heard of Shropshire. I’m not honestly sure where I’ve heard of it before, and in retrospect I may be remembering something from a trailer I saw for The Hobbit.

Anyway … it was a fun evening filled with laughter and delicious pints of the local agua sin gas. I tipped the bartender two leeks.

Balsamic Vinegar in Two Acts

Day 6: Shake Shake Shake. Shake Shake Shake. Shake Your Boot Camp

Until I borked my shoulder playing hockey a year and a half ago I was an enthusiastic Crossfitter. For those who are unfamiliar, Crossfit is a workout program that combines weightlifting and aerobic exercise in a constantly-changing regimen of short-but-very-intense workouts. It’s a program favored by firefighters, police offers, military personnel and others whose day-to-day jobs feature intense bursts of life-or-death physical activity. So it’s really a natural fit for me as a software product manager.

Crossfit is also a ton of fun (if your idea of fun is “torn blisters on your hands and gasping for air like a beached sturgeon”) and the place I work out at (Crossfit Epiphany) has a great and supportive community that helps people get into wicked amazing shape. Crossfitters become slightly obsessed and talk about Crossfit with the same kind of wide-eyed, proselytizing tone you usually hear from the folks who ring your doorbell at 3 p.m. to hand out glossy, four-color pamphlets about the rapture.

So after a long rehab, I’ve been testing out my shoulder on some home workouts and getting ready to head back to Crossfit when returning to Portland. While surfing the Internet for “Things to do in Buenos Aires that do not involve getting stabbed in a soccer riot” I stumbled across Boot Camp Buenos Aires, which looked like a fun way to continue to work my way into shape.

It may give you an idea how badass Crossfitters are that the phrase “boot camp” sounded kind of pansy. To mere mortals, the phrase “boot camp” is designed to conjure up pictures of endless marches with 60-pound packs and pushups in the mud, while a drill sergeant shouts profanity from above. I figured it would be a pretty easy workout — maybe some light toning and deep knee bends. The meeting point was about 1.3 miles from my apartment, so I decided to warm up with a run over there just to make sure that I would get enough exercise.

We met at Plaza Italia, underneath the statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi, an Italian military leader who led the Italian Legion in the Uruguayan Civil War. They don’t need much of an excuse to put up a statue here. The boot camp leader was Carolyn, from Indiana by way of Chicago. Also working out that day were a gentleman from Holland, two local women and another American gal. I did not manage to remember anybody’s names because I was too busy feeling cocky about how much I was going to crush the workout.

I got my first introduction to the Buenos Aires kiss-on-the-right-cheek greeting, which is markedly different than the Spanish kiss-on-both-cheeks greeting that I had finally gotten used to in Barcelona. I bungled the procedure with such flair that the women immediately guessed that I was new in town. (For the record it’s right cheek only, no tongue.)

I also got my Spanish corrected, since Argentina uses the unique “Voseo” form of the familiar, thus tossing two years of college Spanish out the window as “Tú eres” becomes “Vos sos.” I remember this was mentioned in passing in one or more Spanish classes many years ago, but I filed it away in the “How likely is it that I am ever going to need to know THAT?!?” section of my brain. I imagine this is the same way that first-year medical students approach lectures on obscure tropical diseases — academically interesting, but probably not worth memorizing.

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We jogged another half mile or so over to a nearby park, dropped our bags next to a statue of a deer (possibly a military hero deer, I dunno) and then Carolyn proceeded to kick our booties all over the campo for the next hour. There were burpies, squats, push-ups, runs, planks, lunges and a crazy pass-your-leg-through-a-lunge-so-you-look-like-a-breakdancer-in-a-car-accident maneuver. In between each set of exercises we jumped enough rope to rig a schooner. We topped it off with an all-out 400 meter sprint through the park, around another statue. Big thumbs up on the boot camp. I’ll be back as soon as I can walk again.

It was 8:30 p.m. when we finished, a lovely warm Buenos Aires evening. Hundreds of people were out cycling and running around the Palermo parks. I walked back to Plaza Italia (gingerly), past the unmistakably earthy smell of the BA city zoo. I caught the bus back home, as there was no way I was going to be able to jog for more than about 45 feet without collapsing.

After a shower I headed out to a Brazilian restaurant and refueled with a bowl of feijoada, a stew of beans, pork and sausage. While I was dining they kept picking up tables and moving them out onto the sidewalk, and by the time I was done eating I was sitting alone at a solitary table in the middle of the restaurant. I kept expecting Allen Funt to jump out from behind the Fanta cooler.

Day 7: Shattered!

It was a busy workday on Friday, so I decided it would be nice to have a quiet night at home. I went down to the local grocery store to pick up some dinner items, including a bottle of balsamic vinegar to enhance my frequent salads. Around midnight I realized that nothing blogworthy had really happened all day, so I opened up the refrigerator and knocked the bottle of balsamic vinegar onto the concrete floor, shattering the bottle and sending shards of glass and pools of balsamic vinegar throughout the apartment.

Half an hour later I had managed to carefully pick up the glass and sop up the balsamic vinegar, most of which had made a beeline for safety underneath the refrigerator. Remind me not to decry “Lack of blogworthy items” again.

Product I am least likely to purchase at the grocery store:

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Day 8: Yoga En El Parque

With my first full free weekend ahead of me, it was time to do some sightseeing! I mapped out the route to downtown Buenos Aires, which could either be entirely by bus or by bus + subway. Having seen the traffic here, I figured that subway would definitely be better, so I caught the bus to the subway station.

Hey Bus! Hey! Hey Bus!

Just because you’re standing at a bus stop DOES NOT mean that the bus is going to stop for you. You have to wave the bus down to get it to stop. This is mostly practical — with over 150 different bus lines, any bus stop usually serves multiple routes, and it would be inefficient for the bus to have to stop just to see if the people standing there wanted to get on or not. So when the bus comes hurtling around a corner you have to step out into the street and wave your arm if you want it to come screeching to a halt in front of you.

In fact, the buses aren’t really big on stopping at all. Let’s just say that I’m getting pretty experienced at hopping off the bus while it’s stopped-ish.

Other fascinating facts about Buenos Aires traffic:

  • Traffic signals here give you a yellow light before they’re about to turn red, AND before they’re about to turn green. So, technically, yellow means go. I look both ways before crossing any street.
  • There are no stop signs in my neighborhood, and cars hurtle through the streets like the Daytona 500, yet somehow everyone manages to avoid crashing at intersections. I haven’t figured this out yet.
  • There are approximately 1 billion taxis here. I have yet to be in one.

I was pretty sure that my SUBE card (the magical electronic bus pass) would also work in the subway, so I spent 30 seconds waving it above, around and next to various parts of the entry gate before I watched someone else go through and figured out where to hold my card. This is what it must feel like to be in the first week of Charms class at Hogwarts.

The subway has imported New York City’s 1970s grafitti:

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The subway took forever to arrive, and what it lacked in ambience it made up for in vendors hopping on and off the cars to sell confections, maps and other gewgaws. About 2/3 of the way to downtown we stopped at the Pueyrredón statin and there was an announcement made over the loudspeaker, which I couldn’t understand. Almost everyone got off the train. Since I didn’t know what was going on, I stayed on the train and after a few minutes the doors closed and we were on our way again.

Back in the direction we’d come from.

I’m still not exactly sure what happened, but due to construction or repairs or a drunk subway designer or the giant monster from the movie Cloverfield, I had to get out at the next station and cross over the tracks onto the other side to continue the journey to downtown. I’m still not clear how this all works.

Anyway, it took me 70 minutes to get downtown.

Once in the heart of Buenos Aires, I walked over to the Plaza del Mayo and enjoyed taking in the downtown architecture, which is a mix of Spanish, French and Latin American. It’s very striking. I saw Casa Rosada, which is the headquarters of Argentina’s executive branch. And about 100 tour buses, which were shuttling dazed Americans around the sights of the city.

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I stuck to the bus for my trip home and it only took about 35 minutes from downtown to my front door. I can report that Buenos Aires does not lack for McDonalds locations.

After a siesta I headed out on two more bus rides for a Yoga in the Park event. The same people who run Buenos Aires Boot Camp also run Buena Onda Yoga and they were having a fundraising event for Unión de los Pibes. I figured some yoga would be a good way to stretch out my bootcamped muscles and meet some people. The participants were mostly expats, including a gal who had a small dog that featured only one fewer than the standard number of eyes that are typically issued to dogs. I pet its good side.

We walked together while chatting, over a mile to the park, where we set out our blankets and mats and had a lovely yoga session in the fresh(ish) air. The only downside to outdoor yoga was the occasional ant bite on the toe, which is almost certainly going to give me some unpronounceable tropical disease that my doctor back home will not have paid attention to during her first year of medical school.

And then a gargantuan rhinoceros beetle walked between my feet while I was in a very vulnerable downward dog position.

(Full disclosure: my downward dog has two eyes.)

Afterward we picnicked; I chatted with a gal who had quit her technical writing job at Red Hat to move to Buenos Aires for a year and write a novel. And also with Jess, the yoga teacher, a journalist who is stringing for the AP, among other things. Many writers here among the expat community. Food: yummy.

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Following the picnic I walked, bused and walked some more back home, stopping along the way at the grocery store to pick up yet another bottle of balsamic vinegar. I’m expecting to get a call from the VISA fraud department any moment now to tell me that they’ve discovered a “suspicious pattern of usage” on my card, i.e. multiple purchases of balsamic vinegar in South America within a 24-hour period. I’m sure I’m going to have to provide some form of documentation. I hope I can remember my PIN.

Shoplifting in Argentina and Other Adventures

There comes a point in every 10-hour flight when you realize yes, that baby IS going to scream for the entire 6000 miles. For me, that point was “somewhere over Ecuador.”

Day 1: DFWTF?

As a frequent traveler and a major nerd, I subscribe to multiple web services for automatically tracking my travel plans (highly recommend TripIt.com, by the way). I get regular text messages on the day of the flight with helpful information like “Your flight is currently ON TIME, scheduled for departure at 12:35 p.m. from gate C19.” But when my phone starts dinging on flight day like it’s Christmas in front of the local TJ Maxx, it’s never good news.

It was not good news.

The message said “AA flight 1006 PDX to DFW is currently DELAYED until 1:55 p.m. You are likely to miss your connection. Tap here for alternate flights.”

Under “Alternate flights,” it proposed a route of Portland – Dallas – Los Angeles – Miami – Buenos Aires, arriving approximately 19 hours later than scheduled. I’m not a geographer by profession, but that struck me as a twee bit indirect. I’m surprised they didn’t throw in stops in Iceland and Cape Town.

So I hauled off to the airport and started tracking the delayed inbound aircraft, which would ultimately be my outbound flight. And it became pretty clear that the timing was going to be very, very tight. Doing the math, it looked like IF the flight landed in Portland as estimated, and IF they got the passengers off and the new passengers on quickly and IF there was a big tailwind heading south as they had announced, and IF I could get from terminal A to terminal D in Dallas quickly, I would probably make my flight with about 30 minutes to spare.

And so began the next four hours of nail biting.

By the time we took off from Portland the 30 minute window was down to 20 minutes, pending this magical promised tailwind. I pictured Disney’s Aladdin gently pushing the aircraft from behind. With three hours to kill on the plane, I carefully studied the layout of the DFW airport at the back of the in-flight magazine and game-planned my run from the gate to the Skytrain to the next terminal.

We touched down at 7:12 p.m., 23 minutes before the flight to Argentina would depart. It was going to be very close.

Fun fact: Did you know that the Dallas-Fort Worth airport terminal is in New Hampshire? I didn’t either, but after we landed we taxied for what I estimate to be 2,700 miles. By the time we reached gate A31 in Nashua it was 7:22. Thirteen minutes to make my flight.

Another interesting tidbit: Every airline has a research department where they study the most efficient way to load passengers onto an airplane. United uses a back-to-front methodology, whereas Continental favors a window-middle-aisle strategy. American chunks the plane into different sections and Southwest finds that self-selection is fastest. But you know what none of them have? A LABORATORY WHERE THEY FIGURE OUT THE MOST EFFICIENT WAY TO GET PASSENGERS OFF OF A PLANE!!!

And let’s just say that this flight was particularly inefficient in the disembarking procedure. It’s as if they were throwing a party with a free open bar and nobody wanted to leave. “Hey, we just spent three hours together in a cramped tube hurtling through the sky. Wouldn’t this be a good time to stop and have a conversation while standing in the middle of the aisle?”

I am a frequent traveler, and I cannot remember a flight that was this slow to unload. I was in row 12 and I think the people in rows 20 and higher are probably still in the plane.

I would like to propose a new method of de-planing that goes in this order:

  1. People with only one small carry-on bag who are desperately rushing to catch the only daily flight to the far reaches of South America.
  2. Everybody else on the airplane, but especially the people who are too stupid to figure out how to get their giant, hard-sided four-wheeled, 600-pound rollerbags out of the overhead compartment.

The vast majority of the passengers were utterly baffled by their bag in the overhead compartment. How did that get in there? Can it be removed? How can I tell my bag from your bag? Perhaps we should all stop and consider whether we can ever truly know the position of any bag in the universe.

In some cases it took upwards of four people, an engineering survey and a Congressional oversight committee hearing to remove a bag.

7:33 p.m.

Even after exiting the plane, the people walking up the ramp to the terminal were strolling — no, lollygagging — three abreast as if to say “We have never been on an airport jetway this exciting and we intend to savor the moment!”

I burst into the terminal at 7:34. I sprinted for the Skytrain.

Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait.

Skytrain arrived. I jumped on. It started moving. Terminal B. Doors open. Doors stay open a long time. Doors stay open long enough for the entire population of New Hampshire to board, were they all at the airport simultaneously. Doors close. Train chugs along. Terminal D. Doors open.

I leap off of the Skytrain. Race down the escalator. Run to the gate.

“Buenos Aires!” I shout.

“It’s gone,” says the gate agent, in a tone of voice that says “You should have been here an hour ago.”


Back in the old days, gate agents used to have the flexibility to hold an outgoing flight if they knew that an inbound flight was slightly delayed. Today, such things are controlled by a master control center that balances the cost of delays with the cost of flying faster and burning more fuel. I was an actuarial casualty.

The agent gave me some options for getting to Buenos Aires. One involved spending the night in the Dallas Airport and flying through Miami at 5 a.m. Another involved flying out in an hour and spending the night in the Miami airport. I opted for:

(c) Have American Airlines put me up in a hotel with some free food vouchers and take the same flight the next night. I figured it would be the less grueling of the three options.

American was actually quite accommodating about putting me up for free. The guy standing next to me at the gate didn’t have it so lucky. He had missed the flight and was trying to convince the agent that he should be able to take another flight. She was grilling him like Perry Mason as to why he had missed the flight. His story, as best I could follow it, involved helping a friend fix a truck, not wearing a watch, losing track of time and unexpected traffic. Translation: stoned.

Days 2-3: Long Night’s Journey Into Day

I highly recommend the Hawthorn Suites DFW, especially if you are the kind of traveler who enjoys having a kitchen in your hotel room and were thoughtful enough to travel with a full set of dishes, cooking utensils and a nearby grocery store in your carry-on luggage. If for some reasons you have neglected to carry any of those things, the Hawthorn Suites “kitchen” is approximately as functional as the ones in the remodeling section of Home Depot.

The nearest walkable restaurant is a Whataburger 3/10ths of a mile away (for anyone who enjoys dining at an establishment that openly calls into question the provenance of the food in its own name). Not being a big fan of the Whataburger, or its sister establishment Holycrapisthisahotdog, I opted to walk a freezing mile to the Marriott to spend my $12 American Airlines dinner coupon on a club salad. I had packed for South America, not a one-mile walk on a cold Dallas night in February.

The next day I luxuriated in the “suite” until my negotiated late checkout of 1 p.m., then caught the shuttle back to the airport where I had six hours to kill until my flight. Two free meals at TGI Friday’s later (Whatasalad), we boarded the giant American Airlines 777 and we were off to Buenos Aires!

The woman sitting next to me had a baby in her arms and was traveling with two other small children and a regular-sized husband. My Spanish isn’t great, but in our conversation I got the gist of what she was saying, which was “What the hell was I thinking having three children?!?”

As soon as we took off the baby started to scream, and bless its giant lungs it continued to scream, unabated, until we landed in Buenos Aires 10 hours later. I attempted to drown it out with podcasts, music and “sleeping,” but none were particularly successful. On the bright side, the baby drifted off to sleep right about when we were landing, so I’m sure they had a very pleasant drive home from the airport.

The highlight of the flight was getting up to stretch my legs and seeing the sunrise out the window as we flew over the Andes near Santiago, Chile. That was amazingly spectacular. The entire last hour of the flight was lovely.

I should add that the plane emptied out efficiently.

It took almost two hours to get through the customs and immigration lines in the airport. Then another hour to get to my apartment by taxi (we were delayed by “random deployed railroad crossing barrier despite lack of train”). I was met by my AirBnB landlord, a charming Canadian gentleman who showed me around the place, gave me some maps to the city and then departed. I took a quick walk around the neighborhood to get my bearings, found a bank with a cash machine to withdraw some pesos and stopped into a grocery store for some food. The rest of the day was a blur of trying to stay awake long enough to go to bed. It was Monday night. I left Portland on Saturday morning.

Day 4: Settling In

Tuesday I had a lot of work coming up in the afternoon (i.e. daytime in the USA), so in the morning I went out for a run. It’s about a mile from my apartment in the Palermo Hollywood district of Buenos Aires to the extensive Palermo park system. It was raining, but it was a warm rain, so I didn’t mind. I spent almost 90 minutes out running and walking and getting a feel for the area. At the end of my run it started raining heavily, so I ducked back into the apartment, a bit wet but well exercised. The rest of the day was spent working with the door open, listening to the rain on the patio.

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Day 5: Are you Ready For Some Fútbol?

On my Tuesday run I had passed by the Jumbo, a giant grocery store, home improvement center and mall (“Jumbo” is Spanish for “Target”). I walked the mile over there in the morning and loaded up on a few food items that my local grocery doesn’t have. I also picked up a pair of soccer shinguards, because I was planning to play soccer at night.

You may be asking why I didn’t just bring my own soccer shinguards, since I have two pairs of them (guards, not shins) at home. The answer is that I am mildly obsessed with traveling light. Hadas would laugh at the word “mildly,” but then we have differing philosophies on travel. I believe that travel is best experienced by seeing the world with only the few small things you can carry on your back. Hadas believes that travel is best experienced by bringing the contents of your home. In fairness, I am here for three weeks with three shirts to choose from, whereas she would be able to do a costume change after every production number.

Anyway, I have one backpack-style carry-on bag and I do everything in my power to keep it light. True story, I bought a special travel shaver that takes two AA batteries, just so I could leave the AA batteries out and buy them at my destination.

Second true story: I went the first four days of my trip without shaving because I didn’t know how to say “AA batteries” in Spanish.

So I left the soccer shinguards at home, figuring I could pick up a cheap pair when I got here. And sure enough, at the Jumbo they had soccer shinguards and I bought a pair. There was a weird-looking buckle on the strap that looked like it would be awfully uncomfortable, but I would worry about that later.

After a good day’s work it was time to go play soccer! There’s an organization down here called Buenos Aires Fútbol Amigos that organizes pick-up soccer games for locals and expats. I’d signed up for a 7 p.m. game and was getting ready to head out in the rain to play. Meanwhile, I was loading my soccer gear into my backpack when I finally got around to inspecting the shinguards.

So it turns out, the uncomfortable-looking “buckle” was actually an anti-theft device. It brought so many things into focus. For instance, on leaving the Jumbo an alarm had gone off when I passed through the exit. But being that this is Argentina and nobody looked askance or pointed a rifle at me I figured that maybe it was just a sound that notified the store that people were exiting. In fact, the same alarm sounded a few minutes later when I passed into and out of a sporting goods store in the mall, so I was pretty sure that this was just the “Customer has entered or exited!” sound. They really needed to learn to make it sound like less of an alarm.

But no, it turns out that it was an anti-theft device that the cashier at the Jumbo had neglected to remove. And one of the hallmarks of an anti-theft device is that they’re designed to be very, very difficult to remove.

I can report that they are, in fact, very, very difficult to remove.

After 30 minutes with various implements discovered in the apartment (corkscrew, serrated kitchen knife, profanity) I managed to stabscrewpry the device off of my shinguard. I have gained a new appreciation for safecrackers, and if they ever film Ocean’s 14, they should totally have the plot involve removing a plastic anti-theft device from the elastic straps of a $10 pair of shinguards. Raise the stakes, baby!

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The bus system in Buenos Aires is complicated. There are over 150 different bus routes, all operated by a variety of different companies. It’s so complicated, in fact, that there’s an entire book that explains all the routes. It’s called the “Guia T” (pronounced like “guillotine”) and once you’ve learned how to read it you’re no more than 17 steps away from easily finding your way from point A to point B. There’s also a website, which is 1,000 times simpler to use, except for the fact that some of the bus lines have multiple routes, and the website simply says “Some of the buses on this route may not take you where you want to go.”

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On the brighter side, the buses have standardized on a rechargeable card system, ending years of massive coin shortages since everyone hoarded coins to use on the bus. It used to be impossible to get change. Now you just tell the driver where you’re going, hold the card up to a box, and it auto-magically deducts the right amount, which is about 34 cents per ride.

I caught the jam-packed bus 140 towards the soccer place, but since it was jam-packed I couldn’t see what streets we were passing. I finally got off when I figured I was pretty close, and it turned out I had only missed by about a mile. After a 20 minute walk through greater Palermo I arrived at the soccer facility. It’s a small building with two artificial turf fields, each about the size of a small basketball court, surrounded by concrete walls and with a fabric roof. There was water dripping through many holes in the roof, and just before we kicked off an entire corner of the roof gave way, pouring gallons of water onto the field. I made a mental note not to play right fullback.

The game was fun. It was a mix of locals and expats, with chatter equally divided between Spanish and English. Despite not having played soccer in a couple years, I was able to hold my own. Had a few nice assists, scored a couple goals. Didn’t get kicked in the face. I’d describe the gameplay as competitive, but not cutthroat. Everyone was clearly out to have fun, and the quality of passing was a step up from what I would expect in a game back home.

After the game, my legs a bit wobbly, I stood in the rain for 15 minutes until the return bus came. Being dark, rainy and steamy (the bus, but me as well), I was pretty sure I was going to miss my stop and end up in Uruguay, but at the last moment I noticed a giant billboard for The Killers (appearing in Buenos Aires March 30th) which I recognized from the taxi ride on day one, so I hopped off the bus and walked the two blocks to the apartment for a shower, dinner and sleep.

Bits and Pieces From the Last Day (Maybe) in Madrid

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.

Here’s hoping I have happy trails back home.


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.


Jews Looking at Things Built By Catholics

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:

  1. A comfortable luxury tour bus driving on a newly-paved road.
  2. A solid, recently-constructed funicular train on a fixed track.
  3. 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:

Wednesday: Montserrat

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.

Where’s Portland?

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.

Trains, Funiculars and Aerial Trams (the lesser-known John Candy movie)

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.

Euroleague Basketball … It’s PASS-tastic

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.

Rain Delay

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.

Hamming It Up in Barrio Gotico

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 Boqueriaa 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.

Still lost.

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.