Friday, November 25, 2011

Chanuka Candles in Barcelona

Five hundred and nineteen years after the Expulsion, I went to Barcelona last week to buy Chanuka candles.  In other years (for instance, in year 517 A.E.), I tried, to no avail, to buy them over the internet (too expensive) or place an order to the shop in Barcelona by phone (staff not interested in sending the goods).  Finally, I arrived too late and there were no candles left.  Instead of using my menorah that year, I used a standard taper in a brass candlestick and lit tea candles each evening, adding one each time to the lineup.  Actually, that worked just fine.

If I wanted to be more authentic (and not have to make these shopping trips to Barcelona), I could get eight small jars, pour in some olive oil, place a cotton wick in each, use a larger container for the shamish, and be more true to history.  But my personal history is of small multi-colored candles of yellow, blue, white, pink and red, and the Chanukiah that I inherited from my parents.  Although in fact, my parents preferred to celebrate Christmas.

The year of the tea candles, hearing my woeful tale, my long-lost and recently-found friend Irene was kind enough to send me a box of candles so that the next year I didn’t have to go shopping.  But a box only lasts one year so I was ready for another shopping expedition this year.  And off I went.

There is no searching involved in buying Chanuka candles in Barcelona.  Only one place has them.  So many years after the Expulsion, not many Jews have returned to Spain, and the kosher shop that operates across the street from the main synagogue is the one and only source.

You would never know that this building is a synagogue.  Evidence on the street is discrete, and without knowing the address, you would probably just walk by.  But if you look closely, you can see the entry grill lined with menorahs and finished off with a Star of David on each side at the top (click on the image to enlarge it). 

In order to buy my candles, I take the train to Barcelona – a two-hour ride each way, €12.20 round trip.  From the train station I walk to the shop, about a half-hour walk.  It is possible that I could take some other form of public transportation, but the shop is located a bit out of the way and I haven’t made a study of it.  Anyway, I love walking in Barcelona.  Each time I head off in the right direction, never exactly sure just where to turn, but somehow I always get there with no great mishap, although my route isn’t always exactly the same.

I am very happy to say that this year, I did find candles at the shop.  At €4.50, they were a lot cheaper than what it cost me to get there.  But they’re worth it.

While at the kosher shop I thought I might buy some yahrtzeit candles.  Ever since I ran out of the ones that I brought with me from California, I’ve been using church candles.  This works fine, yet somehow doesn’t seem quite kosher.  But when I went to take some out of the box (seen on the lower shelf), I saw printed on the face of it “Made in China.”  I put them back, thinking to myself, what the hell, that’s not kosher either.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Positive Attitude and a Man with a Horse

I’m working on a new attitude: Try to seek the positive.  It isn’t always easy.  With my newly acquired (still to be perfected) positive attitude, I have noted two amusing stories that recently appeared on the news.  The first was about a man with a horse.

It seems that about two months ago the man had left his farmhouse on horseback and gone into the local village to have breakfast.  After eating with friends and putting down several beers (beer with breakfast is entirely normal here), the man rode the mare home.  On the way he was stopped by the police and cited for operating a moving vehicle under the influence of alcohol.  His trial comes up soon. 

The man maintains that the horse is not a vehicle and that there is nothing to cite him for.  Given that you can walk on that road and walk your dog as well, I think he may have a point.  On the other hand, according to my dictionary, a vehicle is "any means in or by which someone or something is carried or conveyed."  Hmmm....  I hope they announce the outcome of this story and plan to keep my ears and eyes peeled for it.  I think whatever the outcome, it will be entertaining.

The other story was a cultural piece at the end of the news about a professional dance company that was performing somewhere in Catalunya.   Not your every day kind of dance company, this one includes in its corps some dancers with disabilities.  I thought the performance would appear amateur, but it didn’t.  It looked excellent and I was sorry I couldn’t attend to see the whole thing.  Congratulations to whoever came up with the idea, and to those who are making it happen.  Clearly they have a positive attitude.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Barcelona with Bonnie

Bonnie's recent visit brought up the usual questions of where to go, what to see, where to eat.  I’ve been a tour guide for friends before, but I think that in the past I was in a better, livelier frame of mind.  I was also feeling more positive about Barcelona and Catalunya.  Now, after the divorce and trying unsuccessfully to sell my house, I feel fairly negative, low energy, and trapped.

But I love Bonnie dearly – she’s been a very good friend to me over the years and I did my best to show her and Forrest what I thought would interest them, even though it seemed at times that I was leading them around in circles.  Well, in fact, at times I was leading them around in circles.

Two blocks up from their Passeig de Gracia apartment was Antoni Gaudí’s Casa Milà, also called La Pedrera.  This is a unique apartment block, all sinuous art nouveau curves and other-wordly shapes.  One of the apartments is furnished for the period and open for viewing and there is also a museum explaining Gaudí’s work in the attic.  The roofscape resembles something from Star Wars.  We didn’t go in because the line wrapped around the block, but it would have been worth seeing.

Although we didn’t visit La Pedrera, Bonnie and Forrest did go on their own one day to see La Sagrada Familia, the large unfinished Gaudí church recently consecrated as a basilica by the Pope.  Bonnie said she thought, judging from the overly decorative façade that she wouldn’t like it, but she found it wonderful inside.  Gaudí was a genius who followed no one’s style, although the sinuous lines of art nouveau (modernism in Catalunya) are evident in his work.  Both the Sagrada Familia and La Pedrera contain museums where some of his innovations are demonstrated and his work is explained.

Bonnie and Forrest also went on their own to visit the Museum Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (MNAC) on Montjuïc (Jewish mountain).  The MNAC houses one of the most important collections of Romanesque art in the world.  In the early 20th century, many murals were removed from the small, decaying 10th-12th century churches scattered throughout the Pyrenees and brought to Barcelona for safekeeping.  The exhibit has recently been redesigned.  I haven’t seen the new installations, but Bonnie said it was fantastic, with many interactive components.  They spent half a day in that exhibit alone.

Mostly we wandered up and down the small streets of the Barri Gòtic and the Born.  That’s my part of town, where I used to live, and the part I know and like best.  We had wonderful fruit juice smoothies at the Boqueria market.  Many stands have these fruit drinks; there wasn’t a single one when I first moved here.  They are obviously provided with tourists in mind, but that doesn’t make them any less yummy.  The problem, however, is that there are so many tourists in the market, that you can hardly walk down the aisles.  And to think I used to do most of my shopping there just eight years ago when it functioned primarily as a market and barely as a tourist attraction.

We passed through the lovely arcaded and slightly seedy Placa Reial which figures in the story told in The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafron.  That’s a good thriller along the lines of Da Vinci Code but set in Barcelona and much better written, in my opinion.

From the Placa Reial we squeezed through the very narrow street under the balcony of my old apartment where luckily there was no odor of urine that day.  I have fond memories of the apartment and the music I would hear coming from the street musicians who played in the Placa Reial.  The drunks who would pee on the wall as they passed below seem more colorful now than they did at the time.  Interestingly enough, some of them would whistle or sing opera arias as they passed.

We visited Casa Gispert, one of the older culinary establishments in the city located on a small street just alongside the impressive Gothic church of Santa Maria del Mar.  Founded in the 1850s, they continue to sell the nuts and coffee they roast on the premises in the original wood-burning stove.  Entering provides a very pleasant experience of traveling back in time.

We had a disappointing lunch at Agut, what used to be my favorite restaurant.  The food was so-so and the service came with an attitude, although to be fair, my fideua was excellent.  But on our second day we had a wonderful meal at Orio, a new, elegant Basque tapas bar/restaurant on Carrer Ferran that I had never eaten at before.  We stopped to look at the menu because the fresh oysters in the window had called to me.  But we didn’t order oysters. 

We ordered three starters and one main plate and shared it all, washed down with Basque cider and Basque white wine.  The starters were acorn-fed ham with pa amb tomaquet (bread with tomato), an assortment of four Basque cheeses, and a salad.  The main plate was red beans with blood sausage.  We had ice cream and fried milk for dessert.  Everything was excellent, although the fried milk was a bit weird.  The service was good, with our waiter explaining why it is that they pour both the cider and the white wine from a considerable height.  I assumed it was for theatrical effect, but our waiter assured us that it was for aeration, to cut the acid.  It worked for us.  We were three happy campers with aerated alcohol in our veins and well filled tummies.

After the tasty Basque lunch we visited Gaudí’s Parc Güell, up on the hill (what Catalans call a mountain) behind Barcelona.  The bus ride was an adventure in itself; starts and stops, curves and turns all being experiences to endure.  I don’t know how the driver passed the professional driving test.  Once there, another adventure unfolded. 

There were thousands of people everywhere.  What for me has always been a place of peace and quiet and magic, was more like midtown Manhattan but with unusual rock constructions instead of concrete.  Originally planned as a garden city with scattered villas, only one or two houses were ever built and the grounds now serve as a park.  It’s a unique park and one of my favorite places in Barcelona, or used to be.  The columns and arcades built from natural rocks have always given me the sense of entering into one of the fairy tales my mom used to read to me as a child.  I vaguely remember images of toadstools which have somehow evolved in my imagination to be the rock columns of Gaudí’s arcades.

Besides that good lunch, the highlight of our second day together – at least for me – was watching people dance sardanes in front of the cathedral.  Although it isn’t part of my background or culture, for about two years I used to go every Sunday to dance at the cathedral with a group of Catalan friends.  So for me it was nostalgic to watch people dance and to listen to the music, which, as strange as it may sound to some, sounds wonderful to me.  Unfortunately I didn’t see any of the friends I used to dance with, but I didn’t really expect to.  When the couple who was the driving force of the group broke up, around the time that Manel and I moved to Tarragona, the group drifted apart.  Bonnie said she liked the fact that people were dancing right out in the street.  I’ll bet if she had stayed longer, Bonnie would have started dancing sardanes in the street too.

When we set out the first day, the only thing Bonnie knew she wanted to do during her visit was eat a paella.  She never did.  But then, surely that means, just as the legend that says that if you drink from the Font de Canaletes on La Rambla, she’ll return to Barcelona someday.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Bonnie and Hotels vs. Apartments

It was January 1995 when Bonnie suggested I go ballroom dancing.  That was soon after my divorce and I was feeling down.  Dancing would be good, she told me.  It involves exercise, music, socializing, and, if nothing else, gets you out of the house.  In those days, I called her twinkle toes.  So I went and because of Bonnie I met Manuel and from there a lot of things changed and new vistas opened up.  But that’s another story.

I’ve known Bonnie since about 1972 when our two husbands worked together at the university, and last week I had the rare pleasure of spending time with her.  She was traveling in Europe for the first time in many years, toes now encased in sensible shoes, seeing parts of France and finishing in Barcelona so she could give me a hug

Bonnie used to come to Europe every year but it has been many years since she’s made the trip.  She was here with her friend Forrest who was visiting Europe for the first time.  Before coming to Barcelona they had been in Paris, to Normandy, and along the Loire.

Rather than staying exclusively in hotels, on this trip they rented two tourist apartments.  They were very pleased with their Paris apartment experience.  The apartment was operated by the owner who provided good service and well-thought-out conveniences.  In addition to the well-equipped kitchen, they also had a clothes washer and dryer, and an iron and ironing board.  They could comfortably have breakfast at home before venturing out and in fact, they could buy local ingredients and cook if they wanted.  But they didn’t.  After all, they were in Paris and part of the fun is eating out.  Still, it is convenient to be able to keep food at home and eat in if you feel like it and many hotels forbid any food in the rooms.  The apartment was well situated and the owner was friendly and helpful.

In Barcelona they also rented an apartment.  But unlike in Paris, this one was operated by a large rental firm.  When they booked, they were told the approximate location but not the exact address.  Upon arrival in Barcelona, rather than go directly to the apartment as they had in Paris, they had to go first to the agency’s office.  There, after waiting some considerable time in line, they were given the keys and the address.  They had taken a taxi into the city from the airport but now had to venture out again with their luggage to find the apartment. 

Unfortunately, finding the apartment and then getting into it wasn’t as easy as it should have been.  First of all, the rental firm had given them the name of the street in Spanish (Paseo de Gracia) whereas it, as most streets, goes by its original Catalan name, Passeig de Gracia.  There is no reason why someone who isn’t familiar with the city would know these two are the same street.  All the street signs in Barcelona are in Catalan as are the local maps.  How it is that the company would ignore that and use the Spanish name is hard to say.  But after some initial confusion, they figured it out.

When they got to the building, it turned out that they had been given the wrong key.  Luckily the building had the old-fashioned arrangement of a concierge and he was kind enough to help them out.  Otherwise it would have meant a trip back to the rental office, hauling their luggage (two suitcases each), to get the problem resolved.  The first stop at that office, en route to the apartment, had already added considerable time to their arrival and they were worn out.

This apartment was in a wonderful location, right on Passeig de Gracia, facing the Casa Batlló and Casa Amatller and just down the street from Gaudí’s more famous Casa Milà (La Pedrera).  But in addition to there being no one there to welcome them or tell them about the apartment or the neighborhood, there was also no written orientation material.  There was nothing to explain how to dispose of garbage, no tourist information, no information about where a grocery store might be found nearby, nothing but the user’s manuals for appliances and electronic equipment, and that was all in Spanish.  And oddly, there was an iron, but no ironing board.

So what are the advantages of tourist apartments?  Apartments have kitchens, allowing you to eat in as much (or little) as you choose.  Apartments have normal living rooms with sofas and more space than normal hotel rooms, even the generous ones.  Apartments give you the sense that you are actually living in the city that you are visiting and allow you to be more comfortable when you are at home.

What apartments do not have is a hotel concierge who can help you with problems and difficulties.  What would you do if the hot water stopped running or the electricity went out?  And apartments, unlike hotels, do not have someone on the premises who can help you with tourist questions.  Then there is the check-in, check-out procedure to pay attention to.  If you have an early morning plane to catch, checking out in an agency office might present a problem.

With tourist apartments and villas, there is no set way of paying deposits and rental fees.  Every private rental will ask for a deposit to make the booking and usually (but not always) the deposit is not refundable.  I have seen that many British owners who have villas for rent in my area want the full rental payment weeks before the tenant arrives at the villa.  Many others accept payment upon arrival.

When I rent out my villa I do it this way.  I send a signed contract to the tenant.  When the tenant signs and sends the contract back and pays a 25% non-refundable deposit (by bank transfer), the booking is confirmed.  The contract details what is included in the rental as well as the address of the property.  The remainder can also be paid in advance by transfer or upon arrival in cash.  Some owners accept PayPal or even credit cards, but I don’t.

Renting an apartment is sometimes less expensive than a hotel, especially if you consider the possibility of eating in.  It can be a good way to get more into the feel of a place, and renting a larger one, perhaps with two or more bedrooms, allows you to spend your more relaxed moments in the company of your friends or family if you are traveling with others.  And in that case, it will certainly make your stay much more affordable.