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‘Tis the Season To Travel

Hi there. It’s been a while. How’ve you been? How’s your uncle’s health? That thing that happened to your foot, is that all sorted out? Great. I’m so glad.

I’ve been busy. Globetrotting busy. Sorry I couldn’t take you along, but I had a small companion with me who, while adorable, would’ve gotten you up at 2AM or 5AM depending on where we were that week, so you should thank me for not inviting you.

You’re welcome.

My little family on Zurich See.

We were in Zurich, Paris, Brussels, and Brugge in early October (with side trips to Copenhagen and Berlin for R.), then New York for 48 hours in the middle of the month (for a wedding and, let’s be honest, to see if I could outrun Sandy, which I did, by the way – last flight out, so high five to me. No high fives for global warming and devastating the city I love.) Then Roatan, Honduras for a week of friends and diving last week.

It was all very glam and exhausting and fantastic and over-luggaged, and, truth be told, I’m happy to be home for the holidays. I’ve got my sights set on a tapas Thanksgiving which will include things like stuffing meatballs and mini pecan pies. Maybe. It may also include a loss of eyebrows and a visit from the fire department. Who knows? An all-flambe Thanksgiving could be fun, right? One thing is for sure, we’re getting a Christmas tree Thanksgiving weekend, and this year I’m going to water it come hell or high water.

Actually, come high water, I will stop watering it. You don’t want to overdo it.

In the interests of making your future traveling life simpler and easier than my recent one has been, here are

The top seven things I learned from our trips to Europe, Central America and pre-Sandy New York:

1. If a hurricane is approaching your intended destination, you might want to reconsider your trip, as it may take you forever to get home. Unless they have Dunkin Donuts where you’re going, in which case you should definitely go. Or a really good friend is getting married. That too. You should go to that. Get a coffee and donut on the way. And a case of bottled water. And a generator. You’ll be the life of the party, maybe literally.

2. When you book a trip to a third world country, you should plan on getting immunization shots. And by “plan” I don’t mean ring up your doctor and your child’s pediatrician in a panic five days before the trip to find out if you will come back with yellow fever, malaria and rickets. (Rickets is still a thing, right?) And you need those shots about six months ahead, not six hours, for them to be effective. Just FYI. (P.S. I don’t have malaria. Yet.)

3. I know you love French cheese. It’s because it’s unpasteurized. And illegal, which makes it more thrilling. (As thrilling as sitting perfectly still with a dairy product, a small, non-lethal knife and a baguette can be, but the point stands.) No matter how much you love it and how willing you are to brave questions from humorless customs’ agents who probably want that cheese for themselves, do not bring seven pounds of it home. Unless you sent out invitations for a cheese party before you left, you will not eat it before it starts resenting you.

4. If you have a tiny portable speaker to broadcast rainshowers all night to keep your toddler insulated from startling noises and reliably asleep and that speaker has a small, essential cable that charges it and connects it to your iPod and you lost that cable on your last trip, only to rediscover it after extensive searching only the day before the current trip, do not for any reason detach that cable for fear the connector might snap off in your luggage and store it “someplace safe.” This is the equivalent of just going ahead and running it down the garbage disposal and checking yourself into an insane asylum for a few days, as you will a.) never find it again (again), and b.) will lose your mind trying.

The reason I dive.

5. If you are claustrophobic and nervous about people/yeti/sharks/the Mafia sneaking up on you while on land, you may want to reconsider diving in the open ocean. They have sharks there. Also, adorable turtles and seahorses and what not. But you will see them while under 40 feet of water and breathing dry oxygen from something that makes you look like Bane to your small daughter while you’re getting re-certified in the pool before you went out there, which makes you worry that she too will start sitting with her back to the wall and facing the door in restaurants because it’s good to know what’s coming and be able to see your exit. Which, for the record, is above you if you’re diving. Which is not normal and counterintuitive and weird. Like breathing underwater. The whole thing is weird.

6. United Airlines is a terrible, terrible company that turns what are probably perfectly nice, normal people into super-annoying and bizarrely unsympathetic employees who park their beverage/ice crusher truck next to your sleeping toddler’s head TWICE, ruin your luggage, do not apologize, offer more trips on their terrible airline as compensation and generally show almost no human characteristics. You should avoid flying United if you possibly can. But you knew that.

And finally,

7. Even with all the lost cables, panic attacks underwater, terrible airlines and weather, weather, weather, travel is good. You should go. It may be tiring, it may be logistically challenging, it may be expensive, but you should still go. You get to see your cool friends, you get to see the American election from outside the country (thank God), you meet a turtle or two. It gives you some breathing room and some perspective, that time away. You’ll like it. Just go.

Even if you get rickets. Which you probably won’t. But get some sunlight and Vitamin D anyway. And a donut. Donuts help with everything.

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Venice: Guggenheim and Rauschenberg

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The trip to Venice was – how shall I say this? Let’s go with “chaotic.” Beautiful, impressive and chaotic.

I’ll get into the chaos another time; first, let’s talk about the Guggenheim. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection was on the top of my list of things to see in Venice, right after “as much Palladio as possible”, but we didn’t get there until the afternoon before we left. In fact, I was so afraid we wouldn’t get there (because others – who shall remain nameless – were dragging their feet) that I felt the need to add a small motivational tantrum to the mix. I don’t know if it helped, but it seemed in keeping with Ms. Guggenheim’s eccentricity.

The collection is in Guggenheim’s gorgeous house which fronts on the Grand Canal but looks nothing like most of the surrounding Venetian palazzos: it’s white, it’s angular and it’s modern, modern, modern. (Not that I’d be averse to living in one of those other palazzos, mind you. If you’re offering, I’m in.)

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At the ticket counter, I saw the directions to the special exhibition space and – hooray! – they’ve got Robert Rauschenberg’s series Gluts for the summer. Have I mentioned how much I love Robert Rauschenberg? No? Well, allow me: I love that man. I also love that when I saw him speak at the Guggenheim in New York, he was wearing a flaming pink dress shirt. Not an, “I’m comfortable with my masculinity,” pink, but an, “I could pass for a yard flamingo,” pink.

I fell for Rauschenberg at the Guggenheim’s retrospective in New York in 1997. I joined the museum that year, even though I was a pauper, so that I could get the exhibition catalog and go back to meet Rauschenberg at the reception (and by “meet” I mean, “look at from the first floor while he spoke in the lobby.”)

I loved the Combines the most, constructions of found materials (including, infamously, a stuffed goat), original paintings, recycled print, and photography. A close second was the amazing Hiccups, a set of 97 segments of handmade paper printed with images and zippered together. The constructions struck me as imaginative and somehow dynamic (literally, in the case of Hiccups, which can be rezippered in any configuration). Rauschenberg seemed…happy, I guess. Curious. Conflicted, but funny, not tortured. His work noted what was going on around him not by representing it or reducing it, but by collecting it. It felt like he saw what other people missed – junk, goats, discarded newsprint, tires – and accepted it all into his work without shying away from its grime or rust, elevating it to notice by recycling it.

(Slideshow overview of some of his work, including that goat, here.)

A few years later, the Whitney bought Synapsis Shuffle, another moveable work. Rauschenberg created fifty two 9.5′ panels (each 5′ or less wide), each its own piece of art. When it came time to show it, he’d collect a set of people – mostly famous, all from different walks of life – and stage a lottery. Each person drew a set of two numbers: the first indicating how many panels they’d get and the other a rank denoting in what order they’d be able to select their panels. Then they’d construct what they liked from their panels or barter with the other participants to get different panels.

I love the flexibility of that idea. Every time it shows, it’s different but it’s still absolutely that same work underneath. It’s done – for now and until the next time it’s done.

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(The New York Times write-up here and a good piece on it in W here.)

Gluts is a series of sculptures (for lack of a better word) produced from the mid-eighties until Rauschenberg’s death last year. The Guggenheim Collection is exhibiting a fraction of the huge series. Over twenty-odd years, Rauschenberg pillaged junkyards for materials – twisted bumpers, discarded signs, bits of wrought iron metalwork – took them back to his studio and constructed these pieces – some enormous, some small – a testament to glut, to overproduction and the abandonment of the resulting goods. The pieces are a criticism and a resurrection all in one, a whimsical and substantial response to the issue.

(An excellent virtual tour through the exhibition here. A good, albeit very flatly lit, set of images from Gluts here.)

The standing collection at the Guggenheim house is wonderful as well. I love museums of personal collections – the Frick in New York and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston are two of my other favorites. For me, there is something intimate and human in visiting a personally curated collection that is very different from visiting a professionally curated exhibition in a museum. There are always lovely surprises among the selections and combinations.

The Rauschenberg is up through September 20th.

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Incidentally, how good looking and cheerful was Rauschenberg? Lord, almighty. Check out this great picture of him (far right) with John Cage and Merce Cunningham from the Times‘ Cunningham retrospective. Also, this Avedon photo – currently up at SFMOMA through the end of November – of him with Alex Hay.

Apparently, he’s also a great father.

Switzerland: The Food. My God, the Food.

French food? Mais oui. Italian? Buongiorno! Spanish tapas? Si! Swiss cooking? Um…what? It just doesn’t sound right, does it? If you’ve only focused on chocolate and fondue though, you’ve been missing out. Swiss food is the ultimate comfort food and man is it ever comforting: comforting to the tune of fifteen additional pounds in my first year on Swiss soil.

There are the cream sauces, used on cutlets and, my favorite artery-clogging example, whole hardboiled eggs. There are the breads: soft, braided white-bread zopf on Sundays and nussgipfeli (croissants wrapped around tasty, tasty ground up nuts and sugariness). There are the endless cookies and the herbs-and-croutons cup o’ soup, the rosti, the rosti with cheese, the rosti with bacon. The raclette. And, oh my Lord, the cheese. Bring me all the cheeses. ALL of them.

The first thing on my list when I land in Zurich is Migros, the grocery store chain. Say, “Grüzi,” to the family and then off to Migros. Unfortunately for our vacation plans, R had to come back to San Francisco for business three days into our time in Switzerland. Fortunately for our autumn, that meant he could schlep back a duffle of culinary goodies that we then didn’t have to take along on the Italian leg of the trip. (It also meant that we could reload that same duffle when we passed through Zurich on our way home a week and a half later. How sweet is that? Pretty sweet, that’s how sweet.)

So here’s what you should try while you’re there, plus some tips to getting Swiss goodness on this side of the Atlantic (or the Pacific, if you’re really disoriented and into flying the wrong way round).

  1. Kuche

    The VICTORY of the trip: kuche (if you’re in Bern) or wähe (if you’re in Zurich). Kuche is a fruit tart with a firm custard-like filling that’s made in a flat bottomed, wide quiche pan. The fruit is usually fresh, the custard filling not very sweet, and the crust approximately like a quiche’s but covered with a thin layer of ground hazelnuts. (If you want it sweeter, you can serve it with a little whipped cream. A very little.) I love it and have loved it since I first had it as a teenager.

    However, I’ve never been able to find a recipe in the States and even if I had, I doubt I would’ve tried it because it involves dough. Let’s be clear: dough and I have a long and unhappy history punctuated by embarrassment and disaster. (For me, that is. The dough just sits there all smug.) It sticks. I add flour. It stops sticking. I stop adding flour. It ends up tough as nails. It took me three years to produce a decent biscuit, I won’t even try bread, and pie crusts make me cry.

    Times they are a’changing though, people. With the aid of a Xerox machine (for the recipe, not the dough), Migros’ pre-packaged pastry (smuggled), and a Cuisinart (for pulverizing hazelnuts), I am the proud owner of a kuche of my very own, served in the photo on my grandmother’s china with a cup of afternoon tea.

    It turns out that the recipe is so absurdly simple that no one even bothers to publish it in real cookbooks. R’s cousin Tanja found it for me in her Home Ec textbook from high school and it has all of five ingredients (besides the dough). Cut-up fruit (apricots are my favorite), the hazelnuts, milk, an egg, and a little sugar. Yeah, I’m an idiot, but now I’m a self-satisfied, fruit-filled idiot.

  2. Amaretti

    Another wild success from this trip. I got hooked on the Swiss, chewy version of these almond cookies while visiting Tessin, the Italian canton in the south. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I would spend the next ten years purchasing and swearing at the super-hard, not-at-all-like-what-I-wanted version offered by Italian restaurants and stores in New York and San Francisco before giving up on ever finding what I was looking for again.

    Lo and behold, as I was waiting for my train to Milan at the Zurich station, I happened to dawdle by a farmer’s market vendor selling breads and pastries. Next to the linzertorte lay a few craggy cookies powdered lightly with sugar and labeled as amaretti. I braced for disappointment and handed over a few francs. I needn’t have (braced, that is, not paid. It’s Switzerland: you always have to pay.) Ah, the chewy taste of sweet success! I’m back, baby!

    It turns out, after further research and discussion, that these amaretti are, after all, a different animal than the hard as rocks Italian cookie. Nice of them to name them differently, don’t you think? Jerks.

    Another trip to Migros and I scored three different versions of my (re)new(ed) best friend which I’ve worked my way through at an alarming pace since we got back. I got some small square ones, 20 to a bag, that are OK, still soft but without the slightly crunchy exterior layer. The layered ones in the photo are ridiculously good but might put you in sugar shock: the middle layer is an inch of soft milk chocolate laced with liqueur. The closest to the homemade are the same cookie (same photo) without the chocolate and I would eat them until I threw up except I only bought one pack so I had to ration them. They’re gone now, so I might have to start experimenting with recipes off the internet. Good thing I just joined that gym down the hill.

  3. Meringues

    Aside from chocolate, I always bring back meringue cookies, usually the ones with their little bottoms dipped in chocolate, but this trip, Tanja converted me to a straight-up meringue lover. Put them (or just one, if you’ve gotten or made the large ones) in the bottom of a bowl, cover them with whipped cream and throw on a bunch of berries. You’re welcome.

    I know I could’ve been eating this all along if I bothered to make meringues, which I know how to do, but meringues take so long to bake I just can’t take it.

    (Reading all of the above, I do seem to have issues with patience and preparation in the kitchen, don’t I? I’ll have to have a long think about that as soon as the sugar-induced hyperactivity wears off.)

  4. Spätzle

    Spätzle, translated charmingly as “little sparrows” is a kind of tiny dumplingy tastiness. Again, something I could make myself, but I prefer to rely on Migros’ vacuum-packed goodness that is at the ready in my cupboard whenever I need my fix. I’ve bought the dried spätzle available in supermarkets here, but it’s not quite right, dry instead of moist and a general disappointment.

    If you live in San Francisco, hit Suppenkuche in Hayes Valley for the original and order the Jägerschnitzel in Champignonsoße mit Spätzle und grünem Salat. It’s what spätzle should be: soft, yummy and covered with a creamy mushroom sauce.

  5. Rösti

    Rösti is R’s preferred side dish: grated potatoes fried as a pancake and flipped so both top and bottom are brown and crispy. (I make a mess of the flipping bit, so R handles that. Can you tell I’m not much of a cook?) Yet again, not so hard to make at home, but that would require forethought, patience and a lot of grating, none of which sound good to me, so packs of plain rösti, cheese rösti and rösti with bacon bits come back with us.

  6. Pastetli

    I can’t begin to explain to you how rich pastetli are and how much you need to make some.

    Here’s what they are: puff pastry shells filled with mushroom cream sauce with little kügeli, or balls, of what they claim to be veal. (I know I shouldn’t eat veal, but I console myself that little Swiss cows have much happier lives than American calves who are treated abominably and whose farmers must, I fear, have black hearts.) I say “claim” because the little meat balls are the consistency of bratwurst, not regular meat. Those meat balls are the missing link. I’ve found the pastry shells in the freezer section of the grocery store courtesy of Pepperidge Farm, so I’m set there, and I can make a mushroom sauce by adding milk to roux, but the meat escapes me.

    In Switzerland, you can buy packages of the fleisch kügeli to add to your sauce and come at it that way or, of course, you can rely on Migros 100% and buy their packets of pastetenfullung as I have and horde them for comforting dinners at the end of your very worst days. I’ll keep you posted if I sort out the meat component and figure out how to make my own.

So we’re sorted for now on the Swiss food front, but I might need to start an import/export ring to keep the supply lines properly open. Or learn to cook, I guess , which somehow seems harder.

European Tour 2009: What Worked

The tour included business and theater in London (humid, grey), a wedding in Switzerland (formal), a couple of sweltering days in Milan, holiday with family in Venice, a little down time in Zurich, a lot of time in flight, a couple days on trains, and short trips on trams and boats. That’s a lot of different climates and even more transitions from flats to hotels and back and forth between countries.

Across all that, there were a few things that stood out as being incredibly handy to have and made the trip’s insane logistics so much easier to manage.

The Best Bag Ever (especially on the road): Marghera Convertible

I, like most of you, have spent an undisclosed portion of my adult life seeking the perfect bag. Luckily for both of us, I’ve found it. Aside from its excellent green-ness which works for day and night, the features I love the most are its ability to switch from a handled bag to a shoulder bag (it folds over) and to contain my laptop without betraying its presence.

To be fair, that laptop is a Mac Air (which, incidentally, I love like my unconceived children), so its weight doesn’t put a strain on the bag’s leather shoulder strap and its unusually slim form allows it to slide horizontally into a bag like this that wouldn’t accommodate either its Apple bretheren or any other standard size laptops. Don’t look at this as a draback though: this is your opportunity to justify both a new computer and a new bag.

When not housing your ‘puter, the capacity is generous enough to hold small purchases in addition to the usual wallet, iPhone, keys and assorted cousins. Two flat outside pockets are exactly the size of your airline ticket and one small one inside will hold your passport.

Where to get it: Sundance Catalog. Currently on sale for $250.

iPhone

R talked me into an iPhone the day before we left the country, mainly so I could make international calls and send text messages in Europe without buying a just-for-international phone with a different phone number everybody then has to remember. I was ambivalent. Did I really want to get worked up about something so many people are already worked up about? Wouldn’t it be more fair to the coolness marketplace to get worked up about something more obscure? And wouldn’t I look cooler if I did that second one instead?

Also, I liked my little Blackberry Pearl and the consistency of Verizon. Why move to something bigger with AT&T’s terrible coverage?

Because it’s pocket-sized awesomeness, that’s why.

Really, though, the main thing was having a phone and text messaging which meant we could split up for the afternoon and still coordinate keys, dinner, and so on. I don’t know what we’d have done without it.

Where to get it: Apple.

iPhone App: Hi Converter

It converts things. Correction: it converts EVERYTHING. Do you want to know how many hectares are in a bunder? How many ngarns are in a square angstrom? Did you know there was such a thing as a square light year? The area converter can help. When you’re done there, the distance converter will turn your miles into gnat’s eyes (.00000007761). You can do electric current and digital image resolution conversions in your spare time.

Aside from its clear entertainment value, it will also convert your euros into dollars based on today’s exchange rate, your size at Bloomingdale’s into your size at Harrod’s, and 40 Celsius into a more comprehensibly crispy 104 Fahrenheit.

Where to get it: App Store.

iPhone App: Collins Italian-English Dictionary

Since I speak German and a chunk of Spanish and can get by in French, I’ve been arrogantly cruising around Europe for quite a while without having to feel like a complete tourist. Those days came to a jarring end at the Italian border. Enter the iPhone (again).

Of all the dictionaries I tried, the $25 Collins was the best. It covers a lot of ground: direct translations, peripheral usage, colloquialisms and common (or, in the best cases, not at all common) phrases.

$25 is a lot for an app and I know no one wants to pay more than 99 cents, but the frustration of looking up a word and finding no results repeatedly on other apps gets old fast. You spent $1200 to get to Italy, you can spare another $25 to pull up with, “L’ho gettato nel water,” to explain the whereabouts of your passport/hairbrush/traveler’s checks. (Translates to, “I threw it in the toilet,” by the way.)

Where to get it: App Store

Hideo Wakamatsu 20″ Viewer Trolley

The day after we got back from Barcelona in June, I biked over to the Hideo Wakamatsu store to check out superlight international carry-on sized luggage. I biked home with a silver 6.5 lb., 20″ Viewer Trolley hanging from my handlebars.

Why the post-trip rush? Because you have to seize the moment when your shoulder still hurts from schlepping a non-rolling bag and your ego still smarts from looking like a hands-full-of-stuff schmuck, and solve your problem.

My problem is that we have a bunch of stuff – some of it heavy – that I won’t check. R’s 35mm camera, my jewelry, things I’ll want on the plane (sweater, megaphone, another sweater, snacks) and essential clothing (an extra T-shirt and undies, plus whatever we would die without if they lost our luggage, like a swimsuit if we’re going to be beach or my dress for the wedding we’re attending). That pile of stuff always ends up being more than I want to carry in a shoulder bag, but I don’t want to drag around an actual suitcase with all the rest of my non-essential stuff too. (Besides, most American 22″ roll-on suitcases are too heavy, once packed, to meet international flight restrictions.) What to do? Until last month, I chose “suffer” rather than add another suitcase to the mix.

That was the wrong choice. The Viewer kicks ass. It’s super light for getting in and out of bins, and its four wheels allow you to roll it next to you with your computer bag on top. It’s like walking a very quiet, rectangular pet. Your hands are free, your shoulder is relaxed, and you look like the seasoned traveler you actually are.

Quick warning: the lovely matte finish on the bag will mark, so brace yourself for that before you check it (if you ever decide you need to, that is). I haven’t checked it yet myself, so I’ve no idea how well it holds up to airline abuse, but it’s done beautifully inside planes, trams, and trains.

Where to get it: Currently out of stock at the eponymous shop but available – albeit inaccurately described as having two wheels and not four – at Flight 001.

Business Class

Traveling in business class (or above) is the way to go. I know there is no one (except possibly this jerk) who is in favor of the turn that air travel has taken in the last ten years. These days, the coach cabin on a long-haul flight looks more and more like the back of a Central American chicken truck. Between the the addition of bad things (longer lines and delays, ineffective security, fees for everything) and the elimination of good things (space, food, customer service), there’s pretty much nothing positive to say about flying except that you will get where you’re going not dead (mostly).

R travels for work, which rots but has a significant up side: he accumulates crazy numbers of miles and little stacks of upgrade certificates. We use the former to get me where he’s already going and the latter to get us there, occasionally, in business class. I don’t need warmed nuts and real china, but the quiet and the space bring the airborne experience back from the brink of catatonia into the land of, “I might not maim someone first thing when I get off the plane.”

Where to get it: Get a job where you a.) travel a lot (our way), b.) make a lot of money or c.) can commit a lot of untraceable financial fraud.

Questions About Tourists

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  1. Have they no shame?
  2. True or false: Having a picture of yourself in a place is more essential than actually having seen that place.
  3. What exactly does a pictogram of a camera with a red line through it mean in Japanese?

Venice: Brace Yourselves

Venice is next.

I know: it’s absurd. We just got back from Spain. Don’t say it. The planning seems lacking, if not downright ridiculous, but it was unavoidable. Trust me: I tried to avoid it, but there it is.

London for three days (business for R, theater for me), then Zurich for four days (wedding), then Venice for ten days.

July – well, summer in its entirety – is not the time to go to Venice, but we’re doing it anyway, because that’s how our particular cookie crumbled. Given the summer heat (which I hate) and the summer crowds (which I hate), I’m going to need a plan to make this work. Here’s what I’ve been thinking:

    1. Buy my own gondola. Live in it for ten days. Refuse to come out.Pros:I will not have to pay to get anywhere, thus avoiding the $176/hour fares for private gondola rides. (For $176/hour, that gondola better be made of gold and taste like frosting.) If I want company, I can charge other people for giving them a ride.Cons:
      • I do not know how to, er, gondol.
      • I get seasick.
      • Gondolas cost $35,000.
      • Gondola insurance might be required to transport strangers.

      Con mitigation: air bags, shock absorbers, gondoling classes, win the lottery.

  • Go out only between the hours of 1AM and 7AM.

Pros: No crowds. No heat.
Cons: No light. General suspicion that I am a vampire.
Con mitigation: Flashlights. Avoid drinking blood. No capes.

  • Navigate based on crowd density: if there are more than ten people already in a street, take a different street.

Pros: I will not get claustrophobic.
Cons: I will spend most of my day standing in the middle of an intersection.
Con mitigation: Step 1: Get very famous. Step 2: Hire assistant to clear streets ahead of me.

  • Invent the human hamster ball I’ve been meaning to get around to inventing.

Pros: Air-conditioned comfort. Personal space. Floating transport.
Con: Generator required for air conditioner + intercom system for communicating presence of oncoming hamster ball to crowds may weigh too much to allow for floating in canals.
Con mitigation:Also invent floating generator. Take megaphone.

Barcelona: The Guide

First there was the anticipation. Then there was the packing. After that, there was the coverage. Now, at last, here is The Guide to Barcelona (according to me).

As with the other guides on this site, I don’t pretend to cover everything. These are my personal highlights and low lights of what’s out there. I hope it’s the supplement you were looking for to narrow down, expand or otherwise warp your itinerary. Enjoy!

A quick note on travel guides: I was a Let’s Go girl when I lived abroad. Then they got a little newsprinty and I cut over to Lonely Planet, but they’re not as selective as I’d like (I know what they include or omit constitutes an opinion but they don’t narrow it down a lot), so I went looking for a new, more opinionated and organized guide for this trip to Spain. My new best friend is the Top 10 series by DK Publishing: excellent photography, small enough to carry around, removable map included, and content divided by area and category. Sweet.

What You Should Do

Sagrada Familia

Let’s just get it out of the way: yes, you should probably go and see Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s unfinished monster cathedral. You’re going to see it whether I say you should or not, so I’ll get behind your effort. I can’t stand Gaudi and the Modernista style, but the cathedral does have sort of a Guinness Book of World Records appeal, given how long they’ve been building it (128 years and counting). In my view, that’s on a par with the world’s largest ball of twine, but, truth be told, if I were within walking distance of that twine ball, I’d probably go see that too. Seriously though, it is impressively large and unique, so man up, get over your horror of tile work and head over there. I wouldn’t walk to the top of the spire though – punishing trip, I hear.

Unless you’re a fan, Sagrada Familia will also relieve you of any responsibility to go out of your way to catch Parc Guell, or the apartment building La Pedrera, other highly recommended Gaudi constructions. You’ll probably pass some Modernista work on your way to other places you’re going anyway, so no need to plan special outings.

Palau de la Musica Catalana

Surprisingly, given that it’s also in the Modernista style, the Palau de la Musica Catalana makes the top of my list. Maybe that’s because I love me some stained glass and the concert hall has a one-ton inverted stained glass bell in the center of the ceiling. Also, unlike Sagrada Familia’s endless ramblings, the palau has a tight, efficient design with a purpose: a concert hall with the best possible acoustics for one of the first co-ed professional choirs. All the sculptures and tiles and columns and iron work fooforah support that objective. Mad props. It’s an amazing thing. Oh – and they got the whole thing built in a mindboggling three years. Take that, Gaudi.

To see inside, you have to book a tour (in the right language, mind you) or attend a concert. Tour’s just under an hour and they run regularly in English, but the tours book up and the Palau’s web site is not helpful, so it might be a good bet to wander by on your way elsewhere, buy a ticket at the box office for another day so you know you’re sorted.

Eat fideuà, olives, and jamon iberico

See notes on fideuà and restaurant recommendations here.

If you don’t like olives, as I didn’t before my first trip to Spain, this is the place to learn. You don’t have to go out of your way to find them – they’ll be served before almost any meal at a restaurant – but you may want to track down a grocery store to bring some back with you after you’ve had them. Most likely the ones you’ll be served are manzanilla olives, native to Spain, or manzanillas stuffed with – don’t gag: they’re not the same as the ones you pick off your pizza – anchovies.

Jamón ibérico is a must. It’s cured ham from pigs fed exclusively on acorns. Which sounds boring for the piggy but is salty and tasty for you. You don’t have to buy one of the entire legs, hoof included, that you see at the grocery store to gnaw your way through before you get to customs (or smuggle it in a tennis racket case as someone who shall remain nameless told me she did); the cheap stuff in sandwiches from bodegas will be stringy and unsatisfying, and the $95/lb. offerings are a little rich for some of us. Start with ordering some at a proper restaurant one afternoon and see how you like it.

Picasso Museu

Picasso was a misogynistic jerk, we all know that, but the man could paint. And draw and collage and pot, which is a welcome expansion of the usual, “Look at my naked cubist ladies!” museum repertoire. Barcelona was something of a hometown for Picasso, and the Picasso Museum was willed an excellent collection of his early and student work: drawings for larger works, small oil paintings on wood, notebooks full of pencil sketches and so on. Of course they have large, important works as well, but the most appealing part for me was seeing the early classical grounding that allowed for Picasso’s later evolution into groundbreaking styles. The artist in progress and so on. The museum is housed in a city castle, which makes for a charming but also somewhat disorganized and labyrinthine experience.

Head across the alleyway from the gift shop to the Textil Café for a coffee or lunch before or afterwards. It’s half-filled with tourists and the service is painfully slow, but it’s in a pretty, sheltered courtyard and their food is quite good.

Montjuic and related activities

Barcelona, in case you haven’t noticed, is ringed by mountains which provides a handy opportunity to take funiculars up the sides of them or, if you’re deranged, bike up them. Montjuic is one of said mountains, the least suicidal one to bike, and home to, among other things, the Fundacio Joan Miro (a museum dedicated to, er, Miro), the imposing Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, the Olympic stadium (built for the 1936 Olympics, used in 1992) and a warren of very lovely parks with, sometimes, views across the city. The funicular to the top is part of the metro system, so heading up and making an afternoon of it isn’t nearly as complicated as the map looks like it will be. Definitely hit the Miro, wander the gardens, skip the stadium, if you’re up for it take on the National Museum and then meander downhill via escalator, stairs and paths among the fountains and gardens that will land you in the Placa d’Espanya where you can check out…

The Barcelona Pavilion

The Barcelona Pavilion is a “house” by Mies van der Rohe built of steel, glass and marble for the king’s reception at the 1929 World Exposition. They tore down the original, thought better of that bad decision and reconstructed it in the ’80s. If you have any interest in architecture or design, you have to go. It’s small and costs about $7 to get in, but it’s worth half an hour just to be inside those straight lines. We ended up here after a long, long day, happy to discover it was open until 8PM and intrigued that the brochure clearly labeled “English” was just as clearly written in French. I assume this was in keeping with one of van der Rohe’s less well-known utopian plans for future society. (Architectural info + bad photos here. Better photos here, especially here.)

What You Could Do (specialty)

These are some “if these are your kind of thing” recommendations.

Formatgeria La Seu

The artisanal cheese movement has yet to catch on in Spain, so it’s a rarity to find a place so focused on and willing to discuss cheese. It’s not that Spaniards aren’t making cheese in huts on the sides of mountains and meadows, it’s that Spain isn’t flooded with the wine-pairing classes and Whole Foods’ marketing and retired bankers going into goat-rearing that America and France have. Formatgeria La Seu has been chipping away at that for several years now. The shop is central (if tiny), the proprietress is Scottish so you can ask questions freely, and the cheese is phenomenal. Follow her lead and buy whatever she tells you to: she knows whereof she speaks since she goes out into the countryside to find and collect the best cheeses herself. If you have a spare Saturday afternoon, you can even swing by and take a class. (Hours: 10-2, 5-8)

Get yourself some espadrilles

I know. I don’t wear ’em either. But these are some kickin’ kicks. Handmade on the premises, the espadrilles at La Manual Alpargatera come in everything from the traditional flats to crimson gladiator wedges. I bought two pairs and love them like my future children. Who will also, presumably, provide little in the way of arch support.

Liquor

Some restaurants, especially the ones on the water that serve that day’s fresh catch, drop off bottles of clear liquor and shot glasses at your table after you’ve finished eating. Have some. It’s a digestif made out of fruit and gasoline. You’ll like it, especially if you’ve just had half a bottle of wine with dinner. In fact, you’ll like it so much that you’ll swing by the grocery the next day and buy a bottle for $7 to bring home with you. The stuff is terrible but highly addictive.

Vincon

Vincon is a design shop a few blocks north of Placa de Catalunya and worth a visit, if only to buy a few gifts and wish you had that much money to spend on a minimalist bassinet your baby’s going to outgrow in 20 minutes. The place is huge and offers everything from rubber handbags molded to look like roosting hens to high-end kitchenware to Pantone luggage.

Sant Felip Neri Square

Round behind Barcelona Cathedral in the Born neighborhood is a tiny square with a small café outside a wildly expensive hotel. There’s a lovely tree, a fountain, it’s off the beaten path and the café con leche is perfect. While you bask in the afternoon sun, you can think sad thoughts about the bullet holes in the church wall across from you. Location here.

What You Could Do

Tibidabo

We didn’t re-visit Tibidabo this time, but it’s worth a trip after you’ve been up Montjuic, that is, which is a nicer mountain. Tibidabo does have better views though, given that it’s much, much higher. Drive, if you have access to wheels, and you can stop at various points on the way up or down the hill to take photos. Otherwise, public transport will get you there and you can visit the highly impressive Temple de Sagrat Cor church, wander the park, sample the amusement rides which have inexplicably been installed next to the cathedral and generally take in the sun and altitude. (Panorama preview here.)

Museu d’Historia de la Ciutat

The History of the City Museum is not gripping and was, for me, a little tedious, but it does allow you to go underground and view excavated Roman ruins still laid out as they were found. Streets, laundries, wineries and so on lie under suspended pathways beneath modern Barcelona. If you – or your kid – are into archeology, you’ll like it here. (Their web site is spectacularly unhelpful. Check your guide book.)

Museu d’Art Contemporani & Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona

MACBA/CCCB. If you’re an artist, you should hit MACBA, but if you’re not, you, like us, will think that the focus on modern art of 30 years ago feels more archival than interesting. What was cutting edge video collage in 1973 does not feel like classic art now: it feels, sadly, expired. I’m all for a white building though, and the current exhibition of “what we’ve got in the basement” won’t go on forever. (Photo to the left is Lawrence Weiner’s, Some Objects of Desire, 2004.)

What You Can Totally Miss

La Rambla

I think all the guide books are high when they recommend La Rambla as a must-see in Barcelona. It is distinctly an “avoid it if at all possible” on my list, crammed as it is with foreigners, pickpockets and the worst of the worst of tourist-pandering shops and restaurants. If you want the rambla experience (trees, cafes, shops), get off the subway at Placa de Catalunya and walk north on Passeig de Gràcia or Rambla Catalunya.

Corte Inglés

Again with the crack-smoking by the guide book editors, Corte Inglés, the biggest department store in Barcelona, is a mess. Yeah, it has a little bit of everything, but it also has mostly nothing. If you want the clothes, go to the shops themselves: Mexx, Kookai and Desigual all have stores elsewhere in the city with better selections than the sub-boutiques crammed into Corte Inglés. The whole Corte Inglés experience was like going to a pointless WalMart masquerading as a Macy’s. (One exception: the basement of the location in Placa de Catalunya has a comprehensive drugstore for buying only-sold-in-Europe products, and a fully stocked grocery store.)

Anything Olympics-related.

Unless, of course, you’re a future Olympian. In which case, you might have a word with them about using the track for a couple of laps.

Camper shoes

I don’t understand the appeal of Campers. They’re wide, unflattering and not even a little bit chic. I thought maybe I’d missed their point because I had only seen the styles they export to the United States. Turns out they export all their styles to the United States and they cost just as much in the city that spawned them as they do in the States. Still stumped.

Barcelona: The Food

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When I travel, I tend to be a low-effort locavore. That is, I eat at places that are directly in front of me. Because I try to avoid tourist districts as much as possible, this approach has generally worked out. It never lands me at McDonalds and rarely at overpriced tourist traps that serve watered down, poorly made versions of local specialities.

My selection process below the district level is random. Since I’m not especially into food as a hobby, I don’t go out of my way to eat at well-reviewed places. If I’m already in the neighborhood or someone else has sorted it out, great. Otherwise, I wing it: concierge recommendations are fine, maybe a quick audit in a guide book, but otherwise, c’est la vie. Traveling with me would drive a gourmet nuts, I’m sure.

It surprised me then, when I was thinking about the best part of our recent trip to Barcelona, that the food we had was at the top of the list. We had some really excellent meals, hit some superb, small restaurants, and brought back more food than anything else. Go figure.

Fideuà

It’s pronounced fee-day-WAH. As in, “WAH-hoo!”

The short description is “paella with capellini instead of rice.” (For a longer, more poetic description, check out Traveler’s Lunchbox.) I’ve been to Barcelona four times before and managed to miss this local fisherman’s dish. And Lord, what have I been missing! It’s richer in flavor than any paella I’ve ever had and the noodles make my day. It’s got all the excellent paella features – shellfish, finned fish, crusty bits on the top and bottom – but with pasta, which, to my mind, is always better than rice.

The first and best one we had was at La Fonda in Porto Olimpico. Don’t get all squeamish about heading to a brightly lit restaurant on a pier that’s also home to several bars and nightclubs. Yes, this place will look like your worst nightmare, but as long as you stick with the fideuà, you’re golden.

They’ll try and sell you on their grilled seafood plates by bringing your prospective dinner – live lobsters, crayfish, etc. – by the table to look you in the eye before their demise. This freaks me out – I’ve never been able to cook a lobster – and the resulting plate o’ ocean ordered by a companion just was not that tasty, so I felt justified in my resistance.

R and I got fideuà for two (they make you your own pan) and it was massive, so go hungry or order conservatively. Call ahead for reservations to get a table in a good spot if you’re going during prime dinner hours (around 9:30). Showing up also works, but you might end up on the edges of the outdoor room.

Tapas

Of course, right? You can’t not have tapas in Spain and the restaurant options are endless, so where should you go?

Santa Maria, started and staffed by veterans of El Bulli, offers true small plates and all of them are either innovative or just plain better than what’s usually on offer. No patatas bravas or grilled chorizo for these guys, but what you get instead is super-flavored and interesting. I didn’t love everything we ordered – the Dracula dessert parfait with the equivalent of pop rocks crossed the line from “cool” into “unsuccessful” – but it doesn’t matter when they’re small plates. How bad can something that’s 3″x3″ be? We just ordered more of what we loved. The mussels and the fried tuna sushi roll were standouts. I’d go back in a heartbeat.

The place is small, so going late, as we did, is a good bet, unless you have a party of six or more, in which case you can reserve. We only paid 70+ euros for five people at dinner, which seems extraordinarily inexpensive for a place like this.

More info in the Times Online’s review.

Incidentally, Santa Maria has a sister restaurant, Santa, around the corner where we saw Puyol, the Barcelona soccer star, having dinner with too many sexy ladies and too much gel in his curls to look classy and not trashy, but whatever. If you’ve just won the European Championships, I guess you can be forgiven some lapses in taste.

Taller Tapas on Calle de l’Argenteria in the Born district is the opposite end of the tapas spectrum: a small chain that serves conventional tapas in a high-traffic historic district. Good to know about if you’re visiting museums or churches in the area or shopping of an afternoon. Solid offerings, friendly service and recommended by locals. Make sure you try the ham croquettes.

Gràcia district

Be aware that the restaurants in Gràcia are tiny and gritty-hip. So don’t plan on breaking out your Jimmy Choo’s and a party of twelve. You’ll never get in and you’ll look idiotic while finding that out.

Bodega Manolo was the best and most interesting place we ate in Barcelona. Not because it was haute cuisine or super cool but because the food was innovative and unbelievably tasty without being remotely pretentious. Also, the place is ludicrously local, down to the highly restricted hours (9-11 Fri-Sun), the tiny size (seats maybe 30), and the waitress in jogging pants. The barrels of wine lining the side wall aren’t some version of country decor. They’re actually being stored there. As a city dweller in a too-small apartment, I can relate to that. I just wish this team worked in our kitchen.

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Get everything on the appetizer menu to start. Seriously. Grilled asparagus, paper-thin ham with tomatoes, and, listen up, the potato chips in a pile of indeterminate gratin. I’m not kidding. It’s potato chips with peppers, onions, some kind of ungodly flavorful sauce and, of course, cheese. Don’t laugh. It’s my new favorite thing. I don’t care if you’re on a diet or leery of the chips thing. Order it. You’ll thank me.

Dinner itself was almost an afterthought. Their specialty is a bacalla (salted cod) dish which almost everyone ordered and liked. I got the lighter fish dish which was also wonderful and easier to eat after nine pounds of appetizers. R’s cousin (who weighs about as much as Keira Knightley) got foie gras and apples which was predictably hyper rich and necessarily shared around. I think that dish might be illegal in the States.

Dessert, for me, was the cheese plate, which, in a place like this, you get and you eat and you don’t ask questions. There’s no cheese card, no description of the origins and whether the little sheeps are grass-fed. This is not Whole Foods. This is Spain. It was excellent. I’ll leave it at that.

Bodega Manolo: no credit cards, dinner only, reservations a must
Torrent de les Flors, 101, Phone: 93-284 43 77
Thurs-Sat only, 9-11PM (you can stay later but the kitchen closes at 11)

I don’t know anyone who thinks of Spain and sushi in the same sentence, but if you’re in the mood, hit one of Kibuka‘s two locations, both in Gràcia. Relatives (local) and our bartender at the hotel both recommended it and weren’t wrong.

Living in San Francisco, where sushi is plentiful and high-quality, I didn’t need to go to Spain to get a raw fish fix, but after days of noodles, ham and croquettes, cold fresh fish with rice was a welcome break. We ordered the usual array of special rolls – shrimp, salmon, tuna – and everything was quite good. Don’t expect a lot of original combos, but, definitely, if you’re overstuffed with carbs and meat from other Spanish meals or if you live somewhere where it’s tough to get good sushi, Kibuka’s your place.

Fair warning: get there by 9PM to make sure you get a table. They don’t take reservations and if you miss their first seating, you’ll wait until 11.

Note: Fideuà does not photograph well. Hence, that pretty photo above is from Socarrat, the relatively new paella bar in New York that I’m dying to visit. I hear it’s great, so if you can’t get to Barcelona, perhaps your maiden fideuà could be in Manhattan.

Barcelona: Timing Is Everything

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Travel Planning (Spanish edition):

  1. Make a schedule for when you want to go where.
  2. Sit quietly for a few moments to prepare yourself for the coming disappointment.
  3. Sharpen your #2 pencil.
  4. Begin the math section.

First, you’ll have to account for the nine hour time difference and resulting dose of jet lag, so you have to make a cut at the beginning of the day to account for the time it will take you to wake up, realize how completely exhausted you still are, berate yourself for not feeling fit and getting up early on vacation so you can go do exciting things, and then stumble about looking for caffeine. (This step can be skipped if you are a naturally laid back person or have an inexplicably sunny disposition. For some reason, on this trip, for the first time, I was also able to skip this step, but it’s best to plan it into the schedule, just in case.)

Second, check the day of the week. If you are planning on going to any museums, they are usually closed on Mondays. Except when they’re closed on Tuesdays. Or Sundays. If they do open on Sunday, chances are they will close again by 2:30 which should be right about the time you’ve sorted out the jet lag/caffeine step and gotten some morning ham into you.

If you’re planning on doing any shopping, similar – but different – rules apply. Most small stores are closed on Sundays. Unless they’re not. In which case, they might take Monday off.

Third, remember that sometimes places are open late on a specific day. But since you don’t speak the language, you will not be able to tell which day that is ahead of time. If you are me (and do speak the language, but let’s keep that quiet for now), you see “21:30” listed as the closing time on Thursday and, in a feat of delusional optimism, believe that the Fundacio Miro closes at 21:30 every day. This will cause you to save up your visit for the end of the last day of the trip (a Tuesday), cycle to the funicular up Montjuic to arrive at the museum at 18:57 and be told by the Lurch-like guard that they actually close at 19:00. I recommend against this approach.

Let’s pause here while you reconfigure your entire schedule around days of the week and closing hours.

Done? Good.

Go get your eraser and some comfortable walking shoes.

Even though you know about it and maybe even have envied it from afar as you droop forward over your keyboard every afternoon around 1:00PM, you have forgotten to factor in siesta. Depending on the store, museum, person or activity, siesta will extend for a few hours anytime between 1:00 and 5:30. It’s a safe bet that it will be at least 2:00 – 4:30.

Reconcile yourself to the fact that, despite your misconception that you have planned carefully, you will often arrive at your destination on the correct day, before evening closing time, and face a shuttered edifice. This will be because the nice people have gone home to take a nap. You should probably go and do the same. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

This page has links to the access hours for some of major attractions in Barcelona. Good luck!

Barcelona: The Return

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All my Barcelona notes are going to be out of order because, well, I’m back and I just can’t manage trying to post-date all the things I noted and did, so we’ll have to backtrack together.

It’s an odd thing, the being back. It’s grey summer in San Francisco, for one, and not sunny and 72, which was the uniform forecast for every one of my ten days in Spain. Ah, San Francisco, you frigid bastard. At least the two places share a certain seasonal predictability.

The oddity is exacerbated by the full 26 hours it took to get from Barcelona to San Francisco. That seems excessive in this day and age, no? Shouldn’t there be some kind of teleportation available? Or at least a slide of some sort, maybe one of those tube slides that ends in a big swimming pool of multicolored balls. An Ikea/Chuck E. Cheese type re-entry would take the edge off the jet lag, I’d think.

Here’s the oddest thing about being back: aside from the surreal exhaustion, I’m not all that upset to be home.

And by “home” I don’t mean “in San Francisco” but “back in my apartment hanging about with R and my writing at an ungodly 5AM.” (Even after eight years I can’t bring myself to call California home. Me and the west coast are an unfortunate mismatch, like lasagna and motor oil. They both have their place but it’s probably not together.)

Re-entry used to leave me unhappy and ragged, and included the occasional crying jag on the plane or the day before in some pretty park over a light lunch. (I don’t recommend that last as a way to end your time on holiday. I can say with authority that the summery appeal of ripe cantaloupe with slivers of prosciutto is significantly undermined when one of you is sniffling about the meaning of life into her napkin.)

Partly, I was the same as everyone else: leaving vacation behind for early morning commutes and dentist appointments is no pleasure. But my displeasure was magnified because I was coming back to San Francisco, a city I can’t seem to like, and because I was returning to a series of jobs that held no permanent grip on my interest.

Flying into SFO felt like I was being suffocated: I’d moved to a place where I couldn’t take any air into my lungs without taking everything I’d never aspired to with it. Like the belief that you’re entitled to have your own garage when you live in a city, that being laid back is a virtue, that BART’s nine stations in the city limits count as a subway system, that it’s OK for a driver to stop dead in traffic when she’s missed her turn, that a city without at least one world class theater counts as having a significant cultural profile, that garlic ice cream is not an affront to garlic and ice cream. And on and on and on.

I felt like I’d accidentally moved to a small town, with all its silent bourgeois expectations and pressures, after swearing I’d never live in one again. It made me not a little ill.

Now it’s different. To a large extent, I’ve given up on San Francisco. It is what it is. It’s always going to be provincial and think that it’s not, and I’m never going to love its hippie soul or its yuppie reality. That’s OK. As long as I can write here and be with R, everything’s all right.

The writing makes the material, surprising difference. When I lived in New York and wasn’t writing for a living, at least I was where I felt I belonged and was supported by a striving environment. Not so here. When I was part of the Silicon Valley machine, I was afraid that the sheer volume of days spent in a city so uninterested in what makes me who I am, so unlike who I am, pretending to be someone I am not, might actually add up to my being someone I am not.

Now that I’m writing, that anxiety has dissipated. I’m here at my desk in the unwelcome grey, surrounded by unopened mail, illegally imported cheese, and customs forms fixated on swine flu, and I’m not devastated. In fact, I’m glad to be back and writing. Excellent news all around, yeah?

(Especially about the cheese. Because that could have meant jail time. Which would have meant limited access to cheese. And nobody wins there.)