Monday, November 29, 2010

The Story of El Balcon

Meet Dani.
He's the charming guy who owns the bar next-door to our apartment.  It is, or was, called the Balcon de Aquiles.  But more on that later.

It took us almost an entire month to venture inside the Balcon for this graphic image graced the front window.  Would you want to see this photo every time you opened your front door?

But finally, we decided to give our neighbors a chance and then never looked back.  Ted or myself or both visited the Balcon every single day of October and November.  Sometimes just to say "Hola" but other times to stay all night.

Dani and his friends - Pedro, Fernando, Jano and Marcial - were very welcoming to us and especially patient with our broken Spanish. This is Marcial, probably telling a funny story.

Later we found out that the graphic image in the window was of a bearded man drinking water sideways.  Ha!  Silly of us for being so square.

Since the season of giving thanks was upon us, either Ted or I had the idea of throwing a grand Thanksgiving feast for all our new Spanish pals at the Balcon. But then we realized there were many people who had shown us kindness when we first arrived.  

So, we asked Dani if we could invite twenty people to a Dia de Gracia event at the Balcon since all those people definitely would not fit in our tiny apartment.

Dani, being the gem that he is, agreed to our plan, but his response was bittersweet:

He was being forced to close the Balcon the very same day we wanted to have a the feast.  A malcontent neighbor had called the police one too many times for noise issues on the bar. We were devastated.  

The Balcon had already become a special place where we saw friends, spoke Spanish and laughed a lot.  When everything seemed wrong and out of place in Spain, we looked forward to dropping in on the Balcon to hear the latest.

Fast forward to the Dia de Gracia. Here is Ted tweezing out the feathers of the 18-pound bird, later nicknamed "Flor."

And here is Pau and Xavi trying to imagine what it's like to be "Thanksgiving Full":

The obligatory photo of the table pre-meal:

 Our Spanish friends were thrilled to get up close and personal with the holiday they had seen so many times depicted in American Film.

"Wow, what skill he has carving," they said.  

Post turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, green beans, pear salad (cranberries don't exist in Spain) and sweet potato pie, everyone was in excellent spirits:

It was an incredible day and felt a whole lot like a traditional Thanksgiving at home, even though we've only known these people a couple of months. 

There was no time for tryptophan sluggishness as the festivities quickly turned into a raucous party lasting well into the wee hours of the morning. The neighborhood came to pay their respects to Dani and the Balcon (and make as much noise as possible for the very last time).

El Balcon was fantastic while it lasted, and maybe it's for the better since, well, one probably shouldn't spend quite so much time in bars. Anyway, the best part of it was meeting really great people we'd otherwise never have met. And to have learned how nice it is to experience the kindness of strangers in a strange land.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Happy Fall!

I suppose all of you back home are busy preparing for Thanksgiving - traveling to see loved-ones, buying all the yukons, yams, cranberries, green beans and fat, juicy Butterballs (or WillyBirds) you can get your grubby little hands on.  Maybe  you've been watching American football or jumping in piles of autumn leaves.

Ah, how I miss the smell of autumn leaves.  There are no trees in Barcelona, or very few, and thus no leaves.  Tis strange. 

Christmas is indeed on it's way, yet they don't even celebrate Santa Claus here, can you believe it!?!  The songs we sung as kids about Santa going all over the world to deliver presents were lies!  I'm still in shock.

Here, the Catalans celebrate Caga Tio, which translates to "Pooing Log" or "Shitting Stick".  Yes, you read that correctly.  This unbelievable Christmas tradition warrants a blog post of it's own.  Stay tuned.

In Barcelona, you know it's Fall when....
Panellets, marzipan covered with pine nuts, appear in the pastry shops. !Que rico!

Little huts where people sell baked yams and chestnuts roasted over an open flame, crop up on the street:

Well maybe the smell of warm yams and chestnuts is nice enough to compete with that of autumn leaves.

And the trendy girls put on their summer short shorts over tights when it's freezing cold outside! I realize this is a major trend happening all over the world (at least my sources have confirmed sightings in Tokyo, San Paulo, the East Village, Houston and San Francisco), but frankly, I don't get the concept.  It's cold!  Cover yourself up!

Or maybe I'm just jealous. As a clothes-hoarder, I've saved a pair of roll-up jean shorts since 1992 for a fashion occasion such as this, but now they are locked up tight in my storage unit far away.  Oh well.

Happy Fall!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

A Dali Weekend

A few weekends ago, we rented a car and headed north to explore the most north-east region of Spain, Alt Emporda, a magical place where many prominent artists including Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso have called home.

With the dramatic rocky landscapes, proximity to the Medeterrainian sea, and very strong wind - you can literally feel inspiration.

I've always been intrigued by the colorful, dream-like artworks of Dali, but they also seemed obscure, out-of reach.

Gala Dali

After touring the extensive collection of paintings, sculptures, installations and video art at the Dali Theatre Museum in Figueres, which Dali himself helped design before his death in 1989 (he was prolific), I still don't understand the artist or his intentions. The museum had an obvious lack of information - no audio tours, no notes on the art, no pamphlets detailing his life.

I read somewhere that whenever Dali was asked about the meaning of his art, he gave a completely different answer each time, thus igniting controversy among his critics.  I assume he wanted the viewer to decide for herself what the art meant, or maybe the art truly had a different meaning every time he contemplated it.  

After viewing at hundreds of his artworks all at once, I became comforted by them -  I am not the only one who sees crazy, sensual, scary, mixed-up, sometimes sadistic, sometimes childish images in dreams, thoughts and feelings.  His works express so many emotions and yet nothing at all tangible.

Sting Caused by the Flight of a Bee

Similarly, Alt Emporada is filled with a vibrant, unexplainable energy yet it is completely desolate. Maybe the always prevalent wind which carved the rocks gives the place a secret life.  Exploring the region by foot provided more insight into the artworks of Dali.

We hiked over the jagged rocks of Cap De Crues, an enchanting national park by the sea:

The Specter of Sex Appeal

And we found secret caverns:

Large mural inside the Theatre Museum:

Here is a view of Cadaques, a stifling small, yet romantic, town of angular white buildings.  It doesn't seem to have changed since Dali and Picasso lived here in the 1930's:


Portlligat, also isolated, is the bay near Cadaques where Dali and Gala worked. It also seems to have remained the same over the years:

Woman at the Window 
(my favorite):

Friday, November 19, 2010

Hooray, Nuria!

We've already alluded to the party-proficiency of the Spanish people.  From the worker's strike "parties" to the boisterous, outdoor festivals, to the celebrations before, during and after futbol games, the Spanish take time to acknowledge the events, both important and trivial, that life brings. 

I really dig this aspect of the culture and couldn't have appreciated it more yesterday during our friend Nuria's thesis defense. Like Ted, Nuria just completed five intense years of research and writing in the field of freshwater ecology.

The day began at 11AM when she defended her thesis (in Catalan, Spanish and English, no less) to a room full of friends, family, colleagues and professors plus a tribunal of experts.

Here is Nuria moments after she was officially declared a "doctora."

Then began the party.
Her family set out an amazing spread of food and wine from their home. It was a classic Spanish buffet lunch with jamon, tortilla, acetunas (olives) and vino tinto.

As we enjoyed the food, her colleagues roasted her with creative gifts: an interactive skit, a humorous home-made film, a comic book, tickets to concerts, and a musical quiz comparing her research to popular songs. It was quite touching to see how the academic community supported her work and were truly involved with her PhD experience.  During all this silliness, very few people rushed off to get back to work.

Once the plates were empty, about thirty people headed outside for an afternoon coffee.

And when the coffee was gone, bottles of muscat and aguardiente magically appeared to fill the cups.

The party continued through the evening at a local bar:

And late into the night, we concluded the festivities with Nuria's favorite, Gin tonics and cucumber, followed by a much needed egg-cheese-and-potatoes snack at our house.

This is all to say that yesterday was an all-day event and many people took the day off to celebrate with her. It felt right to recognize the conclusion of an important life experience and gratifying to commemorate the occasion with a big-ole party.

Congratulations Nuria!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Mes-si, Mes-si, Me-si!

Last week we had the chance to go to a game at Camp Nou, the famous home of FC Barcelona, arguably the best soccer team in the world today. In 2009, FC Barca became the first club in Spain to win all six major football competitions, including La Liga, Copa del Ray, Champions League, Spanish Super Cup, UEFA Super Cup, and FIFA Club World Cup. Their players also featured prominently on Spain's national team that brought home the FIFA World Cup from South Africa in 2010!

The 100,000-seat Camp Nou make it the largest stadium Europe. Games are regularly sold out, but was only about half-full last Wednesday at 10PM start time. Barca was playing a match in the Spanish Copa del Rey against AD Ceuta, one of the weaker teams in the league. (For you geography buffs, Ceuta is an autonomous Spanish city located on the northern tip of Africa on the Straight of Gibraltar.) But, the fairly low attendance meant we were able to score some great seats without breaking the bank!

Barcelona was the heavy favorite, so the first half featured players from their second team squad. They did not disappoint and put up 2 quick goals within the first 10 minutes of the game. It was amazing how hard they played and you could really tell they were gunning for a spot on the first team!

At half-time, our guys were up 2-1. Barca was dominating, but they had yet to score the decisive third goal to put Ceuta away.

About 15 minutes into the second half, an audible murmur spread through crowd. Was it true? YES! Messi was warming up! Lionel Messi is Barcelona's star striker, who has already scored over 50 goals in the 2010 season. As he emerged onto the field, the entire stadium went bananas,
chanting "Mes-si, Mes-si, Mes-si!"

Stepping onto the pitch, he was so non-nonchalant, like he was out for an evening stroll.  He seemed completely unaware that he had captured the attention of every fan in the stadium.
The crowd unanimously "aahed" or "oohed" when ever he touched the ball,
as if he were the only person on the field. 

Finally, he was positioned perfectly in front of the goal when he received the ball. Time slowed as he gracefully weaved in and out of opponents before gently tapping the ball towards the left pocket.
There was no doubt in anyone's mind of the impending goal.  

Again, the fans went mad: "Mes-si, Mes-si, Mes-si!"

It was just amazing how his presence changed the game, opening up opportunities for other players. With another quick goal assist from Messi, Barcelona went on to blow out AD Ceuta 5-1.

It's hard not to become a FC Barca fan living here and we're already gearing up for the biggest game of the season against Real Madrid on November 29. Real Madrid is easy club hate, and like the LA Lakers, they're rich, cocky, and filled with great talent. But the rivalry goes much beyond that and touches on deep political rifts in the county.

Barcelona fans truly consider games against Real Madrid as representative of their larger struggle for Catalan independence from Spain, and a victory against Madrid is a valued opportunity to express their unwillingness to relent to the capital city!

We'll be finding a spot in a packed bar on Nov 29 (as we couldn't afford the 600 Euro, or $1000, minimum ticket price) and will let you know how it goes! 

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Update from Izzy

Now that you know about Ted's research, you may be wondering what I do all day. Well, I had planned on sipping sangria, going to cultural events and partying the whole time, but it hasn't exactly worked out that way.

 First and foremost, I am focusing on learning Spanish. My study of the language has come in fits and starts throughout my life, but now I finally have the time to immerse myself.  A copy of the latest edition of LaVanguardia and a cortado (espresso shot with a little milk, pictured below) has become an indispensable part of my morning. 

In addition to a daily Spanish class, I've had fun participating in intercambios, or "internet dates" as Ted calls them.  I meet regularly with my two "partners" and we take turns speaking in Spanish and English. (And for those of you who are curious about Catalan, it's the native language of the region and sounds like a mix of Spanish, French, and Portuguese. I've been picking up a few words here and there, but have decided to focus on Spanish before taking on another language.)

Also, I found an incredible circus gym that is completely free! You don't even sign a waiver to train. It's unreal. Nothing like this would EVER be allowed to happen in the States. Interestingly, the place is full of talented performers who know what they are doing and follow all the proper safetty procedures. In addition to the standard circus aparatuses, there's a flying trapeze rig, a tightrope, two trampolines, a teetotatter, a cloud swing and a perch. Wow.  

The Macabra has been a great place to meet people and pick up new aerial tricks.
One of my favorite experiences was discussing the technicalities of Russian versus French style beats (swinging under the trapeze). I happened to study from a Russian teacher in San Francisco, while my new pal from Argentina learned from the French. It's been a blast learning from each other.

Of course, I've also been doing lots of yoga, and it too, is very different here.
First, studios require that all students matriculate so there is no such thing as a "drop-in." As a result, students rarely miss a class and take their yoga very seriously.

I've also been shocked at how hard teachers are willing to push their students. The concept of "listen to your body" that is so prevalent in California yoga studios doesn't seem to resonate here. In a recent Hatha class, a teacher actually stood on my butt during Hanamanasana (the splits) and pushed my hips so far back during Halasana (plow pose) that I thought my neck was going to crack. It didn't. And though it gave me quite a shock, I survived and actually didn't really mind the pain. But it's nothing like what happens where I come from.

I've also been going to a Mysore studio to practice the primary series of Ashtanga Yoga, which I've wanted to do for a long time.

Ashtanga is a series of poses and motions combined with a particular breathing pattern, established by Pattabhi Jois in the 1930s.

It's a very different experience from most yoga practices in that students go through a pre-defined set of poses, at their own pace, with occasional adjustments from a teacher. If you are unable to do the poses in a precise manner and the correct sequence, you are asked to leave and come back when you know it! Although the environment can be intense, the sound of a full room of practitioners doing ujjayi breathing is extremely calming and meditative.

 My goal is to start teaching yoga in Spanish in January.

Finally, I am still working as the art curator for the Great Wall of Oakland, which has been a great opportunity to stay involved with the art world and maintain a connection with our old community.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Update From Dr. Ted

Some of you blog-followers may have wondered, "What exactly is Ted doing for work?" Well, here's your answer.

My Fulbright sponsor, Narcis Prat, professor at the University of Barcelona in the Department of Ecology, does research on rivers in Spain and has set me up in a little office for visiting scholars at the University, where I go most everyday to work on my computer and meet with other researchers.

I've been busy trying to get my dissertation chapters out for publication but have also started on a few new projects.

One study investigates the effects of water pollution on stream insect communities. It's a bit of a departure from my PhD research in northern California (on the impacts of vineyard water management on fish), but has provided an excellent opportunity to conduct a mesocosm study.

What's a mesocosm, you ask? 
A mesocosm is an experimental system that simulates real-life conditions as closely as possible, but allows for manipulation of environmental factors to test specific hypotheses.

I'll let that sink in for a second...OK.

Basically, we've constructed a system of artificial stream channels that support a biotic community similar to that of the 'natural' river. We can then manipulate the quantity or quality of water that passes through the channels to quantify the effects, if any, that our treatment has on the bugs.

Here's what it looks like.

Here's how it works.

First, we go and collect cobbles from the river in a reach that is in relatively good condition. If you look closely, you'll see that the river rocks are teaming with life!

Then we carefully place the rocks in the artificial channels.

There is a pump that draws water from the river into a cistern, which is then used to maintain a constant flow through each of the channels.

We let the bug community 'get settled' into their new environment for a week or two. The channels aren't the same as the river, but in a truly European fashion, the bugs don't seem to mind the minimalist style of the PVC drain pipes that they now call home.

Now the fun begins.

In each set of channels, there's a secondary pipe through which we can introduce, well, anything we want!  This month, we're looking at the effects of increased salt concentrations. There are a series of salt mines (see photo below) downstream of our site and sampling from the river suggests that runoff from the mines could be wiping out a lot of the sensitive species that live there. So we've decided to do an aquatic toxicology study in our mesocosm to look at how the insect community responds to different levels of salt in the water.

I'll let you know how it works out.

Of course we expect to see a big change in the channel with the highest salt concentration, but the effects of the intermediate treatments are what we're most interested in. And by conclusively (within 95% confidence intervals) demonstrating the negative effects of the salt mine runoff, the results of our published study should put a little more pressure on the powers-that-be to do a better job regulating the mining industry.

That's the idea, anyhow.

I'm also working on another project with the Catalan Water Agency, comparing aspects of the Spanish system of water management to California's, but more on that later...

Needless to say, there's a lot of interesting work to be done here.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

All Saint's Day: Excursion to Montserrat

In Spain, the big holiday this time of year is All Saint's Day, November 1, when all work is suspended in honor of those who came before.  To celebrate the occasion, we went to Montserrat, a monastery built high in the mountains overlooking the Catalan plains.  

The holy site has been in use by Catholic monks since the 9th century. 

We missed the early morning prayer services but went hiking around these incredible rock formations.

Montserrat literally means "serrated mountain" but millions of years ago it was the bottom of a river delta.  When the Balearic Continent submerged (can anyone explain this phenomenon?), these sedimentary rock formations were left, and then the wind and other natural forces continued to shape these odd conglomerates of rock. 

That is all to say, there are lots of fantastic toe holds for climbing.

 At the top of Saint Jerome, one of the most holy places in all of Catalonia, Team Barce said some prayers for the elections happening in the USA.

The place became even more magical as the sun set.

Here is a peek inside the Basilica.

...and the Ave Maria Path where people light candles for deceased loved ones.

In other very exciting news, our first niece was born on Halloween!

Charlotte Elisabeth Wright
October 31, 2010
5 lbs, 2 oz

Perfect in every way, she was born to parents, Dara and Kenneth Wright, and big brother, Owen.  I guess we weren't the only ones missed out on Trick-or-Treating this year.  Poor little pirate in the puffy shirt...

And just because I'm crazy about my nephews, here is Callum dressed as an elephant:

Can you imagine anything cuter?  
Props to Grandma, aka "MawMaw", for the awesome costumes.