Saturday, September 28, 2013

Montserrat, or how to feel totally insignificant and supremely divine in one day

Dia tres.

At this point in our trip, I pretty much accepted the fact that I had no bearings whatsoever in the city. I generally have a pretty good rule about finding my way around any given place: go against my directional instincts. Invariably, when I exit a subway station, I am pulled toward a certain direction and invariably, it is the complete opposite direction of where I need to go. Over the years I have harnessed this power so by going in the opposite direction, I get there. However, considering that I was unable to pay attention to any direction, whether instinctual or the opposite in Barcelona, I just followed Rashish, a human compass. And really I was having such a wonderful time that while I was lost most of the time, I was not directionless.

This was the case as we made our way to the train station to hop on a train to Montserrat. A quick word about the railways in the three major foreign cities I've used them: they make no sense. As was the case in Paris finding the ticket booth, purchasing the correct tickets and then figuring out the schedule for a train that went from the city center to an outlying area was intensely confusing. In addition, harried, because despite leaving relatively on time, we arrived to the station late. Also, the first trip injury happened on the way when Lorraine banged her hand really hard into one of the train turnstiles, rendering it bruised and swollen. (PSA: don't google images of swollen hands. Save yourself.)

Thankfully the train was running a few minutes late. Or maybe it wasn't, I don't know because the schedule was not clear, there was no "we are running late announcement" and since we may have been drinking the night before, there was listlessness to our not finding out. Never mind that, we made it.

The train ride was about 40 minutes or so which, considering how big and boisterous the city of Barcelona is and conversely how enormous and peaceful Montserrat is, is pretty damn remarkable.
Nancy was really the one who planned this sojourn and I knew nothing about the place before seeing it but I am so glad I went along on this trip. A cable car ride is required to get to even the base of the hiking trails on any point of the mountain and then there are two additional funiculars to get to even higher levels not accessible on foot. In fact, Montserrat has so many peaks that it remains unclear to me if we ever got to the very top. I don't think so since I remember at what we all decided was as far as we would go and looking up to something even higher. I'm not going to lie, I was humbled, awed, afraid, tired, elated, pacific and insignificant all at the same time during various parts of this journey up the (halfway/mostly?) mountain. For some perspective, here is a shot I got of the cable car that takes you from the train station to the base of the hiking trails:

The eensy yellow thing creeps up at quite a clip.

So that experience was humbling in itself. I think along the way we were saying hypothetical last words should the cable snap. "I regret nothing." "Tell my mom I love her." "Tell my mom she's totes deese." You get the picture.

Though this is not my picture, it may as well be since I'm pretty sure we all looked like that when we got off the cable car:

A couple of us peered over the side and saw the tiniest grey cat just hanging out at the bottom of the mountain. We were all "Awww, how cute." He rewarded our adulation by vomiting in the most dramatic fashion. I kind of want a tshirt that says "I climbed Montserrat and saw a cat puke." Poor mountain kitty.

When we got to the top we were all pretty hungry, despite the fact that some of us dined on crappy vendy snacks, one of which came with a temporary tattoo of a lady bug that Jason rocked on his neck. (I still giggle at the thought that passerby and fellow tourists thought he had an actual lady bug neck tattoo.) There is a tiny town on that level of the mountain with, apparently, only one big restaurant. It was hot and packed full of people and I just picked the easiest thing I could find and we all sat down to eat. I probably would have gotten something with more protein in it had I realized the amount of uphill walking we were about to do but I think I was distracted by  having survived the cable car ride, the manic pace of the cafeteria style restaurant and the fact that no one cleans up after themselves in Spain. By that I mean, it is customary to just leave your plates where they are instead of taking them to the trash. That felt wrong to me each and every time. As wrong as just sitting at an open table instead of waiting for a host or not tipping, anyone. Not even taxis!

Anyway, we headed up.

The "hiking trail" was really made up of a mixture of dirt road and stones that had been laid by, presumably the monks who inhabit the Benedictine monastery that is located on Montserrat. Along various pathways there are also altars, statues, crucifixes, nooks built into the mountain sides where apparently reclusive monks used to live. Jason said he imagined that a lot of the stone work was part of an exercise in mediation and I thought about what it must be like to dedicate your life, your entire life to one long act of meditation. It was so isolated up there, even with all the tourists walking around and almost completely silent. It is difficult for me to imagine being able to focus on a task like prayer or laying stones or carving sculptures with this at your back

And yet at the same time, what better place to contemplate than with the constant reminder of one's firm place, glued to a little painted marble spinning senseless through an endless black sky. What better place to be reminded that the world is both bigger than anything we are and at the same time is completely contained within us. Them monks, they got it right. I saw a few people headed up the mountain with their yoga mats. Someday I would like to do yoga on top of a mountain.

At one point, I stopped to sit down on a landing and almost didn't complete the trail we were on. I was tired and lazy but eventually I  made my way up to this little chapel at the end of the trail. The altar was built into the mountain and looked like this:

And as you walked through to the other side of the building this was the view, a view that I'm pretty sure is one that your consciousness wakes up to right after you cross from this life into the next.

After going up to that chapel, I mistakenly thought it was the top. Turns out we were no where near the top. There were two funicular rides to different sides of the mountain, each with their own peaks and branching off trails. So yeah, no where near the top. We had purchased tickets on both funiculars so we went up the 2nd one.

Again, I was astounded that every top of everything seemed the top of it all only to turn around and see more up above. When we got to our highest point I remember turning around and seeing this:

I don't know if you can tell but there are people dotting the top ridge there. So it was possible to ascend even further. Also, I'm not sure if you can tell this either but we are little specs in a vast universe. Just saying.

By this point we were tired and hungry and ready to descend in the funicular inside of which was a group of other sweaty, tired tourists filming the descent through their iPads which, just don't do that. Just look with your unfiltered eyes at the majesty of the world and think about it. Stop recording everything.

We had to wait a bit for the train back to Barcelona and during the wait, I was tasked with making reservations for a nice paella dinner that night. I thought I accomplished this via the website but as I would later find out, I failed. They ask me to do ONE thing... that all ended up ok though. To wit:

We made it back to Barcelona and our respective apartments to change and get ready for dinner. We took the train to the neighborhood right near the water. It started to rain just as we got out onto the street but the rain in Barcelona at night was actually just romantic. There were tons of people walking around everywhere, not at all bothered by the rain. It didn't last very long anyway and no one really seemed to notice.

We got to the restaurant to be told that they never received our reservation but the wait would only be about 30  minutes. They didn't have a bar, which is weird but we went next door for some wine. I noticed the bartender because he, like nearly every native Spanish man I came across, was a fox. After he served our drinks he casually stepped from behind the bar and sat at the piano and proceeded to play a medley of jazzy tunes like it was his job. Maybe it was his job, I don't know but naturally this makes me think that every man in Spain is a sexy musician moonlighting as a bartender. Or vice versa. Or something.

Anyway, we went back next door and got seated near the kitchen, which was separated from the dining hall by only half a wall. You could watch the gigantic chefs' hats scurry to and fro. I drank a lot of wine so I remember the following:

I ate black rice with cuttlefish and it was fucking delicious.
I laughed a lot because I was with a group of naturally funny people, lubricated with wine.
We finished dinner at like, 1am because, you know, Barcelona.
We took a cab home and on the radio was the band Fun. which, thanks to some repeated and hilarious impersonations of songs about nephew's eyes, I now hate (whereas before, I merely disliked). And the cab ride was worth that long joke.

Writing about it now, almost two weeks later, I'm impressed with the balance of the day. By that I mean, it is normally easy for me to fall into existential panic on an everyday basis, much less when I'm suspended hundreds of feet in the air in a small yellow box, tethered to a single cable or seeing from a height and a distance how very small everything truly is and maybe there was a little of that going on. But to come back to a more grounded latitude and still finding beauty in a rainy night, or a piano playing bartender, savoring food and wine and being in the moment, all in spite of those old aimless feelings...well if that's the purpose and the meaning of all of us, then that's just fine, isn't it?

Monday, September 23, 2013

Came with the frame: Barcelona day 2 through pictures taken by others (mostly)

The time that has elapsed since my first entry about Barcelona and this one is something that could be described as "long ass" and I acknowledge that. However, I really think I was subconsciously waiting for the airless windowlessness of every day life to really settle back in so I would have no problem hearkening back to sunnier days. And so I open my souvenir notepad of travel notes (some of the most astutely scribbled notes in my long history of illegibility if you will. And. You. Will.) to tell the tale of Barcelona: day 2.

If I'm being completely honest, Barcelona did not immediately impress me the way, say, London first did or San Francisco. Even my one night in San Diego seemed to impress me in a more immediate way. However, I can't really trust any impressions given to a completely sleep deprived brain; it just wouldn't be fair. But by the end of day one I was well on my way to feeling the rhythm of the city, aided entirely by the group of people I was travelling with and the 3 euro wine. Always the wine.

We decided to do a Gaudi walk, which was to include both the Casa Mila, pictured here:

Not my photograph.

And one of the highlights of the entire trip for me, the Casa Battlo. After seeing the Sagrada Familia the day before, the natural yet intricately planned style of Gaudi was instantly recognizable and when I first saw both the Casa Mila and Casa Battlo, I was struck by how they both seemed to have naturally occurred in the shapes they were in. I really get the feeling that if architecture could just form out of the soil and grow organically, they would look like a Gaudi.

We didn't go inside the Casa Mila but went right up to Casa Battlo. As I said about the Sagrada, experiencing Gaudi's architecture is wholly sensory. Casa Battlo is no different, except the facade of the building looked like an organic part the world, a fantasy world. Here's a photograph, far superior to any of the ones I took:

This person had photography skillz. It was not me.

This building was designed and built for a family to live in and not, as I initially thought, an ossified, transformed version of a dragon that once roamed the earth. There is a story that circulates about the building that there is a dragon represented in the architecture but the only reason I think that story exists is because it would appear that it is obvious that a dragon is represented in the architecture.

Walking through the house was akin to jumping into a pond of clear, cold water and the curved lines that ebbed and flowed all over the house and the blue, cool colors everywhere felt like swimming through the building. This is a light well that is in the middle of the house:

I tried to take an identical picture but got my thumb instead.

So you can see that feeling like swimming is not a stretch. The light wells are bordered by tempered glass that if you stand in front of it, as the recorded guided tour advises, and move your head from side to side, it really does appear that you are underwater. Just because there are way better pictures on the internet of this house I'll include a snapshot of my favorite part of the house:

Leads either to the attic of the house or to an alternate dimension where flowers glow neon and the air is made of water.

In the center of the house is a little wooden elevator that Jason tried to convince me to ride with him. But because I'm a pansy and saw a sign that had stick figures of elderly, pregnant and wheelchaired people I refused. He went anyway and I instantly regretted my bechickened shit. I had to ask myself, as Jason would go on to say many times during the trip "What did we learn?" Well, I learned that I could have always faked being pregnant if we had gotten caught using the little glass and wooden lift of wonder.

I did not get inside of that.

The house was closing early on the day we were there and unfortunately the gift shop was closed by the time we got back to the bottom. Both Jason and I wanted to check out the gift shop and were obsessed with the notion that we could not. This is noteworthy because it comes back to haunt us later in the week. Stay tuned for that.

After a few hours in this magical place, we were all hungry so we went in search of tapas. The landlord of the apartment where Nancy and Jon stayed as well as the cab driver that drove my sister and I to our apartment both recommended the Ceverceria Catalana. They did good. We all won that afternoon. The best prize went to me, because I ordered a tapas sampler and I got my first bite of Pimentos de Padron which, quite frankly, made me a woman.

Do I look different?
That was also the first time I tried the famous Spanish croquettes filled with potato and ham and cheese and nom nom. I will spend the rest of my life trying to make tapas happen here stateside. And by "trying to make tapas happen here" I really mean I will search for nearby tapas restaurants and visit them if they already exist because I cannot be asked to try to make that delicious shit at home.

After lunching, we went for an aimless wander, one of my favorite vacation past times. I don't remember now if we were in search of something specific but I do know that we ended up at what we thought was the base of Montjuic but in retrospect, I have no idea what that massive hill was. I know only that we climbed it, the back way. And in the back way we passed stray dogs, gutter punks, a filthy abandoned mattress and no one else on earth. At the top of this hill, there was a cable car office that had, literally, two minutes before we reached it, closed. Apparently there was a cable car that would take one across the sky to some other high mountain top that, again, if someone from my group could shed light on this that would be great for my memory. (I drank a lot of wine on this trip.)
It didn't really matter that much since the views from the top of that mountain were spectacular. The sting of being denied a cable car ride was cooled by taking a seat at a nearby bar with a spectacular view of the city. I would soon understand that Barcelona has no shortage of places to see the entire city. All of us, apart from Rashish had swimming pools full of sangria. Rashish ate a three scoop sundae. Sangria and sundaes really do make a supper of champions and what else are you going to eat at the top of one of the most beautiful cities in Europe? Don't ask me how, but we managed to avoid the back way when we descended this mountain of destiny. Considering someone probably cooks meth back there at night, this was fortunate.

We decided collectively to make it an early night since the next day, we headed off to Montserrat. Now for THAT I have my own pictures. Mostly. I might use some came with the frames though. I guess you'll just have to read the next entry to find out.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

This Entry took me a week to write, or, Barcelona day one

This entry's beginning keeps changing because I keep coming back to end it and I keep failing at that. This might be the worst opening of all but I'm keeping it because it will apply universally to any changes I might make. For example, I just changed it again.

Before the temporary dream world of walking around aimlessly, 5,000 miles from home has dissolved into intangible memory (apart from the flavor of those salted, roasted padron peppers which will always live inside me), I am basically filling up all of my time with wine and cheese and tapas and laughing and seeing some of the most beautiful things and people I ever have seen. Helpful travel hint: when possible, always travel with easy going, flexible conversationalists. You will always walk away with good feelings. As someone who spends her life in a hamster wheel, searching for new and inventive ways of generating good feelings, I feel qualified to dole out advice. Also, have you met my friends and family members?

I typed part of this in view of the Sagrada Familia, the unfinished (after over a century) masterpiece of Barcelona's favorite son, Antoni Gaudi. After knowing Gaudi by name only and in a periphery sort of way, I was not prepared for the awe inspiring footprints he has left behind all over Barcelona. I quickly realized that there is no way that Gaudi or anything he created during his prolific career could ever be appreciated on the periphery as it seems like every other building is by him or inspired by him. His architecture is a sensory experience. We were temporarily housed in the shadow of this headless wonder that, even in its perpetually incomplete state stands as the center of a city brimming over with man made wonders of architecture and design. That a half finished masterpiece is the jewel of the city should tell you something about its sheer originality. It actually felt like a privilege to have it in sight for the whole week. I can only guess that the citizens of Barcelona feel that way about it all the time. It might be worth another trip over here when it finally gets completed, though it is entirely possible that it won't happen in my lifetime.

The truly unique part about this work is that it felt both entirely classical, gothic even and entirely modern at the same time. It felt like an exercise in dichotomies to me.

From a distance its size was remarkable but the true awe hits you when you approach it closely.


One last thing I noticed was how bizarre it was to exit the Metro every night in its shadow. It furthered that feeling of dichotomy: art and life. Everyday people carry on their lives, doing all of their busy nothings in the shadow of an unfinished work of genius. Obviously very few people have anything to do with that but some celestial observer would likely think "Um, can you stop playing with yourselves and finish that damn church?"

That was the first tourist attraction we visited. Afterwards on that day, groping around for some genuine Spanish experience, we ended up at the most touristy eatery in the entire city. Though my group made a pact with each other to move on from that horror, I decided to mention here that if you ever find yourself in Barcelona or any city for that matter as a tourist and you feel peckish near a major tourist attraction, walk further than a mile from where it is, if at all possible. Otherwise you run the risk of being served something that is really the tasteless, burnt version of the thing it was supposed to be. Also, never eat paella from a place called Gaudi gelateria. Just don't do it.

This post took me a week to write and I have literally only described our first day away and I haven't even described all the things I want to remember for my own personal interest. Life never overwhelms me as much as it does when I'm traveling. Not overwhelming in a negative way but in that way that you just want it to go on and on and on wondering at everything beautiful in front of you and longing to find out what happens next. Stay tuned.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Anxiety french fries

I have been severely, unforgivably lax in the upkeep of this blog. It speaks more to the nature of my extreme busyness towards the end of this fleeting season than to my lack of character. As such, I demand forgiveness. Or at least, a temporary hall pass.

Summer is fleeing. I step outside and I smell the fall already in the air. I see the taps at my local favorite watering holes populated with pumpkin ales and I am reminded that it was just Memorial Day like, yesterday. I have not put away any pants/skirts/shoes that are white because a) I am in denial and b) I don't really care about wearing white after labor day. It is an arbitrary and stupid "rule."

Since I skipped out on my first day of the month post, I suppose I should include the list of movies. I hope you have a snack handy because the sheer length of this list is going to require a long moment to read through. Ready?

Dans Paris (2006)
On the Road (2013)
Admission (2013)
20 Feet From Stardom (2013)
I'm So Excited (2013)

Phew. I'm exhausted from that. In fairness, I took it upon myself to watch the first four seasons of Northern Exposure again so that ate up quite a bit of time, time that wasn't spent constantly going and doing and seeing and eating and drinking. This August was definitely one of the highlights of the year so far. I'd feel bad about my lack of cinema watching and book reading if it hadn't been.

I'd also feel bad about lacking in writing except for the fact that I leave for Spain tomorrow on a 15 day, long awaited, desperately needed vacation. This is a trip that I am positive, without really knowing for certain, that will be worthy of writing about (as if that has ever been a factor in what I blog about) and my sister and one of five other traveling companions is bringing along her computer so expect updates from the Mediterranean seaside. Or something.

For the next 24 or so hours, I'll pretty much be a nervous ball of energy. I already ate french fries in a fit of pre-travel anxiety. What should I eat next?