Getting out of the comfort zone

I’ll never understand those who travel only to spend their time and energy looking for the familiar. I recall when living in Heidelberg, Germany, another American student girl complaining how difficult it was to, and I quote, “find a good burger”. I was 21 and thought to myself “seriously? Is that why you are here?”

I get it, we were young and it was some of our first experiences outside of our comfort zones (age 21, but already on my 5th year away from home, so perhaps this is why I was so annoyed) and perhaps a burger satisfied a kind of home sickness. And we weren’t exactly traveling; we were living there for our studies. I always ate in the student cafeteria, the kind where you shuffled along in line, pushing a metal partitioned tray along the food line while you pointed to the selections you wished the large person behind the counter to ladle into a specific rectangle. I can’t recall what these dishes were, which might be for the best, because I do remember that they were not exactly delicious and I always left feeling heavy. But it was very cheap, I think we even paid with tickets that came from somewhere (the school?), and all the university students in town frequented this place for lunch and sometimes dinner. So perhaps this fellow student had her reasons and maybe I’m being too harsh – but I do remember being annoyed.

So a more appropriate and actually travel related example is: A few months ago, while dining with my BF in a funky French/Spanish/Asian restaurant (it’s called Ménage a Trois in reference to the strange mix of 3 cuisines), next to us was a table full of a visiting Italian family. Mom, dad, older daughter, teenage sons. Perhaps a random aunt. The waiter spoke to them in Italian because they couldn’t manage a word of Spanish. I eavesdropped, bewildered, as the man asked the waiter if the restaurant could make a pasta dish, as there were none on the menu – which you would likely expect in a French/Thai/Spanish fusion restaurant. None of the three are renown for their farfalle or tagliatelle dishes (though the Catalans do have a paella like dish with tiny short noodles instead of rice called Fideuà).

So why, whyyyyy, would you travel however many miles to visit a place only to eat the exact same thing you eat every day of your life at home? I wanted to lean over and say to him, sotto voce: “You’re doing it wrong”.

I’ll give you one more annoying example that, unfortunately, is not uncommon as I am witness to varying degrees of it all the time. But this one particularly stands out. The setting is one of the few American cuisine restaurants here in Barcelona that are not trying to be some kind of 50s diner. A nice place with kind of hipster food and great decor in a trendy part of town. I am actually sitting at the same table as some Irish visitors, who are friends of friends. As they receive their orders of burger and fries, one lass of approximately 35 years of age, calls the waiter over to question what was wrong with the ‘chips’. When the waiter informs her that they are thick cut potato fries, as indicated on the menu, she loudly whines that she wants (and this is a direct quote) “normal chips”.

The confused waiter wanders off after being tongue lashed for a while, and I bear witness to this miserable girl moaning over the appearance and size of her ‘chips’ throughout the entire meal. Is that all you can focus on in this beautiful city at a table full of friends? Your effing ‘chips’ that, by the way, weren’t even on the menu? I can understand if he served you fried chicken feet instead, but these where cut and cooked potatoes that happened to be a different SIZE than you were used too. Girl, please.

Part of traveling is being open to new experiences, especially culinary experiences. If the lass can only consume chips that are identical to those she gets in her chip shop in Hackney, then perhaps she should have told her host she preferred to dine in one of the many, many British pubs in the center of town. Italian Joe maybe should have chosen one of the many, many Italian restaurants all over Barcelona if his pasta levels were running dangerously low. Kudos for getting out of your country to see the world, but try to experience the culinary side of it a little bit too.

 

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2014 New Year resolution Part Two/Conclusion

I guess I should have titled this my New Year anti-resolution check-in/conclusion. Anyway, the original post is here, check-in part one is here, and this is part two, and actually the conclusion since it is now 2015 and there can be no more check ins.

In June we went to Aragon. A weekend riding little bikes and supermoto at the Motorland track and some site seeing around the old city of Alcañiz, which is a fascinating city. It’s worth reading about.

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Little bike in the garage

In July we went to the South of France to catch a few stages of Le Tour (that’s the Tour de France for the uniformed), plus Montpelier beforehand. I’ll admit, I was disappointed in Montpelier. Overall, I found it to be shoddier and dirtier than I expected, and the city relies entirely too much on cars for my taste, despite its overground tram system. It had some interesting historical monuments and relics though, including an enormous aqueduct built in the 1700s.

Aqueduct in Montpellier

Aqueduct in Montpelier

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Next stop was Nîmes, where we spent a day visiting all of the intact Roman structures all over the city. An entire, intact Roman amphitheater stands in the center of town and is used regularly–weekly–for events.

Nimes amphitheatre

GP riding toward his roots in Nimes

The Spanish influence is evident in this city, where local ferias, flamenco and Camargue bullfights (where the bulls are not harmed unlike the bloodthirsty Spanish version) are a regular part of life.

Nimes symbol - a croc leashed to a palm

Symbol of Nimes – a croc leashed to a palm

The ancient amphitheater, built in the the 4th century AD, is still in regular and frequent use. Here they hold the many, many bullfights held in Nimes, and also concerts, recreations of Roman games, city festivals and other big sho

Tour du France juxtaposition

Le Tour juxtaposition

Roman structures in Nimes

Riding around Roman ruins

Nimes river

Downtown Nimes river

Le Tour finish

Le Tour finish

After watching the Tour finish from Nimes, we took the train to Carcassonne, another historically significant city, this time for its intact Medieval city center. We stayed just outside the newer part of town, along with plenty of media and press people, and rode our bikes into town and up to the walled in city for a look around. It was a rest day for the tour and we actually saw a couple of riders touring around the tiny, ancient walled-in city.

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EPO, it’s what’s for breakfast.

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Pushing my bike through the slippery cobblestones of Carcassonne

The next day we saw the start of the Tour stage, then rode along the old horse trails lining the Canal du Midi. These are rooty, tree covered paths built for the horses that pulled the merchant barges from town to town. The trails are now bike and walking paths and the canals, that cover France, are now primarily used by pleasure boaters who like to see the country via the canals. Not a bad idea, actually.

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A boat waits for the water to rise at the lock

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Crossing a canal bridge

The next jaunt was to see the final of the big three bicycle races, the Vuelta de España in August. Taking our bikes by train to Pamplona was our first stop, where we had a day to ride around and found ourselves riding along the Camino de Santiago trail unintentionally but to our great satisfaction.

Camino de Santiago marker

Camino de Santiago marker, the shell

Bike trails just outside Pamplona

Bike trails just outside Pamplona

We had drinks with our neighbor in Barcelona who happened to be in Pamplona for work, then the next day we caught the stage start in a park at the edge of town. The city celebrated everywhere with decorations (though nothing like the Italians decorate for the Giro), including a display of Miguel Indurian’s time trail bike hanging in the Santander bank arches.

Indurian's timetrial bike

Indurian’s timetrial bike on display in the central Plaza of Pamplona for the stage start.

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GP’s stage start selfie

Alberto Contador Pamplona

The Vuelta leader and eventual winner, Contador

We then headed to Logroño, where the next stage actually started and finished. We stayed in town and hit the famous Laurel street for some serious tapas and pincho eating two nights in a row, and got up close and personal with the riders at the stage finish.

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Everyone’s favorite personality, ex-mountain biker Peter Sagan.

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In September I flew out to Rhode Island for a week to see my brother on his historical farm he is renovating, along with my father who met me there. I went to a dance performance on the grounds of one of the mansions out there, and crashed the after party. I had a nice long chat with the wife of the proprietor, a woman from Serbia, about Nikola Tesla, with whom she claimed to be related. I’m not sure I buy it but it was interesting none the less.

I then started to get quite busy with work so the traveling stopped until the years end (and yes, more or less broke my resolution to not ‘work hard’). We also moved and the new placed needed a LOT of work so that took precedence.

But for the last trip of the year, on December 25th we headed to New York. I had a real haircut in SoHo, visited museums, ate street food, finally saw the 911 memorial, paid way too much for a hotel room for six nights but didn’t am at peace with it because it was planned. (Next time I’ll stay at an AirBnB for half the price, and not in the theater district either!) New Years Eve we boarded a plane to Southern California for a week or two of sun (and dental appointments).

And that, my friends, concludes the 2014 New Year’s resolution updates.

New Year resolution check-in part one

At the beginning of the year, I stated that I intended to spend all my earnings on travel this year. So far, the spending all my earnings part is right on track, but while much of it has been on travel, much of it has also been on dentistry and dog surgery and tedious (and expensive) travel to the US for said things above, plus fun tasks like renewing passports and collecting tax documents.

But the trips for enjoyment and improvement have been numerous and yes, enjoyable and improving. So far this year, outside of two trips to the US for the above listed reasons, I’ve made some trips. Let’s start with…

Madrid, where I essentially ate my way through the city until the final day when we rented bikes from our hotel and rode through the fabulous and giant park that goes along the Manzanares river. This is the first thing we should have done, and I will return with a proper mountain bike and spend at least two full days exploring the awesome expanse that is the Casa del Campo on a bike that does not weigh 75 pounds.

Fried octopus and calamari in Mercado Sant Miguel. Where I ate a lot of food.

Fried octopus and calamari in Mercado Sant Miguel. Where I ate a lot of food.

My favorite dish: Tapa of tiny, pickled green eggplant.

My favorite dish: Tapa of tiny, pickled green eggplant. Discovered in a 150 year old bar.

GP offroading the hotel bike.

GP taking the hotel bike on an excursion.

Barolo, Rivarolo Canavese, Agliè and Oropa (Italy) to see various stages of the Giro d’Italia. Impressive and I’ll do it again next year. We saw the time trial stage between Baresco and Barolo, the end of stage 13 in Rivarolo Canavese, and the start AND finish of stage 14 which was from Agliè to Oropa. We rode our bikes between the towns via a ‘shortcut’ that took us 5 hours through the backyards of tiny hillside farms, roads so steep that deep cuts in the pavement were needed for vehicle traction, and up hills where even the triathletes of the group (there were three of them) had to push their bikes.

Somewhere in Northern Italy

This is steeper than it looks. And full of holes.

Riders cheering on the real racers at stage 12. It had hailed–hard–40 minutes before the stage passed through.

We also spent a day spectating an off road team endurance race–for scooters. I have some video of this here. This was not quite as spectacular as the Giro, but it was possibly more entertaining.

Offroad scooter endurance racing.

Off road scooter endurance racing.

France: Paris and Cannes (Disclaimer: Cannes was not my idea). I met up with a dear friend for a repeat trip we did last year. She flew from California to Paris and I from Barcelona. We planned to meet in the CDG airport as I would be arriving 20 minutes after her. Of course, phones did not work so we spent 2 hours trying to find each other until I got smart and bought 15 minutes of internet and called her through Skype. We stayed in a tiny (what else?) hotel in the 10th arrondissement and had a fabulous time, as always. I love that city and would live there if it were near the sea. Forget about the old reputation of rude Parisians – people are lovely there: friendly, helpful, playful and engaging. Quite the opposite of how the locals treat non-locals where I live…that’s another topic though. We went to a classical concert the first night in a beautiful cathedral. It was fabulous- except for the dang nuns blocking my view. We crashed a fancy party next door afterwards. I have no idea what it was for.IMG_0588We used the awesome shared bike program Velib and road all the way to and through the Bois de Boulogne where we saw hookers on their lunch break. Then we rode through “Little Africa” and along the river and damn near everywhere in Paris.

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Velib steed in the park. Shh, don’t disturb the hookers.

We ate good food our few days there, spent a lot of time walking around Le Marais and then went South to Nice and over to Cannes where it was really boring. I did find us some bikes and we rode up to the old town which was the only cool thing about Cannes other than some great food and spending time with my friend. Oh and all the old men smiling at us, I guess.

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Old village on the hill above Cannes. The bikes were partially electric so really, we cheated on the climb part.

Riding to the top of the old town hill, a workman flirted with up asking if we were training for the Tour de France.I answered that yes, in fact, I was (in a sense).

Next up: A weekend riding motos in Aragon and our Tour de France bike adventure.

 

Where’s Spain?

I didn’t realize it until recently, but Spain is relatively unknown to most Americans as compared with France or Italy, because people don’t know it is a European country.

I am not even kidding. Consider the following occurrences, all within the last 2 months:

A client of mine I’ve been working with for over a year, who knows I am sometimes in the states and sometimes in a place called Spain, responded with “Oh wow, have fun in Europe, what are you doing there?” after I informed her over the phone that I was no longer in the US but was calling from Europe in that moment.

Now remember, she knew I lived in Spain. And yet was asking me what I was doing in Europe, as if it was an exciting new trip.

Confused at first, the question does she not know where Spain is…? creeped into my head, so I tested her with “Well, I live here sometimes, you know that”. Sure enough, the response was “But I thought you lived in Spain?…”

long pause

“OH! Gosh, I thought you were in South America somewhere. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

Another fine example: A woman I worked with last year contacted me the to see about my availability for a project, and asked me to remind her where I live. I said Europe, and she responded, “Oh yes I remember. Brazil, right?”

Yet another: In a peer meeting/interview for a project via Skype, the interviewer asked me (rather haughtily I might add), “So you live in like, Mexico or something?” when she saw that my city of residence is Barcelona.

Sigh

And don’t even get me started on the responses I get from random people in Starbucks and in shopping malls.

It sure stands in stark contrast to the replies of “OOOOH you are sooo LUCKY!” when I lived in Italy. But that is a whole different story.

Cats on a plane

I took my cat with me to Italy for ten days. Don’t judge me, I have my reasons. Anyway, you can carry your little pet in the cabin of the plane here, provided that there is no more than one other animal coming aboard as hand luggage and that the case they are in is sufficiently tiny. Tiny enough to fit under the seat of a Vueling flight, which has notoriously little legroom as compared to a coach seat on a normal size airplane. So kitty hopped unknowingly into her soft case with three mesh windows and I carried her out of my apartment building on a Monday morning and off to the airport.

But first came the metro ride, which in retrospect wasn’t such a smart choice. The metro is so much more bumpy and loud than a human who tunes out with ipod earphones jammed into her ear canals whenever facing public places would notice. Kitty’s stress level was pretty high after her first metro ride that also included a train change and several stair cases, escalators and tunneled walkways. A walk through the heart of the city surrounded by people and cars to catch the airport bus was next, so by the time we got onto the bus, Kitty was not a happy camper.

At the airport, things were quieter and Kitty seemed almost content to hang out in her little bag. We went through ticketing just fine, where no mention of a CAT PASSPORT was made, which evidently is the last of the requirements needed for Fuzzy to fly the friendly skies. But we are in Spain, and the girl at the ticket counter in Barcelona never asked for anything regarding the cat, not even permission to stick her hand into my kitty carrier to scratch Kitty’s head to receive a bite in return.

Going through security was also easy. You have to remove your pet from their carrier and put the carrier through xray while you tote your pet in your arms through the metal detector. Kitty was happy to get back in the bag and was calm boarding the plane. It wasn’t until take off that I heard sounds coming from my cat that I never knew were possible. She was in the carrier at my feet and we were crammed next to the window in a full row so I couldnt see her. All I could see was the bag deforming and thrashing around on its own while Kitty wailed like a human baby. Fortunately, there were no fewer than three screaming children on the plane, so Kitty went (sort of) unnoticed.

Once we landed in Milan and were in the car, she was exhausted and dozed until we got home, only waking to meow pathetically to let us know she wanted out soon. At home, she was happy to eat and play like nothing happened.

Returning to Spain however, was not so pain free. Day of the flight, we drove carefully to the airport and she arrived quite calm. So when the lady at the ticket counter asked for her passport as well as mine (remember the cat passport?), it was ·I· who panicked and thrashed like I was in a flexible little  carrier under an airline seat.

So Yeah. I had to leave my fricken’ cat in Italy. What’s more, the bitch at the ticket counter argued with me about the fact that I brought my cat from Spain on the plane to Italy without a passport in the first place. “Impossible” was her constant reply. That and “no, you didn’t” when I explained that I flew with the cat on her stupid airline 10 days earlier.  It’s not the first time an airline ticketer in Italy has called me a liar and/or treated me like shit, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. That’s Italy for you.

So I went back to Spain and Kitty stayed with GP’s parents for four days until I could arrange a cat passport, which, this being Spain, was ridiculously easy. i just paid the vet and he backed dated and stamped the kitty passport and I was set.

Then I had to spend 250 Euros and an entire Friday flying to Italy, waiting for the cat delivery, and flying back to Spain. I don’t know if it was that Kitty knew what she was in for or if GP’s father’s driving really is that bad, but Kitty arrived at the airport practically traumatized. She had peed in her carrier, which she had never done before, and was crying incessantly. Even her fur was all rumpled like she had been wrestling with another cat. And there were still more than five hours to go before we would be home.

We checked through ticketing with her new passport just fine and made it through security without too much drama (though I do have a few new scratches to show for it). I had a couple of hours of waiting in the airport to do and was able to calm Kitty down before the worst part of the trip came. I was so grateful to have the only row on the entire plane to myself thanks to a noisy, kicking child seated behind my row. The guy assigned next to me opted to move to the row in front of me, even before I arrived with a meowing cat in a bag.

What followed next was the longest flight of my life, despite it lasting only an hour and a half. I don’t know if the pilot was lost or what, but we taxied around that bumpy airfield for about 25 minutes, which was a good setup for the bouncy takeoff and turbulent climb wherein Kitty went bananas. Then, of course, the entire flight was marked with sudden dips and drops as the plane surged through the clouds to its final delayed landing, which called for more bumpy circulating before the pilot finally figured out where he was. Poor kitty peed in her case again at some point during the flight, between her bouts of pitiful mewling and frantic caterwauling.

I have to add that the entire flight I was trying to calm her down by petting and talking to her through her case. There is no question that the guy who moved seats made the right move not sitting next to the crazy cat lady who smelled like pee. If he hadn’t moved before I sat down, I’m sure he would have moved after.

By the time we landed, I had decided not to even deal with the bus and took a taxi straight home for 24 Euros. Taxi guy made me put he case on the floor after I refused to put her in the trunk of the taxi, but thankfully he drove pretty smoothly and there was no traffic so we got home quick.

Once inside the door to my apartment, I put the case on the floor and opened it up. I was ready for a drink and a nap and wondered if Kitty was going to be stressed, disoriented, desperate for her litterbox or what after her ordeal. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when Kitty trotted happily out, went straight to her dish for a snack, then attacked her toy mouse with gusto, tossing it into the air and chasing it where it landed as if nothing had ever happened.

I’m thinking that maybe I won’t skip the bus next time. Or at least I’ll consider putting her in the trunk when I elect to take a taxi home.

 

DIY motocross races

It’s a crisp cold autumn day in Northern Italy. Summer is over, the fields have been cleared of all the corn, it isn’t raining nor snowing yet, and everyone wants a last hurrah before the motorcycle season is over and the cold winter arrives.

Why not throw an impromptu neighborhood motocross race in one of the neighborhood fields? If you get the word out soon enough, a few volunteers will step forward and before you know it, you’ll have everyone in the neighborhood racing. Just follow these simple guidelines:

  • Erect signs so that people will know where to find the race.

  • Tape off areas for spectators, or find a natural barrier to separate spectators from the track.

  • Tape off a starting grid near the main spectator area for maximum impact.

  • Make sure your volunteer race director wears a timer around his neck to look professional.

  • Hire a food truck for hungry participants.

  • Put a few seats out so elderly spectators can enjoy the races comfortably.

  • Tape off a course tight enough to create some racing action.

  • Provide a jump or two, even if you need to build them by hand.

  • Don’t forget the kiddie class.

 

Salone del Gusto. Part II.

We had just finished sampling some chocolate in the last post, right? Let’s move onto some of the more unusual stands.

How about some oysters?

Mutant lemons soaked in booze?Waffles.Oh please, more cheese! (Inserted here to demonstrate the overwhelming variety of cheeses showcased at the Salone)Fish fries:This photo is a little blurry, but these cakes are rounds of cheese. The one in front is covered with porcini mushrooms, the small one to the right is covered with salmon, the cakes behind offer grapes and strawberries.Speaking of mushrooms, there were lots.My favorite part of the entire show were conceptual portable food holders.

Behold the “snack holster”:

And do not overlook the utility of the “beer walk”:

I suppose the “beer walk” would be great if you were sporting a full right-angled arm cast. But regardless, how are you supposed to drink your beer without flinging your nuts and chips all over the front of you?