Thursday, June 17, 2010

Iconic Barcelona Buildings

June 6th we woke to thunder and rain. So much for the beach! Oh well, there’s so much to do in this city we can’t do it all anyway. It’s an excellent day for some indoor touring.

The Front of the Palace del la Musica

We had a tour set up for the Palace de la Musica, an ornate Modernisme concert hall. Before the tour we both wondered if it would be anything like the Fox Threatre, St. Louis’s over-the-top art deco palace (click here for a look at pictures of the Fox), but as it turns out its nothing like the Fox at all. It’s smaller, beautifully ornate, older (closer to the turn of the 19th century) and more thematic. I loved the stained glass “bell” in the center of the ceiling, and I loved the stage. On one side of the stage stands the founder of the Catalan tradition of choral music. A tree grows behind him (in stone I mean) and various musical ladies adorn the tree. On the other side of the stage two Greek columns rise. A bust of Beethoven supports the columns and from their top flies the Wagnerian Valkeries on their horses. Somehow the whole thing is joined together and forms a beautiful whole. They won't let you take pictures inside the concert hall, but you can see pictures of the stage at their website.

Ticket Window in a Column at the Palace de la Musica

The entire building and the columns within the music hall are covered in mosaic designs and stained glass. The building itself is set into a small corner of the Barri Gotic, with buildings close by on all sides. It’s hard to take pictures because the buildings are so close, but I tried!

After a snack we went over to the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s incredible cathedral. Gaudi had it partially finished when he died in an accident in the mid-1930’s. Then the Spanish Civil War broke out. The cathedral was attacked and his designs for its completion were destroyed and the plaster models wrecked. Ever since then they have been painstakingly trying to put the models back together so that the cathedral can be finished the way Gaudi envisioned it.

This building is just overwhelming. It’s so big that it’s hard to put it into perspective. We stood in line in the rain to get to go inside it. There’s an elevator you can take to the top but because of the rain it was closed. Instead we walked around the inside craning our necks upward and trying to take it all in. It looks like someone took a mountainside and carved it out with fantastical shapes and windows from the inside. I’m really kind of at a loss for words to describe it. I guess you’ll just have to go see it for yourself!

I tried to make sure that I took some good pictures of the Casa Mila before we left Barcelona. I think a few pictures of this building is a good place to end this blog entry.  We toured it and it really is more of a work of art than a practical place to live. From the outside the curvy lines of the walls and the elaborate balconies are really beautiful but inside the rooms seem totally impractical for comfortable living.   Its obvious that comfort wasn’t Gaudi’s focus! But beauty, oh yes, beauty….Casa Mila is a feast for the eyes, from the intricate sidewalk tiles to the charmingly weird rooftop sculptures. So what if your apartment’s rooms jut oddly off of a twisting hallway; you’re living in a work of art!  

From the Roof of the Casa Mila.....

...To the Beautiful Street Tiles on the Sidewalks Outside...

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Barcelona - Ancient Elevators and Bird-Woman-Sun Sculptures

Our apartment in Barcelona turned out to be a real find. In the Eixample District, I knew it was close to several important sights but had no idea it was actually right next to Casa Mila, one of the most famous buildings by Gaudi, the premier moderneste architect. Our apartment is lovely and consists of two bedrooms, two baths, a small kitchen, and a living room with a balcony overlooking a small courtyard. The apartment is on the second floor and the building has the most adorable little elevator we’ve ever seen. It looks like something straight out of an old European movie.

I finally settle down to do some serious tourist planning. There is quite a lot to see in Barcelona and no way to see it all so we need to make some choices and figure out what we want to do and how to do it. On Friday I decide we should go see the Joan Miro Museum on Montjuic. We take the speedy Barcelona Metro and then the Funicular up the mountain to the museum. We both enjoyed it, but it didn’t really “grab” either of us. Milo’s pictures and designs reminded us of the Tim Burton exhibit in New York, but we both felt like Burton was “deeper” somehow. I decided the Milo really was the inventor of a particularly whimsical style of modern art. When I thought of him as the “first” one to do this kind of modern art it made his pictures and sculptures more interesting. But as Lee said, he kind of took the theme “bird, woman, sun, bird, woman, sun” and put it together over and over again.

We wandered down the hillside, half lost, and came out at the bottom of the grand staircase that leads up to the National Museum. I wanted to see Milo’s giant woman and bird (yes again) sculpture. By the time we found it we were ready to sit at the first café we could find and eat something. Spanish pizza is passable but probably not what we should be eating in Barcelona.

After an afternoon siesta we chose a nearby paella restaurant for dinner. This was a funny experience. First of all, a table with two noisy disobedient children sat nearby. Once I had had a glass of wine I didn’t mind their antics that much and it really was sort of amusing watching a couple of Spanish four-year-olds get the better of their distracted parents. The parents ate paella and drank wine; the children ate French fries and threw them at each other, laughing hysterically. Eventually one of the wild ones got a “poch on the tukus” as my grandmother would have said and then seemed to quiet both of them down.

Our waiter really, really, really wanted us to try the fish, and convinced us that the paella was really too much for just two people. He was right; the fish was fresh and amazing. He talked me into a baked apple for dessert too. We struck up a conversation with the people at the next table. I couldn’t figure out what language they were speaking (it was Dutch), so I asked them where they were from. Their teenager was about to go be a US exchange student so we told them a little bit about US high school students and what to expect.

The next day we were off to the Barri Gotic, the oldest part of Barcelona. Beautful twisty ancient steets led to a huge Gothic cathedral and eventually the biggest food market in the Mediterranean. We bought cherries, nuts, very fresh tomatoes and wandered from stand to stand, feeling overwhelmed. We bought a ham and cheese sandwich on a baguette to share and a coke light for me and a beer for Lee revived us.

We went back to our quieter neighborhood, had a coffee at a café and bought lunch goodies at a nearby deli. Now we’re back having another siesta before we go out for a little more touring and tapas tonight.

Unplanned in Madrid

For most vacations I am the planner, or as my family would insist, the over-planner. I research destinations months in advance. Where is the best place to stay, the most interesting activities, the most efficient or interesting way to travel from one point to another. Where should we eat, what should we do, what streets should we be sure to walk down; I leave nothing to chance.

Maybe it is a result of the upheavals and uncertainties of the past year, but I had to force myself to do a lot of planning for this trip. Lee made the plane reservations months ago. He got us business class tickets using miles. I found us an apartment in Barcelona using (vacation rentals by owner; a great website) and a nice hotel in Madrid using Trip Advisor. I bought a couple of guidebooks, but then didn’t bother to look at them until a couple of days before we left. The day before we left I checked to see if I could download Google Translate to my phone (I couldn’t) so I ran to the bookstore and bought a Spanish phrasebook. That was it.

We arrived in sunny Madrid on a Wednesday morning and managed to find a taxi to take us to our hotel. Once settled in there I decided to go for a quick run. I thought it would help wake me up and give me a chance to figure out where we were. I hadn’t even bought a guidebook for Madrid! Somehow it had entirely skipped my mind that we were going to be spending an entire day there.

The front desk clerk pointed me in the general direction of a nearby park. The streets of Madrid reminded me of New York, but the architecture looked like a cross between New Orleans and Paris. Beautiful stucco buildings with ironwork graced narrow cobbled streets. Periodically a traffic circle appeared with a fountain or a statue in the middle. The people were dressed fashionably and ethnically I could have been anywhere in the US or Europe except that everyone was speaking Spanish. I jogged and walked slowly, taking in the sites and managed to get back to the hotel without getting too lost.

The Spanish eat their big meal of the day between 2 and 4 pm. After a shower we once again asked the desk clerk for a suggestion and he sent us to a “real” Spanish restaurant. Slowly we made our way there, figuring out the street names with our meager Spanish. Once inside the restaurant I used my Spanish phrasebook to order a couple of cervesas. We chose several small plates to share. The food we had was good, but it looked like our neighboring table’s food was better. They had a lobster stew that looked delish. At least my profiteroles for dessert with espresso and some kind of liquor in a little glass was excellent.

Then we went back to the hotel to take our first siesta of this vacation. We set Lee’s alarm just in case but I managed to sleep a little bit and wake up without feeling totally out of it. We were rapidly getting ourselves on Spanish time.

Happy Lee Eating Mushroom Tapas

The Spaniards eat a light meal at around 9pm. Lee did some research and found a place that served grilled mushrooms in an area close to our hotel. We had fun wandering around a little Mercado with lots of different food stands. I had Sangria and we shared a plate of olives at one stand. Lee sampled the wine at another. We wandered into the mushroom restaurant: Meson_del_Champinon. We stood at the bar and ate some fantastic mushrooms, white caps in olive oil and some kind of vinegar sauce, with parsley and a bit of ham in each. More wine and a cheerful atmosphere. This was fun!

This sign says that peppers ARE available!

Then we wandered around a little more. We found a café where we could sit outside. We ordered something called a baby tortilla which was basically a frittata (eggs and potatoes baked in a round). We sat there for awhile, admiring the people as they passed by. I like the way people dress here and we had some lively discussions about whether various women were dressing for women or men. No definitive conclusions were reached and eventually we strolled back to our hotel.

We slept like the exhausted creatures we were. We woke up briefly at 8am but both of us fell back asleep and slept until 10! This is unheard of for us 5:30am risers! We staggered out of the hotel and sat down at one of the nearby cafes for coffee and bread, the usual Spanish breakfast. I love their café con leche, basically espresso with warm milk. The Spanish know how to do coffee, that’s for sure.

Next it was time to go to the train station. This part of our unplanned vacation made me nervous. We had our Eurorail passes but we still needed our seat reservations. I had tried to get us reservations online for the train from Madrid to Barcelona but was unsuccessful. What if we couldn’t figure it out? What if the trains were all full? Ai-ya, this was not my style of travel!

We found the ticket counters and after asking around, found the right line. Some people ahead of us got tickets, others walked away empty-handed. We didn’t have enough time to make the 12:30pm train. Would we be able to get tickets on the 1:30pm?

Right before it was our turn a young man sidled up to the people in front of us and stood there like he was part of their group. When it became obvious that he wasn’t Lee told him in English that he was cheating and to go to the back of the line. He pretended not to understand, but then the rest of the line started yelling at him in Spanish…too funny! It was too much for him and he finally gave up and went away.

The second class tickets for the 1:30pm train were sold out, but first class wasn’t that much more money so we bought a couple of those instead. Now we just needed to find our track and our seats, which we managed to do without too much trouble. Whew!

Now we are speeding toward Barcelona on one of those marvelous high speed European trains. The European economies might be on the verge of collapse but their trains are still wonderful! The countryside looks a lot like New Mexico, with olive trees. Sunny blue skies, red rocky soil, distant mountain ridges. So far unplanned is working out very well!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Understood Betsy

I recently finished reading My Life in France, by Julia Childs. It was a very fun book to read. As a fellow French-food-lover, I nodded knowingly as Julia tasted good French cooking for the first time, and then continued to read admiringly as she determinedly set about trying to figure out WHY French food tastes so good!

When I came to the part in the book where she is trying to find a publisher for Mastering the Art of French Cooking, though, I was in for a surprise. She talked about meeting with a good friend of hers; a famous author from Vermont named Dorothy Canfield, in order to get some advice on publishing. Dorothy Canfield! There could only be one writer named Dorothy Canfield from Vermont: the author of my favorite childhood book, Understood Betsy.

Understood Betsy is the story of a young girl named Elizabeth Ann. Timid, shy and uncertain about herself, she lives with her two aunts in a large city (which I’ve always assumed must be Boston). But when one of the aunts becomes ill, she is set away to live with the dreaded “Putney cousins” in far away Vermont. There she learns to become a strong, confident, self-reliant child, and finds out what it means to be truly “understood” by those that love her.

I received this book as a birthday present from one of my classmates when I was in third grade. I was a precocious young reader, but even so parts of this book were a little over my head the first time I read it. One chapter was called “Aunt Harriet Has a Cough” which I initially read as “Aunt Harriet Has a Coach”. This really mystified me at first as I tried to understand why having a coach would necessitate Elizabeth Ann being sent away.

But most of this book I read with complete fascination. Elizabeth Ann was SO MUCH LIKE ME! She was afraid of dogs! She didn’t have many friends! She loved to read! She hated math! She hated reading in class because they went so slow! And most of all, she felt alone, as if there was nobody else in the world that was anything like her. In fact I felt this so adamantly that as much as I loved this book I felt a bit suspicious about being given it as a gift. Why did they give ME this book? Did they KNOW?

I read this book over and over and over as a child, and in fact I still own it and it holds a place of honor on my bookshelf. When Julia Child mentioned Dorothy Canfield I felt a thrill of recognition, and a spark of curiosity. Who was Dorothy Canfield anyway and how did she come to write such an amazing book?

So I got on Amazon and searched for her. She was an interesting woman for sure and wrote lots of magazine articles and a few other books. But Understood Betsy was her most famous creation, and there it was, available from Amazon. I started reading the reviews and I had another revelation. Here were HUNDREDS of other women who had read this book as a child and had a similar reaction as mine. They all loved this book because Betsy reminded them of themselves. They all wanted, just like me, to go live on a farm in Vermont with cousins that really understood them and helped her to become a braver and better person.
So, here once again, is another piece of evidence that this little girl that felt so strange and different as a child was not really that different at all. It’s the same as when I went to the reunion happy hour a couple of months ago. So many times in our lives we think we are alone, when all around us are people that feel just like we do. It’s such a strange discovery to be making in my late 50’s!

I actually got some practical information from Understood Betsy about solving some problems in my life. This book gave me the courage to start to try to work to overcome my fear of dogs. This fear was debilitating and prevented me at times from going places and doing things I wanted to do. It took me a long time; in fact I was in college before I finally completely overcame this fear, but Betsy planted the seed that it was something I could do someday.

The second thing this book did was give me a path to overcoming my problems with math. I knew that I was missing something in math class. Part of my problem was a feeling of panic that would overcome me when I had to do math, which would prevent me from thinking clearly. The second problem was that I couldn’t figure out how to memorize my times tables. It was like I was missing the foundation that mathematical understanding is built upon and this problem was only getting worse. In the book when Betsy moves to Vermont she goes to a one room school house where she gets individual help with her math problems and is able to go back and go through second grade math again so that she really understands what’s going on. “This is what I need to do!” I thought when I read this part of the book.

It took until fifth grade for me to have an opportunity to try this remedy. In fifth grade they were starting something called “new math”. Our teacher asked if anyone wanted to do a math review instead of the new math and I raised my hand. Along with a few other classmates we were given a private tutor who started over at the beginning and made sure we truly understood the mathematical principles we had supposedly learned up until then. That math review completely changed my math abilities! I became an A student in math, at least until I hit calculus!

I’ve been thinking about this book so much in the past few days. There are very few other books from my childhood that affected me so deeply. The Little House Books and the writings of Louisa May Alcott all provided a serious connection with fictional characters. But reading Understood Betsy was the first time a character in a book “leaped off the page” and became a real person to me. I am to this day undyingly grateful to Dorothy Canfield for creating this little girl, for me and so many other little girls that felt different, scared and alone. Understood Betsy gave me a sense of possibility, and a budding determination to try to get what I needed from the world. It was only the beginning, but it was a start.


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