Tag Archives: Barcelona

Barcelona is a Great City, and that’s not the Red Bull Talking

I never cease to be amazed at how livable Barcelona is for a major city. I give a lot of credit to city leaders for making Barcelona a great city, since it’s a real balancing act having a lot of people in a limited space and still maintaining working order and enjoyment of all the things that motivate people to come to a city in the first place.

Despite it’s population, Barcelona rarely feels overly crowded. Go down to the main tourist district on a nice day and there are crowds, but much of the rest of the city is fine to move around. The great transit system undoubtedly plays a big part in this. Simply put, most places are pretty simple to get to via metro or bus. And the fact that most buildings have underground garages means there’s not a logjam of cars everywhere. You’re a lot more likely to see a viral video of two people going postal over a parking place in London or Los Angeles than Barcelona.

Spain may have a laissez faire reputation, but clearly the city leaders here put a lot of time and effort into managing how the city operates. One of their big focuses is boosting sports and culture. It’s no exaggeration to say there is always something going on in Barcelona, from neighborhood festivals to music events to parties with virtually every theme imaginable. Nearly all these events are backed by the city and they all share one goal: get a bunch of people together in a friendly setting and let them enjoy life.

Last weekend, Liam and I ventured out to an oddball attraction known as Autos Locos, created by the colorful folks at Red Bull. In reality, it’s simply a modernized soap box derby with TV cameras, a honking big sound system and a lot of edgy people, thanks to the fact that Red Bull is the only fluid being sold on a warm day. There’s definitely some irony in the fact that people can no longer queue up for the iconic Spanish sport of bull-fighting (now banned in these parts), but instead line up for an adrenaline shot of Red Bull instead. Looking at the ingredient list on the side of the can, bull-fighting probably did less damage to fewer people.

The event was three hours of hijinks on an elevated stage near the top of Barcelona’s famous Montjuic as costumed teams pushed out their busoddball cars and then let ‘em roll down the hill. Many of the competitors work on these cars for months and the creativity came through in the form of a rolling hospital bed, a miniaturized tourist bus, giant ducks, a bumble bee, a shark and even a dude sitting on the crapper (otherwise known as a caganer in Catalan). I think the team who built this last one may have some issues, but that’s a much longer story.

Liam’s personal favorite was the team of four minions, who performed a rather unchoreographed dance at the start line before pushing their giant banana car off the line. I’ll chalk them up as memorable since 100 yards down the track the wheels literally fell off, leaving a disgraced minion sitting in a stationary banana. They get my vote for making the highlight reel.

As events go, it’s not exactly the excitement level of the Super Bowl, but it does say a lot about how the Spanish enjoy life. Thousands came out not for the silly cars, but simply to take a seat on a hillside, have something to eat or drink, mingle and enjoy a nice day. The event was a huge hit while the majority of attendees barely noticed the silly cars, and further proof that no one is as good at enjoying life as the Spanish. City leaders are clearly backing a winner, and adding more fuel to the claim that Barcelona is a great city.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: I hope I wasn’t the only one to get a good laugh at of the story explaining how Norwegians have adopted the word Texas into their language to mean crazy… According to reports, there was an earthquake about 100 miles north of Barcelona last week, measuring about 3.8. Can’t say I noticed, but some others claim to have felt it. I’ve been through one in Maryland and have little desire to experience another… I was chasing some extra freelance work lately on a website built for that purpose. It’s actually a rather grim glimpse into humanity. There’s an unending stream of people who want someone to write their “unbelievable” life story, but also lots of even odder requests. There’s the mother who wants someone to write her daughter’s college entrance essays, the secret lover who wants a eulogy for a coming out at a funeral that promises to be memorable and the soon-to-be felon who wants a letter for the judge expressing that he really is more responsible than the DUI charge suggests. You can’t make this stuff up. Truth is far stranger than fiction…

Leave a Comment

Filed under Barcelona, Recent Posts, Travel

Kids, Devils and Fireworks. What Could Go Wrong?

If this were America, the lawyers would be on speed dial. Adding to our ever growing list of festival experiences here in Spain, this weekend we ventured out for the kids portion of La Merce, one of the biggest and most raucous of Barcelona’s many special celebrations.

I can’t help but laugh thinking how the EU is known for very consumer-friendly legal standards covering things like food and airline flights, yet a festival promising to light a few kids on fire also gets a green light. Plainly stated, La Merce isn’t a festival for the meek.

The kids parade is highlighted by a correfoc, which loosely translates to a fire run. Costumed “devils” run through the parade route to a booming backbeat of drums while holding blazing sticks that spin and send fiery sparks into the crowd. To make it even more interesting, most of the devils are kids in the 8-14 year-old range.

You got that right. They hand blazing fireworks that shoot out hot sparks to children and then let ‘em loose. Somewhere in middle America, a 100 shysters just sat straight up and started to plot a trip to Spain. Imagine the lawsuits to be milked from setting kids ablaze!

With little knowledge of what was to come, we picked out what seemed like a good spot before the start of the parade and settled in to await the (literal) fireworks. As usual with most festivals, the crowd was overflowing with small fry. The Spanish love a good festival and always have the kids in tow. It really is a very family-oriented and supportive culture.

A sudden boom at the other end of the street heralded the start of the parade. As I glanced down the street, I spotted twin rings of sparks flying in the air about eight or so blocks away. The display continued for an extended period of time, leaving me to wonder would they replicate such a big display all the way down the street? Oh yeah. And more.

By the time the procession reached us, the combined noise of the hammering drums and exploding fireworks was nothing short of deafening. Packs of pre-teens filled the streets, clad in heavy coats and goggles for protection, taking turns lighting their flaming rods and racing through the crowd. And these were no shy sparks, as attested by the sudden burning sensation on the top of my head. I think I sacrificed a couple of hairs to the cause – and I’m already getting a little thin to be giving any more up! No one mentioned I needed to duck from the dragon.

The substantial noise had many kids cowering away from the street, so as a recruitment tool for future “devils,” I’d say this run was not too successful. That said, the rest of the participants seemed to be having the time of their lives, even if some folks on the US side of the pond would be horrified at events.

I may not be 100% behind the whole display, but I have to give the Spanish credit. Any time you can keep the lawyers from spoiling the fun is a good time indeed. Let’s leave the speed dial to Domino’s.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: It seems like every festival here has colorful roots, with La Merce being no different. Its backstory actually includes a plague of locusts and a virgin. You can’t get much more colorful than that… Living next door to an old folks home usually makes for quiet evenings. But I have to admit not loving laundry day when a couple dozen nightgowns start swaying in the breeze right outside our kitchen window. I liked it even less when I spotted that the gowns are hospital issue with a substantial open area in the rear. I could have lived many happy years without that image…

Leave a Comment

Filed under Barcelona, Recent Posts, Travel

Back to School – With Many Intermissions

Back to school time has arrived in Spain after the summer rocketed by at record speed. For a number of the international schools, Sept. 1 marks the start of the year, while most local schools wait until mid-month. After all, Spain does love a good, long holiday.

The new school year comes to a screeching halt in short order as the first of many holidays arrives in week two. That is quickly followed by another couple of days off the week after next as Barcelona’s biggest street party of the year arrives. I wasn’t kidding when I said the only thing the Spanish like more than a holiday is another holiday. They pop up on the calendar about as fast as new rabbits here.

For us, as newcomers, the regular holidays do end up being useful as an excuse to get out and do a little more exploring around Spain and beyond. We’re going to miss the big street party this year to take a little look at one of the nearby coastal islands (Menorca) for a few days. But, literally, there are more days off in Barcelona than you could ever afford to use as traveling holidays.

Liam’s Christmas break this year stretches for more than three weeks, followed soon after by more than a week off in February and the same again in March. Add to that a sprinkling of long weekends and there’s a whole lot of red days on the calendar.

We did wrap up the summer holidays with a couple of day trips. Barcelona is a great city, but its appeal also lays in the fact that there is so much to see and do nearby. A 30-minute train ride took us south of the city to a great beach town for a day on the sand, followed by a really good dinner. The train was only 4 Euros each, so you can’t beat it.

A few days earlier, we ended our week with a car by driving north to a town featuring a 700-year-old castle for a night’s stay. Not that such a thing exists in the US, but if it did, no doubt the experience would cost a king’s ransom (so to speak), but here we booked a great room with breakfast for the three of us and still had change from $200. That’s well above our usual nightly room tab, but well castleworth it to sleep among 700 years of history.

The castle has seen the surrounding lands controlled by many different kingdoms over the centuries and there have been plenty battles, but I was particularly interested in a story from only a few decades back. It seems that the artist Salvador Dali attempted to buy the then-decrepit castle in exchange for some of his artwork. I’m already a huge Dali fan, but hearing this kind of ballsy negotiating makes me even more so. The previous owner of the castle wasn’t swayed by Dali’s offer, but the famous artist did manage to swing a deal for another castle only a few miles away. I’m not sure of the art-only deal was successful the second time around.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: Since I’m on the topic of Dali, I stumbled on a piece of fascinating trivia, Dali once stated that he was a big fan of a physicist, Dr. Werner Heisenberg. If that name rings a bell, it’s because Heisenberg was the alter ego of Walter White in the Breaking Bad TV series. You can’t get much more fitting than that… While Sept. 11 is remembered with great sadness in the US, it is a major celebration here in Catalunya. The day commemorates the anniversary (from 1714) of Catalunya falling to Spanish forces and being absorbed into the larger country of Spain, although the dancing in the streets would have you think the result was a victory instead of a defeat. Celebrations are even more heady than usual right now with the push toward Catalan independence gaining steam. That said, I think I can hear laughing from Madrid since Mother Nature is literally raining on the Catalans parade today… Is it just me, or is anyone else watching in awe as the Republican candidates lob bombs at each other? Jon Stewart couldn’t write this stuff any better…

Leave a Comment

Filed under Parenting, Recent Posts, Travel

Hey! Where’s All the People?

As August arrives in Barcelona, the annual migration out of the city by the locals is in full force. It’s really remarkable how much of the city shuts down for an entire month, if not longer.

I think I mentioned before that the local version of the DMV stops doing driving exams for the entire month. If you really need a license, well, come back next month. On top of this, the auto school where I have been taking a weekly class to prep for the test takes a break that adds up to eight weeks. That’s not a misprint – eight weeks between classes. If you really want to know what mysterious road sign means, well, come back next month.

I recently noticed a new café opened around the corner from us, maybe a month or two ago, which I guess may explain why they are only shut for a week in August. After all, two months of work deserves a break, no?

Newsstands are shuttered and displaying handmade signs stating that owners will be back in September. Seemingly, the majority of local cafe owners are on an extended break. Even regular office workers tend to take advantage of their 4-5 weeks of annual vacationbeach and disappear for the month, so even if the office is open, only a skeleton staff will be in place. There’s a surprisingly number of locals with second houses north of us on the beaches of the Costa Brava or on one of the Spanish islands where they flee for the entire month.

I’ve read comments online from tourists who are in a bit of a panic that they will come to Barcelona (or any other Spanish city) in August only to find everything shut. Here’s the dichotomy. This is peak time for tourists, so all the bars, restaurants, tours and shops catering to visitors are in full swing. It’s the businesses in the residential neighborhoods and the government functions that roll up the sidewalks for the month. Even in our local neighborhood mercado, about half of the 20+ stalls are quiet for the month.

All this seems even more remarkable to me considering that stores and restaurants are only open limited hours during the rest of the year. Outside the tourist spots, virtually nothing opens on Sundays, many things are not open on Saturdays and probably the majority close for at least part of weekday afternoons. Even among restaurants, it’s a real rarity to find one open before 8 p.m. Coming from the U.S. where so many stores only close 1-2 days a year, it’s an eye-opener.

In a nutshell, the Spanish certainly have a patent on how to live a relaxed life. It’s no wonder Spain has the longest average lifespan of any country in Europe. I haven’t looked it up, but I’m starting to think they didn’t even bother inventing a word for stress!

RANDOM THOUGHTS: During our walk to swimming class yesterday, Liam suddenly revealed to me that he is the master of 11 different elemental powers, such as water and wind. I couldn’t help but ask if that meant he was full of hot air. “Yes it does,” he confirmed confidently… I’m still trying to get used to seeing the Spanish word for free displayed outside places such as parking garages. I learned the hard way that this actually means open, as opposed to no charge. It’s an interesting twist of language.. I was very happy to discover a cinema showing movies in English only walking distance from our flat recently. I took Liam to see Minions. The minions speak in this oddball made-up language that liberally throws in real Spanish words. Suffice to say, the subtitles were quite the mixed bag when half the words flying across the screen were not even real. My new favorite oddball translation was for the character Frankie Fish Lips, which appeared across the bottom of the screen using the Spanish words for Frankie Face Fish. Somehow I’m thinking that moniker is not going to stick real well… The second tooth has fallen, meaning Liam now has a very pronounced gap across his bottom row of teeth. Beyond a slight lisp, he seems no worse for wear. It’s a good thing this happens in childhood when we don’t know any better. If I had to go through swapping out all my teeth at this age and not being able to bite anything worth a crap, the world would certainly hear about it…

Leave a Comment

Filed under Barcelona, Parenting, Recent Posts

When the Other Tooth Falls

The overarching theme tying together our recent meander around Spain was the long history of so many of the places we visited. I’m always a little awed at the thought of the thousands of people who had tread the same narrow laneways as I over the course of centuries, making a living the best they could, getting through every day and taking care of their families. The years pass, the clothes change, the technology improves, but the core of life is really the same.

But for all the remarkable history around us, it was one of our own moments in time that will stick with us the most – the falling of the first tooth. Our first lunch in Seville was interrupted when Liam discovered the first of his front teeth to go missing, caught up somewhere in a chunk of calamari. It’s a rite of passage that every child goes through, but that doesn’t make it any less remarkable when it’s your kid and the first tooth drops.

There was the look of awe on his face, the mad scramble to figure out if the tooth could be found (it was), just a little blood and a half DSC_0616a dozen confused, middle-aged Spaniards wondering what the foreigners were fussing about. Come to think of it, being stared at by a half dozen confused Spaniards seems to figure prominently in most of our experiences here. They are as much part of our narrative as the the haunting music in a cheap suspense movie.

In short order, Liam was pleased that one of his “wiggily” teeth had made the leap for freedom, leaving about six friends behind to follow another day. The new toothy smile quickly gave birth to talk of what would appear after the tooth found its way under his pillow that night. I don’t think a hour passed before the bar quickly raised from a coin to multiple Lego sets, lollipops and even a piece of gold. I had to get this hunk of calcium under some linen soon or it was going to cost me a small automobile in no time!

As Liam awakened the next morning with a couple of Euros in one hand and a small bag of M&Ms in the other, the world was truly a glorious place in the eyes of this six-year-old. Trading a shaky tooth for this haul was the best deal ever.

Fast-forward a couple of weeks and the second “wiggily” tooth on the bottom is on the verge of departing. Liam is excited at another step in the ascension to big boy, although having your teeth moving around and occasionally bleed is clearly freaking him out a little. The novelty of having his teeth wiggle while I drive wore off some time ago.

So as I prepare for the tooth fairy’s second visit, I took a minute to Google just how many teeth a normal kid loses and was surprised to see the number is 20. Somehow I blocked out that part of childhood. That’s a lot of teeth. It appears history will show my wallet a lot lighter at the end of this experience.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: We are about to enter the August “everyone leaves town” zone in Barcelona. We thought it was an exaggeration last year, but it’s far from it. Businesses from restaurants to newsstands shut down entirely while owners head off to the beach. As I found out, the Spanish version of the DMV conducts no driving exams for more than five weeks. Apartment owners don’t even bother taking calls from people interested in renting their empty properties. And even specialized activities for kids like camps and swimming lessons don’t operate at all in August, despite it being one of only two months of the year when kids are not in school. It’s a unique country…

Leave a Comment

Filed under Barcelona, Parenting, Recent Posts