Isten, áldd meg a magyart! Or: God Bless Those Awesome Magyars (and their Horsies!)

*First post done with WordPress’s new photo features; images are individual and can be seen larger by clicking on them.

**MANY thanks to Gina, Luigi, and Angela You-Know-Your-Last-Names for their excellent pointers, suggestions, and encouragement!

So . . . In late August, Miss L and the fam were coming to Barcelona for a couple of weeks and needed the apartment so I went on an eight-day vacation to Hungary, followed by a week in Norway for a conference and a few extra days of play. This entry gives a few highlights of the Hungarian adventure.

This is how I decided where to go: a Facebook poll asking friends for suggestions of CHEAP European destinations I may not have been to before. The (excellent) responses included Brittany, Lithuania, Latvia, Croatia, Lisbon, Sicily, Malta, Morocco, and Spetses Island, but for some arbitrary reason (and after a preliminary comparison of airfares/Airbnb prices) I settled on Budapest. Looking at where else I might go in Hungary (where I initially planned to spend the whole two weeks), I found out, LO AND BEHOLD, that Hungary is Europe’s cowboy country (!!!). The die was cast: I would go riding, and maybe get myself one of them cowboys. Beyond minimal research for lodging reservations, I had no time to pore over travel guides, and took off with very little idea of what I would find. Never have I been so pleasantly surprised by a travel destination.

I spent my first five nights in Budapest, at a cute Airbnb apartment on Váci utca, a touristy Ramblas-equivalent pedestrian street that was nevertheless very centrally located and ideal for my purposes. The gorgeous building, although slightly in decadence, seems to have been home to writer Lörinc Kovai and physician Sándor Korányi, if Google Translate and Wikipedia are to be believed.

building

The apartment itself (the one with no plants and a rather gross tiny red ashtray outside on the third picture clockwise) was modern and quite… groovy. It had little colored lights in the kitchen and a shower that could be called, well, psychedelic (but how I came to look forward to stepping into it, bathroom lights off, every night!).

When I first arrived in Budapest, I tried to withdraw an amount close to $100 (25,000 Forints) from the airport ATM, but got confused and took out 250,000 Forints (close to $1000–my first all-cash vacation!). Consequently insecure about my current reliability as a solo tourist, on my first full day I decided to rely on the Hop On/Hop Off Bus to get the lay of the land and avoid figuring out public transport. For about $25, it was a huge waste of money that a few minutes looking at a map would have saved me, and because it’s a one-way loop it sometimes took over an hour to get somewhere I could have reached by foot  in ten minutes. However, I did get a feel for the urban layout, and hear lots of music by Hungarian-born Franz (or Ferencz) Liszt as background to the cheesy narration. The technology was antediluvian, but at least buses owned by this company (the original Hop On/Hop Off!) had some charm–if not, alas, air conditioning.

The bus was a particularly silly choice since I’d decided to take the funicular up to Buda Castle and spend my entire first day meandering on that side of the city, west of the Danube (Pest is on the eastern shore). The gorgeous sightseeing afternoon was made even more special by surprise texting from a beloved boy toy who is currently (for inscrutable reasons) picking fruit in New Zealand, and had not been in touch since his departure in April. Thus engaged in amorous colloquy, I could feel all sultry and unforgettable while sauntering through the cobblestone streets, losing myself in the stunning colors of Matthias Church (to the sound of the organ), crossing Fisherman’s Bastion to drink in captivating views of the river and Pest, and enjoying a (delicious!) lemonade at the Piknik‘s romantic, shady terrace.

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That afternoon I had my first taste of glorious Hungarian cuisine–which they consider on par with French and Chinese, and they may be right. At 21 Hungarian Kitchen I downed, most unromantically, a scrumptious paprika chicken followed by peach mousse with almonds and red currants :

(The previous night I’d eaten near my place on Váci utca, at also excellent Buddha Bar–“set in an opulent palace dating back to 1900”. That was Thai, but still highly recommended.)

Back in Pest, I took the FREE RIVER CRUISE happily included with the Hop On/Hop Off bus ticket. Although this meant I had to come down from my Empress Sissi groove to mingle with The People, it also offered sunset views as enchanting as inexpensive.

Day 2 I headed (on foot) to St. Stephen’s Basilica, named for the first King and founder of Hungary (in the year 896, if you want to know, and the number 96 has remained symbolic in Hungary; for example, no building can be taller than the Parliament’s 96 feet–see fact #12 here). I didn’t think I could like this church more than Matthias, but it was magnificent in its sumptuous ornamentation.

Lest you overdo it exulting in the opulence, here lies the incorrupt Holy Right Hand of St. Stephen to remind you that dust we are, and to dust we shall return (although at least parts of him did not).

The afternoon was spent ambling along Andrássy ut, more Passeig de Gràcia or 5th Avenue than Ramblas. Right at lunchtime, I happened to stumble upon the restaurant where I’d been planning to have dinner, so plans changed. I got an outside table at Klassz, which seems to be everyone’s mid-range budget favorite in Budapest (top of the line is the Michelin Star Onyx, where I did not eat on account of being already stuffed and exhausted every evening). I had a fabulous first course of foie gras (foie is very much a Hungarian thing–it’s everywhere if you love it and can handle the guilt), followed by the heart of Snow White.

(Well, in reality that is Mangalica pork belly–Mangalica being a breed that presumably rivals Spanish Ibérico for its fatty deliciousness, and has in fact, unbeknownst to most of us, begun to be raised in Spain). Tasty morsels accompanied, not by the Veuve Clicquot their awning announces (Klassz is also a choice wine bar), but by a very nice Hungarian bubbly I discovered and began to drink everywhere, Kreinbacher Brut.

After that, ashes to ashes and dust to dust again (twentieth century version) at the Terror House,

Terror Haza.jpg

a controversial museum that memorializes the successive Nazi and Soviet “terror regimes.” Perhaps the multimedia exhibits are a bit on the Disney side of things: you do have to walk through actual detention cells in the building that served as police headquarters during both the fascist and communist periods, and they literally lock you inside an elevator to tell you all about executions. The exhibit’s voyeuristic character and conflicting political intentions have been widely critiqued, as they are here. But for me it was definitely educational and thought-provoking.

The day ended with renewed faith in life, delivered in the form of a rose-shaped ice cream cone at Gelarto Rosa and, waddayaknow, by the miracle of stumbling onto a street wine fair right in front of St. Stephen’s.

By the way, I should mention here that Hungarian wines were, like Hungarian food, a very pleasant discovery. I didn’t get very lucky at the fair (tasting blindly and ignorantly), but I did have some very good samples at different restaurants. The bottle of 2011 Eger Thummerer Bull’s Blood classic I bought at the airport–with my remaining monies from the ATM disaster–and drank in Norway with Miss Kari was mind-blowing (even though “classicus” is the lowest of the region’s three quality categories).

Day 3 featured a visit to the Parliament, a building so beautiful on the outside and inside it is hard to describe the state of mind it inspires. A lavish display of solid gold ornament and color and craftmanship that reminds you of how powerful Hungary was at the end of the nineteenth century. In addition to hallways and the parliamentary chambers (below), they showed us the Crown Jewels, but photos of that are not allowed.

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This was followed–or preceded, I can’t remember–by a lunch of foie (again) and goulash at the very quaint Cafe Kör. A lucky reminder that I’d been confusing goulash, which is delicious, with borscht (which might be the greatest recipe of all time, but I hate all things beet).

And then pretty much aimless wandering, because it almost seems there isn’t a single building in old Pest that isn’t spectacular, what with all the neo-Gothic, neo-Renaissance, neo-Baroque, and neo-Classic jewels of the empire and the beautiful art nouveau or secessionist style. It’s not just the grand buildings that are incredible: it is virtually every single construction, whether carefully restored or still bearing marks of decay and even war. (Soviet-era building blocks, mostly outside Pest, are interesting in their own way, and there are remnants of Roman and Ottoman architecture too, which I mostly saw from a bus.)

Late lunch/early dinner that day was at Cafe Gerbeaud, which is luscious in every possible way (same management as Onyx, by the way, and next door). All I had was a ham and cheese sandwich–but a delectable ham and cheese sandwich, followed by one of their also worth italicizing exquisite cakes, a little strawberry bomb. And prosecco (they did not have Kreinbacher!). Then walked home and collapsed by 9:00pm, after the groovy shower of course.

Day 4 I took a ten-hour bus tour (with The People once more!) to the Danube Bend–something I again might have enjoyed better if I’d done it on my own. In any case, with our guide Laszlo, fabulously fluent in five languages (he repeated the same words again and again for all the different tourists), and our driver Laszlo–but not their other brother Laszlo–we crossed into Slovakia for a quick photo stop looking back toward Esztergom, seat of the Catholic Church in Hungary. Having gone inexplicably hyper-Catholic on this trip, I feel bound to confess that I bought a selfie stick from a street vendor (Bless Me Father For I Have Sinned). Hence, most pictures of me on that and following days are taken, quite laboriously, with said photographic aid, which was really hard to use–especially while embarrassed to be seen doing such a thing. (Naturally, it ended up breaking.)

slovakia

Then we went to the Cathedral, which was in a beautiful setting, but not itself as divinely ornate as either Matthias or St. Stephen’s, or the Parliament even. But it also has relics–this time quite contemporary, because Catholics are still into that shit. This time it’s the entire skull of Esztergom Bishop Meszlényi, who was reportedly killed by communists in 1951, and beatified only in 2009.

We had a pretty bad lunch with a pretty good view of the Castle of Visegrád, at a location where the Danube in fact bends sharply. I unfortunately wound up sitting between two elderly couples while folkloric violinists played the Blue Danube waltz (yup!) and what they considered music from the guests’ places of origin (for some reason I got “When the Saints Go Marching In” for NYC)–all underneath a giant stuffed boar’s head.

We next went to Szentendre, an “artist’s colony” that, while pretty, utterly lacks any interest unless you want to buy cheap tacky souvenirs. Or expensive tacky souvenirs. Laszlo set us free for a couple of hours, during which time I gave up on promenading in 90º heat and hid in the one and only terrace bar I could find to imbibe a fröccs–a wine spritzer Hungarians swear is the only way to keep cool in summer (and I’ll drink to that!). The return to Budapest was a couple of hours by boat, which I appreciated for the river itself (and who knew there are beaches on the Danube?).

This might have been the blandest day of my trip–I would have preferred a trek to Eger wine country, but that was hard to fit in a single day. Next time! In the evening, I again had a quick dinner at Gerbeaud (this time the Bistro instead of the Cafe). Less remarkable than all the other places I’ve mentioned so far, but still quite good food and a very nice terrace in which to relax (before my groovy shower and final collapse).

Gerbeaud Bistro.jpg

Days 5-6, however, totally made up for the bland Danube tour!!! I made my way south via a rickety train (railways in Hungary are not yet what they are elsewhere) to the charming city of Szeged, where I was finally ripped off by a taxicab driver–something everyone said would happen in Budapest but didn’t. The man INSISTED there was a meter right in front of me when there was none, and the invisible meter racked up a handsome charge for a very short ride. I just had time for a nice lunch at a random restaurant named Kajak featuring another typical Hungarian dish–a chilled fruit soup–and a very short stroll through lovely parks and plazas surrounded by secessionist masterpieces.

And then a car service picked me up to take me to my final destination, the tiny village of Rusza on the Puszta–the Great Hungarian Plain, almost at the border with Croatia. There was the lovely, magical, phenomenal Homoki Lodge, a boutique hotel centered on riding and spa life.

You’d think nothing could get me more excited than horses and pampering, but in fact the apex of my happiness came from getting to stay in a yurt, and not just any old nomadic tribe’s yurt–a total GLAMPING experience. This means my little “tent” had every amenity on earth, beginning with air conditioning, as well as adorable design (and one of the most comfortable beds I’d slept in since time immemorial–horned as it was). All arranged tree-like around a central “trunk,” on three vertical levels. Of particular note was the skylight right on top of the bed, which you could open up with the push of a button to see the stars.

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Since Ruszta is quite literally in the middle of nowhere, you stay at Homoki on full board (or at least I did), which made for a few more excellent breakfasts and dinners, complete with wine discoveries. On the equestrian front, the only other guest at the Lodge (it was off-season) was a thirtyish lifelong rider in the British Army who takes regular equestrian vacations all over the world, so it was quickly determined that she and I were not of similar aptitude. I therefore got a private ride with Oliver, the lodge owner, who almost made me swoon by appearing in full Magyar cowboy attire, which is vaguely reminiscent of a gaucho. (I didn’t actually get myself one of them cowboys, but just riding behind him was enough!) It was my first time on a Hungarian saddle, and we rode for several hours through both open plain and woodlands, past quite a few deer and fields of everything you can imagine (so many crops!) including peppers, as this is paprika-producing country. It was the hottest day of the entire vacation, though, and I ended up only half alive with heat rash and a sunburn (though surprisingly not very achy). But to recover I had chosen a spa treatment! I passed on the leeches and settled for foot-calming reflexology, followed by lazy lounging by the picturesque pool. And then a sunset drink (the Homoki Special!).

Further recovery was to take place back in Budapest, on Days 7-8 (my last in Hungary!). Although the city is full of thermal baths, most in spectacular settings, there was so much to do that I decided to choose just one place and leave it for when I’d be most likely to appreciate it (after four hours on a horse and two rickety trains). My pick was the Géllert Baths, because they are probably the most iconic (together with the Széchenyi Baths), so I decided to stay that last night at the Géllert Hotel in Buda. The Superior Double Room was a splurge by Hungarian standards (about 150€), but not at all going by hotel prices anywhere else, and entrance to the baths (about 20€) was included, as well as a good-quality buffet breakfast.

The hotel has not been renovated since NINETEEN-SEVENTY-THREE, but I swear if it had, it wouldn’t have been so charming. I arrived mid-afternoon and didn’t leave the premises again until I got into a cab for the airport the next day. I had one last foie before settling into my gorgeously decadent top-floor room, which opened out into the most beautiful cobweb-filled terrace ever, which in turn looked out onto a commanding view of the river, and Pest across the Liberty Bridge (Szabadság híd)In between enjoying the afternoon view and the evening view, I slipped into the hotel robe and made my way downstairs to the spa, where I soaked in each one of the dazzling mosaic sitting pools, jumped into the incredibly fun 1927 outdoor wave pool, and did laps in the indoor swimming pool. All of it restorative as much because of the mineral-infused water said to alleviate joint and spine inflammation, vertebral disk problems, neuralgia, vasoconstriction, asthma, and bronchitis, as for the eye-popping beauty and peace of every space (except for the wave pool, that’s not about peace!). A late-night wine and cheese at the hotel bar, and off to my comfy bed to enjoy the only portable a/c I’ve ever seen in a hotel room (although it worked quite well!).

And that was that. After a good night’s sleep, I had a last-minute vicissitude: with a hotel stylist who did not speak a word of English and replaced what I thought was the worst elements-battered hair with a swanky 1990s-Ivanka Trump bump do. (Come to think of it, I should have just left the “before” style alone.)

Revitalized and armed with dragon lady hair, but with tears in my heart, I left my newly-beloved Hungaria. SO MANY things I couldn’t fit in this trip–one more place to which I must return.

plane

Budapest, Margaret Island (Parliament visible on the left)

My next adventure, in Norway, coming soon to a theater near you.

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Sabbatical News: Working Hard in Barcelona and Business Trip to Iceland (II)

As I was saying…

If you find yourself driving to Snorrastofa, you will see a lot of this,

Reykholt

often punctuated by sheep or horses (and lots of public equine copulation). The invisible elves, the landscape, the livestock activity are all great spectacle, but probably not what you came to Iceland for. There are, of course, the fabulous Icelandic gaited horses,

IsHestar

which I rode at Ishestar on my first trip, and the gorgeous ice and ash landscape of the Southern coastIce&Ash, where I’d also been before.

What one does come to Iceland for is waterfalls and geothermal/volcanic wonders. Deildartunguhver, the highest-flow hot spring in Europe, is minutes away from Reykholt. It is a “sight” only in name, as mostly you cannot see anything (“Reyk” means “steam,” and it was appropriately copious). On this trip, it was my first reminder that all of Iceland is a huge pressure cooker and we could all blow up at any point.

 

After Miss O tired of her free sauna, we made our way to the other actually visible sight nearby, the twin waterfalls of Hraunfossar and Barnafoss. I thought the latter (Children’s Falls) would be more dramatic, as their name refers to a saga in which a mother leaves her two children home alone and upon her return finds that they drowned trying to cross a stone bridge over the waterfall. She puts a curse on the arch that destroys it, either so that the same thing will never happen to anyone again or so that no one will ever again be able to cross the river alive (I like the second option better). In any case, Hraunfossar (Lava Falls) was a more unique display since water does not flow on a river that drops height, but rather seeps out of the side of the lava canyon.

Barnafoss2             Hraunfossar

Two things are not immediately apparent from these photos. The first is that it must have been at least 10:00 p.m. when we took them: June is midnight-sun season in Iceland (and it might wreak havoc on your circadian clock, as it did on mine). The second is that the area was swarming with these horrible little black flies that I’ve learned are called midges. They were all over the place, although I don’t remember them from my previous trip to Iceland in late July-early August. Luckily these didn’t bite, but they love to get in your nose and mouth, and are so annoying if I return to Iceland in summer I’m bringing a vintage Elsa Schiaparelli full-veil cocktail hat (or, well, a more practical Bughat).

Miss O had never been to Iceland before, so after my symposium we headed down to the popular Golden Circle. We made the requisite stops at Þingvellir (site of the ancient Icelandic Parliament, one of the earliest in the world), Geysir (where you can find the original geyser that gave its name to all others, and the one that actually still erupts quite sensationally every few minutes, Strokkur), and Gullfoss (a spectacular waterfall–you should know by now that’s the meaning of “foss”–still on the same river as Hraunfossar and Barnafoss, the Hvítá).

It was not a great day for touring, partly because our GPS Bergur was not going to make entering the Þ in Þingvellir (or the substitute th) easy for us, and partly because it rained, and rained, and rained some more. But, good sports that we are, we loved every minute of our journey.

TheRains

In addition to its political significance, Þingvellir is one place where you can appreciate the continental drift between the North American and Eurasian plates, and Miss O was just thrilled to step right into it, umbrella in hand as well-equipped explorers always are:

Thingvellir

We also posed next to Drekkingarhylur or the drowning pool, where over the course of centuries women found guilty of adultery, incest, or filicide were reportedly stuffed into sacks and thrown in–just because we really started getting into the crazy violence of Icelandic folkore (and there but for the grace of God go I?)

Thingvellir2

And yes, good models that we are,  you cannot tell we were being attacked by the dreadful midges at the very moment our picture was taken.

At Geysir we braved the danger (“Remember that the water is 176-194ºF. It will burn badly. The nearest hospital is 62km away!!!!!!”)* across the steamy field to see the small craters filled with impossibly clear or milky blue water, and yes–good actresses that we are, you cannot tell we are yet again being attacked by the dreadful midges (eyewear used here as protection):

GeysirCollage

[* Icelandic friends were telling me how in these days of increasing tourism there has also been an exponentially increasing need to rescue visitors doing idiotic things–and, ahem ahem, Spaniards were mentioned as among the most culpable.]

Once again, however, we were rewarded by one of the best natural shows on earth (namely, lots more steam):

Finally, upon arrival at Gullfoss the rain gave us a break to allow a faraway glimpse of Langjökull, the second-largest glacier in Iceland:

ice cap

The short hike to the falls was stormy and wet and crazy-cold, which prompted me into an impulse purchase at the gift store: a totally trendsetting yellow fisherman’s cape made by 66º North, Iceland’s now-famous outdoor clothing manufacturer. Gulfoss2Not a bad souvenir to get, in addition to anything woolen–but I warn that Icelandic wool, although naturally water-proof, is extremely itchy.

That made us the brightest and chicest pair in the whole place, and now properly outfitted we made our way to the cataract, which was kind enough to afford us a brief clearing and a rainbow:

Gulfoss collage

By then we were exhausted and starving (despite its natural beauty, Gulfoss made me think of nothing more than a slice of skyrkaka–a delicious cheesecake I must have had every day while in Iceland, and which I am happy to hear has lower fat and higher protein than regular cheesecake). Although it was late, we made a detour to the quaint port village of Eyrarbakki, where we had read there was an excellent restaurant by the name of Rauða Húsið (The Red House). Despite its elegant décor and our haggard appearance (and the rotting fish carcasses hanging across the street, used for making harðfiskur),

rottingshark

we were served quite a delectable dinner, including one of the most luscious dishes I’ve ever had, their slightly curried creamy langoustine soup (Miss O oohed and aahed about their mussels, which were also quite good and plentiful).

20160630_212730                  20160630_214335

After dinner, driving to spend the night in Grindavík–a town near both the airport and the Blue Lagoon–we got a little more rain,

 

but also a glorious midnight sunset (is it still sunset if it never gets dark?).

Midnight Sun

Our hotel for the “night” was Geo Hotel Grindavík, an inexpensive US$203 (for Iceland prices) and wonderful not only because of its recent construction, but also because you get YOUR OWN BATHROOM, not a common occurrence in that part of the world.

In the morning Miss O dutifully rose early and headed to the Blue Lagoon, where I did not accompany her because a) I wanted to sleep in, b) it’s become quite crowded and expensive, 50€ for a plain soak, c) you need advance reservations, and d) I’d also been there before (but it’s still fun to do, and the water and white mud quite a marvel). Then we did something more authentically Icelandic, which was swimming in a regular pool–there’s one in every town and supposedly they’re all heated geothermally (the hot tubs were also glorious for our weary bodies). After which we parted ways, Miss O back to an exotic Southern France holiday and me forward to the last leg of my adventure.

I headed to Reykjavík (Vík = Cove so “Steamy Cove”) for one night at the Icelandair Hotel Natura (US$275/double), which I would not have picked except for the fact that it is next to the city’s domestic airport (it’s a five-minute drive from the center, however, and probably a 20-minute walk). It was luxurious: the room was large and though they still faked a queen bed by putting two twins together, said twins were sturdy enough not to be transported across the floor whenever I tossed or turned. I had yet again MY OWN BATHROOM, and free access to a pool and spa. None of which I enjoyed, because my friend Prof. H from the University of Iceland had graciously put together a dinner party in my honor at her house, with a group of delightful friends.

So I did not get to indulge and rejuvenate, but I did get to relax over an early drink with Prof. H in her lovely kitchen

Miss H

while she prepared an Icelandic dinner of hangikjöt or smoked lamb (she mentioned nothing about it possibly having been smoked in sheep dung), smoked salmon, a variety of scrumptiously flaky fish, and… skyrkaka!

Dinner

Really friggin’ early the next morning, I boarded a propeller plane to Akureyri in North Iceland, the country’s second-largest city (though I’d call it a village) and a beautiful landscape completely different from everything I experienced previously. It is on the shore of Eyjafjörður, the longest fjord in Iceland, and surrounded by gorgeous snow-capped mountains (ski country)–surprisingly warm (at least in June) despite its location 100km from the Arctic Circle.

Airiceland                          AkureyriMts

Through the airline, I had reserved a day tour to Lake Mývatn (subcontracted to SBA). It was a small-scale minivan affair to begin with but became a luxe private tour when I was the only guest (!!!). So I got both the van and my charming guide Inga (a knowledgeable Special Ed teacher who, like so many Icelanders, has moved to the tourism industry) all to myself.

On the way to the lake we first stopped at Goðafoss, another majestic waterfall and one of Iceland’s largest.

Godafoss1

Its name, “Waterfall of the Gods,” commemorates the time in the early XIth century when Law Speaker Þorgeir Þorkelsson, after three days of retreat and careful deliberation, decided the country should convert to Christianity. In order to set the example, upon his return he gathered all his pagan icons and threw them into the torrent. Thus his brethren followed the lead happily, especially as they were allowed to keep most of their existing religious customs like exposure to the elements to dispose of unwanted babies. (It is, hence, paradoxical that they would later start drowning mothers at Þingvellir for following similar procedures.)

I was somewhat alarmed moving on to Mývatn, since Itamar had told me its name means “Lake of the Midges” and I couldn’t imagine a higher concentration of those than we’d found around the Golden Circle. Fortunately there weren’t any (!), perhaps because the weather was slightly colder than in the south. The Mývatn area is simply a breathtaking geological miracle. People say it’s probably the closest thing to both the topography of Earth’s early days and the lunar landscape–and it is, indeed, one of the places where Apollo astronauts trained for their voyages. More recently, of course, the area is famous as film location for Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Game of Thrones.

Mountains in the area are totally barren rock formations–either cone-shaped tuff (from appearing in sudden violent eruptions, I think) or flat-topped tuyas (from pressing a long time against a glacier surface). The lake itself is the result of prolonged volcanic activity, and scattered through it are fascinating pseudocraters around whose rim it is possible to walk.

Myvatn pseudocraters

Oh, and you get to see lots of mama and baby ducks:

Ducks

Spellbinding as the scenery was, Inga said the most beautiful Mývatn views are found in winter, and I do not doubt her. I’m heading there when I return to Iceland to see the aurora borealis.

We next drove past some imposing lava formations

Lava formations

while happily chatting about Inga’s impression that many more women than men are traveling solo these days

(although it’s possible that women sign up for tours, whereas solo-traveling men go on to drive off cliffs on their own). Lunch, by myself, was at tourist-oriented but very cute Gamli Bistro, where I had another Icelandic staple: the lamb sandwich (they call it burger but the meat isn’t ground).

The place we visited afterwards is one of Iceland’s most enchanting (in more than one sense of the word). First, because of its terrain:

Dimmuborgir4

One has the impression, in this area, that rocks are still flowing mounds of molten lava that might almost feel like Play Doh. Second, because of the Dimmuborgir legend, which holds that these are really giant trolls who once, during the long winter night, decided to have a party and lived it up so much they forgot they would be petrified when the sun came up. And, as you can see, it caught some of them still “kissing” or whatever else they were doing:

DBTrolls

The legend does not seem too compatible with the idea that these trolls are also the Santa-like Yule Lads who treat children at Christmas, but we’ve already established Icelandic folkore can be self-contradictory.

With rocks as the landscape’s protagonists you’re not thinking much about vegetation, but Inga pointed out the tiny wild buds that were rather recently, in 2004, named Iceland’s national flower, the holtasóley (it’s not a botanical kind of country, that’s for sure; in the US we would just pull those weeds out):

Flower

As if I hadn’t had enough visual feast, from there we went to the geothermal cave of Grótagjá, which I’d rather remember forever as the den of XVIIIth-century outlaw Jón Markússon than (because Hollywood ruins everything) as the place where Jon Snow lost his virginity.

Grótagjá Collage

Outside the cave you can see another part of the continental divide, this one a much narrower (and dangerous-looking) crack than you see in Þingvellir.

You’d think this tour could’t possibly include more beautiful stuff, but three incredible places were still to come. The Krafla volcano, which last erupted 1975-1984 (and is presumably due for more soon), is supposed to be the place where the Devil landed after being expelled from heaven, and Víti, the name for one of the two craters in its caldera, is actually a word for “Hell.” It looked pretty peaceful, in any case, with only the occasional jogger running around, unawares:

Krafla Crater 1 Krafla Crater 2

That it is not as peaceful as it seems is evident from the fact that Krafla is also the name of the enormous geothermal plant it powers.

But what is really hellish is the nearby geothermal field, Námafjall Hverir,

Námafjall Hverir 1

whose innumerable fumaroles spew out sulphurous boiling mud and, yes, more steam.

The carefully marked paths have to be remapped constantly, as the site is so unstable that someone might sink today where yesterday it was completely possible to walk (they might have lost a couple of Spanish tourists here). It is not easy, as the ground is mighty muddy and soft:

Mud

After all that a little unwinding was in order, so Inga and I ended what would be an almost-ten-hour tour at the Mývatn Nature Baths, the only geothermal lagoon outside the famous Blue. Mývatn doesn’t have the same silica content, and is therefore slightly less “blue” (and lacking the famous white mud and all the merchandising made from it) but, more remote, it is much less crowded and touristy.

Baths Inga  Baths Me

To be honest, this whole public bath thing is not necessarily my favorite activity (one wonders why I just booked my next trip to Budapest). I dislike the preparatory ritual of stripping in the open locker room and being pressured (some sort of matrons were actually watching) to thoroughly clean all my orifices in the communal shower before walking, wet, in my old-lady bikini (accessories including towel not allowed–and any jewelry will darken), across a freezing plaza to the pool itself. But alas, I did that (✓), and it was relaxing, and  they even bring you a beer while you’re soaking–though I really, really wished it could have been white wine.

The warm water actually brought out all the muscle pain from climbing rocks all day, so I was barely conscious as Inga drove me past fields strewn with giant white-wrapped hay marshmallows (there were also green ones and pink ones for breast cancer awareness!) back to Akureyri.

Akureyri          Akureyri Port

She dropped me off at the picturesque Hotel Akureyri (US$208), where a climb to the fourth story I’m not sure how I accomplished brought me to the very inviting room with MY OWN BATHROOM (but don’t be fooled, those are two twin beds, if cozy and sturdy as well).

Akureyri Room            AkureyriTrees2

I was disappointed not to have a harbor view, which the hotel advertised as a feature of almost all rooms, but before complaining realized I had a much more exotic view: trees. Which are barely to be found in Iceland. (Inga said their lack is one of the reasons they kill polar bears who float to Iceland on icebergs, as climbing a tree is the only way to escape such a predator–but I think she might have been shitting me on this one.) Too tired to rumble, all I could manage for dinner was a quick spaghetti bolognese and chianti at a nearby Italian restaurant–suprisingly good actually–before dropping dead for the evening.

I would end this long post here, except that my early-morning flight back to Reykjavik was slightly delayed for a reason worthy of mention: a charter flight for that evening’s scheduled European Cup football quarter-final between France and Iceland, which had never before qualified for the tournament (and is the smallest nation ever to have done so).

Futbol

After all, they had to go! At any one point, apparently, 8% of Iceland’s population was actually at Euro 2016. Not only was there football fever in every other store window (the one above in Akureyri); when I arrived in Reykjavik the stage was being set up to watch the game in what was still a peaceful plaza but would in a couple of days become the stage for heroes’ welcome (not an inch of that green grass in the photo above visible underneath the multitude). It was during my flight back to Barcelona that, sadly, France did what it did.

But it was an exciting time to be there, at a moment when the country is coming to terms, post-crisis, with its new economics and its new presence in Europe. I’ll go back soon: to ride the ponies again and see the Northern Lights and the Snaefellsness Peninsula and the Western Fjords in the company of dear friends.

In the meantime, HUH! (Do it, click, and add your Viking Chant!)

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Sabbatical News: Working Hard in Barcelona and Business Trip to Iceland (I)

Another exhausting academic year went by (not without some extremely pleasurable victories against the forces of evil), and I have now begun that precious periodic institutional observance that keeps university faculty from having to be institutionalized: sabbatical! This time it’s only one semester, and although there are still six months to go I already feel like I’m running out of time. But I will not complain.

The year’s end was marked, in what is now a tradition, by a 2-dozen oyster lunch extravaganza with Miss R at Eats on Lex (tip: they always have Groupons available–we each buy one for our own dozen!)

Eats.jpg

followed by checking out the Metropolitan Museum’s latest Costume Institute exhibition.

Spring 2016’s show, Manus X Machina, was not as spectacular as previous ones like 2011’s Alexander McQueen retrospective, or as beautifully classic as the ones on mourning fashions or couturier Charles James (both 2014), but it did feature stunning clothes made through either traditional artisanal methods or ultramodern technology (the game was to try to identify which before reading the descriptions–not always easy). We generally found the older handmade fashions most beautiful whereas the modern stuff included, well, dresses made of bird heads and drinking straws. It’s hard to remember how many times I remarked on the obvious impossibility of sitting while wearing this or that postmodern outfit, but was nevertheless partial to Hussein Chalayan’s fiberglass Floating Dress, which not only has the advantage of coming with its own hourglass figure, but is (alas!) WHEELED. You obviously can’t sit in it either (unless it has a little bench inside), but it saves you the hassle of having to walk in heels. I’m buying it the moment he adds a stair-climbing feature. (You can see the exhibit through August 14.)

So that was that and then I left New York, not without grudgingly saying goodbye to a lovely lad who may or may not be waiting at the quay, in French Lieutenant’s Woman style, when I return (I hope he is). As solace to my grief, I was greeted in Barcelona by my lovely lad from last summer Mr. P, who did weather the disagreeable easterly winds for a year (💕). I may have found the secret to happiness in my old age.

Also waiting for me at the quay were dearest Messrs. S and A, who kindly helped me get settled in (an ongoing process). This year’s FABULOUS digs belong to Miss L, who exchanged her smaller Gràcia pied-à-terre for a small two-bedroom and is generously letting me rent it although she’s barely had the opportunity to enjoy it herself. The apartment is perfect save for the disciplined aspiring flutist next door–but I did live through an aspiring jazz drummer in my last flat. Miss L has tastefully renovated the place with some typical Barcelona architectural elements like the volta catalana and recovered antique hydraulic floor tile. Also it has the most delicious shower in town–wonderful rainfall showerhead plus handheld, and I swear the space is large enough for a crowd (party!).

Eixample Dreta is yet a new neighborhood for me–I don’t know how, after nearly thirty apartments in Barcelona over the course of as many years, I manage to always end up in a different part of what is actually a fairly small city. Unlike my recent ‘hoods in Ciutat Vella, the Barri Gòtic and Sant Antoni/RavalEixample Dreta is a definitely upscale, stately modernista district. As is readily apparent in the stately modernista entrance to my Passeig Sant Joan building, which never fails to put me in a good mood as I get into the tardis-like elevator.

BCNAPT

It’s definitely less “happening” around here than downtown, but hey, I’m getting ready to WORK. The plan is to take advantage of these blissfully student-free months to advance my (still possibly posthumous) third book, develop one or two new courses, work on a couple of papers. (And write a couple of blog posts when there are voyages or notable vicissitudes!)

The first paper had to be churned out during my very first week in Barcelona, as I was due to present it at the First Annual Meeting of the International Association for Polysystem Studies–an exciting new project undertaken by collaborators whose work has been interrelated for well over twenty years (and also an excellent excuse to go to Iceland).

The symposium, in honor of my Most Beloved Mentor-Guru Itamar Even-Zohar,

Itamar

was actually quite interesting, featuring thirteen scholars from nine countries (Iceland, Israel, Italy, Hong Kong, Netherlands, Turkey, Brazil, Spain, and the US) and fields ranging from literature/translation studies to history to economics. All were analyzing different types of culture–from national to corporate–from a common set of parameters based on the Polysystem Theory first developed by Even-Zohar and interdisciplinary methodologies following the model of Tel Aviv University’s Unit for Culture Research. My own paper focused on Puerto Rico’s present economic and political situation, and all these wise doctors from all corners of the globe coincided in concluding that it is hopeless and there is no solution.

The meeting took place in the remote “town” of Reykholt.  The quotation marks speak to the fact that there seems to be nothing there but our venue: Snorrastofa, a center devoted to medieval culture located on the former homestead of twelfth-century Law Speaker, historian, and saga writer (or saga-appropriating patron, as a colleague argued) Snorri Sturluson. Snorri was relaxing in his geothermal pool, Snorralaug (where we were not allowed to dip, even though it seems to have been possible until not long ago),

Snorralag

when enemy chieftains sent by the King of Norway after some nasty treason business chased him out into his cellar and axe-murdered him. Because his last words were presumably “Eigi skal höggva!” (Don’t strike!), he is by all accounts remembered as much for dying in fear as for being an Icelandic founding father:

Snorri

I think Jorge Luis Borges phrased it more poetically, though.

Snorri Sturluson (1179 – 1241)

You, who left to posterity an unsparing

Tribal mythology of ice and flame,

You, who made fast in words the violent fame

Of your forebears, their ruthlessness and daring,

Were stunned to feel, as the mythic swords towered

Over you one evening, your insides churning,

And in that trembling dusk that bides no morning

It was revealed to you you were a coward.

Now in the Iceland night the heavy seas

Tower and plunge in the salt gale. Your cell

Is under siege. You have drained to the lees

A shame never to be forgotten. Now

The sword is falling above your pallid brow

As in your book repeatedly it fell.

(I still heretically think Borges was a terrible poet, but the Spanish original here is a little less godawful.)

At Reykholt I got to stay in Nes Guesthouse, a typical Icelandic farm lodging I would have enjoyed more if I liked golf (it has a course) instead of large beds and private bathrooms. The most remarkable thing about it was the inkeeper, who looked exactly as I imagine Rip Van Winkle, and I’m pretty sure we woke him up from a twenty-year sleep (but this may be the wrong folklore tradition). And I had every meal at the restaurant in Fosshotel, which offered only two entree options–cod or lamb–but they were both fresh and cooked to perfection.

Reykholt is also, as I mentioned, remote: as in, not that far from Reykjavik but virtually unreachable except in your own rental car. Hence, I drove in Europe FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER, taking care not to run over any sheep as the “How to Drive in Iceland” brochure said I’d have to pay for it if I broke it (however, no native Icelanders seem to know how much a sheep is worth).

Luckily, my friend and colleague Miss O was available as co-pilot (I would have been too chicken to drive on my own) and, once the symposium was over, to accompany me on a couple of exploration days guided by our untrustworthy GPS, Bergur (whom we named for the somewhat more helpful Director of Snorrastofa, unbeknownst to him). Like all males in a car, Bergur was fond of issuing stern orders, and you could almost see him rolling his eyes when instead we followed the competing recommendations of the (unnamed) female in my TomTom phone app. But this had to be done, as he was also fond of declaring “You Have Reached Your Destination” when we were obviously not anywhere near not just our destination but any other human settlement. We surmised that, being Icelandic, perhaps he could see things that were invisible to us, and lo and behold, Miss O: we were right!  Apparently a not-totally-insignificant number of Icelanders (54% according to a 1998 poll) believe in huldufolk or invisible elves, who have their own invisible towns and get really upset when the government tries to build roads through them (and yes, civic-minded elves that they are, sometimes “seers” have convinced them to relocate).

So Bergur, as it turns out, was just trying to show us the real Iceland, because like so many of his compatriots he has joined the increasingly massive tourism industry: in 2011, when I fist traveled there, Iceland had 565,000 visitors; in 2015, 1,289,140 (the country’s current total population is 331,862). But since I sadly missed all the elf dwellings in his Huldufolk Tour, in the second part of this post I’ll have to tell you only about the sights I did catch.

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From Puerto Rico to La Mercè: Deep Thoughts on Another Friggin’ Birthday

So… life’s been happening while I looked away. I briefly escaped to Puerto Rico, and squeezed in two days of quality time with my venerable Maman Lady F at Villas del Mar Hau in Isabela. It is a very scenic (and reasonably priced) little hotel with incredible views from every casita, which we thoroughly enjoyed right up until Security came to board up our windows on account of the HURRICANE WARNING.

Scenic  Security

In the short time before being entombed alive in front of a screaming TV forecasting doomsday–I won’t say before the storm because THERE WAS NO STORM!–we did manage a quick beach stroll during which I got to walk around blind on account of the crazy wind and Lady F could engage in one of her favorite pastimes (which is not finding seashells but picking things up from the ground wherever she is–even green plastic trash-like things as clearly observable below).

Mom  Windy

I learned this about Isabela: I don’t like it. At least not as a beach destination, because the waves and currents look (and are) deadly at all times, weather event or not, except for the occasional natural or artificially-made pocita or pool which is never deep enough. The views are great, though, and you will like it if you are a surfer or don’t mind the ever-present, scary, and visually abstruse tsunami danger warning signs (is that a wave or a dragon?).

Stormy  Tsunami

We also pulled off a brief stop for delicious fritanga at some place called Willy’s At The Beach where the food was actually great and the service quite friendly, but which was a little too bilingual for my taste:

Pollito Chicken

As my friend Dr. A loves to point out accusingly, I am a self-hating Puerto Rican (somewhat, I qualify), and things like that just throw me back to kindergarten and one of the first songs I learned, Pollito Chicken Gallina Hen–an insidious tune that, as a method for teaching English, flies in the face of every second-language acquisition theory ever, and which for me (and countless others, I’m sure) is probably the origin of decades of cultural trauma. NOW look, they’re trying to undo the damage, as schizophrenically as fingerwaggingly!

Back in San Juan, I had a chance to catch up with my lifelong BFFs Miss LG, Miss I and Mistress Yodalina, as well as Mr. P, who was out of town for last year’s reunion:

BFFS

Lots of beauty, if you take into account that there’s 250+ years worth of humanity in that photo. The happy occasion took place at newly discovered (recently opened, really) Micheito Bodequita, which is now up there with La Jaquita Baya and Soda on my list of San Juan faves.

But that was long ago and far away, the last hurrah of my brilliant summer. Now I am once again in New York: beauty, happiness, and hope all destroyed by the beginning of a new academic year. As usual, work work work–weekdays, evenings, weekends. I also have my second throat infection in less than two months, a clear sign that my aging body and soul can no longer deal with the unbearable banalities of gainful employment, at least in increasingly corporate academia (where I am so oppressed, I literally don’t have a voice). And as I spent Friday night lonely and miserable because I could not even talk on the phone, I suddenly realized I am less than a week away from turning… 51 (on the feast of La Mercè, no less, perhaps explaining both my catalanophilia and my love of a good time). FIFTY-ONE!!!!!!!!! I haven’t fully processed 50 yet! Has it really been a full year since the jubilee?

And yet in some ways it seems so long ago. Last year I didn’t know Lady F wasn’t an immortal Vampire Queen–this spring she had a brush with cancer and I do believe it was the first time I ever saw her not-well (she won that battle, though it’s not clear how the scuffle with her post-surgery pill is going, and neither of us is exactly the person she was before). Anyway, I’ve now found out how far I am from the perfect daughter, and how both of us may ultimately have to make do with “good enough.” But also that I’m grateful to the Universe for Lady F and in fact for the entire dysfunctional F clan. So, in pondering such transcendental topics at this new turning point, I also wonder if I’ve learned anything else; possibly something that isn’t quite so sobering…

The other night my longtime michelangelesque bollycao, back from the claws of famine and disease, waxed poetic about how “together” I seem compared to other fiftysomethings he knows, who are all midlife crises and drunkenness (funny how young’uns regard us old folk). Oh My, I thought, as I held on to my wine glass, perhaps in the company of my version of a Porsche: am I indeed not all drunkenness and midlife crisis? Have I learned anything substantive in my past year/half a century of life? Am I becoming prudent and wise? Unable to come up with answers to these questions right off the bat, I posed them to an assortment of my dearest contemporaries, and got some interesting answers, publicly (on Facebook) and privately.

Foreseeably, the very first replies were from friends less than happy with things their bodies are (no longer?) doing: “I feel about 30 but sometimes my body disagrees.” “I have learned that my body has its limits.” (I myself am coming to terms with the realization that ten pounds gained over a stressful spring semester won’t just go away over the summer because Greece and Spain have that healthy Mediterranean diet.) Someone tried awfully hard to sound thrilled about it: “If you could [stay] 22 again or whatever age you deemed your more youthful and beautiful… how long do you think before you got bored with life?” (Hmm…) Less foreseeably, more than one person is afraid at some point no longer far off in the future they’re going to start smelling bad.

None would describe themselves as feeling more prudent, quite the opposite! And some questioned the notion of acquired wisdom–“the older I get, the more I’ve experienced, the less I understand.” But they seemed fine with that: “I’m good with now, whatever now seems to be.” Some did feel wiser, but in a very particular way: “I say and do what I please and don’t care much what others think, because after all others don’t pay my bills. I’ve embraced my flaws.” And a personal favorite reply: “I no longer believe in ghosts, gods or the afterlife. I can now focus on reality and that the consequences of my actions are only mine to accept, amend or ignore. I no longer carry the weight of my parents’ mistakes, beliefs or their total lack of imagination.” Being wiser to them means being more in charge of (and responsible for) their own trajectory and liberated from pressures to behave, succeed in the rat race, or live up to expectations: “The main thing I’ve learned is that society’s rules don’t always apply.” Or, in meme form,

Fuck This Shit

Discussions on gained wisdom, in some cases, took a much more “applied” drift (via text). Lovely female friend: “You wear bikinis if you are very young, or after 50, because you don’t mind cellulite anymore; it’s there to stay. Also, when you get older you’d pick a 90-minute massage over a quickie.” Lovely male friend: “I vote for the quickie!” (I may or may not have said something about the unfortunate illegality of happy-ending massages; why must we always choose? But I do wear a bikini, even if I’ve chosen a modest old-lady style.)

Some friends expressed an uplifting feeling of renewed energy: “My mid-life crisis made me feel young all over again!” On the other hand, certain answers denoted a spunky ennui colored by the disappointment and loss that most people will have experienced by this time: “I feel alive, finally able to ditch all the components of that dreaded straightjacket that was my younglin’ age.” “I’ve solidified my belief that independence is key. Rely on no one (man).” Curiously, and inspiringly, these responses were feisty rather than subdued.

More contemplative observations hinted at underlying anxieties, sadness, and nostalgia, always expressed with the fabulous dry wit characteristic of my bunch: “I think that the 40s were a lot better than the 50s. You’ve already gotten to the point where you don’t care what people think, but your body hasn’t started to give out yet (your memory either). And most of your friends are still alive. But at least most of your friends’ children have grown up, and you no longer have to deal with them trying to bring them along when you go out to dinner. Of course, once I’m completely through menopause, I might be in a better mood about all this.” (I hear ya!) Together with the wit, I also got very moving valuations of what’s been worthy and worthless along the way and how to navigate what’s coming: “Older and wiser here, far more cynical than ever, especially when it comes to institutions, including governments and universities. Don’t like the people, so often ill-bred and in-your-face, but very fond of individual persons, the only source and repository of love. Art matters, perhaps more than ever. The strange matters–the sounds and letters of a new tongue; a fish market in a foreign city. Cities–cities matter despite the people. Trees and flowers matter. The Alps matter. Wine o’clock matters. The past matters enormously; the prospect of one’s conscience dying totally sucks.” I agree with every single one of those phrases, most notably the one about wine o’clock (but also the affirmation of dignity, consequence, and–forever–wonder).

Nora

A couple of friends rejected or circumvented the idea of having learned (or having to learn) from age, quite refreshingly: “I have learned that I am not as young as I used to be.” “My problem is that I was never too brilliant and life’s lessons keep going over my head… BTW I think I’ll get you moisturizer for your birthday” (yes, and yes!). Or, the ultimate self-deprecating loveliness: “Um, I’m the queen of regrets? But perhaps the wisdom of Grace Jones will help you.” I went straight to the source, and as much as by Mighty Grace’s pronouncement that “I’m always rebelling… don’t think I’ll ever stop,” I was motivated by the fact that she requires her rooms “furnished with two dozen oysters on ice, unopened because ‘Grace does her own shucking.’” As do I! Oysters matter too.

It was interesting that while most of my pals responded with introspective ruminations on lessons learned (advice implicit), only one translated those into explicit advice. Quite welcome; I can totally use it: “1) Go for the nice girl over the crazy one. 2) Meditation is way more effective than therapy. 3) Might as well try and enjoy life now b/c we’re almost dead.” Meditating requires patience I don’t have, but I take #3 to heart, and–as she well knows–obviously need #1 (orientation-adapted) because, unlike the enlightened woman in this meme who learned so much after 40,

Pelotudos

I not only cannot for the life of me spot a pelotudo–they are my fatal attraction and addiction.

Although I started this as mindless chatter for my silly blog, I am quite humbled by the collective insights that came up. I am certainly not more “together” than my cohort (unquestionably a select slice of my generation). If anything I’ve managed to figure out a few things about myself and my true needs (not the things Walt Disney thought I should need). It’s not just that I no longer want the things I wanted between my 20s and early 40s: I am no longer sure that I ever did. I am a bit of a self-hating Puerto Rican, and fundamentally rootless–always surprised by the ease with which I could just pack up and abandon my current life at any time. Indeed, I’m pretty sure I get sick of everything in nine-year cycles. As per recently encountered Spanish pop psychology, I seem to be an agamist: someone who’s firmly come to believe that physically and emotionally satisfying relationships can and should occur outside the traditional monogamous couple. I knowingly do the same pathetic things over and over again (because maybe the sixteenth time is the charm), and sometimes take unnecessary risks. I am also a card-carrying feminist who often lapses into horrifying adolescent girly-girl behavior. I’m fiercely independent, and tend to keep people at arm’s length, but also become fiercely attached to those with whom I finally become friends. I am much more concerned with ethics than with religion (which I despise) or spirituality (which I suspect). Despite an admittedly privileged salary, I am a financial disaster and have a hard time making myself care (except when I worry about not saving enough for the nursing home or, more frequently, can’t afford a shiny goodie I desire). I spend the nursing home money foolhardily on grooming, because I don’t fucking want to age gracefully. I like to travel–another cornerstone of my financial negligence. I like Barcelona. I need Barça. And champagne and cava. And horses. I love reading, passionately. And air conditioning, also passionately. And boys (of various ages), with all their snips and snails and puppy dog’s tails. And PORK. And blah blah blah.

Some of those things are good, many others not so good, and most are decidedly contradictory. In the end, all that self-knowledge hasn’t made me figure out how to go about living well for however long is left. All I’ve learned about life is that it likes to happen while you’re looking away. But at least I’m lucky to have these wise (though imprudent) friends for rescues, ass-whoopings, and sensible advice. Together, over 600 years of sage humanity!

So as the fateful day approaches, this is what I plan to do. I’m not going to say yes when I mean no, or do things I don’t want to do (started today already!). I’m going to unnecessarily alienate people at work if I feel like it. I’m going to engage in stupid, pitiful behavior and not kill myself about it afterwards. I’m going to burst into my hairstylist’s and give her all my money to please do something. I’m going to charge things I can’t afford to my credit card, because I want them. I’m going to run the a/c even if it’s not that hot outside. I’m going to eat cake. I’m going to drink with friends. I’m going to drink ALONE! I’m going to idle. I’m going to party and shake my booty and even hanky-panky just because I still can. I’m going to run away from old age like it’s a dragon or a tsunami wave. And then I’m going to keep doing all that, way past La Mercè until the day I finally have to close up shop.

Let the festivities begin.

20150920105114 (1)

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Art, Architecture, Parks and Recreation: My Begrudging New York City Staycation

Having misguidedly decided to return from Barcelona a full five weeks before the beginning of the semester, in the middle of the scorching summer and while most of my friends are still away, I resolved to try to make the best of it. Isn’t NYC a world-class destination? Well, then, why not enjoy it?

Fresh off the plane I called my dear friend Dr. A

W&A

and lucked out as her pretty little girls were at camp and she could play with me all weekend. The first night she got to decide what we were doing, although I did specify no movies because she can’t be trusted not to choose a Disney flick even on her kid-free eves (some day I’ll write about my hatred of all things Disney). Someone had given her a Groupon for a little Italian restaurant (owned by a Chilean!) where we had a pleasant if unremarkable dinner, and then I volunteered to accompany her to the Cubbyhole, a West Village lesbian bar where I totally cramped her style (for which I deeply apologize). We did have fun bickering about which patrons were or were not sexy, and I’m happy to report I did not stick out like a sore thumb and actually did pretty well with the ladies. All platonic, however: if I ever do see the light and give up men, I’ve already picked my imaginary girlfriend, Edurne Pasaban. I do believe we would both have to see the light–but seriously, who wouldn’t want an i.g. who has climbed every eight-thousander in the world and still looks great in a little black dress? As to why a famous mountain climber would dig me… well, I have my charms, if I may say so myself (I was once wooed by a gay beauty queen in a Providence bar–there were witnesses!).

Alluring as I can be, ultimately I’m just a little old lady who wants to sit down and drink wine, and although the Cubbyhole is quite funkily decorated and has a great oldies jukebox, it’s also a standing-room-only beer-oriented joint. So I eventually made us get the hell out of there and head to good-ol’ Chelsea’s Bar Veloce, “New York’s ‘old-fashioned’ modern Italian wine bar since 2000.” Definitely my vibe, old-fashioned yet modern! More recently, I went for the stylish bar experience during a visit from my dah-ling Miss L: the Spice Market in the Meatpacking District–also a yummy though expensive restaurant. The sultry Southeast Asian atmosphere (here caught on a previous occasion by my brilliant photojournalist friend Mistress Yodalina, with my always sophisticated BFF Miss G in the foreground)

G-SM

just calls for an exotic cocktail, so I ordered nothing less than a Mai Tai. Utterly delicious except for the part where I forgot that it contains pineapple juice, to which I’m viciously allergic. That ended up in hive/scratch central, so I might just keep sticking to the wine bars.

The next day, Dr. A and I went to the inaugural exhibit at the new Whitney Museum, “America is Hard to See” (to which I returned later with Miss L). It is hard to tell which is more spectacular: the art drawn from the extensive Whitney collection, much of which had not been on view for a long time in the former, smaller quarters, or the Renzo Piano building itself, which in addition to the massive luminous galleries has playful outdoor spaces framing magnificent views of New York and the Hudson river (OK, and New Jersey). In an interview, Piano–who also designed the lovely Morgan Library addition and the New York Times building, one of my city favorites–emphasizes the openness and accessibility of the ground floor (he calls it the piazza) and its connection to surrounding open spaces like the High Line, the Hudson River Park, and the Meatpacking District itself, bustling more than ever with new open-air cafes and markets (right now, it is probably the most outdoors-oriented ‘hood in NYC, and let’s not forget the excellent shopping).

Gansevoort

Piano wanted the Whitney to be used in ways exceeding its museum function, and people definitely sit on the sidewalk chairs, browse the street stands, make the museum a stop on their park stroll. For me the most enjoyable part are the splendid terraces and exterior staircases on all the upper floors, from which panoramas of the river and city (as much more than a skyline) are literally mesmerizing: they transfix your gaze in a way that complements rather than competes with the many representations of the same views inside.

Whitney Exterior Collage  Whitney Views Collage

The city landscape is even brought indoors, where it figures right next to many works (generally the most monumentally sized) in ways that play with your perceptions of nature/artifact, inside/outside, subject/representation. It is also Piano’s achievement that museumgoers can spend hours there without feeling at all closed-in (something the Whitney shares with other museums I fancy, such as the Bilbao Guggenheim and the Parthenon in Athens):

Whitney reflections   Miss L

(That’s Miss L’s silhouette on the right photo–only one of her I could catch as she is constantly disappearing from my sight in museums.)

As for the works inside… wow. I was never a fan of the old Whitney, which I visited mostly for Biennials that inevitably showcased a few interesting pieces along with lots of “well, I can do that too” or “the concept in your conceptual art is stupid” (I hear, by the way, that these will now be abandoned for what sounds like a promising project). The current exhibit, named after a fairly uninspiring Robert Frost poem, is nevertheless very inspiring–and worthy of the title, as it indeed helps one see the United States through its art in a comprehensive way that, at least for me, was quite new. Although works are in theory arranged thematically rather than chronologically, there is a loose sequential order that starts with the late 19th-early 20th centuries on the eighth floor and ends with the present on the fifth (after September 7th, beginning at the top, topical clusters will start changing to present more works from the permanent collection–there are also large performance spaces, in one of which I happened onto Matana Roberts’s suggestive “i call america”). Perhaps no other museum gives a better idea of how native-born and transplanted American artists reacted to issues in contemporary national history: early (and later) immigration and emigration; the rise of capitalism as well as socialist, anarchist, and other challenges to it; racism and the civil war movement; feminism and gender conflicts; AIDS; wars and terrorism; “liberal” vs. “conservative” politics; etc.

It would be futile to try to comment in any detail on particular works, as so much is included. Random mentions: I do love the seventh floor including the “Hopper and his Time” module that focuses on several wonderful Edward Hopper paintings (I love every Hopper, so lowbrow, I know) and displays other funky pieces like Alexander Calder’s 1926-31 “Circus” and George Bellows’s 1924 “Dempsey and Firpo“:

Boxer

To the right there are fantastic lithographs by a new (to me) artist I now love: Mabel Dwight. Another favorite work is George Tooker’s absolutely creepy 1950 “The Subway,” here photographed by Miss L,

Subway

in which the female protagonist seems to be experiencing existential angst in a metro station (as I so often do!). Or Arshille Gorky’s 1926-36 self-portrait with his mother, which I love not only because it’s haunting (the eyes… the hands!) but because I came to know it through Atom Egoyen’s equally haunting 2002 film on the artist’s survival of the Armenian genocide, Ararat.

Gorky

The pop art section is also tremendously, well… groovy, as well as gargantuan. Below you can see one of its coolest corners, featuring Malcolm Bailey’s 1969 “Untitled” (which I didn’t know from before), Allan D’Arcangelo’s 1963 “Madonna and Child” (Jackie and Caroline, of course), Jasper Johns’s 1958 “Three Flags,” Andy Warhol’s 1962 “Coke Bottles,” and the charming (and most grooviest) Dr. A–not part of the exhibit–admiring Claes Oldenburg’s 1967 “Giant Fagends.”

Fagends

The very contemporary galleries were equally rich in treasure, including two fascinating artists that I discovered only recently in other New York area shows. One is Kara Walker of giant Aunt Jemima fame

Sublety

(yes, I posed for a pic with her boobies, but it was an impressive and historically significant installation on the debt we owe to Southern plantation slaves). She is represented at the Whitney by a similarly-themed array of silhouette panels,

Walker

which mystified me when I tried to interpret them as a narrative sequence–but maybe they were extracted from a larger series so I shouldn’t have done that. And the other, Nam June Paik, a pioneer of video art (already in the 60s) whose visionary work I first saw at the Asia Society last October (it was also great to play with: that’s my cousin and I fiddling with his interactive camera installation below):

Paik

The Whitney features several works by him, including the 1982 V-Yramyd I photobombed:

Paik2

I was intrigued, I was flummoxed…

W Galleries 1 War

but, seriously, I’ve got to STOP. Just go (before September 27th), or browse through the works on view.

(A footnote: do combine this activity with dinner at The Standard Grill if you can. It’s not cheap, but not only is it a beautiful space in my favorite Manhattan hotel–it serves bitchin’ steaks. AND the maitre’d with dreadlocks and a suit–dreamy. Just make sure you get a table within eyesight of him; in and of itself, that will make your dinner exquisite. This isn’t just me being me; Miss L couldn’t have agreed more!)

I did just go to another exhibit with Miss L for the second time–first time was in May with my usual Costume Institute companion, Miss R. And I will tell you about it and hope you catch it before it closes (September 7th): the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute’s also enormous and breathtaking “China: Through the Looking Glass.” It follows in the footsteps of some of their previous exhibits, like the marvelous 2011 Alexander MacQueen show, the 2014 Charles James exhibit where Miss R and I were the very incarnation of glamour,

Woman's Confidence

and, shortly afterwards, the 19th-century mourning fashions collection that so engaged me in a previous post. The Institute quite outdid itself this time, spilling out of its usual space into the Met’s Chinese and Egyptian galleries, a truly arresting setting for a monumental show in which film serves as the link between antique (ancient!) and modern fashion. I feel a special connection to this exhibit as well, because the curator drew significant inspiration from my friend and colleague Homay King’s book Lost in Translation: Orientalism, Cinema, and the Enigmatic Signifier (Duke UP, 2010, buy it!). There I am again: one degree of separation from fame and sophistication!

Both the book and the show center on the way in which Western culture has constructed the “Orient” as a site of mystery: an “enigmatic signifier.” Through a colonizing, fetishizing orientalist gaze at Chinese aesthetics, Hollywood simultaneously brings it into and excludes it from American experience. The collection is not just analytical–juxtaposing intricately detailed original pieces and their modern couture interpretations–

Emperor Robe   Dress

but… synesthetic. Photos (at least mine) don’t capture the experience of looking at the objects (costumes, but also china, calligraphy, even Asian-inspired perfume bottles) while walking between enormous screens showing epic scenes from The Last Emperor.

Screens 1 Screens 2

Or entering a custom-built pagoda awash with red light, crossing the magic “water” scene, walking past the acrylic “bamboo” lights.

China Collage

Video may do a better job (look at the first one here), but you have to imagine that to the sound of hypnotizing music–here‘s a video/audio selection of films referenced by the exhibit’s artistic director, filmmaker Wong Kar Wai. Again, I could go on and on, but I’ll just show you three dresses. The two I’d really love to wear:

Wear 1

Mantón Mantón 2

(Not even close to doing justice to that mantón de manila one!) And the Most Beautiful Dress ever, photographed well by Vogue and badly by me:

China Dress

Here is a better sample of the whole visual feast. I did discover this: pretty much every dress that made me want to die with desire was by John Galliano. Final proof that you can be a jerk and a genius at the same time.

What else is there to do in New York (woman can’t live by art alone)? A the Elder and A the Younger of Barcelona fame also came for a visit, and with a teenager who’s never been to the city (exciting!) you have to do New-Yorkish things. Of course, we headed over to the 9/11 Memorial. I hate that the site of such horror has become a tourist attraction, and haven’t yet been convinced to go into the museum–but the memorial itself is a serene, respectful place of peace I quite enjoy.

Memorial

We lunched at Battery Park, but missed the crazy new carousel that was only inaugurated a couple of days ago. Like real city dwellers do, we bypassed the lines for Liberty Island cruises and boarded the free Staten Island ferry, which takes you right by.

Ferry  A&W

We strolled at night through Times Square, which had acquired a brand-new addition in commemoration of V-J Day (it was temporary, Aug. 12-16):

Times Square

We dined at the newly-reopened 38th Street Bonchon, which had the BEST (Korean) fried chicken ever

Bonchon

before it closed for renovations this spring. I was slightly disappointed this time, will have to check again. (This is the way it looked in August 2014, doesn’t it look somehow different????)

Bonchon2

For something really off-the-beaten path (that I myself had never done), we went to Roosevelt Island. I was quite keen on seeing it, because its dark past as a home for lunatics and convicts seems fascinating. It did not quite live up to expectations. Taking the aerial tram there along the Queensboro Bridge was probably the best part:

Tram1 Tram2

There were nice views of Manhattan and the East River from Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms Park, including the United Nations building which I love (Niemayer, Le Corbusier!); and of the famous Pepsi sign in Queens:

Freedoms  UN

Pepsi East

But as for engrossing history… well, everything that was once interesting was completely abandoned and in disrepair before being recuperated (and “recuperation” is a bit of an overstatement, really). There’s a wall from the original asylum still standing, in any case:

Asylum

The quaint-sounding Main Street Shops were a horrendous half-deserted concrete development. And the impressive-sounding landmark lighthouse you had to walk miles past not-at-all closed rehabilitation hospitals to reach… I think the poor convicts who built this were exploited in vain.

Lighthouse

All in all, two thumbs down. Possibly a pleasurable excursion in the spring or fall. But in the stifling, muggy New York summer, better not.

THERE. No one can say I have not been a good sport, doing my very best to have a good time despite the ridiculous planning that led me to spend my vacation’s entire last month at home. I ♥ New York! (I do, I’d just rather still be in Barcelona…).

Doomsday (first day of class) is near–September 9th–and once again I feel like I’m on death row. But first, one more detour: an eight-day trip to sunny Puerto Rico. I’ll report.

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Back to Reality, Escorted by a Playboy Bunny (Barcelona, Amsterdam, New York)

So I’m already in New York City, feeling altogether despondent.

My last couple of weeks in Barcelona flew by. There was more Pac-Man eating, of course (all references to restaurants have been added to my July 4th post), and record cava consumption. I behaved most diligently (with work) and misbehaved most fantastically (mira mi brazo tatuado… ay Conchita Piquer!). There was more cultural activity: my dear Miss M and I went to a truly excellent exhibit at the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Del segon origen: Arts a Catalunya, 1950-1977. The show is enormous and includes too many key artists and interesting works to enumerate, but make sure not to miss the tiny monitor showing Pere Portabella‘s fascinating 1969 documentary Miró, l’altre, a quasi-absurd masterpiece that features Joan Miró painting his ephemeral mural on the glass windows of the Col.legi d’Arquitectes de Catalunya–and the building’s cleaning ladies washing it off immediately afterwards! It requires standing uncomfortably in a corner for fifteen minutes, but is totally worth it. And, knowing my bunch, it goes without saying that we started with lunch at Òleum and finished with an obligatory (if not photographically skilled) selfie in front of one of the best views in the city.

MNAC

There was also a goodbye brunch for The Boys and The Girls (latter formerly known as the Bilbao Welcoming Committee), whereby my luxe apartment was at once inaugurated and closed as a social space. I had an easy-as-pie foolproof plan: delicious make-ahead deviled eggs and salmon toast for guests to nibble on as I made pancakes on the spot; bottled Illy cappuccinos and mimosas all around. But things on that side of the ocean have that special way of becoming a Spain in the Ass, beginning with those inexplicably deformed, virtually un-peelable, and utterly traumatizing Spanish eggs (which I’m told I should have steamed instead of boiled),

Eggs  Screenshot

and continuing with my having to settle for baking powder instead of baking soda, such that my batter grew unstoppably while I slowly made pancakes for eight, two by two, in the one available tiny pan (and burned a few of them on that glass-ceramic cooktop). However, all’s well that ends sort of well,

Brunch 1 Brunch 2

and a good time was had by all. The mimosa part, at least, worked flawlessly:

B&G

It was a goodbye brunch, but I was SOOOOO sad to leave The Boys and The Girls that next day we followed with a goodbye dinner. I won’t say where (too embarrassed), but I’ll say there were ribs involved, and that this reincidence wasn’t my fault. (It was that tall one, dressed in black, who has also been known to let her hair loose around fried chicken.)

Where

During our subsequent goodbye lunch (yes, then there was a goodbye lunch, I just couldn’t release them!!!), over a fine vermouth at Can Punyetes,

Vermut

The Girls and I were psychoanalyzing the pros and cons of my nomadic lifestyle and I told them about this obscure 1978 film titled Same Time, Next Year, which I’m convinced shaped my entire psyche (another self-defining B-movie!). Mind you, I was thirteen at the time and never saw this presumably R-rated flick (to this day!), but my eighteen-year-old aunt who was allowed to see grownup movies always came home and narrated the plots to me in thorough and vivid detail–it was my first exposure to some of the best 1970s cinematography, and remains one of my fondest childhood memories. I remember being unnaturally enthralled by the story of these two lovers, both married and leading separate lives, who see each other exactly once a year over the course of their whole lives. I thought back then, and to this day, that no relationship could be better than that (it’s almost right up there with widowhood!). How my adult romantic behavior has quixotically clung to that beautiful ideal is common knowledge (impossible-odds love? my specialty! long-distance liaisons, anyone?), but it is somehow also the case that my relationship to the family, friends, and places most important to me is also always… cyclical. People and spaces that I find, leave, and revisit again and again and again: I’ve come to the realization that my life is, like the burger joint, In-N-Out. And that’s just the way I like it but sometimes, every so often, I can’t bear the hitting-the-road part. And the knowledge that things will never be exactly the same next time around (never again Portaferrissa!). Eventually, in any case, neither The Boys nor The Girls would accept any more invitations for another goodbye meal, so I had to take my leave. The cycle begins again, so same time next year, Barcelona (or way sooner than that!)…

Adventure awaited me in the form of an overnight layover in Amsterdam, complete with (tentative) international bollycao rendezvous! It found me way before I made it there, as the gods of the friendly skies never fail to make me their defenseless plaything. This time, as usual since the terrible broken-neck incident, I had to travel with the Thing,

Thing

with which I’ve come to make my peace, as it often gets you early boarding and lots of people offer to carry your stuff. This time, however, remembering how on that recent fateful trip to Athens on Vueling a tray table nearly split my liver in two, I woke up from deep sleep at five in the morning and purchased an extra-legroom seat. As it turned out, it was on the exit row, from which I was expelled the moment flight attendants lay eyes on the Thing (which I would have hidden in advance, had I known). After throwing a cosmic temper tantrum (no way in hell was I going back to The People’s section after paying my €17.99 premium), I was moved to another extra-room seat on the second row. And so it was that I became acquainted with my friend the Playboy Bunny.

I was wearing my normal air travel Do-Not-Dare-Talk-To-Me Unfriendly Face (the Good Lord did not grant me natural Resting Bitch Face) right up until we ran into the kind of turbulence that makes everyone on the plane lose their cool and begin assessing seat neighbors for their life-saving potential. One look at her and, despite (because of?) her platinum-blond mane, dramatic mascara-rimmed blue eyes, fuchsia lips, and perky bosoms imprisoned by a rhinestone t-shirt, I knew that she wasn’t in the mood for any freakin’ air disaster and she would get us both out of there with our makeup intact (or at least hers–I’d kind of skipped mine). And so a lively conversation began that would never have taken place had we not momentarily feared death. Impressively, she was being nice to me although my new seat was originally intended for a boyfriend she dumped in Barcelona so that, technically, it was hers (we all know what I would have done in her place, shame on me). I am not sure exactly what her job is but she made this joke about mine: “Oh, so yours is really a ‘profession!'” If the pun was intended, she had me right then and there–BFFs forever. To be fair, she wasn’t just interacting with me but with the entire front half of the plane, and everyone felt her beneficial influence: she was, in fact, instrumental in getting the meanest stewardess on earth to allow a guy who really had to pee into the bathroom she had locked for the duration of the fasten-your-seatbelts light (i.e., the entirety of the flight).

After grilling me on my plans for the evening (“I may or may not have a date”), Bunny made me take her phone number and promise that I’d call if I ended up on my own so that she could show me a good time around town. Then she asked me if I was on Facebook and later actually sent me a friend invite. And there she was, on her profile picture, in full bunny-suit with bowtie, ears and all. It would be unacceptable to show it here, of course, but it is marvelous. And even more marvelous: as per pictures on her wall, she spent the month of July traveling between Ibiza (staying at the Hard Rock Hotel) and Barcelona (the W). Upcoming trip: Las Vegas. My life suddenly feels dumb and boring.

I have not, alas, responded to her Facebook request, since I try very hard not to “friend” people I don’t really know. But who knows, I still might.

So WADDAYAKNOW (story of my life): mystery bollycao, delayed in European highways as he drove back from camping in Croatia (people do this!), did not arrive in Amsterdam environs until the wee hours of the morning, by which time not only was he unfit for human company, but I had developed a mortal cold (“from forth the fatal loins of these two foes / a pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life”). I did not call Bunny to show me that good time, but I did make it to the Red Light district (where I indeed happened to be staying). The Grand Amrath Hotel, it should be noted, was quite remarkable: a monumental building that used to house a shipping company, with impossibly high ceilings, enormous clocks, and art-deco stained glass everywhere (and awesome deep soaking tubs in the room to boot!). It was positively… steampunk! And quite reasonably priced (pre-paid through Orbitz), although extras are not on the cheap side.

I stepped outside and found myself smack in the middle of Amsterdam Gay Pride (for some reason I often find myself accidentally in the middle of gay pride!),

GP1  GP2

then made my way through the happy throngs for dinner at THE BEST CHINESE RESTAURANT where I’ve dined in at least twenty years (because after two months in Spain, no matter how nostalgic you immediately become, you just want Asian food). Seriously, the kind that used to be all over New York and Boston in the 80s and 90s but slowly began disappearing. It’s called New Season,

New Season

and not only is that crispy duck appetizer actually A KILLER; those are the least greasy and most impossibly crisp spring rolls I ever saw.

I already look moribund in that picture, but managed to squeeze in a swim in the starry-ceilinged hotel pool before going to bed with just-washed wet hair and sealing my fate. No exploring Amsterdam the next morning: as I lay dying, all I managed to accomplish was ordering an outrageously expensive yet inedible room-service breakfast and opening and closing my remote-controlled curtains for hours.

I suppose that, as I couldn’t leave the room that day, the layover ended up being relatively pointless–but I did get to walk among the Amsterdam canals on the night of the blue moon.

Blue Moon

And one can really only do that once in a blue moon.

Another hellish flight later (complete with exploding ears and public tears), I made it back to a home that still feels oddly unfamiliar, partly because of the long absence and partly because of the multiple hallucinatory drugs my cold-turned-into-throat-infection has required. Most of my lovely friends are still not back from their summer trips: I am ALL ALONE.

Most tragically, the air conditioner in my living/dining room died, so I’ve been forced to spend the last two days in the office, where various annoyances already found their way to me. So I have slammed the door and shut myself in here, because I’m too busy to be interrupted.

Gamper

(At least Barça just won the Gamper…)

It shall be necessary to get used to reality, but I ain’t too crazy about that. Groucho was wrong, do you hear that? It’s not at all the only place to get a decent meal.

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Barcelona Is Too Hot: Thieves, Whores, Elders & Youngers, and Beach Escapes

As both Madonna and La Terremoto de Alcorcón said, time goes by, although for them it goes slowly and for me it whizzes by. It’s already late July in Barcelona and there is a heat wave, a calamitous situation best captured by the recently trending 9GAG cartoon,

Frida

which perfectly matches my style these days, minus the bikini because, as is well known, I do not acknowledge the existence of Barcelona beaches.

The situation is aggravated by the fact that Catalans (Spaniards) have no concept of what air conditioning is for or how it works. Here, for example, a store’s proud announcement that it will NEVER cool its premises below 26ºC (that is, 79ºF).

AC

That would already be problematic if setting the thermostat and achieving the temperature were one and the same thing, but alas, when you come to Barcelona pay attention to how many businesses with the A/C on have their doors closed: if you get to 1% I’ll be surprised. The most advanced of them have installed something called an air curtain, which presumably blasts a current at a particular angle that prevents cold air from escaping the indoors or warm air from entering them. Do not be fooled; if ever such a thing conceptually worked, it doesn’t in its actual Barcelona applications (I’ve never even encountered a home water heater that doesn’t leak). It only works to deafen your ears to European cackling about how anti-ecological us Amurricans are.

I have managed to escape from the heat on a couple of overnight trips, once to visit Miss N in Girona for a hop from there to Platja d’Aro, where we swam at this cute little cove or cala named La Bella Dona. It’s funny that the National Geographic page to which I just linked extols its “soft sand,” because it’s more like scorching shards of razor-sharp flint (moral: always stop by Decathlon for cheap aquashoes before leaving for the Costa Brava), but they speak the truth about its “clear waters” and beautiful landscape “where pine trees and rocks merge with the sea”:

Platja d'Aro 1      Platja d'Aro 2

The really special thing about La Bella Dona is that you can only reach it by going down these long, long steps (and then climbing back up them to leave), which–as you guessed–The People tend not to do! So it’s less crowded than other beaches in the area and you can enjoy the deliciously freezing water in relative isolation. Plus: by diligently going up and down more steps and getting repeatedly buried in sizzling pebbly sand, you too can be rewarded with a pretty nice lunch at the eminently civilized xiringuito:

xiringuito Plata d'Aro    xiringuito 2

(as a Caribbean belle, I am endlessly amazed at how sophisticated any old beach shack can be in Europe–which is not to say there are better things in life than alcapurrias in Luquillo).

Girona itself is quite interesting (especially the impressively preserved Jewish Quarter) and on this particular occasion the waning light over the Onyar river made it look deceptively beckoning,

Girona

but it was 99º, at near-sunset!

GironaTemp

(and yes, that is my boyfriend Carles Puyol’s torso), so I skipped the romance and went directly to dinner at Miss N’s restaurant, La Vedettewhich I’d been meaning to try for quite a while. Its main specialty is galettes bretonnes, a buckwheat flour crepe with any topping/filling you could imagine (also fondues, for which I’m going back as soon as it’s not horribly hot). I had the “Popeye” which is great because although it’s stuffed full of melted cheese (and honey) all the spinach on top makes it feel like you’re eating a salad. And half of being healthy is looking healthy, I say (although paradoxically, I don’t actually look like I’m the healthiest 50-year-old you’ve ever met, which I am).

Vedette 2

Unlike any other old crêperie, La Vedette has both architectural allure and a fun story. The architectural allure is that it’s built right on the old Roman wall, which makes for a very pleasant space.

Vedette 1

The story refers to María González Vila, onetime prostitute and later madam of the original La Vedette, a famous neighborhood brothel for over thirty years (at the top of its kind during the 1960s and 70s)–for what is now the upscale, touristy Sant Feliu area was once Girona’s red light district. A very interesting entrepreneuse (one of the few who actually owned her establishment) from a time when the “profession” evoked Hollywood glamour (a theme on which the restaurant picks up with its extensive movie memorabilia), she was nevertheless devoted to what she saw as a serious social mission: “I perform a great service for families, because I prevent fights between married couples and infidelities.” You can read a bit of her story, in Catalan, here and in this book (and her portrait is hidden among the many you’ll see on La Vedette’s walls).

(The other female protagonist at my dinner was Bertha, who in my book beats the commonly exported Anna anytime. I sip her Brut Nature Reserva as I write!)

My second escape was during a weekend visit from the As (aunt–the Elder, and nephew–the Younger), all the way from Washington DC (and A the Younger’s first time in both Barcelona and Europe!). While I sent them on city tourism mostly on their own–among other things because the prohibitive entrance fees to Antoni Gaudí modernist buildings like Casa Batllo or Casa Milà make it unlikely that, however beautiful they are, one will make repeat visits just for the sake of it–, I did join them on a few ventures, like xurros amb xocolata right off the plane at Granja Dulcinea on Carrer Petritxol (about which I promised to write a few posts ago),

DULCINEA

or the always fascinating Museu d’Història de Barcelona with its informative itinerary through the Roman Barcino ruins (and stories about the best-named historical characters anywhere, Guifré el Pilós–Wilfred the Hairy and his ally Carles el Calb–Charles the Bald):

MUHBA

Inevitably, there was more Pac-Man eating… I’m adding all restaurant details to my previous post for ease of access, but as a travel log: we first had tapes at Quim de la Boqueria:

QuimCollage

Then paella and fideuà on the beach at good old favorite Agua next to the Olympic Port (A the Younger looks pained, but he liked them):

AguaCollage

A great dinner at El Pla de la Garsa, a restaurant where I’ve been dining for decades but which seemed particularly fabulous this time around.

IMG_20150710_222855    IMG_20150710_222838

And then… there was PORK. Pork, Boig Per Tu, the temple of… pork: every possible part and cut (in many cases from their own farms), in every possible way it can be served: charcuterie, grilled, roasted in their clay oven. They were only missing pork with cracklings, otherwise I would have just moved in (actually, they also don’t seem to have yet discovered bacon sweets, or for that matter bacon itself).

Pork   Porklets Pork

The whole atmosphere was so excessive that it made you feel free to, well, pig out (we’re here for pork!). And I publicly confess that it was so LUSCIOUS we dined there twice, two days apart. (I must also testify to the fact that the second time–perhaps because it was a slow Monday–was not as exceedingly delicious as the first. Guess I’ll have to go a third time to make final judgment.) They also serve some fancy British draft beer, which I didn’t try (I solemnly believe that fatty foods must be accompanied by champagne/cava, plus am not a beer person). I liked the Hitchcockian shadow of the tap handles made from knives, although it does sadly remind you of what they do to their little piggies at the farm. What they do with knives on the placemats… you be the judge (vaguely phallic?).

Placemats

Aside from Pac-Man eating, we did a lot of (sweaty, sticky) strolling. First, all over Ciutat Vella with its ever-dwindling number of cute classic shops like Sombrerería Obach (established in 1924) which sells, well, hats,

Sombrereria

and my cherished La Manual Alpargatera (est. 1940), devoted to traditional and modern espardenyas (alpargatas in Spanish; espadrilles in English) and now tragically adjoining an American Apparel.

La Manual    Espardenyes

Last but not least, Pastisseria La Colmena, open under one name or another since 1849, where I’d been commissioned with buying nothing other than marshmallow hard candy:

Pastisseria

Did you know marshmallows were (originally) made from the root of a plant that is variously medicinal, including throat soothing and cough suppression? I did not.

There was more strolling around Cathedral Square, where I was once again called on to explain castellers to a stunned A the Younger

Castellers

(that is, the what and how–the why I could never explain, but at least they’re not killing bulls for mere entertainment). Something else I cannot decipher is the need for a behemoth Samsung Galaxy sign, almost as large as the cathedral’s façade, on that very spot.

It was returning home from one of our walks that I ran into my fascinating “neighbor” Perot Lo Lladre,

Perot

a legendary XVIIth-century Catalan bandit who somehow made it into Cervantes’s Don Quijote de la Mancha: “a good strategist, skillful and bold, feared by soldiers and the authorities, loved by the people [yes, The People], and much hated by his numerous enemies.” Awesome!

But strolling and strolling got way too hot, and we depended on Barcelona’s secret fountains for the occasional cooling down:

Strolling 1    Strolling 2

These photos do not accurately portray how SWEATY and STICKY we were. Hence the overwhelming need to GET OUT OF TOWN, away, to the beach. Where to go was a complicated matter, as both A the Elder and I are afraid to drive in Spain (we fear getting caught in one of those roundabouts forever, in our own version of Cortázar’s “La autopista del sur“–here in English). Without a car the ideal destination (because of its dramatic Maine-like rocky coast), Costa Brava, can only be reached after a two or more-hour ride on a crappy bus. So it had to be somewhere more quickly reachable, ideally by train. Since I’ve already been to Sitges many times, we took a friend’s suggestion to head toward Sant Pol de Mar, a town on the Maresme (the shore region between Barcelona and Costa Brava) where the coast is just beginning to get costabravaesque jagged.

So there we went (on Rodalies’s train Line R1), after reserving a couple of extremely reasonably-priced rooms at the Hotel Gran Sol, conclusively ranked by TripAdvisor #1 of 1 (!!!) in Sant Pol de Mar. While the hotel was last updated… when it was built (I wish I’d taken a picture of the blow dryer in the bathroom), it was clean, and had full ocean views from every room, and I will say that the ancient air conditioner worked like no other I’ve ever seen in Spain. Icicles in your room: it was BLISS.

The hotel also houses what was the very first hospitality school in the country, and runs an impeccable, superb restaurant that offers a four-course dinner menu for 19.50€. I had these funky fusion spring rolls, a fish first course of (somewhat misshapen but mouthwatering) shrimp ravioli, and a meat second course of tender veal in plum sauce. They have one of those old-style dessert carts with truly tasty morsels.

EscolaCollage

And the young student-waiters, well, they’re truly tasty morsels too (sorry to be female-sexist–for centuries it was the other way around). The front desk hotel personnel, especially the night manager, are extremely helpful and nice, and only the guy in charge of the bar was rude and unaccommodating (but was fortunately overruled by other staff at every step).

The town itself was pretty… pretty. We had a beachfront lunch at Banys Lluis, an upscale xiringuito serving quite decent seafood, if on the expensive side (the woman owner, or manager, was also tremendously nice, although I couldn’t understand a word of her Catalan):

Banys Lluis

And, yes, those are completely open premises with a full-blasting air conditioner.

After that, a dip in the smallish cove with delicious water; it wasn’t even characteristically freezing.

Sant Pol beach

And finally a little promenade around the town, curiously split in two by the tracks and the train tunnel, to watch the exciting sardana dancing. Sardanas are possibly the slowest and least interesting folkoric dances on the face of the earth–something else about Catalan culture I cannot explain–and whatever that link I just added shows, I’ve never seen young people engaged in them. The woodwind orchestra music is normally (from my limited point of view) excruciating:

Sant Pol

And that was that. The sunset was nice,

Sant Pol sea

but I will be honest: without underestimating its many pleasant aspects, Sant Pol was boring. You should only go there if you bring someone with whom to have sex all night, or your own board games. A the Younger went into an odd lap-swimming trance, back and forth and back again from one end of the pool to the other for hours (we had to bribe hotel staff to let him in there after 8:00pm), while A the Elder and I just drank bad wine all evening, hypnotized by his incessant movement. Then we all returned to Barcelona way earlier than anticipated in the morning.

A the Elder’s partner, the J, who was left all by his own lonely self back in the US, told us that his high school senior trip was to Sant Pol de Mar (he grew up in Marbella!!!!!!). This, of course, could only be explained if the trip chaperone was from Sant Pol and obligated to visit her mother: two birds with one stone. But at least the town is certain not to become eventually overrun and spoiled by tourism! (Lesson: if you don’t have the time or transport means to get at least as far northeast as my dear Calella de Palafrugell, just head in the direction of Sitges.)

And here I am now. Trapped in Barcelona’s sweltering heat, deep in the throes of my love-hate relationship with the city. Visitors are gone once more and I am left again to my own devices, at least some of which are virtuous endeavors: torturously trying to advance with my book, preparing my fall course on lover-writers Emilia Pardo Bazán and Benito Pérez Galdós seen from the points of view of the sociology of literature and the history of the emotions (also: worrying about how that experiment will turn out). But first I must lie down. In front of the A/C.

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