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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Pac-Man Tour with the Blacksongs (Barcelona Dining)

This week the Blacksongs, Miss H and Mr. D, were in town, and that always means a wild Pac-Man eat-the-dots tour through wherever you are. Ordinarily this is done out of sheer spirit–or simply p’a probar, our motto adopted during a 2009 Pac-Man tour of Rio de Janeiro–but this year Miss H was doing research for a food and culture-focused 2016 study abroad she’s organizing for her college (why do people other than me always come up with the best ideas????). I went along in the sheer spirit of intellectual dialogue, of course.

So, for those friends who always ask me for suggestions on their way to Barcelona, here are some of the dots we gobbled on the five-day gastrotour, plus a few digressive recommendations, beginning with old favorites de toda la vida (and I guess this replaces that old email that’s been circulating for years):

Senyor Parellada. You could have Old Catalan cuisine at the legendary Set Portes, and that’s a good choice too (especially their obligatory arròs negre, rice in cuttlefish ink!). In fact, the owners of both restaurants come from the same venerable family of restaurateurs, about whose history, dating back to the 1771 establishment of the Fonda Europa in the town of Granollers, you can find out here (in Catalan). At SP, try the cannelloni (a surprising Catalan specialty) or, if you’re an adventurous meat lover, the cap i pota, a stew of veal “snout and trotter.” And if you decide you just love the Parelladas (as I do), head also to Semproniana, a more modern twist on local cuisine by one of the family’s women (intended by the father to grow up to be a client–the kitchen being a man’s place?).

– If you want a paella, you’re really in the wrong town: head to Valencia. While foreigners often think of this rice dish as quintessentially and universally Spanish, traditional Catalan cuisine is something else (generally something brownish that looks nowhere as delicious as it is). This does not mean good paella is not to be had in Barcelona, and if you’re going for it, best to do it in the proper setting: seaside. There are many xiringuitos (“beach shack” bars/restaurants) along Nova Icària and Bogatell beaches, but in my opinion Xiringuito Escribà, which was established the year Barcelona “came of age” (Olympic ’92) is where it’s at.

Escriba collageTheir paellas are fantastic, but for more distinctly local variations, you should try (again) the arròs negre, or the fideuà, pictured below. And don’t forget to start with fried clams (you’re in Spain: eat fried things for chrissake) and that exquisite crackly bread topped with jamón ibérico. The owner also comes from an old family of restaurateurs, in this case the Escribàs, excellent pastry chefs for generations. Which means this xiringuito is also set apart from others by its scrumptious desserts.

clams bread

Fideuà  Escribà desserts

We had the mochi filled with crema catalana instead of ice cream, and it was heavenly.

After the huge lunch you can go for a dip at the beach right in front, but only if you’re a foreigner. Spaniards (including Catalans!) who swim after lunch regularly die from something they call corte de digestión, one of those malaises so specifically local that you can’t even link to an article on it in English. It is, however, lethal. I personally am immune to it (having been born outside the peninsula) but then again I never believed in such a thing as Barcelona beaches, created in 1992 out of gross industrial waterfront (agree to disagree: they believe in both death-causing digestion cuts and having a beach, I don’t). Plus, I’m Puerto Rican and it’s not a beach if there are no palm trees. So if you’d rather wait for your British and American friends to soak in possibly radioactive water occasionally full of jellyfish over yet another drink (I will abstain from disputing whether that’s actually a piña colada, but it’s pleasantly cold), just cross to the xiringuito in front of the xiringuito:

xiringuito bar

Before moving on, I’d love to mention another great place for paella, arròs negre, and fideuà, uptown in the Gracia neighborhood: Envalira. That’s pretty much all they’ve served since the beginning of time, and they do it quite well.

– A new place we tried, also in Gràcia, was Somodó, a mediterranean-Japanese fusion place. Feeling contrary (as I’m periodically wont to), I started by complaining about the name, seemingly a pun on the Spanish “somos dos” (we are two) because the restaurant is a collaboration between executive chef Shojiro Ochi and chef de cuisine Toshi Suzuki, and they are, indeed, two. (I’ve noticed a horrendous, politically incorrect, and tremendously annoying trend around here to name Asian places and products by making up Asian-sounding words, as in supermarket instant ramen like “Yatekomo Oriental Noodles”–Ya te como: I’ll eat you right away!)

Yatekomo

But I digress. And I guess it’s not politically incorrect if you are Japanese. The restaurant is tasting menu-based (18.50€ at midday and 35€ for dinner) and totally different from what I expected, original-ish sushi (which I would have loved, I’m sure) and some sort of botifarra teriyaki. Perhaps even a delicious crema catalana mochi! But on the day we lunched there the choice of main course was between very delicious and beautifully presented cod tempura and leg of lamb (!):

Somodo

Tables are served by Ochi himself, and to be honest we found him a little bit soup nazi (although maybe he was upset because our party was unexpectedly five people instead of six). However, the food is good and a great value (for when you can’t bear the thought of another slice of jamón).

– But the Blacksongs and I can always have another slice, and we also simply MUST dine at Cal Pep (I confess it was the second time I was there in just as many weeks, since I also went with Miss L and her entourage). Cal Pep is a food bar

Pep Bar

where you will always have to wait (lines form outside even before it opens), but it’s worth it if you can stand lines–which I cannot. Best to try to secure one of the few tables in the back, which is not as hard as it could be. It is tricky to take food porn pics of the place (here’s my try)

Pep food

because the true Cal Pep experience is a pica-pica (sampling) of tapes (Catalan spelling for tapas–pronunciation is the same) that you can see properly here, so that your table never quite seems full although you will be eating for hours. Although you should certainly let them know about food allergies and aversions (and they have a menu), the thing to do is let them bring you what they choose among ever-present classics and market goodies of the day. Their version of Spanish omelet (tortilla trampera, seen above) is one of my very favorites, and their clams with ham are staggeringly delicious. I tried to replicate them at home,

Clams

but it was a huge FAIL–I’m just not the cook in Spain that I am in the United States (or maybe I’m just deteriorating with age). In any case, at Cal Pep (unlike at my home) you will not only eat like you’ve rarely eaten in your life but also have a wonderful time with José, the server who has worked there since time immemorial: he will tease you about unknown things you will be eating, will pretend to drop plates and knock over bottles all over you (and never actually do it–unlike me!), and will amuse you with his constant exclamations (¡ay qué rico!). I ❤ José, and you probably will too.

When we weren’t together, the Blacksongs went upscale: their latest culinary discovery is Disfrutar, also a tasting menu concept (68 or 98€). I boycotted it because I just couldn’t eat any more plus I’ve become a bit desensitized to upscale experimental restaurants opened by what seems like an interminable line of El Bulli alums, but I must admit the photo gallery on their web site looks mouthwatering and Miss H was just raving about the exploding olives

olives

that do burst inside your mouth (they’re not really olives, but olive oil essence trapped in a gel sphere).

On my own, I went downscale, to a couple of old tapas bars. Euskal Etxea, an old chart-buster, is the original Basque pintxos bar in Barcelona–it didn’t actually seem as good this time as other years, and I’m afraid that may be because it was purchased by a corporate tapas group, but it’s still a nice place in the Ciutat Vella ‘hood to have a few bites and a crisp txacolí. And Tapaç 24 (by another Bulli alum, I do reckon), on Diputació Street around the corner from Passeig de Gràcia is the yummiest way to avoid the chain tapas places nearby. Kitchen is open throughout the day, so stick to American meal times and avoid The People! Of course there are more mythical tapas bars/restaurants in the city: two rather modern (and upscale) ones that are definitely not to be missed are Quimet y Quimet and my beloved, beloved, beloved Paco Meralgo (ok, also a pun on p’a comer algo–to eat something), where, ethics permitting, you must try the foie gras montadito. And how to leave out the old-school, quaint and delicious Bar Roure.

It is IMPOSSIBLE to make a comprehensive guide of fabulous Barcelona restaurants (tapas and full-meal)–whatever else you come here to do, you’re going to eat. Well. Non-stop. Pac-Man style. I am knowingly leaving out a number of frequent haunts, and there’s a list of places I want to try before going home at the end of the month. I’ll probably add a list of some of these to this post at a later date.

Now, about that drink… Getting together for dinner of course requires meeting for a drink. In fact, the Barcelona tradition is wine or an apéritif and a cocktail afterwards. Pre-dinner, this week, involved the perennial and excellent La Vinya del Senyor, also a Parellada joint and very close to Senyor Parellada. And a place I unbelievably hadn’t tried, as it’s now been there for several years: the lobby bar at H1898 hotel. It’s in a beautiful building that was, in the 1880s, home to the Marqués de Comillas and later housed the Philippines Tobacco Company, Spain’s first “multinational.” You can leave aside, or surrender to, its evocation of Spanish colonialism (as you wonder, perhaps, why they chose the year of the empire’s loss for their name) and just enjoy the drinks, the ambiance, and the space, which is simultaneously cozy and enormous (rare in Barcelona):

1890

And BTW, the Manhattan, Negroni, and (giant) Bloody Mary were all delicious…

Post-dinner, we ended up (more than once, that too I confess!) at the Gimlet near the Mercat del Born, which is now called something else that is still unclear. A note: you must pronounce it with a soft “g,” as in “gintonic,” which you can also order without the “&” (remember, ours is not to ask why). The new sign at the door just says “Cocktail Bar,” but the door itself still bears the old name.

Gimlet

Now, here’s another place that isn’t what it used to be, and I especially mourn the loss of the cute little cocktail glasses they used to have (photo from 2004!)

Gimlet glass

as well as the addition of that garish detective character to what used to be a display window for art,

Gimlet Spade

complete with a fake view of the horrendous Torre Agbar and a quote from Charles Bukowski (Jeezus H–if it’s not Raymond Chandler it just breaks the vibe). End of rant: Gimlet is still a nice, intimate club for cocktails convenient to many places in the old city, and the long mahogany bar still exudes sophistication

Gimlet barra

(a sophistication that the blonde in the photo enhanced, but which vanishes into thin air the moment a short brunette like me tries to get on and off the inordinately high bar stools).

These days, Barcelona is also all about rooftop terraces, but I’d like to make a case for the age-old cocktail bars, before the dying breed disappears: the Ideal (from 1931),the Dry Martini (opened in 1978), and of course the original Gimlet twin established in 1979 north of Diagonal.

I promise eating and drinking is NOT all we do! This week we did attend sessions at the North American Catalan’s Society 15th International Colloquium, and I can prove it. Here, the panel with leading artists Joan Fontcuberta, Frederic Amat, and Francesc Torres:

NACS

(and yes, for those who know me, wink wink, THAT happened on a giant screen–a nice encounter with a dear old friend, of course).

Lastly, On the cultural entertainment side, last night I was invited to this wonderful reading/performance of Julio Cortázar short stories (and segments) by actor Joaquín Daniel and musician Aníbal Martínez.

Concidencias

I was all prepared to hate it (because I am, after all, a hater, plus how many times have I read Cortázar and what could be done that I find refreshing?) but it was brilliant–the setting as well as the acting, the music, and those texts that can forever surprise you. It was part of a series of productions of different types called Terrats en Cultura, and staged in Barcelona rooftops volunteered by private individuals, each for an entrance fee of 12€ including a glass of wine. Three are left this July, and more to come; check them out: http://coincidencies.com/.

More to come–exhibits, theater–in a future post…

I’m so exhausted from all the above, I’m now off to a well-deserved overnight trip to Girona. Fins aviat!

Post-Data: A few more restaurants!

Tapas:

El Quim de la Boqueria. Go into the Boquería on Ramblas and find Quim’s stalls, which will be on the left hand (south) edge of the market. Stake out some stools. Slap them away from others if you must. Enjoy (here the vegetable tortilla, mushroom croquettes–though I myself am much happier with chicken/ham–and HUGE gambes a la plantxa; we also had very nice patatas bravas):

Quim

Capricious hours: open Tuesdays through Saturdays only 7:00-16:00 or 17:00 depending on the day. As usual, to stay away from The People (or at least the largest crowds) best avoid the 2:00-3:30 pm slot…

La Robadora. In the Raval area, this is a tapas place, but dishes are so big a couple of them would make a full meal’s first and second course. Please ignore the “Gas” decor,

Gas

the Mediterranean-Asian(ish) fusion cuisine (like, for example, a tiny hamburger on a steamed Chinese pork bun) is quite innovative, and everything we tried was delicious: I have NEVER had such tenderly cooked squid! The sommelier recommended a wonderful Recaredo rosé Brut Nature cava, and (bonus!) he is really cute and friendly, and has an interesting wine blog (with enotourism routes) to boot.

Full-meal:

– El Pla de la Garsa. Tiny restaurant in the Born district, has also been there FOREVER–I think I first visited it twenty-five years ago? It’s in a sixteenth-century house and beautifully decorated in modernist-ish country style. Although the stairs to the bathroom are death-defying, you’ll love the traditional cuisine, focusing especially on charcuterie & patés, and cheeses. Just went with the As and they had the 19.50€ dinner menu, which was spectacular (the “tender meat cooked in Monsant wine” is cow’s jaws, just so you know, but TRY IT). I had the mar y muntanya (literally “sea and mountain”), a very typical Catalan dish including seafood and meat; in this case unbelievable scallops with pancetta on a Granny Smith applesauce.

La Pepita. I discovered this joint in Gràcia in early 2014, good either for tapas at the bar or a meal in the back. The name Pepita is either for the nice owner from Huelva (I’m not actually sure if that’s her name, but she and the other gentleman owner are really nice) or for their signature dish, a single-side flatbread with a choice of toppings that I suppose is a pun on good old Spanish pepitos. Their Very Important Croquette is quite remarkable, but just the other day I went at 13:00 (when the kitchen opens for midday shift) for a makeshift brunch of eggs with potatoes and foie gras that I have no words to describe.

Pork, Boig Per Tu. Like someone else in my family I won’t mention, I long ago decided that if I had to be stranded on a desert island allowed to bring only one item, this would have to be a pregnant pig. Kill it with a stone, figure out how to make fire, somehow extract salt from the sea, put it on a bed or wild-growing arugula, and live happily forevermore… My signature dish is Puerto Rican-style lechón asado with the crispiest crackling you ever saw.

Pork

(just had to boast). This is all to say that when it comes to pigs in all their manifestations, I know what I’m talking about (hell, I even regularly date them). And Pork, Boig Per Tu (oddly, a venture by the Kukuxumusu brothers) serves it all: embotits or charcuterie, and any cut or preparation you’ve ever dreamed of, grilled or roasted in their clay oven. Much of it comes from their own farms. The sobrassada and the botifarra negra (blood sausage) are SINFUL, and so is the assortment of roasted meats, with either the shoulder or the ribs in first place (or was it the belly?)

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Odýsseia: She Sails to Athens

Everyone said I would hate Athens: that it was chaotic, too hot, urbanistically distasteful, and plain ugly. That it was like Bayamón, except for the Parthenon right smack in the middle. Such a description was enough for me to decide to skip it (could the Parthenon itself be that much better than all the photos of it I’ve seen? did I really need to stand on a dry plateau in the scorching sun to have the true Acropolis experience?). Always patriotic, Miss I argued that if I was already committing the sin of favoring touristy Santorini over the authentic Greek summer, it would be unconscionable to also forgo the cradle of Western civilization. With that admonition and the deceitful promise that she would help me find and seduce Yanis Varoufakis (not necessarily her favorite person), she convinced me. And so I fittingly sailed to the city (literally in the Highspeed 6 ferry), and loved it, and may some day forgive Miss I for the Varoufakis trickery. (He wasn’t even in town!!!!)

On morning #1 (out of three) it was clear that I needed to head straight for the Acropolis, not only because it is the most significant historical site, but more importantly because the morning rain would surely make it less crowded and possibly not hotter than Hades, pardon the pun (was the Greek underworld even actually hot?). Since we all think we know more about mythology and history than we actually do, or at least that’s my case, I opted for getting some context by starting from instead of ending with the New Acropolis Museum. My visit started after a brief detour to its very nice restaurant (the travel guide, which I did read this time, said they serve excellent breakfasts, and they do, and besides isn’t the little oregano centerpiece just darling):

Breakfast

Though museum buildings are often quite impressive (except, in my humble opinion, Barcelona’s MACBA which looks to me like a huge bathroom), only one–Bilbao’s Guggenheim–has previously taken my breath away. Although very different, I think the Acropolis Museum is in the same category.

New Acropolis Collage

It is achingly well designed and beautiful, and harmonizes ideally with its surroundings: not just the Acropolis, whose forms it echoes and which is intentionally visible from virtually anywhere within, but even the modern city’s dubious concrete urbanism.

Acropolis View

Even more strikingly, glass floors draw visitors’ gaze in a different direction from the usual one in museums–below, to the Roman/early Byzantine ruins over which it was erected. Still being excavated, they will soon be open to the public, but I loved the way I seemed to float above them, eerily empty and yet so evocative of yesteryear’s hustle and bustle.

The museum itself is full of ghosts, just as Guillermo del Toro poetically defined them: something dead that momentarily feels still alive; a feeling suspended in time, like a blurry photograph. Inside, the Parthenon Gallery’s blueprint is the same as that of the monument and prominently showcases, arranged in the original position, what is left of its friezes, metopes, and pediments–the latter representing the birth of Athena (who popped fully grown and armed right out of Zeus’s head) and her battle with Poseidon for patronage of the city.

Pediments

Walking around the faded marbles (some retaining a trace of their original colors), viewers are meant to somehow reincarnate the ancients who entered the temple during the Panathenaic Festival in honor of the goddess, but there is another ghostly presence: that of the many pieces removed from Greece by Lord Elgin in the nineteenth century and since displayed in the British Museum, for which space has been left in the reconstruction of the Parthenon’s perimeter. The arrangement succeeds in one of its purposes, making you long for what is not there (and hopefully support the Greek government’s position in the dispute with England over return of the Elgin marbles. I’m with my soul sister Melina on this one: cough them up, Perfidious Albion!

Though I can’t write about the museum forever, I don’t want to move ahead without mentioning the other truly haunting exhibit: the Korai or Caryatids, relocated here from the Erechtheion and as spectacularly displayed as the Parthenon’s sculptures.

Caryatids Collage

There are five of them–the sixth one is in the British Museum as well (her place awaits her)–and they are everything one ever identified with beauty, aren’t they? Not all beauty, of course, but the classical model that became the Western norm and was transferred to other traditions. I have no words to describe them (what I felt was awe). However, my favorite poet (you know who, James Merrill!) did, in his hypnotic chant to nostalgia for Greece and Greece as nostalgia, “After Greece,” which I have not been able to stop reading since I left:

Row upon row, Essentials, 

Dressed like your sister caryatids 

Or tombstone angels jealous of their dead, 

With undulant coiffures, lips weathered, cracked by grime, 

And faultless eyes gone blank beneath the immense 

Zinc and gunmetal northern sky . . .

The zinc and gunmetal sky–and grime–part you only appreciate after you move on to the actual Acropolis where replicas now support the roof of the Erectheion (please ignore the stupid unsighly stain on my camera lens):

Erechtheion

Erectheion:Parthenon

Starting with the mesmerizing, informative, and very comfortably cool museum is a great idea because these days, on its own, the first view of the Parthenon itself can be… well, let me just show you:

Parthenon

It breaks the magic spell a little bit. Which is no obstacle for the throngs of young ladies with their own photographer in tow because what girl in her right mind doesn’t want a picture of her beautiful self before Doric and Ionic columns, with hair and clothing floating behind her against the genuinely zinc and gunmetal sky.

GirlPhoto

Even I felt (yet again) all Melina Mercouri, but was discouraged from acting it out by the lack of my own photographer, and my feelings of repugnance toward selfie sticks (especially after seeing their ubiquitousness on this trip). So I was forced to play it conventional, but was just as excited to have my picture taken by a stranger in the friggin’ Acropolis!!!!

Acropolis

My descent from the sacred hill was rather quick, because Miss I had agreed to meet me after work; it could not, nevertheless, exclude a stop by the ancient Agora because I am, after all, a Doctor of Philosophy, and in addition to feeling like Melina Mercouri I wanted to feel all Socrates and Plato. (I even wore the right outfit, didn’t I–except maybe for the bag.)

Agora

“Ancient Greece” day ended at the Temple of Olympian Zeus, seven hundred years in the making and, in its glory, much more… monumental than even the Parthenon:

Zeus1

See how the very tiny part of it that’s left dwarfs Miss I, and even seems to dwarf the Acropolis (first pic below)–the temple originally consisted of 104 Corinthian columns. I know this because on the Athenian portion of my vacation I was ALL ABOUT the travel guide, illustrating friends, Romans, and countrymen about any and all relevant details.

Zeus3

A little strolling around shady Anafiotica with my own photographer in tow (that rare luxury for a sola solita traveler, who may or may not then start unstoppable crazy posing)

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preceded our first dinner out, at an Athens “it” restaurant recommended by a good friend of Miss I’s where, I’m told, the locals always take visitors: Vezene. I was intrigued by TripAdvisor’s labeling of the place as “Japanese, Greek, Bistro,” thinking it would feature some sort of nouvelle fusion Asian-Greek cuisine. The semi-open premises were very pretty, and the meal was very good (on the expensive side for Athens, but not necessarily for the US–three-course dinner for two including cheeses for dessert and wine ran 95€); however, it was not tremendously interesting dining as the gig was excellently cooked Japanese and American (Angus!) beef, which is pretty common where I come from (we ordered the one Greek option, with the benefit of being both delicious and the cheapest). Curiously, I seem to have offended some sensibilities by calling the restaurant a steak house, as apparently for Greeks that term conjures up a different image than it does for us Amurricans (something like Ponderosa, I gather, with Wild West paraphernalia and French fries). But for the record let me clarify that US steak houses (like my beloved Keens in NYC) are very upscale and fine dining spots that share another peculiarity: being always predominantly full of MEN. So it was with Vezene, where at one point Miss I and moi looked around and realized we were virtually the only women:

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That could have been very exciting but you’d have to be into the executive type, which it has been established I am not.

On morning #2 I intended to start at the Museum of Cycladic Art, but after dutifully figuring out how to get there on the metro (which involved a longish walk in sweltering heat), found it closed–as it always is on Tuesdays. On the spot, I resolved to move on–by taxi this time–to the National Archaeological Museum. Of course, an archaeological museum in Greece is going to be–and was–so huge so as to be unmanageable in a single visit, not least if you find yourself a little indisposed (let us not blame Vezene) and have to make frequent trips to the bathroom, which is always really, really, really far from where you are standing. (I did become very familiar with the beautiful mosaic next to the lavatories,

Mosaic

a second-century A. D. floor found in Zea, Piraeus, featuring a Gorgon‘s head–two if you count me in the picture to the right.) I confess I only made it as far as the Egyptian collection–not even halfway through, chronologically–but before throwing in the towel I managed to see the Artemision Bronze,

Bronze

that famous 5th-century B. C. sculpture depicting either Zeus or Poseidon (depending on whether what’s missing from his right hand is a thunderbolt or a trident) and known as one of the earliest manifestations of the way in which Greek sculpture would idealize the male form.

Already a little lightheaded from all that aesthetic appreciation, I stumbled upon the Stathatos Collection, where for some reason

P1060078_2  P1060079_2

my resolve to drown out the sirens’ call finally broke down and I decided I must have JEWELS. On the way out I searched in vain (!) for a museum store, which I was informed they will have at some point in the future.

I was so distressed by this that when I got home Miss I immediately sent me to a few shops, and I ended up buying earrings from two of them in the Syntagma square area.

Earrings

The modern-ish silver hoops are from Apriati, which also sells those darling colored thread bracelets you will see on Miss I’s wrist in a picture below. The other ones I got from Maramenos & Pateras, one of the oldest houses for traditional “Hellenic” jewelry, and are designed by Mr. George Maramenos, who believes in earrings. In truth, I couldn’t afford both pairs but the moment I walked into the store a handsome young man named Adonis (or something that sounded very close) asked me if I was wearing a Maria Frantzi ring. And I was!!!!!!!!!! I had forgotten the designer of my beloved never-take-it-off ring was actually Greek, and apparently she is well-known around there. Then he told me the stone[s] on the earrings that had called my attention in the shop window were actually (like my own ring) a doublet, i.e. a “gemstone sandwich” with a clear stone (quartz) on top of a colored stone underneath. You learn something new every day. It felt so “international jet set” that my rings are recognized by Greek jewellers, and I found the doublet coincidence so amusing, that I forked over my nonexistent euros for the quartz/ruby earrings. In my defense, I actually lost my jewelry roll with everything I wasn’t wearing at the hotel in Sitges a couple of weeks earlier, and what’s a goddess without her baubles?

My reckless purchases were celebrated over girls’ night at By the Glass, a sweet little wine bar with a very limited but tasty selection of small dishes (the shrimp “tempura” with mango sauce especially memorable).

By The Glass

My third and last day in Athens I returned, with better luck this time, to the Museum of Cycladic Art, located in a beautiful neoclassical house (the Stathatos mansion, in fact) seamlessly connected to a gorgeous modern building. Each of the two entrances speaks to a fascinating aspect of the museum: the exhibition of prehistoric Cycladic art, ancient Greek objects, and Cypriot antiquities painstakingly collected by traditional patrons (most notably Nicholas and Dolly Goulandris)

Figurine   P1060099

and its contextualization through state-of-the-art multimedia presentations. Case in point is the exhibit on daily life in antiquity, in which commonplace objects from the Classical and Hellenistic periods are brought to life by linking them to a visual narrative on the birth, life events, and ultimate death of a character named Leon.

Leon

On occasion perhaps the visual narrative (here Leon and a fellow athlete oiling each other after a competition) can distract from the objects (here the little oil containers and the strigil). Also on a casual sideways glance I happened to notice a giant vaccine mark on Leon’s arm, which they should probably edit out (or maybe not, given the recent bouts of diphteria in Europe).

The museum also featured a trove of fabulous jewels, so again I was tempted to drop by the shop on my way out. But, alas,

MCAShop

Greek museums don’t seem tremendously into their stores these days. It was a good thing, after all; restraint prevailed and I can still probably pay next month’s rent.

A visit to the Cycladic Art Museum can be easily followed by some time at the excellent Benaki Museum, just a few blocks away. Its collection also begins with antiquity, and near the entrance there was a funky juxtaposition of classical and classical-inspired contemporary works:

Combos

Don’t look like part of the permanent collection and I found nothing about them in the current exhibit description but I liked them a lot. Unlike other museums, though (except perhaps for the part of the NAM to which I didn’t get), the Benaki features a significant amount of modern material, especially from the Ottoman Empire period, independence, and the reigns of Kings Otto and George I. Especially eye-catching were the lavish reception rooms from old mansions preserved here

Mansion

and the aristocratic court costumes and jewels. I judged my ring could compete with that of Princess Sophia’s lady-in-waiting.

Bejewelled

And then I wanted more jewels! But although the Benaki has an excellent shop, I was due to meet Miss I in what would be the ultimate dining experience: Karamanlidika, a place her mother had serendipitously discovered the previous week and which unbeknownst to us was TripAdvisor’s #4 in all of Athens (as of the day I write this, it’s risen to #2). To get there, you auspiciously walk through Evripidou street, which despite its ramshackle character houses some WONDERFUL spice stores where Miss I generally stocks up, and luscious butcher shops:

Spice  Meat

One of those butcher shops, on the corner of Socratous street (Euripides and Socrates!) is Karamanlidika.

Karamanlidika Facade  Karamanlidika counter

They use market-fresh ingredients and the charcuterie and cheeses they sell to make scrumptious small dishes and full entrees. Although the menu is in Greek (they have an English menu but it still read like Greek to me!), everything was described in perfect Spanish to us by the wonderful manager María Jesús de los Reyes Ces Domínguez (full name, y olé!), a Castilian who has spent over thirty years in Greece, as nice as the rest of her staff.

Maria

And if you just surrender to her recommendations you’ll be doing just fine. So I can’t name most of what we ate, but I can show you the dishes, and more revealingly the look on Miss I’s face when she put a bite in her mouth:

Karamanlidika Food  Karamanlidika - Miss I

Or what happened to me when I tasted their complimentary dessert of candied carrots (yes, candied carrots) on yogurt:

Candied Carrots

It was Finger-Lickin’ Good, bejewelled fingers or not (not the time for ladylike elegance and dignity!). Remember that scene in When Harry Met Sally? Except this wasn’t faked.

After lunch it was time to leave for the airport and head back to Barcelona, but not without a last stroll through the busy colorful streets full of contrasts, not the least of which is the Acropolis towering, like the sacred site it is, over the asphalt jungle:

Streets          Street Parthenon

In the end it is just like Bayamón, with the Parthenon right smack in the middle. And that’s a good thing: it’s just the life of a city with its glories and challenges. One that I’ll miss from Barcelona just like Merrill missed it from Stonington,

They seem anxious to know 

What holds up heaven nowadays. 

I start explaining how in that vast fire 

Were other irons — well, Art, Public Spirit, 

Ignorance, Economics, Love of Self, 

Hatred of Self, a hundred more, 

Each burning to be felt[. . .]  

Zinc and gunmetal northern sky... 

Stay then. Perhaps the system 

Calls for spirits. This first glass I down 

To the last time 

I ate and drank in that old world. May I 

Also survive its meanings, and my own.

During my few days in Athens, and in the few days since I returned (late June 2015), the drama of the impending “grexit” has been unfolding. Certain as I am that Greece should shun the evil Europe of the moneychangers (good time to ask: what would Jesus do???), I can fully understand the fear and the pain that my old and newly-acquired friends there are experiencing, and the uncertainty of what will happen if Greece is forced to exit the eurozone. To take her mind off her nerves, Miss I knits and knits, like Penelope. She lives her daily life, tending to her tomatoes and watching the rain from her lovely balcony.

tomatoes balcony

She combines walking her pretty puppy Keira with stopping by the latest protest in front of Parliament.

Kira Manifa

What is theoretical for me will be very real for her, and her family and friends. Perhaps the system does call for spirits. I toast to them, and wish them godspeed. May they survive their own meanings.

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Goddess Travel, The Beginning: Feeling All Mercouri in Santorini

On this voyage to Greece (my first!), it was clear already on the plane that the gods were with me. After finding myself in the middle of an altercation between the two women in front of me (who had decided to recline as far as their seats would go, from boarding time and even through takeoff) and the sweat-smelling neighbor to my side (who objected), I (the passenger most negatively affected by the situation, stuck in a seat that itself refused to recline) was upgraded to the three empty exit row seats! I personally did not participate in the controversy, conflicted between my firm belief that if the seat you paid for reclines you can recline it and Vueling Airlines’ combination of absolutely no space between rows and seat backs that tilt to a 25° angle over the tray table behind. However, I did reckon that if payment of her ticket price entitled the front passenger to stretch out onto my lap, payment of mine entitled me to push the hard corner of my travel guide as far into her back as it would go, as well as bang my glass incessantly against the tray table, seemingly by accident, until she called the flight attendant to complain. And so it was that I came to have a whole extra-leg-room row to myself, and we all got happily to our destination: Athens. Luck, a gift from Tyche!

All my adventures this summer seem to begin with birthday parties, and upon arrival I barely had time for a quick funicular ride to Mount Lycabettus,

P1060063_2

apparently for some reason known as Athina’s Boob, for a first fabulous view of the city, Acropolis included (OK, and a glass of champagne, and truffle fries–there is no edible food on Vueling)

Lycabettus  Lycabettus 2

before heading back to the celebration in honor of my gracious, gracious hostess, Miss I.

Party

Held by a true gourmande, the party could not but feature an assortment of yummy dishes, two cakes including Miss I’s delectable strawberry pavlova, and my first incursion (but definitely not my last) into the wonderful world of Greek wines–which, aghast for the past two decades at that vile concoction named retsina (or at least the varieties I tried), I had never bothered to explore. A surprisingly lovely blend of Papargyriou muscat/assyrtiko that totally got me chummy with Dionysus on my very first night.

Off I went the next morning on my (adventurous) own to the island of Thira or Santorini, a trip that Miss I assured me was the best way to see NOTHING of the Greek summer BUT it’s the one on all the pictures and postcards and all my life I’d been imagining myself all Melina Mercouri on its spectacular cliffs. Against my inveterate custom (and probably because I’d been forced to use my travel guide as a weapon), I had done very little advance research/planning aside from reserving a room in the Senses Boutique Hotel, an adorable eight-room house in the “village” of Imerovigli, halfway between the two better-known towns, Fira and Oía (US$639.52 including taxes for three nights, via Orbitz).

First Part, then, about the lodging: it is not perfect. Santorini holidays are not perfect, unless your budget is much larger than mine (and even then, I’m not sure). If you are not someone who can get into an island vibe and go with the flow (even strictly occasionally, as is my case) you should not go there, but you will miss one of the most breathtaking views on planet Earth. So, at Senses, a little this or that may not have been ideal (the tiniest bathroom sinks, a supermarket breakfast with no way to heat your milk, and such) and, as you will see, there was some room confusion, but it has these definite advantages: 1) It’s in Imerovigli, a sleepy town with few establishments, lovely silence and, to me, the BEST views as it’s on the highest point, and in the middle, of the side of the island facing the caldera (because, yes, you are on top of a friggin’ submerged active volcano). 2) It’s little, and intimate, and beautifully decorated. 3) Yannis. He is the one person in charge, and if you arrive/need something and he is momentarily busy you will have to wait. However, he attends to anything, responds to everything, and misses nothing. Whatever needs fixing he will fix, and if (like me) you arrive with no research and no plans he will tell you what to do, and you will do it, and you will like it. Really: look at reviews of this hotel on any travel site. It’s all about Yannis.

When I got there I was checked into the Blue Room, which was truly enchanting, and had exclusive right to the use of a little terrace with astounding views.

Blue Room

The problem, of course, was that I had reserved an “Elegant”-category room, whereas the Blue Room, albeit très jolie, was in (in fact, constituted the entirety of) the “Petite” category. Cons: It’s not actually a wee room by European standards (if you are familiar with those) but the terrace is not in the room: it is (just) across a tiny outdoor hallway. Windows face the street, so the need (or choice) to keep curtains closed leaves the room a little dark. The pros were many–as Yannis pointed out, it actually has the prettiest and most private terrace, and possibly the best view in the hotel. It also seems more recently renovated than other rooms. Never mind; it is the (annoying) case that, regardless of what she reserves, three times out of four a woman traveling solo (sola solita!) gets redirected to a smaller room, just as in restaurants she gets the back table next to the toilets. Ours is not to ask why, but in any case I insisted on wrongs being righted the next day, and was obligingly moved to the Purple Room:

Purple Room

It was just a tad larger, and had much more light. Most importantly, although the view was (very slightly) less sensational, the terrace being actually attached to the room meant I could pop right out of bed in my sexy lingerie for a panoramic breakfast. Or so I thought: unexplainably, there is no divider between that terrace and the one for the adjacent room (which would be SO EASY to install!), so the next morning I popped right out of bed in my sexy lingerie to say good morning to the couple next door, and wait until they finished their leisurely panoramic breakfast to start my own. In truth, the moment I saw Purple Room I decided I liked Blue better, but I had been too self-righteous (and they had been too helpful in moving my stuff) to go back on my decision. (There is a “Superb” room category which apparently takes care of all issues, and also precludes any risk of being stuck in an entirely purple chamber.)

I think Yannis could tell I was a bit disappointed, because ON THE THIRD DAY he offered, as amiable compensation for the previous mixup and only if I wasn’t too tired to move again, an upgrade to the King Suite With Its Own Private Jacuzzi (oh, Yannis, if you insist that I keep moving around!). And OMG:

P1050950             IMG_20150620_132758

IMG_20150621_102342It should be noted that the little pool is private only in the sense that it’s accessible strictly to the suite’s guests, as in Santorini (unless you spend a lot more money than I have, I guess) most rooms/terraces oriented toward the view are also facing the walking trail that goes from town to town. So pedestrians will pass by and see you when you’re

JacuzziNight

but that didn’t deter me from soaking there with my bottle of wine (the glass railing does fog up, anyway). After a whole afternoon sailing (see Part II, below), it was SUBLIME.

Inside, the suite is also sublime. Huge, with a wonderful living room with vaulted ceilings and gorgeous original furniture that came with the property purchase (it is a restored traditional house), an actual king-size bed, and a bathroom bigger than either the Blue or the Purple Room, complete with twin showers for when you want to bathe with your bollycao but not in excessively close proximity.

Suite

There are a few cons: the tiny little fridge they could fit inside a beautiful armoire isn’t as handy as those in the other rooms, and makes no ice; the larger space isn’t as perfectly cooled by the air conditioner as the other rooms. Anyone who knows ice and a/c are the two things I consider most essential to survival will understand that I suffered a bit, but not enough to turn my nose up at the ritzy digs.

I would definitely go back to the Senses. I will. There are five rooms I haven’t tried yet, after all.

Part II: Activities. As I had jabbed my travel guide into a woman’s ribs instead of reading it, I had no real plans for my three-day Santorini vacation, knowing only that the first order of business, given how touristy it is, had to be to STAY AWAY FROM THE PEOPLE. Luckily, I had Yannis, who asked me in what activities I would like to engage. In addition to this,

Pool

I said, ideally with my feet as high up as possible, I would love to go horseback riding (thinking wishfully, I’d carried riding boots in my otherwise minimal luggage). There are no horses in Santorini, he replied, but you can ride a donkey if you like.

Donkeys

NO. Wrong equine, plus there’s the whole matter of whether or not they are abused. So, then, I would like to go on some sort of boat. For that, he informed me there were many options, ranging from 18 to 150€. Now, if you don’t want to mix with The People, this is the kind of thing on which you selectively splurge, so I instantly decided on the most expensive option.

Caldera Yachting’s Gold Sunset Cruise picks you up at your hotel at 3:30 p.m. and brings you back around 10:00. In between you are on a brand-new 45-ft. catamaran with a limit of fifteen passengers; the sail makes three stops and ends with dinner and sunset viewing. With GLORIOUS weather we departed from the port of Ammoudi on the shore below Oía

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toward the first stop, the island of Thirassia, where we were informed that we were to snorkel, and I–who, as my dear friends know, am decidedly against even slightly cool water–steadfastly refused.

Thirassia

Well, I did try to refuse but our Serbian chef-ringleader Maria, who oozed enthusiasm, was not the kind to take no for an answer:

Maria

Ordinarily that would have been very annoying, but what the hell: in Santorini you get into the island vibe and go with the flow, plus, did I mention the flow included unlimited amounts of boldness-inducing krasí?

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For once in my life, the word “refreshing” was not used by evil connivers to lure me into shock-inducing frigid waters: it was indeed refreshing, and delicious! After that, there was no stopping me; I was the only person on the boat who swam on all three stops. After Thirassia, that encompassed the Kameni islands: Palea Kameni, where you jump off the boat and swim toward muddy sulphur springs (we were told a single old man lives on the island, with his chickens and goats), and Nea Kameni, where you float on the volcanic crater itself.

Palea

Nea

After all that swimming, Maria and the rest of the crew made a delicious dinner and, again, did I mention the free-flowing wine?

Dinner2

By the final part of the cruise, everyone had gotten all lovey-dovey and all Rolling Stones as we went off into the sunset:

We’re going to blame the sun-on-my-hand photo also on Maria. And, as you ponder the beauty of the scenery, please notice my strategic placement next to the boat’s only bollycao, proof that no matter how relaxed or poetically communing with nature I am, my radar is absolutely never off.

Sunset

That was my utterly dazzling gift from Poseidon, of course. But the rest of my time in Santorini was dazzling as well. I walked a lot between Imerovigli and Fira, which you do out of necessity (dining/shopping), or maybe just for the quaint corners and the views.

Im-FiraViews

I visited Oía on my second night, because everyone says that’s where you need to go for the best sunset view. But that is only if you enjoy the company of the masses, which, as it has been established, I do not.

Masses

Oía has beautiful views all over,

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but the sunset thing really is a waste of time, because a majestic sunset can be enjoyed in blissful isolation ANYWHERE ELSE in Santorini. So I got tired of waiting with the crowd and went to dinner at Thalami Restaurant, Yannis’s least successful recommendation. The food (taramosalata, meatballs and rice–I was on a quest to try all the Greek dishes I’ve always known in Greece) was correct, and the view might have been magnificent if I weren’t a single woman, sitting as usual by the back wall.

Thalami

When I finished dinner and walked back to the town square, the sunset was FINALLY just ending, and everyone clapped. So touching. Moi, I went to Oía’s famous Melenio pastry shop and got myself a treat to have back in the apartment, with my personal post-dinner wine tasting.

Melenio

(I did not like/finish my ekmek, BTW–a sort of baklava with pistacchio frosting–but to each his or her own.)

The (white) wines, however, were a different story. One of them I had obtained in Fira, a Ktima Aptypoy Kahaani 2014 made from one of Santorini’s characteristic grapes, aidani. The other one I acquired during my one visit to a winery, Koutsoyannopoulos, which in addition to wine tasting

Tasting

has a unique wine museum with funky animatronics recreations of Santorini winemaking through the ages (complete with wagging dog-tails):

Given my previous limited wine connoisseurship (I enjoy really good wines but can’t explain why; in a drought, I can drink gasoline), I can’t say I learned a lot about Santorini wine except that they have a very peculiar way of growing vines close to the soil to protect them from wind, like so (ignore the moviemaking dummies, please):

Vines

And this, together with the volcanic soil and the salty sea air, results in white wines that you really, really, really want to drink. Like the one that I bought, made from another typical Santorini grape (assyrtiko), and which I was told is sold only at the winery:

assyrtiko

So those two were my personal tasting wines back at the hotel, and what can I say… two bottles in three days. I would describe both as dry and crisp and mineralish, and I don’t know if those terms contradict each other, but yum, yum, and slurp. 🙂

A final note on dining: I was advised by wise Yannis to avoid most of the sea-view restaurants and seek small local spots and little tavernas. Again, right on. I ate at two that, from what the sales guy at the Germanos store said, are owned by brothers: Mama’s House

Mama's

and Taverna Nikolas (at both of which the price is definitely right). Until I ate at Mama’s House, I was with John Oliver on moussaka: “disgusting potato lasagna.” NO MORE. At Nikolas, I had a mighty fine plate of pork souvlaki, and the place was SO cute (I think that might be Nikolas wearing black there–it’s one of the owners, in any case)

Nikolas

that I didn’t even mind their incessant playing of that song from Never on Sunday (instrumental version) over and over again in a loop.

I also at one point missed my stop on the bus to the wine museum (they’re not great at calling out the location names) and accidentally made it to the final station, Kamari beach. As world beaches go, it’s pretty unremarkable, but the detour led to an unscheduled gyro at a random fast food place (on the street going down to the beach where the bus drops you off) that was TO DIE FOR.

Gyro

I don’t know how I’m going to live without gyros back in Barcelona. Or in the States–they’re just not the same.

There ARE things to avoid in Santorini. Like I said, the masses. Especially the throngs of young ladies wearing chiffon gowns, with their photographer in tow because what girl in her right mind doesn’t want a picture of her beautiful self on a windswept cliff, with hair and clothing floating behind her. The multitude of idiot newlyweds who hang locks all along the trail path, because what better symbol could there be for marriage. The tourist traps in Fira and Oía, especially the jewelry shops that will attempt to sell you a gorgeous yet ridiculously overpriced 1530€ pair of earrings (you must do like Ulysses with the sirens here, and like me–although I did almost go insane with desire).

Avoid

Most of all, if you could, you should avoid The Bus. Imagine riding down California’s Route 1 on a packed bus, standing up, holding on to WHATEVER you can (oops, sorry beautiful young lad, I didn’t mean to do that!). Dizzying. Dangerous. And the crowds, and the waiting, ugh. But I’m afraid it’s not entirely possible to skip, as there are only 39 taxicabs in all of Santorini, and the alternatives (car/scooter rentals) have their own dangers. With that, good luck.

And when you leave, remember: avoid The People. On that ferry,

sCosmote

splurge again on the VIP ticket (not even that big a difference from the regular ticket). The seats are quite similar to cheaper ones, except of course that you might just get four chairs to yourself without even having to assault anyone for them.

Cosmote2

Return to Santorini? I hope I do. I will. It is the kind of touristy place you love to hate (next time I’ll go to a real island where I can actually see something of the authentic Greek summer), and also the place your eyes ache for when you don’t know if you will once again behold the beautiful caldera.

It made me feel free, and hippie, and mod!

hippie  warhol

As Cavafy wrote (if about something else altogether),

Come back often and take hold of me,
sensation that I love come back and take hold of me—

I hope I do return, or it comes back to me.

But first, back to Athens. That must, however, remain for a later post.

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Sleepy Summer, Accidental Tourism, and Barça!

Two weeks in Barcelona! It feels like summer is going by too quickly, and yet it’s also been sort of sleepy and uneventful. I did, however, inaugurate the season by spending my first weekend here in the beach town of Sitges, the “Gay Capital of Spain.” This wasn’t so great for my bollycao hunting–certainly already under way–but it was fabulously relaxing because of this

Sitges

and this.

Terramar

The wonderful pool was at the Hotel Terramar, which I did not research or choose (I was with a group of friends), but was very clean, wonderfully air-conditioned, and relatively inexpensive despite the bountiful breakfast buffet. It also had fantastic views, such as in the picture above–which was not, sadly, from my own room. I had a “single” room, which means that you get no balcony, no view, deafening noise from the elevator, and the tiniest bed in the universe, to ensure you stay single while you’re there.

Sitges can get very crowded in July and August, but is just perfect in June. In fact, the only people crowding it were the twenty-plus friends (me included) of the debonair Mr. S, who were there for the 50th-birthday weekend bash lovingly arranged for him by his partner Mr. A. On Saturday, we had a delightful picnic lunch with more than fifty guests in a sort of summer camp site on the Garraf, and it was a beautiful occasion that at times felt like a wedding,

A&S

down to the two delectable Black Forest cakes with romantic messages from popular songs (which people sassier than me also performed–there were many performances throughout the weekend!).

Colonias 1

Cakes

People other than me also did healthy, mindful things like get up in the morning to do Pilates on the beach,

wpid-img_20150615_011633.jpg

but that is more esprit de corps than I can muster while still afflicted with jet lag (or at least that was my excuse). A wonderful time was had by all, and after the horrible winter of 2015, my summer has officially begun.

Back in Barcelona, and always the conscientious academic, my first order of business was to make my way to that old haunt, the Biblioteca de Catalunya, where I promptly booked myself a private carrel (or cabin, as they call it), which for the modest sum of 23.95€ a week enables you to work in blissful isolation from The People.

Biblioteca

Cabina 4 is several miles away from the bathroom, a lucky circumstance that allowed me to stumble onto a beautiful little art exhibit scattered throughout the cavernous reading room: Memòria Llarga, Memòria Curta, a series of artworks made by students of the Escola Llotja’s Conservatory for Book Arts, most of which manipulate books and book-related objects as a reflection “on the relationship between the book and human cultural memory.” The description doesn’t sound too exciting, but I do love the artworks themselves and their fit into the beautiful BC environment. Definitely drop by if you’re in town before September 25, at least if you can get past the airport-type security at the library entrance.

Other than working I’ve been trying to make myself at home, which mostly involves the purchase of large numbers of candles to avoid turning on those ghastly fluorescent ceiling lamps hung too high for me to change the lightbulbs.

Home Fireplace

But, alas, the photo above suggests I spend my time relaxing, whereas it is mostly devoted to household chores. After considerable effort, I figured out (without the benefit of an instruction manual) the three different steps it takes to turn the oven on, and made oven fries! (To eat with eggs and luscious txistorra, both of which were fried so I should have just gone all the way with the flow.) I also chase–or rather, am chased by–a superbionic mosquito that won’t quit biting huge chunks off me. And I do a lot of ironing, mainly because the ninety-minute wash/dry cycle (which takes four hours if you choose “fully dry” in step #4 of the settings–and why the hell WOULDN’T YOU choose “fully dry”) results in this:

Washer

I never thought I’d say this, but it makes me nostalgic for the apparatus-for-hanging-clothes-out-to-dry I had last year in Bilbao…

Of course, if you live in my neighborhood, the Barri Gòtic, household chores can acquire their own unique character. After days of unsuccessful inquiries as to where on earth I’m supposed to drop my recyclables, a neighbor finally revealed I should walk all the way around the block to the Plaça de la Vila de Madrid. When I ventured there, I kept looking for the usual yellow, green, and blue containers, and actually wondered if these structures were the new receptacles:

Sarcophagi

But, no, they are not the new receptacles; they are just 2nd to 3rd-century AD Roman sarcophagi to which I somehow never paid attention on the way to the Athenaeum next door, a private institution with frequent interesting cultural events (check out their calendar if you speak Catalan!) in whose gorgeous little library I have sometimes worked. Naturally, it makes all the sense in the world for the necropolis to be right there, as my street was the city wall in Roman times.

Running errands in the Barri Gòtic, there is no end to the possible surprises. You can decide to emerge from home to get some groceries (as I did yesterday, June 13), and step right onto this outside your building’s gate:

Cabezudos

Gegant and casteller parades in the middle of the street might conceivably happen any weekend, but yesterday there was a particular city celebration I had forgotten all about, and which I accidentally stumbled into just a few minutes later: the new Mayor’s inaugural.

Inaugural

On this particular occasion people at Plaça de Sant Jaume, the square where the Catalan Governmental Palace and Barcelona’s City Hall face each other, seemed particularly excited. The election of Ada Colau was part of a widespread turn to the left in the most recent Spanish municipal elections that drove the right-wing party in national power (the Partido Popular) and other traditional majority parties out of a good number of local governments. Rather than a career politician, she is a long-time social activist, and her message has struck a chord with the many Catalans who have long felt economically and socially disenfranchised while the main political parties take turns doing little for their plight.

So waddayaknow–ever the accidental tourist, I just keep chancing upon history in the making!

My flâneuse walks around the city have had a much more frivolous side. I’ve browsed at several of the markets that pop up around town in summer, like the weekend handicraft bazaar on Carrer de l’Argenteria, where I just had to buy a darling little felt bag.

Argenteria

Bag

And at my favorite Barcelona clothing store, Anna Povo,

AnnaPovo

where I already eyed a few items for July’s rebaixes (everything is on sale, everywhere in Spain, in July).

On Passeig de Gràcia, however, I also had to face true tragedy: the imminent closing (at the end of June) of the Vinçon store, founded in 1941.

Vinçon Internet

Vinçon’s history, as detailed on its web site, doesn’t convey what this place meant to me and to Barcelona’s development. Much more than a home goods/furniture store, it was one of those shops that become so associated with a city that they turn into tourist attractions in their own right. It helped of course that it was located in the Casa Casas-Carbó, a modernist jewel on the same street as the famous Mansana de la Discòrdia and steps away from Antoni Gaudí’s Casa Milà. Its beautiful interiors were as much of an attraction as the exquisite furniture they showcased, featuring the best of Barcelona, Spanish, and European design. And even if you couldn’t afford the high-ticket items (or couldn’t well fly a gorgeous bookshelf back home), you could go every year for their summer red or black fans, or the new calendar, or original little gifts that you could carry out of the store in their latest bag. The store “took off” in the early nineties, just as I began my almost-yearly trips to Barcelona, and it was always one of the first stops on my itinerary, a sign that I was finally here. Seeing its empty shelves broke my heart:

EmptyVinçon

I hope it doesn’t just become another chain store, or global luxury franchise.

The only possible consolation for the loss of Vinçon, of course, is the Barça store, whose many outposts outside the Camp Nou Megastore I don’t seem able to just walk past. I wonder what the subliminal pull is…

Dummies

Really, do they have beefcake dummies in U. S. stores??? I think I’m falling in love! I know, they are not human, don’t even have a face and my lusting after them is a little insane. But what’s a girl to do when there are no more Puyol posters around, and she’s in withdrawal from… the Rúa!!!!

Because last Sunday (June 7) I did make it back in time for Barça’s parade through the city on their way back from Germany, where they won the Champions League title against Juventus. Still in Sitges, I had missed the crazy celebrations at Canaletes on the actual night of the game (not that I’m sure I would have survived them; I did try that once). However, I was there in spirit lending them my (arm) strength.

Calco

This was, of course, Barcelona’s third title this year (in addition to the Spanish Liga and Copa del Rey)–the second treble in their history. And I made it to their welcome!

Rúa 1 Rúa 2

As usual, I ended up on the friggin’ wrong side of the street and missed both Messi and my new hearthrob beau Suárez, but if you scan the pictures carefully you can see Luis Enrique, Pedro, Mascherano, Jordi Alba and, decked in the Catalan flag, dreamy Sergi Roberto. Of course (and thankfully) my best view was of Xavi, in his last couple of days with Barça:

Rúa Xavi

It was very sad and very moving and I can’t face his having gone to Qatar (mourning and withdrawal again). I am, nevertheless, a bit heartened by Puyol’s diligent efforts to learn English (unfortunately at Berlitz), which I’m taking to mean I’ll soon have him WITH ME in New York.

On the culinary side, no big adventures yet but going up and down Passeig de Gràcia I discovered a place where you should NEVER eat (I only even tried it because it’s new and didn’t seem to be the same kind of establishment as all the horrid tapas chains around there, plus I was going to drop dead if I didn’t have a meal IMMEDIATELY). I also went back to an old favorite, Sushi Shop–for when you just have to take a break from the jamón and absolutely need a place with BITCHIN’ AIR CONDITIONING (a recurring need of mine in Europe). Miss L and the Blacksongs will be imminently landing in Barcelona, at which point I will be hitting the restaurants and night spots more often and will have interesting tidbits to share.

But that will be in two or three weeks. Before that (this Wednesday), I am taking off for an actual one-week vacation in GREECE. And I’ll have plenty to report about that!

 

 

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Barcelona, 2015

Well, here we are again. I somehow miraculously survived the spring of 2015, which included at least three months of horrible (HORRIBLE) winter weather, two months of Lady F convalescing with me in New York (she is now in much better shape, thanks), enough work for three of me (the “me” from when I was young and energetic), and lastly the great and nearly-fatal tumble down those blasted Morningside Park steps, still in need of repair and a damn handrail. And here I am again, on the other side of the Atlantic, back in my beloved Barcelona, which last summer I spurned for Bilbao and other points North. So exciting to fly into that familiar landscape!

Landing I have been here for just over forty-eight hours, although most of it is still a jetlagged blur; I slept all of Monday when I arrived, except for a brief saunter to the Mercat de Santa Caterina for the First Meal of, what else, croquetes casolanes (because I could eat myself to death with croquettes), pebrots de Padró, and my FAVORITE, grilled calamari in the typical Catalan garlic/parsley sauce,

Pebrots

all of it ordered in not-as-rusty-as-I’d-feared Catalan and consumed with, what else, CAVA, over a newspaper spread proclaiming what we all know, that Messi (Messi, Messi, Messi!) is not of this world. Because, days later, the “locals” are still raving mad about THAT GOAL at the Barcelona-Athletic Club Copa del Rey final (and so am I).

The First Meal ended, inevitably, with a turró (nougat) ice cream cone from Planelles Donat at Portal del Àngel #7. And don’t argue: it has to be from that particular location of PD, and no other establishment, please. I will begin minding the diet just as soon as I’ve tasted all the must-haves at least once.

Got back to bed, and on Tuesday I set my alarm for 10:30 a.m., as per my foolproof anti-jetlag system (sleep for an entire 24 hrs upon arrival, you’ll be set to go at a normal time on day 2). Unfortunately, it seems as you get older that must turn into sleeping for an entire 48 hrs upon arrival, as there was no getting me out of bed before 3:15 p.m. At which point I had occasion to inspect my ULTRALUXE Airbnb apartment, which is interestingly outside my usual neighborhoods, in the Barri Gòtic or, as the Ex immediately labeled it, Guiriland. I live on the fabulous pedestrian Carrer de la Portaferrissa, so named for being the site of one of Roman Barcelona’s gates, and now most famous perhaps for leading to another little street, Carrer Petritxol, known as one of the quaintest little corners of Barcelona (more on that in a later post).

My ULTRALUXE woman-cave is in a building that looks pretty medieval itself, although its modern history seems quite interesting too. I found out from my friend Mr. A, who knows EVERYTHING about Barcelona, that it used to house the Casa Regional de Murcia y Albacete (casas regionales were social clubs for people outside their province), and someone on the internetz reports that it didn’t close during the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War, continuing to hold a dance party every Sunday throughout. I did find a program for a theater performance as late as 1958:

Portaferrissa 2

Held in MY VERY OWN APARTMENT (or rather, the floor of which my apartment is now 1/6th or 1/8th). I do believe the Casa remained open at this location until ten or fifteen years ago. However, something else I found when looking this up is that in the 1920s you could come here to buy TOP-QUALITY Catalan Arbequina olive oil (curiously the same kind I buy at Fairway Market in NYC):

Portaferrissa 1

In this day and age, my building’s claim to fame may be to have the only front door not covered in graffiti or piss in the entire Barri Gòtic, something for which I may have the Manta salesmen to thank (at almost any point you may buy folkoric fans and castaignettes from a guy outside my gate). Immediately inside is a beautifully serene entryway with inner patio:

IMG_20150602_185252

That little staircase (which I don’t take because after the Great Morningside Tumble of 2015 I am DONE WITH STAIRS and a BCN place that’s not a walkup is true luxury) leads to a fabulous space purportedly decorated professionally by a studio named HOME-DECO, and featured in the magazine Interiores because of the to-die-for fireplace (that IS my fireplace, too bad it’s summer!). Though I’m not sure I’m “at home” in the apartment yet, it is definitely one of the most palatial I’ve ever rented, if not terribly “medieval” in style (except for the volta catalana arches preserved in the living-room area).

IMG_20150601_075222 IMG_20150601_075007 IMG_20150601_074640 IMG_20150602_185439

Every time a classified reads “loft” I think “studio,” but it’s actually huge, which makes it strange that they decided to keep it as a no-wall space with the dining table right in front of the bed. Also, despite the enormous windows facing three sides, it’s not that bright. The CFL bulbs in the industrial light fixtures (do I have a steampunk apartment???) don’t really enhance the sultry olive skin tone I plan to acquire very soon. The graffitiesque artwork is a bit disturbing (guess I avoided it downstairs not upstairs). And there are… words all over the headboard.

PhotoGrid_1433344102799

Words that do not exactly match my habitual moods when I’m in bed (like coño, WTF, or oohlala!). THAT SAID, the little indoor garden on my floor is the cutest thing (I’m not actually sure I’m allowed there, but I tiptoed through it). The double-pane glass makes for complete silence (also true luxury in BCN); there are THREE indoor units for the multi-split air conditioner (very silent as well); and that black leather Arne Jacobsen-style Egg Chair may or may not be an original orgasmatron–it is the most comfortable thing I’ve ever sat on. So comfortable, in fact, I’m hallucinating about buying a small desk so I can work there.

So, on the evening of the second day (Tuesday), after a bit of home exploring, I met Messrs. A & S for dinner at La Monroe, the little restaurant at the Catalan Film Archive. Very reasonably priced, and quite tasty; I had a culturally incoherent dinner consisting of (shared) Nachos and a second course of secreto ibérico. And then it was midnight, and Mr. S’s FIFTIETH birthday, which we celebrated by the full moon on Carrer Petritxol:

Petritxol

Today (Day 3), I managed to get out of bed–if not to be actually awake–by 11:30 a.m. I bought the ugliest (and cheapest?) shopping cart ever, and got some basics. I ran some secret errands with a secret friend. And managed my first home-cooked meal of the summer, the very Catalan botifarra amb mongetes, on my fancy made-to-look-like-a-repurposed-door-with-peeling-paint dining table:

IMG_20150603_204553

So here I am! It’s 2015, Barcelona this time. (No Basque vocabulary needed, but you can send a little Mikel this way anytime!) I’ll write from time to time with a travel diary, Barcelona tidbits, and miscellaneous miscellanea. Since I have SO MANY FRIENDS who know the city and the area, I hope they’ll use the comments section to add their own recommendations (for me, for whomever might read this).

I’m here for work (yes, sigh…). For FRIENDS. For FOOD. For Barça (see you on the night of the European Cup final, June 6!). For my old and forever boyfriend Carles Puyol, and my new boyfriend Luis Suárez (yes, somehow that happened). Most of all, for TWO MONTHS!

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Death and the Groovy Maiden: Ruminations on Widows’ Fashion at the MetMuseum

I am (or at least hope I am) part of the last generation of women who were taught that life’s full realization would come through marriage and children. It would all, of course, be in a groovy kind of way. I don’t think we were expected to love the whole idea, or my first vinyl record would not have been Cenicienta Pop [Pop Cinderella], to which I incessantly go-go danced at the age of four:

Cenicienta Pop

No me importa fregar suelos

Ni los zapatos limpiar,

Tampoco planchar pañuelos

Ni la papilla lavar.

Mi familia no me entiende,

Nadie, nadie me comprende…

Lo que a mí me gustaría:

Con minifalda vestir

Sin que nadie me critique

Cuando salgo por ahí.

[I don’t care to mop the floors,

Am not into shining shoes,

Not much for ironing hankies,

Or washing off baby food.

My family doesn’t get me,

No one really understands me…

What I’d really like to do

Is put on a mini-skirt

And not have everyone trash me

When I’m painting the town red.]

It was clear the operational orders were to keep our eyes on the prince–in this particular fairy tale a long-haired charmer who ruined me for crew cuts forevermore (“veo que tiene el pelo largo, él sin duda me entenderá” / I see his hair is long, he will get me for sure!). And just as clear that after he swept you off your feet you would be sweeping the dirt off his.

Dubbed American TV shows offered a range of ways to deal with this, none of which were at my grandmother’s disposal: from Mrs. Brady’s Electrolux-laden maid to Samantha and Jeannie’s magic. Around my part of town, the advice was how to train your dragon by keeping him permanently under the illusion that he was in charge (which sounded a whole lot like his being in charge). My mom (then a gay divorcée) may not necessarily have understood the concept, but she did try her best on the motherhood part, culminating in 1973 with the gift of Baby Alive, a doll that required after-market purchase of expensive food packets and tiny disposable diapers and which, as Wikipedia succinctly explains, “produced droppings and threw up regularly.” When I demanded to hear exactly how this was blissful, mom grudgingly confessed that she wasn’t quite sure, since our entire mother-daughter bonding had hinged on the miraculous fact that I was the only baby in the maternity ward who excreted little poop pearls that made no mess and didn’t smell (yup, you heard it: my shit don’t stink). And so, at the tender age of nine, I explained to Lady F that there would be NO GRANDCHILDREN. As for the long-haired mod prince, she could rest assured that I would postpone running off with him until I was way old, like TWENTY-THREE. While she seemed to take it well, I felt confused about the future. What if I was sweet on the prince part, but not on the Babies Alive, Electrolux, dragon-training accoutrements? Being a nun was already out of the question, and I didn’t want to be an old maid! (Pop Cinderella did not really rescue the stepsisters’ figures.)

Then, as so often happened in my multicultural Puerto Rican childhood, Spanish film furnished the epiphany. One afternoon after school, watching Telecine de la tarde reruns, THERE SHE WAS:

I knew instantly what I wanted to be when I grew up: A WIDOW.

I have no memory of the rest of that movie (Las leandras, 1969), but do you see????? Roughly contemporary with Pop Cinderella (I am a child of the 60s!), its merry widow protagonist is wearing a mini-skirt, and no one is trashing her as she paints the town red. Furthermore, she is wallowing (a fabulously ambiguous verb) in the emptiness of her luxurious suite: “En la cámara nupcial ya no hay sombra conyugal, y en el baño el pobre espejo, no tiene el reflejo de lo habitual” [In the marital chamber, no more conjugal shadow, and the poor bathroom mirror misses its habitual image]. While she mourns for her dearly departed, she can now console herself with… a bunch of boy toys! Not quite long-haired or mod, but good enough “para que su vacío no sienta, no” [so as not to feel his void, no]. CLEARLY the lifestyle for me. I wonder if my lifelong obsession with wearing black and deep V-necks originated here…

In the end it was more advisable for me to live in sin with Him Who Must Not Be Named than to count on his early death. But my widow fixation continued, this time related to my academic research on the creation of women’s cultural repertoires in nineteenth-century Spain, with its Catholic variants of the angel in the house–only partially coinciding with Anglo-American models. Among these, most fascinating was the widow: at once the (figurative) virgin and the whore (most likely figurative as well).

The legal frameworks of a society structured around virtually compulsory marriage left little space for non-dependent women to operate in-dependently. Fathers and husbands controlled women’s sexuality as much as their movements in both public and domestic spaces, and the confessor’s influence covered the tiny crevices outside their reach. Beyond the obvious fact that a woman could not vote, paternal or marital license was needed to exercise one of the few available occupations, enter into any sort of contract, or even manage those assets that Spanish law did consider wives’ exclusive property. As budding politician Rafael María de Labra keenly observed in 1869, there was little difference between the citizenship status of women and of colonial populations. Perhaps more surprising, though, was women’s subordination as mothers. The father, sole holder of custody (patria potestas), could even bequeath it to a male executor. Should the widow of a man deceased without a will gain hold of such tutelage, she would nevertheless lose it upon remarriage. For a woman’s remarriage was, if not unthinkable, at least eminently distasteful. As Severo Catalina, author of the immensely popular treatise La mujer (1858), put it, “es de ordinario loca la viuda que pasa á segundo matrimonio, porque si fué feliz en el primero, debe su corazon y su existencia á la fidelidad” [a widow who takes a second marriage is evidently insane, because if she was happy in her first, she owes her heart and life to faithfulness].

And yet no woman was more socially disturbing because, while a maiden’s chastity was guaranteed by her innocence and a married woman’s safeguarded by her husband, the widow’s already-awakened (and now unsatisfied) sexuality was guarded by nothing but social convention and her own conviction. Nothing attests to its perceived precariousness better than the insistence with which Catalina defends it: “La castidad de una viuda es. . . la castidad más difícil y meritoria” [A widow’s chasteness is. . . the most difficult and meritorious]. Outside the regulatory bonds of marriage, widows simultaneously seduced and frightened men, threatening their command over the public sphere. Accordingly, their behavior was among the most heavily regulated. As detailed in an 1858 legal dictionary, “la mujer que, en estado de viudez, vive escandalosamente pierde los gananciales a beneficio de los herederos de su marido” [the woman who, as a widow, lives scandalously forfeits matrimonial assets to her husband’s (other) beneficiaries].

Thus the widow, perhaps more than other women, was forced to perform a social persona far removed from her “inner” self, principally through luto or mourning: practices designed to openly signify grief, conformity, solemnity, and respectability. While this code of conduct comprised myriad rituals and prohibitions, it especially emphasized dress. At the dawn of the twentieth century, an urban bourgeois Spanish widow was still expected to wear black for two years, gradually shifting from full luto riguroso to lighter medio luto (rural widows might wear it for the rest of their lives). The heavy fabrics and sober styles were intended to metaphorically bury the widow alive. But when the going got tough, the tough went SHOPPING! In 1855, a sarcastic (male) columnist in the women’s magazine Correo de la moda made note of a piece of popular lore: “La mujer compensa el dolor que la produce la pérdida de un pariente con el placer que encuentra en la conversación de la modista que ha de hacerla el traje de luto” [Woman makes up for her affliction at the loss of a relative through pleasant chitchat with the dressmaker who will sew her mourning outfit]. And from the folds of black taffeta emerged the defiant merry widow, unscathed.

In my work, I have often seen the figurines on which these women based their designer or homemade confections

Trajes luto

as well as newspaper ads selling mourning fabrics and attire:

IMG_0500

I have seen many period paintings and movies full of enlutadas. But until yesterday I never had the haunting three-dimensional experience offered by the excellent Metropolitan Museum exhibit Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire (on view through the end of January 2015, please go!).

Death3Death1That otherworldly stroll among weeping widows, themselves long-dead (the mannequins, with their white faces and wigs, projecting flickering shadows onto gallery walls, all to Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem playing in the background), paradoxically brought to life the many layers of meaning hidden in pleats of skirt. Above all, it showed widows’ radical resignification of oppressive fashions to reveal their charms in the very act of hiding them, until grief turned into alluring distress, conformity into composure, solemnity into elegance, respectability into class, indeed mourning into seduction. Death, in fact, became them: it looked well on them and suited them–enabled them to take charge of their lives by mastering a discourse of duplicity.

In Spain, the rituals of mourning were first codified by the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella in 1497. Their proclamation on los lutos, i cera que se pueden traer, i gastar por los difuntos [the mourning and wax that can be carried for and spent on the deceased] and a corollary set of regulations both established its visible conventions–including the use of black to replace the previously customary white–and restricted its ostentation by strictly limiting who could exercise it, for how long, and in what (decorous and restrained) manner. As explained by Enrique Casas Gaspar in Costumbres españolas de nacimiento, noviazgo, casamiento y muerte (1947), widows were required to be shut away for a year in a room wallpapered in black, with no sunlight; a rule so restrictive that just two centuries later (1729) Philip V reduced it to six months. A widow’s outside dress prescribed total coverage–a sort of ambulatory substitute for the black room.

MourningDress

By the nineteenth century, however, the ascending bourgeoisie–the first class whose social standing rested on exhibition of wealth rather than documented lineage–had begun to repel statutes enacted precisely to prevent its accession. In fact, Article 1379 of the 1889 Civil Code stipulated that, regardless of how the rest of the dowry and inheritance were handled, “en todo caso se pagarán a la viuda, del caudal de la herencia, los vestidos de luto” [in all instances the widow will be paid for her mourning dresses from the estate’s funds].

And rightly so. Because she needed a morning dress and an afternoon dress, a promenade dress, and let us not forget the evening dress.

DeathEvening

Not only did widows (and other mourning women) figure out how to transform quasi-monastic vestments into high fashion; they managed to steal the show from death through carefully placed flourishes, details that accentuated their voluptuous shapes (including the liver-splitting corset, but oh well), the delicate translucence of a glove or veil.

DeathGlove           DeathVeil

Is that a dance card or a love note tucked into her hand?

DeathDance

And what a way to have her husband wrapped around her finger (on a mourning ring, of course)!

DeathRing

One has to understand widows’ ambiguous status to realize how truly subversive they could be. Case in point, one of my favorite Spanish literary widows, the namesake character of Juan Valera’s Pepita Jiménez (1874), who rode her Andalusian mare dashingly, tending to her profitable vineyards and olive groves, refusing the attention of the richest, most gallant suitors until she set her sights on who else but the hottie priest. Against the town’s trashing and her confessor’s advice, she tried the subtle thing first. She OOHED and AAHED when he learned how to ride a horse (naturally). She had two gorgeous servant girls who resembled her sybaritically serve him fresh-picked strawberries (look, hon, THREE of us!!!). And when he didn’t catch her drift and started going on about how they could be platonic lovers from afar, she was all, like:

¡Ay, don Luis!. . . Yo ni siquiera concibo a usted sin usted. Para mí es usted su boca, sus ojos, sus negros cabellos, que deseo acariciar con mis manos. . . Yo amo en usted, no ya sólo el alma sino el cuerpo, y la sombra del cuerpo, y el reflejo del cuerpo en los espejos. . . Soy idólatra materialista.

[Oh, Don Luis!. . . I can’t even conceive of you without you. To me, you are your mouth, your eyes, your dark curls, through which I want to run my fingers. . . In you I love not just the soul but the body, and the body’s shadow, and its image in mirrors. . . I am a materialist idolatress.]

Who would have said and done that, but a widow???!!! Needless to say, she got her long-haired priest and turned him into a prince (totally through her magic kiss!). She dressed him pretty and took him SHOPPING all through Europe. She did marry him (oh well, it was the 1870s), but still… Clearly the lifestyle for me.

I figure since the Good Lord has denied me a dead husband, for the upcoming holidays I can always get a little black dress. Not a Victorian one; the poor Queen’s mourning frocks were not very… forgiving.

DeathVictoria

A GROOVY dress. What do you think of these?

Darelle   fringe

For starters. 🙂

DeathText

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