Archive for November, 2009

CASB Computer Curse

So my beloved and decrepit Mac iBook has finally succoumbed to the same troubles that have befallen the laptops of many of my friends here in Barcelona, which is to say that it doesn´t work.  The other night it was working hard with a powerpoint up and running and the internet, skype, and Microsoft Word all in use and it just couldn´t take the pressure anymore…

So now it is in Barcelona´s “Mac Hospital” (the closest Apple store is in Munich) and I´m hoping for its speedy return.  Until then, expect limited blog posts and less frequent email/facebook responses.

Maybe this break from my computer and the technological world will be just the thing I need to be more productive…¿quién sabe?


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Lovely Lisboa

Last weekend I went with two Brown friends on my program, Katie and Emmy, to Lisbon.  None of us had ever been there before, but we had heard great things about it from the multitude of CASB-ers who had visited the city during the past few weekends.

What immediately struck me about Lisbon was how it felt less globalized and less touristy than Barcelona and all of the other major European capitals.  Since its economy is not as dynamic as Spain’s, Portugal has been able to retain more of a traditional lifestyle and feel, which even transfers over to their capital city.

Once we arrived and sampled some of their local codfish or bacalao Friday night, Emmy, Katie and I went out in the Bairro Alto-the main bar neighborhood.  The Bairro Alto was a maze of narrow cobblestone streets with copious amounts of bars and restaurants whose patrons spilled out onto the streets with their drinks (the bars even purposely give you plastic glasses because of this phenomenon).  It felt a bit like the Portuguese botellón (see my post from Madrid) albeit one with an older, more sophosticated crowd of urban creative professionals and hipsters as opposed to 18-20 year old university students.  The three of us were a bit overwhelmed by all of the bar options but luckily made a great choice after ducking into a small and colorful bar for a glass of wine and some live music:IMG_1075The following day we set off to explore the city by first taking one of their famously rickety trams (the thing looked like it had been in operation since 1920)

IMG_1078to the flea market or feira da ladra, which translates into “thieves market” for some browsing and bargaining.  There was a real buffet of items to be bought, anything from the perrennial pashminas to old silverware, adult movies, and espresso cups from an impressive cafe collection.

Flea Market Finds

Flea Market Finds


Some men hanging outside the flea market

Some men outside the flea market

I ultimately walked away with a nice little watercolor that I bargained down from 10 euros to 7.  Afterwards we went in search of the Castelo Sao Jorge, one of the centerpieces of the old, Moorish neighborhood of Alfama.  For such a seemingly large castle, the thing was hard to find and subsequently we got very lost (though we’d heard that you can’t go to Lisbon without getting lost so I suppose that was something we could check off our list).  In the midst of our search, though, we stopped for a delicious respite in one of Lisbon’s many pastelerias and tried their famous custard pastries the pasteis da nata.  En route to the castle we stopped for some beautiful views overlooking the city:


View over Lisbon

Finally, after much wandering we found the castelo.  It was pretty but there wasn’t too much to explore, in all honesty.


Castelo da Sao Jorge

After a lunch of throat-burning, runny-nose inducing spicy chicken piri-piri (literally grilled chicken in a chili sauce), we did some window shopping before heading out to a great and very chic dinner at Cafe Royale, a restaurant featured in the New York Times’ 48-Hours in Lisbon.  After treating ourselves to hummus and pita, white sangria with berries, and salads (this was clearly not a trip with males on it), the three of us headed to this cool bar in the Bairro Alto for capirinhas.  The bar had a literary theme with bookshelves everywhere and lots of hipsters.

IMG_1154On that note, I did happen to notice a lot of young people who fit the proverbial “Williamsburg-hipster” look.  Interestingly enough, for such a young city, Barcelona on-the-other-hand seems to be lacking in the hipster department (except for at this one club, Razzmatazz).  Or, I suppose, their smallish traditionally-hipster segment is greatly overshadowed by all of their mullet-loving pseudo punk hippies.  In any event, all of these Lisboan hipsters reminded me of Brown.

The next day we set off for the outer district of Belém, which has a stunning monastery or mosteiro and is home to the bakery, Pasteleria Belém, that originated the pasteis da nata or cream pastry:


the pasteis da nata

Ordering our pastries involved a lot of pointing and gesturing since most of the staff did not speak English and, as we were told before coming to Portugal, it is considered offensive to try to speak to the Portuguese in Spanish.  That meant for once we had to bury our pride and fully become turistas.  In any event our pastry ordering turned out just fine.


The stunning Mosteiro da Jerónimo


In the cloisters

After the monastery we went to a modern art museum whose collection had some interesting pieces, many of which I could not understand, including a whimsical sculpture made out of plastic utensils:


It started to drizzle as we left the museum and headed back to the main part of the city.  We’d heard comparisons between Lisbon and San Francisco before (Lisbon even has it’s very own Golden Gate-esque bridge) and the weather part sure seemed to fit.  Once downtown we made our way to the airport and said goodbye to a charming city that felt both traditional and strikingly hip at the same time before returning once more to our new home in Barcelona.

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Mullet del Día


The 90s Geophysics Professor Mullet

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Yankees v. Red Sox.  Sharks v. Jets.  Bears v. Packers.  Latin v. Parker.  Like these other longstanding rivalries, Barcelona and Madrid have been vying to be top dog for quite some time.  Though Madrid has been the capital of Spain since Phillip II moved his court there in 1561 (thank you wikipedia), Barcelona has long been the unofficial economic capital as it is a port city and was one of the first areas in Spain to become industrialized.  Here is a very subjective (and somewhat biased) look comparing the two cities:

Art and Culture:

Madrid: You have one of the world’s foremost collections of classic art in the stunning Prado museum as well as a huge cubist collection in the Reina Sofía to contend with.

Barcelona: You can stumble upon Modernista architectural masterpieces by Gaudí or Domenench i Montaner such as the Sagrada Familia, Casa Batlló, or La Pedrera.

Winner: Tie.  While Madrid arguably has the better museums, Barcelona literally is a walking museum.

Shopping and Overall “bougie-ness”

Madrid: Salamanca District and Calle Serrano have all of the requisite designer labels and the “preppies” or pijos are everywhere.

Barcelona: Passeig de Gracia is Barcelona’s Fifth Avenue (or Michigan Ave to all my fellow Chicagoans) filled with tons of luxury brands.  And they have their own pijos too who will drop 100s on bottle service at the chic beach clubs or at Sutton.

Winner: Barcelona. Though Madrid is supposedly the more conservatively upscale or “chic” of the two, while Barcelona has an edgier-artsy rep, Passeig de Gracia beats the Salamanca District if only because you can enjoy the beautiful Gaudí buildings in the Manzana de Discordia block while you shop at Zara or Valentino.

Soccer Stars (I won’t even go into the teams themselves):

Madrid: Two words: Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid. He gets bonus points on the attractiveness and charisma scale but loses points for his supposed solicitation of prostitutes (wonder if they were the same ones we always pass outside of our university en route to the beach clubs).  That said, however, he is a very talented player.

Barcelona: Messi from FC Barcelona. The petite Argentine with amazing skills.  He doesn’t have the same PR as Ronaldo (maybe that’s a good thing?) but his talent speaks for itself.

Winner: Madrid. This one’s for the ladies (myself included).  Though the  prosties are yucky, Cristiano Ronaldo backs up his good looks with real talent and every team needs their model-esque frontman bad boy.

“Counter culture” with questionable fashion sense:

Madrid: The canis. This is one of those things that is hard to describe like a Williamsburg hipster (though canis are practically the exact opposite of a hipster)…difficult to pin down in words exactly, but you know it when you see one.  Basically, they are often young people with trashy fashion, lots of hair product and heavy make up who just like to get drunk (sounds like the Spanish variant of a certain type of people commonly found in New Jersey, Staten Island or Providence, RI).  They were seemingly all over Madrid, particularly at the 5 pm teen “night” outside of Kapital.

Barcelona: Ahh the mullet people. These strange creatures who are a cross between 90s new-wave hippies and punks with mullets, dread locks, and dread-mullets (see my mullet del día a few weeks back).  They are seemingly everywhere in Barca, especially at one of my two universities (more on “my two universities” later), Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona.

Winner: Tie. Both are cringe-worthy in their own way.


Madrid: Madrid has no strong culinary tradition of its own but has enough good tapas joints and international restaurants as would befit a Spanish capital.

Barcelona: Barcelona is known for its food and particularly for its mega-star chefs such as Ferran Adria, he of El Bulli “science as food” fame (the restaurant literally always has a two-year waiting list).

Winner: Hands-down Barcelona. “nuff said.

Public Transit Systems:

Madrid: Clean, well-ventilated, and well-lit metro with occasionally confusing route signs.  However, bonus points because everything is in Spanish.

Barcelona: Semi-clean, poorly-ventillated and dark metro with clear route directions on each train.  Loses points for the catalan though.

Winner: Madrid, obvi.

City Cleanliness:

Madrid: Super clean.

Barcelona: Semi clean (detect a pattern here?) but smelly owing to a lacking sewage system, I’m guessing.

Winner: Madrid. The air seemed fresher.


Madrid: Known as one of the nightlife capitals of the world with mega-clubs (like Kapital) and endless botellóns.

Barcelona: Also arguably a nightlife capital in its own right with the swanky beach clubs and an abundance of clubs and bars for every taste.

Winner: This is biased because I didn’t spend enough time in Madrid but I’m going with Barcelona.  You have the beach on-the-one-hand, and cool hipster neighborhoods to grab drinks like Gracia, on-the-other.

So…results time.  It’s technically a tie 3-3 with 2 ties.  But as alluded to in my last post and at the top of the page, Barcelona (for all of its mullet folk and occasional smelliness) seems to exude more charm.  I realize this is highly biased as I’ve been in Barca for over 2 months and have grown to love the city while only having visited Madrid for three days, but you wouldn’t be reading this blog if you wanted an unbiased opinion, would you?

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A Blitz Through Madrid

This past weekend I went with a few friends, Jeremy and Tanja (my roommate) and two friends of Jeremy’s to Madrid.  Since we only had three days we packed in a lot and did not sleep much.  Here are some highlights from each of our days:

Day One (Friday):

-Woke up at 4:30 am to meet Jeremy and catch the 5am train to the airport to make a 7 am flight…thank you vueling

-After much-needed “cafe con leche,” Tanja, Jeremy, Jeremy’s friend, Paul, and I explored the city, first stopping at the enormous Plaza Mayor where we saw a fat guy with a surprisingly American-sounding accent in a Spiderman costume, and another street artist with a John Lennon puppet


Plaza Mayor


Puppeteer with John Lennon puppet conning some poor tourist

-Went inside the beautiful San Isidro Cathedral, the main cathedral in the city (St. Isidro is the patron saint of Madrid), though we didn’t realize right away that it was Friday afternoon Mass so one lady chastised us for taking photos


Catedral San Isidro


A stunning look inside the dome of Catedral San Isidro

-Walked around the Palacio Real, the official but hardly-used residence of the Spanish royal family.  Aside from the stunning Rococo rooms, I especially enjoyed the Royal Farmacy


The Palacio Real

-Made our way to one of my favorite stops of the entire trip, the Parque del Retiro.  This park is a must-see!  It’s huge (some call it the “Central Park of Madrid”) but very tranquil at the same time.  There is a pretty pond with rowboats and ducks, a beautiful rose garden, and lovely paths at every turn.  We also got to see some fall colors on the trees, but the best part was the 70 degree weather to go with it!


A path in the Parque del Retiro



The rose garden in the Retiro



-Had Indian food (a much needed break from tapas) before connecting with another friend on our program, Aley, who was staying with college friends studying in Madrid.  Together we went to this cool “Cavebar” (literally a bar that looked like a cave inside) and had drinks called tinto verano, which is a surprisingly tasty combination of red wine and sprite. *As an aside, Madrileños really like making cocktails with red wine as they also drink colimochos, which is red wine with Coke…sounds unappetizing to me, but I still need to try it.*  After the cavebar, some of us went to a botellon, which is literally a gathering of young people drinking and partying in a public park, parking lot, or street.  So much fun! In this case it was a street and park.  Though probably not legal, the police rarely break them up or arrest people (which would undoubtedly happen in the States).  We saw police cars cruise by but they never stopped or got out…hmmm.  There must have been about 400-500 kids just hanging out and BYOB-ing. After we had our share of the botellon, we made one more stop at this fun cross between an Irish pub and club.


The botellon

Day Two (Saturday)

-After waking up far too early (11:30 am), Jeremy, Tanja, Jeremy’s friend’s friend, Jerry, and I went window shopping in the fancy Salamanca district, and in particular on Calle Serrano (think Michigan Ave or Fifth Avenue).

-We stumbled upon the National Library which was also having a small photo exhibit on Sephardic Jews, which was quite interesting.  *I also solved some of the mystery of Spain’s current Jews as the exhibit explained that many left Spain during the Inquisition and went to the Maghreb (North Africa), and particularly Morocco, but that since then, a few thousand have returned to Spain–hence those whom I worshiped with on Yom Kippur.*

-Lunch at a restaurant called Wagaboo, a chic place that advertised itself as “Fun Eating.”  Our bun-less gourmet burgers? Fun.  The €4 charge for the breadstick basket we never even wanted?  Not fun.

-Walked around the Reina Sofía museum to see the Guernica, the pained, and distorted masterpiece by Picasso depicting the terrible bombing of a Basque town during the Spanish Civil War.  The cubist figures and the black and white evoked a real sense of chaos that stayed with you even after moving to other works.  Additionally we saw more of Picasso’s masterpieces and those by other famous Spanish artists such as Barcelona’s native son, Joan Miró.  I also had a peaceful moment when I stumbled upon the modern building within the museum that is floor-to-ceiling glass, where I saw a dramatic sunset.


Guernica (I usually think taking photos of paintings is stupid but for this, I made an exception)


Great sunset seen from Reina Sofía

-Bought various Halloween costumes at an Asian tchotchke store before grabbing dinner in the Las Huertas neighborhood, which we’d read had the best restaurants.  Unfortunately everything was full but we came upon a very tasty Middle Eastern restaurant and hookah bar that one of the guide books had mentioned.  Delicious kebabs and falafels did the trick.

-Ended our night by going to the world-famous, 7-story (yes 7 STORIES) nightclub, Kapital.  Jeremy executed a plan ingeniously by having us just, you know, cut the line.  Though we were the jerks of the night, no one called us out.  Thinking we had just cut the massive blocks-long line in half, we were surprised when less than 30 seconds later we were into the club (we evidently cut to the front of the line haha).  And let me remind you that this was a guy who had the idea…not Tanja and I playing the double standard to our advantage.  Once inside we promptly explored every floor from the swank Bacardi lounge to the massive dance floor on the first floor vibrating with house music and sweaty bodies.  My favorite floor was the very top, which was a massive lounge in orange and gold hues with palm trees.  Though we had a great time, I felt like the crowd was very young and kind of trashy–or cañi as Spaniards would say.  It’s definitely a mainstay but also past its prime so now American abroad students like us come and cut the line.  I felt like I would have LOVED it had I been about 3-4 years younger.  We stayed there for quite some time, however, before stumbling back to the hostel around 5am.

Day Three (Sunday)–Last Day

-Woke up “early” again at 11 am to check out of the hostel before wandering around the famous El Rastro flea market, a maze of winding streets filled with vendors of every kind hocking their treasures. I bought a pashmina for €3, which looks much nicer than that and smelled just fine after I took it home and washed it, thank you very much.

-After getting some sandwiches or bocadillos (a few people tried the restaurant’s specialty, a fried calamari sandwich, while I opted for the safe manchego sandwich), we returned to the Retiro park for a brief respite.  I actually fell asleep for about 15 minutes.

-Then it was Prado time.  This museum is truly incredible.  One word comes to mind: sumptuous.  The colors of the masterpieces are only matched by the beauty of the museum itself; marble floors and striking Baroque wallpaper provide the backdrop for Velazquez’s Las Meninas or Goya’s Saturn Devouring his Child. I also saw the zaftig figures by Reubens and many works by the Dutch masters and El Greco.

-Finally, our whirlwind was winding down.  Jeremy and I were the last to leave on our 10:55 flight back to Barça and we treated ourselves to some churros con chocolate, which are apparently much easier to find in Madrid than they are in Barcelona.


Churros con chocolate...the best way to end a trip

Ultimately, I enjoyed Madrid immensely.  The fact that all of the signs were in castellano Spanish was a welcome break from the endless Catalan.  The city seemed cleaner (certainly the metro was a lot cleaner and more breathable than in Barcelona) and I loved the green spaces like El Retiro.  However, despite all this I was excited to return to Barcelona, my new home (for the time being) for though Madrid has the capital and cleanliness, Barcelona seems to have more charm and creativity, with it’s grungy mullets and all.

Next up: a look at the famous Barcelona-Madrid city rivalry with a head-to-head match up of these two cities.

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