Friday, May 29, 2009

Game, Set, Match

Just as I was adjusting to greeting everyone with an Hola! it was time to switch gears. Bonjour! I arrived in Paris on Monday night.  I caught a late afternoon flight out of Madrid and since the rental agency had mailed me my Paris apartment keys in advance, it was up to me to figure out exactly where I was going.  It was fairly easy - bus from the airport to Opera metro station to Pont Neuf metro station.  As I walked out of the metro station at Pont Neuf, the below two images greeted me.  I stood there in shock, mumbled something under my breath to the effect of "I can't believe this" and looked at quintessential Paris - the Seine River and in the distance, the Eiffel Tower (complete with light show).  

According to my map, the Pont Neuf station was only a couple of blocks from my apartment.  I crossed the bridge at Pont Neuf as shown in the above picture, and I was on my street.  Once I found the apartment building, the rental agency had given me precise instructions on the code to get in the door, where light switches were in the main building (since it was dark when I arrived), which halls to walk down to go toward my apartment, etc.  It was a little tricky, and I wouldn't have found it without their instructions, especially in the dark.  What I didn't know in advance, however, was that I had to climb three circular staircases carrying 40 lbs of luggage (and another good 20 lbs on my back).  Uh, yeah, I'm seeking out a post office in the next day or two to YET AGAIN mail stuff back to the States.

The weather the past few days hasn't been great, so I've mostly been getting acclimated to the neighborhood and walking around when it wasn't raining.  It took me almost an entire day to find a grocery store, but I eventually did where all the products were in French (naturally), and I had to rely on pictures to figure out what I was getting.  Buy the milk with the picture of the cow on it - not the goat!  Other than the grocery store, my inability to speak French doesn't seem to be too much of a problem. I figure that if I just keep throwing out some well timed merci's and s'il vous plait's it will be fine.  So far, so good! 

I woke up to a beautiful day today - sunny and low 70s.  The French Open is currently taking place in Paris, and I've been wanting to see one of the Grand Slam tournaments for a long time. I checked the Roland Garros website this morning to find out who was playing today - Nadal vs. Hewitt.  Perfect!  Tickets have been officially sold out for some time (unless you want a grounds ticket - entitling you only to be inside Roland Garros stadium but no access to watch matches other than on the small courts), but my brother directed me to a reputable online site for tickets.  To watch the Nadal match today, it would cost $395 for an upper level ticket and $595 for a lower level ticket.  Yeah... that wasn't exactly in the travel budget.  So assuming like any other good sporting match there would be scalpers around the stadium, I set out that way. Sure enough, there were scalpers everywhere.  I was willing to pay 100 Euros for a ticket - I wasn't happy about that, but I was willing.  As I walked from the metro station outside the stadium to the stadium gates I talked to several scalpers, and they weren't budging off 200 Euros a ticket.  I just couldn't pay that, so I turned to walk back to the metro station. 

As I was walking away, an older lady stopped me and asked me in broken English how many tickets I needed. I told her one.  She gestured at me with a ticket and said (what I later learned to mean), "One coke and a sandwich."  I shook my head and said, "I don't understand.  How much would you like for the ticket?"  She repeated, "One coke and a sandwich."  This time I understood.  I asked if she was sure and she said something to the effect of her husband had not been able to make it, that he was sick and to follow her.  So I did.  We got into the stadium, headed for our gate and next thing I knew I was sitting in a lower level (with shade) seat for free!  Well, free minus one coke and a sandwich.

The first match I saw was Gonzalez vs. Ouanna.  Ouanna is French, so of course he was the crowd favorite, but Gonzalez won.  Then it was time for Nadal vs. Hewitt.  It was amazing to see a player like Nadal, but it really wasn't much of a match considering he beat Hewitt pretty quickly.  After that was over, the stadium really cleared out.  The next match was Sharapova vs. Shvedova, and I stayed for a few minutes to watch Sharapova play.

As I was on the way back to the apartment, I turned to walk down my street, Rue Dauphine, and saw one of the coolest things ever - a woman wearing a charcoal gray pencil skirt, black dress shirt, black leather belt, black heels and... a pink helmut while riding a white Vespa. Only in Paris.  Tres chic!

Sunday, May 24, 2009


When I got to Madrid yesterday, I could tell right away it was going to be a very different experience than Barcelona.  A better experience.  Not that Barcelona was bad. Everything just felt like a bit of a struggle there, which at the time I chalked up to it being a culture shock having just come from London as well as being in a non-English speaking country. But not only that, I just didn't find Barcelona an appealing city.  It was fine, but that's all it was - fine. When I expressed this same sentiment to someone the other day, I was reminded that fine definitely doesn't sound like a positive!

So back to Madrid...

I landed in the early afternoon and took the metro into the city.  As I was sitting on the metro, a couple sitting across from me struck up a conversation.  They were Americans from Texas, and I was thrilled to talk to them.  I have heard very few American voices in the past three weeks, and it had gotten to the point where as I would hear an American in a crowd I wanted to run up to them and say, "You're an American? I'm an American!"  But since that would be a bit psychotic, I hadn't done that... yet.

The hotel is awesome.  It's in the perfect location on Plaza de Santa Ana - right in the middle of several great wine and tapas bars and within easy walking or metro distance to anywhere I have wanted to go.  For dinner last night I went to a wine and tapas bar, Vinoteca Barbechera.  I had read excellent reviews of it online and then when I discovered it was right across the plaza from my hotel I decided I had to go there.  It was packed and there wasn't a seat to be found, so I squeezed in at the bar where I stood to eat and drink.  The tapas were not your run of the mill fried calamari like I ran across at every tapas bar in Barcelona.  I had one of goat cheese with caramelized onions and the other (and the hands down winner) was foie gras with a candied apple.  I had two glasses of wine as well.  My whole bill was only 12 Euros. Perfect!  

The hotel has a great rooftop bar, Penthouse Bar, which is a Rande Gerber bar.  For those who aren't familiar, he's the guy married to Cindy Crawford, and he has bars and restaurants all over the world, including Whiskey Bar in New York.  I'm on their mailing list and a few weeks ago received an email for a free bottle of champagne on my birthday, which was yesterday. Perfect, except I had no one to share it with, but since it was my birthday, I made a reservation anyway for a table in the bar. I got there about 12:30 am, and it was packed.  Even though I had a reservation, they only had a seat for me next to three other people.  When I sat down I ordered my bottle of champagne and asked for four glasses so I could share. No way was I making it through an entire bottle by myself, and I thought this might be a way to make friends fast.  Sure enough, once they each had a glass, we started chatting.  It was two girls and one of the girls' father, all from Germany.  One of the girls, Julie (pronounced like Julia), was a student doing a semester in Spain.  The other girl, Karina, had just finished a semester in Spain and had returned to Germany but was visiting Julie for the weekend.  Julie's father (I didn't catch his name) was also visiting her for the weekend from Germany.  Of course they all spoke fluent English (and Spanish), so we didn't have any problems communicating. Once they found out it was my birthday Julie and Karina asked me to go out with them and one of their friends, Isabella, who was born in Brazil but grew up in London and was visiting for the weekend as well. 

About 2 am we met Isabella in Plaza Puerta del Sol and took a taxi to Club Kapitol, a huge club in Madrid that has seven floors, three of which have a DJ and dancing.  The entry fee was 20 Euros (it came with a drink, but that is a serious entry fee!), and the girls insisted on paying for me because it was my birthday.  We started out by going to the bar to get our drinks and then going to the main floor, which consisted of pop/techno music and dancers on stage.  The club was very much like a club I've been to in Miami.  The music was really good, and at one point, a man was drumming along with the music up on a suspended platform above the crowd, which everyone really got into.  About 4 am or so, I ended up catching a taxi back to my hotel and leaving the girls at the club. 

One of the things I really wanted to do in Spain was see a bullfight.  I found out that the San Isidro Festival, marking the beginning of bullfighting season would be taking place while I was in Madrid.  This morning I took the metro to the Las Ventas bullfighting stadium to buy a ticket.  As I approached the stadium, I saw a crowd of people and realized I had stumbled upon an anti-bullfighting protest.  But this wasn't your normal protest.  This was a topless protest. Men and women dressed in only black bikini bottoms and shorts were sprawled out on top of a huge white tarp holding signs that read "Tauromaquia Abolicion," or "Bullfight Abolition." Obviously this didn't deter me - I bought a ticket for 7.70 Euros - but it did make for an interesting start to my morning.

After leaving the stadium, I took the metro to Retiro Park, which was supposed to be one of Madrid's most beautiful parks.  From the parks I've seen so far in Europe, I would qualify it as one of Europe's most beautiful parks.  It was a great day to be at the park - sunny and warm - and the park was crowded.  There was an orchestra playing, and I stayed for awhile and enjoyed the music.  Later I took the metro to the subway stop near my hotel and in Plaza Puerta del Sol saw yet another protest.  This one was protesting L'oreal and other cosmetics companies, and people wore giant lipsticks on top of their heads.  The Europeans are nothing if not creative in their protests.  I then walked to Plaza Mayor and walked around and checked out the different street performers, followed by El Rastro Market, which is similar to the market I went to in Notting Hill last weekend, though not nearly as large and extensive.  This market consisted mostly of clothes and jewelry.  I bought a cuff made out of hammered metal for 15 Euros (happy birthday to me!).  After going back to the hotel for a bit, I went to the Museo del Prado, which is one of the major art museums here in Madrid and has free entry on Sunday late afternoons.

A word of warning:  If you have any qualms about the senseless killing of animals I would advise that you don't read the next paragraph or look at the pictures that follow.

The bullfight was at 7 pm, so I made my way back to Las Ventas stadium.  As I walked up to the stadium, I was laughing at how it didn't feel all that dissimilar from going to a UT football game.  I found my seat, which I had assumed would be terrible considering the inexpensive ticket but wasn't bad at all, and I was in the shade for most of the bullfight.  I sat through five bullfights (I have no idea how many there are as five was enough for me), and each one followed basically the same pattern:  There was a main matador and then three or four other matadors out in the ring.  Each had a bright pink cape.  A trumpet would sound, signifying the bullfight was to start and out came the bull.  Sometimes the bull had to be agitated a bit to get him started; other times he came out mad and was ready to go.  Each of the matadors would take turns using the cape to get the bull to charge and as it seemed the bull was getting too close for comfort to one matador, another matador would get near the bull and distract him with his cape.  Then the trumpet would sound again, and out would come two guys on horses with lances. The horses were each blindfolded and covered with some kind-of protection against the bull's charge, which happened every bullfight.  When that happened the guy on the horse would stab the bull with the lance.  In fact at one point, a horse was knocked over to the ground, and I thought the bull had killed him, but they got the bull away from the horse, pulled the horse up and he was fine.  The trumpet would then sound and the guys on horses would leave.  The other matadors then try to implant what looks like colored sticks into the bull's back, and once they did that, they would stick there and the bull would run around bleeding with the sticks attached to him. (I know I'm not explaining this well at all, by the way...)  Again, the trumpet would sound and then it was time for the matador to come out with the red cape and a sword.  At this point the matador was just agitating the bull, but later when the final trumpet sounded, the matador would then begin stabbing the bull in his back with the sword.  As it became apparent the bull was dying (he would get what can only be described a lethargic and refusing to charge despite the matadors' attempts to agitate the bull with their capes), the main matador would kill the bull with one final stab to his back.  The bull would go down and then horses came out and dragged the bull away.  The whole process was one of the craziest things I've ever seen.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Hola Barcelona!

I got to Barcelona early evening on Wednesday.  I had a couple of moments of panic on the plane when I remembered that I would not be in an English-speaking country again until mid-August, but I assured myself that my Spanish would come flying back to me (don’t ask me what I’m going to do in France or Amsterdam or Prague or Salzburg...).

I successfully maneuvered my way through the airport, onto the train and onto the metro to get to the stop closest to the hotel.  A few misturns walking, and I finally found my way.  Thank you iPhone Google maps!  It’s strange to be back in a hotel after being in an apartment for over a week.  Of course, I’ll be in an apartment in Paris starting on Monday night, so I’ll have all the comforts of home again soon.

That night I walked to a nearby restaurant and figured it would be the perfect opportunity to try out my Spanish.  “Hola.  Uno, por favor.”  Ok, that successfully got my point across - I need a table for one.  Doing good so far... I got nervous when it came time to order, though, and switched back to English.  Would “Quiero...” be appropriate to say “I want...” or does that sound a tad bitchy?  Should it be “Me gusta...” No, that means “I like,” not “I would like...”  Anyway, they understood my English, and I was well fed, so that’s all that matters.

The hotel has a great rooftop pool area, which I have taken advantage of the past two late afternoons.  (The weather here is great - sunny and high 70s).  The hotel is in a good location - close to the metro.  Being near the metro is key as everything to see in Barcelona seems very spread out, which I found out the next day as I set out to walk to the area of Barcelona called La Rambla.  

La Rambla is nuts.  It is a street that is basically filled with tourists, but it’s supposed to be one of those must-sees, so I saw it.  An entire block of La Rambla had every live animal for sale you could imagine - birds, roosters, chicks, turtles, mice, ferrets, chipmunks.  There are a lot of street performers.  The vampires in the pictures below would jump out of their coffins and shout “Hola!” when someone would come up to them to give them money.  I don’t know why I found that so funny.  “Hola”?  Shouldn’t it be at least “Boo”! or something?  One guy was playing this game with the crowd where he would hide a ball under one of three boxes, shuffle the boxes around and then stop and ask "Which one?".  Someone in the crowd would then come forward and bet 50 Euros that they knew which box it was under.  If they won, they got 50 Euros in return.  The guy made a killing.  I stood there and watched through at least 10 games and in my head got every single one right, but everyone in the crowd was missing it.  Too bad I didn’t play - guess I could have made around 500 Euros!  

After La Rambla, I walked to the El Raval and Barri Gotic (Gothic Quarter) areas.  On the way to these areas, I noted that Barcelona was a lot like what I imagined a Spanish city to look like - buildings with balconies overlooking very narrow streets.  People had the balconies open and you could hear them talking or hear music coming from above.  The Barri Gotic area is the center of the old city of Barcelona, and many of the buildings date back to medieval times.  After walking through these areas, I took the subway to one of Barcelona's beaches, Icaria Beach.  Though on the Mediterranean, it's not what you would expect a Mediterranean beach to look like - I figure that will come in the South of France.

I spent Friday seeing La Sagrada Familia and the Picasso Museum.  La Sagrada Familia is an unfinished church designed by Catalan architect, Antoni Gaudi.  It has been under construction since 1882 - not 1982! - and is expected to be finished in 2026.  It is massive and the pictures cannot begin to represent what it is. The Picasso Museum was impressive with 3,800 pieces, which were effective in telling the story of Picasso's progression from his childhood art through all of the periods in his work. 

Barcelona went by fast.  Tomorrow, Madrid!