Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Leaving England-- A Final Blog Post

Today is my last day in England-- not a "real day" in the sense that I'm spending it in a hotel and then in an airport, but these are my final moments here. And, I have a few hours to kill in said hotel room before I head to Heathrow to kill a few hours there, so it seemed like a good time to wrap up this blog.

This is a relatively inauspicious exit, actually-- I think I was hoping for more fanfare or something that would mark the end of this adventure more definitively.  Instead, I've spend a weekend cleaning my flat (though, I didn't go as crazy as I did when I left the States-- no getting on my hands and knees to scrub the baseboards) and packing up (I suspect that once again I'm going to get stopped when I try to check in because my bag is too heavy, though for the life of me, I have no idea what is weighing it down so much. I've gotten rid of what was making it so heavy on the way over-- the toiletries, the voltage converters [which turned out to be relatively unnecessary]-- and the souvenirs I still have to take back [since my dad took a lot of them back with him when he visited] aren't heavy at all. Maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised-- though I guess it would bookend my trip nicely to have to shuffle luggage contents while fellow passengers step over me on their way to the ticket counter on both ends of my journey.), and traveling to a Comfort Hotel near the airport because the Airline coach doesn't run on Christmas day.  I'm currently writing from a place with no charm-- it looks like the site of any large group of hotels off a major roadway and could be anywhere in the world.  It serves its purpose though-- I can get to the airport from here.

It's not that there hasn't been fanfare in the last week-- in fact, there's been a very flattering bustle of activity around people wanting to say goodbye to me (or, saying goodbye despite protestations that they don't want to, which is even nicer). I've had lunches and dinners and drinks with friends and with a few of the students that filled the time until this past weekend.  Peter took me to a lovely farm/restaurant outside of Oxford called Fallow Fields for what was an amazing farewell lunch.  (There are no pictures of the outside because, in traditional English fashion, it was raining quite hard, but you can get a sense of the beauty of the place here http://www.fallowfields.com/restaurant/.)  The inside of the restaurant gives a hint to how gorgeous a place it is.

The food was amazing there-- and it's the kind of place I wouldn't have made it to otherwise since it's not accessible by bus (there is a part of me that wonders how much of the local area I did miss because I didn't have a car.  I was limited by bus routes-- which never felt particularly limiting, but then, there are places like this I know I missed.).

I had drinks at Malmaison (in an upstairs lounge I didn't know about until a week ago) and various pubs around Oxford, both familiar and not (there's really no end to pubs in Oxford-- actually, I'm sure that's not true, but it feels like there's always another one to try out), and a couple last dinners at my favorite places in Headington, like Bar Mezze and Yummy.  (I had take-away from Posh Fish one last time too-- and again, a small was more chips than one person can possibly eat, even a person making a valiant effort.  In fact, I had planned to have one final meal in a local Headington place, but my kebab and chips from Posh Fish lasted me for three meals-- there was no need to get more food.)  And, I walked around the City Centre one last time-- on an unexpectedly warm and totally rain-free day, which was wonderful and not at all like what I've come to expect of winter in England.  So, I said a sort of goodbye to the fabulous city of Oxford and all the people there I've grown to love and appreciate-- and then sat around for a couple more days actually waiting to go home.  Which provides a lot of time to think.

And, that's both good and bad-- bad because it's provided me with a lot of time to form a mental list of all the things I'm going to miss about being here, not least of which is just being here. Oxford is the kind of place I could imagine myself actually living-- it's an adorable smaller city with easy access to larger cities like London; it has small town charm since it's easily walkable and compact but with all the culture that a city centered around university life can possess; and it's stunning.  I have this fear that the scenery back in the US is going to feel really drab and boring-- I've spent four months wandering places with buildings that are hundreds of years old, touching stones that were laid thousands of years ago, and immersed in an architectural and cultural history that I find confusing because it spans so many centuries and I can't quite keep it all straight in my head (I still can't tell you the order of the monarchs or how they are all related-- or not-- to one another.).  It'll make me rethink telling people I live in an old house-- suddenly something built 70 years ago doesn't seem that old.  In fact, it's practically brand new!  And, I'll miss the adventure of it all-- having a constrained time period in which to live here has pushed me to explore and go out and do things no matter what.  I feel like I've seen something new and unfamiliar practically every day I've been here.  I've been almost completely undeterred by conditions that I think I would have let stop me before-- pouring rain, cold, travel time, even money... there was no time to let any of that stop me with only four months to fit everything in (though, I've hardly done everything. I haven't even scratched the surface.)  My "real life" isn't nearly as exciting-- and those trappings of real life (like, having to teach a full load of classes instead of the one I've taught here, maintaining my house, and even the fun parts like playing tennis and seeing my friends) sort of get in the way of being adventurous, at least on a regular basis.  So, there's a kind of sadness to thinking about going back to normal.

Time to think has been good too-- I've spent a lot of it focusing on what I've missed (mostly friends and family, really-- though, I also have to admit that as much as I've liked the freedom of public transportation, I'm quite looking forward to having a car again.  The grocery store is a lot easier to manage when you can buy more than you can walk home with, especially in the rain.) that I can now have back in my life, kind of giving myself things to look forward to once I'm back on American soil.  And, I had time to look back over my blogs from the past several months and appreciate just what an amazing time this has been and how much this opportunity has afforded me (which sounds really cliche as I'm writing it... yet I don't quite know how else to put it).  And, I'm not leaving empty-handed as it were-- I've made friends (and, since I'm pretty good at keeping up with people, friends that I can honestly have hope I'll have forever) and learned a lot, both about myself (because I don't think I would have guessed I would be the kind of person who would be so undeterred by weather, money, confusion, travel complications, etc.-- especially when they all collude at the same moment.  I've been a lot more laissez-faire and outgoing here that I think I am in my "normal life"-- something I hope to hold onto when I get back.) and about places and people and culture, and I finally got to have the study-abroad experience I didn't have when I was in school (not to mention, I have a lot of souvenirs-- I've collected water-color paintings from just about everywhere I've been.  The experience of this trip could continue for months in framing and hanging alone.).

I feel like there should be some final, all-encompassing statement that sums up this time (and this blog)-- and yet I think it's a mark of how grand it's been (and, maybe a little of the fact that I'm not completely ready for it to end even though I'm heading to the airport in two hours) that I can't think of just one thing to say that wraps it all up. I've thought about it for several minutes now-- and, I've just decided there is no perfect ending to what was an almost perfect experience.  How could there be?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Germany: The Final Frontier

or, at least the last big trip during my time here.

A couple weeks ago, I was sitting in a cafe having a glass of wine with my friend Laura, talking about how I was thinking of going to Geneva for a weekend (I wanted to go to Escalade-- a festival sort of like Carnival, except that it celebrates the defense of the town in 1602) and she said that instead of going to Geneva by myself, I should go to Germany with her, her husband, Mikko, and a friend of theirs from Finland.  A couple hours-- and a couple more glasses of wine-- later, I had booked a flight to Stuttgart.

We met up with Kristina, Laura and Nikko's friend, in Stuttgart and headed immediately to get lunch. I decided to start off with as traditional a meal as I could find (or, have interpreted for me-- I speak absolutely no German.  I generally wouldn't go to a foreign country so absolutely unprepared to communicate, but this was short notice.  I didn't have time to learn any of the language.  And, really, I mean any-- I can basically say no and thank you in German.).  We went to Brahaus, a cute eatery

where I ordered a dish of lentils, sausage and spatzle. 

It was really quite good, though I'm not sure that the picture does it justice (German food doesn't photograph well-- I discovered this more and more as the weekend went on).  From lunch, we headed to the Christmas Market.  German Christmas markets are imitated everywhere in Europe (see my post on the Christmas market in Birmingham, England)-- I'm not sure why the Christmas markets are considered a German thing (I'm sure there's a history on this I could look up), but if in Germany around the holiday season, it seems the thing to do to go to a Christmas Market. (Or, if somewhere else in Europe or the UK, to go to a German-style Christmas market.)

It actually looked quite a lot like the Christmas market in Birmingham-- but didn't feel quite as big. I think that's because it was more compacted with the loads of stalls put into a smaller space.  It was festive, with Christmas scenes sitting atop almost every stall

and a large train set

which also included a larger train running around the perimeter that kids (and their parents) could ride on.

The thing to get at a German Christmas market is gluhwein (which literally means glow wine).  It's mulled wine-- either red or white-- that can then be further spiked with other liqueurs.  In Stuttgart, the options were amaretto or rum.  (Later, in other cities, there were offerings of gluhwein with vodka and other alcohols-- it's basically alcohol with more alcohol, but hot so that it's comforting while walking around in the cold.) I had white wine with amaretto-- it was quite strong, especially at the bottom where it basically became all amaretto.  But, it's the thing to do-- there were even nuns hanging out drinking gluhwein (though it's hard to tell from this picture that's what they're doing. I was trying to discreetly take the picture since I couldn't figure out a polite way to ask nuns if I could photograph them drinking-- especially not in German.).

From the Christmas market, we all got on a train and headed to Tubingen, where we were staying. 

Tubingen is a little less than an hour away from Stuttgart.  It's not where you go for a touristy visit to Germany, but it's a really cute town and does give a better sense of what "normal life" is like in Germany than a tourist city would.  Since I was sort of a last minute addition to the trip, I was staying with a friend of Laura's in the old city center while the others were staying at another friend's house in the "suburbs." (I'm not sure that's really what you would call it in Germany, but that's basically what it amounted to.)  The house in the suburbs that everyone else was staying at was really nice-- luxurious, really (it has a stunning gourmet kitchen, a bathroom with a sauna in it, and an absolutely huge wrap around deck-- though it was too cold to enjoy the deck).  Where I was staying was not nearly as luxurious, but Norbert, the friend hosting me, acted like he was running a B&B. When I arrived, there was a bottle of mineral water, an apple, and chocolates awaiting me in my room.  And, the next morning when I got up (every day, actually), breakfast-- with yogurt, cheese, meat, jams and jellies, and fresh bread from a local bakery-- was laid out on the table and coffee was ready to be percolated.  It was really quite amazing-- and well beyond the free bed to sleep in that I was expecting (I really can't say enough about Norbert's generous hospitality-- it was way beyond what I would ever expect to be done for me, a total stranger crashing his home.).

Our first night in Tubingen, we went to a Greek restaurant where I got lamb fillets.

The food was pretty good, once mine got to the table.  I felt oddly invisible all night-- everyone else got food and was nearly finished before mine finally arrived. And, after dinner, the waitress brought ouzo to the table-- and served it to everyone but me.  I'm not sure if it was because I was the only one didn't speak German (and, so, was relying on others quite a bit to order for me), but after a while, it was kind of like I wasn't there.  In the end, I got my small "revenge" though-- I accidentally wound up not tipping.  While many credit card companies in the US have advertised that their credit cards will be accepted anywhere I want to be, it turns out that many places in Germany-- or, at least in Tubingen-- don't want to take a credit card (I used a credit card for my meal in Stuttgart... so perhaps it's only in smaller cities that credit cards aren't used). They want cash.  (In fact, I don't think I used my credit card after that first afternoon in Stuttgart.)  So, I paid for my meal at the Greek place in cash-- and took back my change when the waitress gave it to me, expecting to leave my tip on the table.  However, when I went to leave a few euro, Laura leaned over and politely asked, "so, are you just going to leave money on the table?" in a way that suggested this wasn't the right thing to do. Apparently, you are supposed to ask the server for only the change you want back, and include the tip when you initially pay. It's rude to leave money on the table-- I'm not sure why, but you don't do it.  So, apparently, it was less rude to leave no tip than to leave money sitting there which I don't quite get because it seems to me a tip on the table is better than no tip at all-- but, that didn't seem to be the case in Germany.  (It's also apparently rude to tip in smaller change-- like you're throwing the change you can't use at someone.)

The next day, Laura had a photo shoot (she's in a band-- the photo shoot was a large part of the reason for the trip to Germany in the first place) in Reutlinger, a town about 25 minutes from Tubingen.  While Laura and Mikko went to the photo shoot, Kristina and I went shopping (mostly for clothes for Kristina).  Reutlinger is a fairly wealthy town-- I don't think we were where the truly rich live. 

The city center, which is a fairly small square area surrounded by modern looking stores and conventional city buildings, did look quite traditionally German-- or at least like what I think Germany looks like when I picture it in my head.

Since I was told several times that this is where the wealthy people live, and I don't often think of the wealthy as tradespeople, it was surprising to find this really intricate monument to trade craft in the city center.

Every section depicts a scene of a different trade craft or profession (like shop keeper). The detail in each section was really quite amazing- like in this cobbler section.

After several hours in Reutlingen, we went back to Tubingen to get ready for a holiday dinner with a group (about 14 people) of Laura's friends (which included a white elephant gift exchange. It's a little daunting buying a present that will wind up in the hands of one of a group of strangers-- I went with buying chocolate from a fancy store in Oxford.).  The dinner was at a pub in Tubingen, though it was a fancier meal than I would have expected from a pub.  (I don't know that's what I would have called it-- I think I would have just referred to the place as a restaurant.  But, pub seemed to have a more general meaning in Germany than it does in England, where it refers to a relatively specific kind of place.)  Fortunately, everyone at dinner spoke English-- they didn't speak it to each other, but they were kind enough to include me in conversation and speak English for my benefit.  (And, again, I'm amazed at how uneducated Americans, and I obviously include myself, are in this area-- everyone there spoke multiple languages  because they are taught multiple languages from an early age in school.  English is clearly dominant world-wide-- there haven't been many times when I have encountered moments when I couldn't get by with English [though the story of one such moment is coming up], but I still think we're quite foolish not to be encouraging kids to learn multiple languages in a world that is increasingly "shrinking.")

The next day was Sunday-- a day when just about everything is closed.  So, we were planning to have brunch at Sebastian's house (the house where Laura, Mikko and Kristina were staying).  I had met up with them there the day before when we were headed to Reutlingen, and so thought I had the bus route mastered.  I was completely wrong.  I headed to the bus stop and read the bus schedules to figure out which bus (there were two that would get me to where I was headed) I wanted to take. I was very proud of myself for figuring out that the first bus was only going to go as far as the central bus/rail station-- it's not that it's so hard to read a bus schedule in any language since they all basically work the same way, but that the German names of places look like gibberish to me (German, in general, is really confusing to me- nothing is spelled the way it sounds, though I did get better at reading names of places and food as the weekend went on-- hence how I was able to recognize the name of the bus/rail station stop.). I was feeling good about recognizing that I shouldn't get on the first bus that came, but the one that came right after it which was going to drive the entire route, until we went past the stop before the one I wanted and then continued to some stop I'd never heard of.  It certainly wasn't the one I was expecting to come to next-- so I hit the stop button (or, halt button as it says on German buses) and then, when the bus stopped, tried to ask the bus driver why we hadn't stopped where I was expecting. This didn't go well-- I basically wound up pointing to a piece of paper with the name of the stop I wanted since the driver didn't seem to understand what I was asking and then he replied with something that may have been helpful, like directions for how to get where it was I wanted to go, or something quite rude, like calling me an American idiot who didn't know how to read a bus schedule (it turns out that the bus schedule did explain this different Sunday route-- but this explanation was in very tiny print at the bottom, which made it seem unimportant. And, it was in German-- so even if I had recognized that the tiny print was important, I wouldn't have understood what it was telling me.).  Either response from the driver is entirely possible since I had no idea what he was saying; I was told many times that everyone in Germany speaks English, but really, it's everyone who is considered educated (and then, they do speak virtually flawless-- and virtually unaccented-- English) but not those who drive buses or taxis.  I decided that no matter what the explanation was for why I was not at the stop I recognized was, it was better to get off the bus than continue going the wrong direction.  I was hoping that if I crossed the street and stood at the bus stop going back in the direction I had come from, a bus would come along and take me to the stop I wanted-- or at least back to where I started.  So, I stood there for a while, on a suburban street corner with no one around to ask whether or not my plan was a good one...

There had been a back-up plan for if I got lost-- I had Kristina's iPhone with me. Her phone will dial internationally.  Mine won't. (When I first arrived in Oxford, I went to get cell phone plan and asked at the store if the plan I was getting would allow my phone to work outside the UK and was assured that it would. This has turned out to be partially true-- no matter where I am, I can receive calls and texts.  But, outside the UK, I can't dial out or sent a text or access data-- I didn't discover this until I went to Brussels and tried to answer a text one of my students sent me. Outside the UK, this renders my phone relatively useless as anything other than a camera. Fortunately, this hasn't posed a problem-- until now.)  But, the back-up plan failed. Kristina's phone battery had died-- this didn't intially appear to be a problem since I had my iPad charger with me and had charged her phone before I set out. What I didn't know is that the battery dying caused her SIM card to lock-- so, now, I was standing at a deserted bus stop (though, deserted in the sense that no one was out, not in an unsafe way) with two phones that wouldn't allow me to call anyone for help.  And, it started to rain.  (When I finally got to where I was going, my friends tried to look on the bright side, commenting that at least it hadn't been raining during this whole ordeal.  Much like a tragic cartoon character, it seems I had my own personal rain cloud that was hovering only over me.  It was really the only time it rained-- we got really lucky. The forecast for the whole weekend had said there was a 90% chance of rain at every hour, but while it was often overcast, it never really rained.  Except at this moment-- but that does add a fortunate further dramatic element to the narrative.)  I stood on the corner feeling quite bad for myself, picturing the rest of my life stuck at a bus stop (which I get was totally exaggerated-- but there was a chance I would be there for hours), wondering how long it would take for anyone to try to call my phone (after I didn't answer Kristina's-- a locked SIM meant I couldn't receive calls or texts either) to find out where I was.  It was a low moment in traveling.

Eventually, a bus did come along (I probably stood there for about 40 minutes) and did take me to the stop I wanted (it was actually only one stop away-- it turns out I was pretty close to where I needed to be the whole time. But, I was standing on an unfamiliar street with names I didn't recognize and landmarks I had never seen before, so I didn't know. There was no way I could have navigated my way to where I wanted to be.) and I met up with my friends-- who had just finished brunch and were just starting to wonder where I was (they thought maybe I had slept in since we had been out late at the Christmas dinner the night before and had decided to have yet another lovely breakfast at Norbert's-- I had actually forgone the lovely breakfast which had once again been set out for me because I knew I was going to brunch, so by the time I arrived, I was quite hungry which was not helping my mood any.)

After I ate (and tried to reframe the whole ordeal in my head-- it worked out in the end and I wasn't hurt or dead-- so that I wasn't upset anymore) we all headed back to the city center of Tubingen to get a good look at the city in daylight and go to the castle. 

The city itself is really lovely, especially along the Neckar River.

The actual city center is filled with gorgeous buildings, including this one, one of the oldest in Tubingen, built in 1584.


Tubingen has also been home to a lot of great German thinkers-- it's something of an intellectual center-- including Hegel, Howard Hesse, Alois Alzheimer and Goethe, who is said to have thrown up on passers-by from this window (this is what passed for funny to him-- it takes the estimation of him as a "great thinker" down a little...).

The sign below the window actually says Goethe puked here in German (Hier kotzte Goethe). 

The castle, Schloss Hohentubingen, is located at the top of a hill (Tubingen is really hilly) and offers great views of the whole city.

The castle itself was built around 1050 for the Count Palatine of Tubingen. It served as a residence and stronghold for several hundreds of years but has been fully a part of the University of Tubingen since 1816 (Tubigen's university is quite large-- students make up about 10% of the population in the city.).

We walked back from the castle on a slightly different route, through streets that felt a little more residential, passing interesting-looking houses along the way-- mostly interesting for the way they were melding with nature or decorated on the outside.

From touring the city, we went to see a children's Christmas play. (I hadn't initially planned to go, but Norbert, my host, didn't make it back from his grandmother's birthday party in time to go since the play was at 4 pm, so I used his ticket rather than have it go to waste, though I don't think my taking his seat really stopped it from being "wasted.")  I thought that maybe since this was a children's play and it was a musical, I would least be able to follow the action and understand what was going on.  I was very wrong-- the play was absurd and surreal (and, I was told later, contained a lot of word play that probably would have been difficult for some of the German kids in the audience).  It all basically took place in the head of the main character (I at least got that there was some kind of dream-like thing happening-- that's as far as I got, so I can't really tell you what the play was about, though I gathered from Laura, who explained a little of it to me afterwards, it had some kind of moral about accepting yourself for the talents you have) and there were very few actual musical numbers (there was a lot background music, but it wasn't a musical in the way I was thinking).  I have to admit, I dozed off quite a bit-- the theater was warm, it was dark, between my bus ordeal and walking around, I was quite tired and eventually, the dialogue all sounded like white noise to me.  That said-- the costumes were really good.  So was what existed of a set (though, that was pretty minimalistic). 

From the play, we went back to the city center (really, only a few blocks from the theater-- Tubingen proper isn't that big) to wander the Christmas market (which was open even though all the shops are closed on Sundays) for a couple hours.  It looked a lot like the market in Stuttgart, though it was more spread out.  And, since it was night, the fun Christmas lights were on display.

We had dinner in the pub at the bus/rail station (I was a little skeptical since my experience is that bus stations don't necessarily have the best food-- but it was really good and much nicer than I would have expected a restaurant at a bus/rail station to be). 

I had a chicken and pasta dish-- not really German, but I had already had several sausages (I bought one from a street vendor in Reutlinger when we were there for lunch as well) and the pasta dish sounded good (and, I did order a German beer to go with it, so I figured that counted as continuing my German culinary experience).

It was good-- though I have noticed that there isn't much color in German food (which is why it doesn't photograph well). It's a lot of browns and off whites.  It tastes good-- there just isn't the emphasis on color that I hear discussed a lot when I watch cooking shows (I've realized that I've missed most of Top Chef this season-- I'm not terribly disappointed since last season was a bit ridiculous. But, it's part of the reason I have this impression that color is important to cooking.)

Our final day in Germany, I was largely on my own-- Kristina's flight left really early and Laura and Mikko were off to have lunch with friends in another city.  So, I headed back to Stuttgart (which made it easy to get to the airport to meet Laura and Mikko for our 5 pm flight) to wander the shops a bit and to get a better sense of the city. Stuttgart is mostly a modern, European city-- there were lots of popular and expensive clothing stores.  However, it does have a palace right in the middle-- I think it's the town hall now.

It also has these strange looking trees everywhere.

They might not look as strange in the spring-- but, I kept trying to figure out why they ends of the branches were so knobby.  

I went back to the Christmas market to get lunch-- it allowed me to point at what I wanted rather than try to order from a menu. And, I like "street food."  I had a baguette with pizza toppings, which was ok (it wasn't hot enough, but I couldn't figure out how to ask the woman working the stand to heat it up more) but what was really great was the chocolate skewer I got.  All weekend, we had been passing stalls selling chocolate-- there was chocolate of all varieties, but what seemed really popular were these skewers of fruit of all varieties (including unexpected fruits like grapes) covered in dark, milk or white chocolate. It was my last day-- I had to have one, so I bought a skewer of strawberries and bananas covered in dark chocolate.  And then, I was sorry that my willpower had lasted so long. I should have been eating chocolate covered fruit every day.

What I really wanted to find in Stuttgart was some kind of souvenir shop, someplace that had sweatshirts with Germany written on them or lovely postcards or watercolor pictures.  But, that doesn't exist-- I'm sure it does in someplace like Berlin which attracts more tourists, but there really is nothing touristy to buy in Stuttgart (or, Tubingen or Reutlingen for that matter).  I thought that since there is such a large train station in Stuttgart (it's really a busy station with a lot of lines coming and going), and it seems like a lot of people have to pass through there on their way to somewhere else, there would be at least a couple stores that sold souvenirs, but I was wrong.  So, I left Germany (after successfully navigating my way to the airport--which also didn't sell souvenirs of Germany-- on my own!) souvenir-less.

And now, in exactly a week, I will be back at Heathrow to fly back to the States.  I don't think I'm traveling anymore before then-- I had thought about going back to Birmingham because I didn't to see all of it when I was there a few weeks ago (and, I kind of want to visit the aquarium and maybe the Cadbury factory), but I have to admit I've become a bit travel weary.  It's been a fabulous 4 months, but really hectic-- and there's a part of me that likes the idea of just spending my last few days in Oxford.  That may change later this week-- I may get a rush of feeling like I should be doing all I can with the little time left and decide I need at least one more day trip. But right now, being "home" in Oxford sounds like a nice way to spend my last week.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Bacelona! Where it's Warm and Sunny

even if the people who live there don't know it.  Seriously-- it's 65 degrees and they walk around in scarves and winter jackets. I'm sure they thought I was crazy walking around with no coat on-- but it was like British summer there.  I was almost sorry I hadn't packed sandals.

I met my friend Martha in Barcelona for a four day vacation that turned out not to really be four days for me since my original flight was canceled and I had to sit in Heathrow for quite a while waiting to get out.  So, I missed a lot of the first "day," though I did get there before the sun set (it sets much later than it does in England which was also nice.  There was daylight until about 6 pm instead of a 3:30 setting sun.).  After getting off the bus from the airport and wandering in circles for a bit (I was given bad directions the first time I asked), I found our hotel-- Hotel Catalunya located on the very cute C. Santa Anna, right off Catalunya Square and Las Ramblas.

(It was also nice at night, lit up for Christmas.)

I had arrived late afternoon, which meant we had time to walk along Las Ramblas and have early evening cocktails there.  We ordered sangria, which I don't love, but I figured I had to have at least one sangria while in Spain-- and we got the biggest sangrias I have ever had (the picture doesn't do them justice).

The size didn't really make me like them any better--I'm not a converted sangria drinker now, but it was nice to sit and people watch on Las Ramblas with a cocktail.  It felt like spring!  Mostly, it was people walking by but there was also a protest that passed us.

There were protesting activities in Syria-- from what I could tell (since I don't read Arabic or Spanish), I think they were protesting Spain's policies about violence in Syria.  At any rate, it was a very peaceful march.  Following our drinks, we set off to find the nearby Plaza de Relal (pictured during the day because it didn't photograph well in the dark)

where there was a bar, Tarantos, with a flamenco performance; even though flamenco itself isn't really a Catalan tradition (it's not quite regionally appropriate), it was still really cool to watch.  There were several numbers including a partnered dance

a solo performance by the woman

and by the man.

There were also moments when just the musicians were playing which didn't come out very well on video because the lighting during those times wasn't very good.

Continuing our evening of doing stereotypically Spanish things, we went for a late dinner (late for us anyway-- it was definitely after 9 pm, which is actually still early for the Spanish), we found a restaurant in the Plaza de Relal called Marrisco

and had tapas (including olives, cheese, calamari and patatas bravas) and cava.

And, then, headed back to our hotel-- we were both jet lagged.

The next day was our big Gaudi day-- we went off in search of everything Gaudi.  The two best known houses completed by Gaudi weren't very far from our hotel. They were along the Passeig de Gracia, which was on the other side of Catalunya Square from our hotel.

Catalunya Square itself is really nice--there are fountains and statues, though much of it is somewhat obscured by the ice skating rink that's been set up there.

There are these cute penguins at the ice skating rink that kids can use to help them balance.

And, there are tents of food vendors who sell meats, cheeses and pastries (which is what we decided to have for breakfast-- we were walking right past them anyway).

Passeig de Gracia has gorgeous architecture, even before you get to the Gaudi houses.

Details on the buildings are amazing.

It's like the whole street is competing to be worthy of the famous housing that brings tourists there-- which it sort of is, but not because the street was initially meant to be a tourist attraction.  At the beginning of the 20th century, the district, Eixample (which is this district) was the focal point of Barcelona's expansion and it's where the bourgeoisie started to settle.  Casa Batllo (which is simply stunning from the outside, though we didn't go in) was built by Gaudi between 1904 and 1906

and Casa Mila, also known as La Pedrera (the stone quarry) was commissioned in 1906, taking about 6 years to complete.  It's a series of apartments built around two courtyards with an undulating building facade.

The building is two sets of apartment groupings centered around two connecting courtyards that the stairwells wrap around. And then, there is the fantastic roof.  The structures on the roof are water towers and chimneys-- but are made to look like works of art, integrating design and function.

All the structures on the roof use stone, except for this one

which is covered in glass from champagne bottles, just to symbolize the social nature of the rooftop terrace as well as the whimsy.  The tour of Casa Mila also includes the attic which is a guide to Gaudi's ideas and goals, going over the history of his buildings throughout Barcelona and how they were built.  What's interesting about Casa Mila is that none of the interior walls were structural in nature, so that residents could take them down or move them as they wanted in order to fit their lifestyles.  The attic history even included small things, like Gaudi created door handles-- he was really the first person to think of something other than the door knob. We owe credit for the modern door handle to Gaudi-- apparently no one before him thought to create a door handle that fits naturally into the contours of the hand.  It's one of those things that seems so simple, and yet it took until the 20th century to think of it. 

 Given how ornate the building itself is, I was expecting the apartments to be equally intricate-- but instead they were rather pared down by comparison to the exterior and roof.

The "servants" areas, like the kitchen above, were especially sparse. There is a stark contrast between the small bedroom for the maid or nanny, which wasn't much bigger than a closet, and the master bedroom which was much more spacious.

From Casa Mila, we headed towards Avenue Diagonal (a diagonally crossing road) to get to La Sagrada Familia.  Again, even the architecture before we got to our destination was amazing. We passed buildings like Casa Les Punxes

and this building (I have no idea why there is a giant owl on top).

Even "mundane" buildings are ornate and gorgeous in Barcelona.

Given how tall it is, it's not easy to see La Sagrada Familia until you're just about on top of it-- we kept expecting to see the towers from all over the city because from the roof on Casa Mila we could tell it was taller than most other buildings in Barcelona-- and yet, you really can't see it until you're close to it.  It is quite impressive (though the cranes surrounding it take away from the majesty a little-- it's still under construction, as it has been since 1882.  Apparently, Gaudi didn't realize he wouldn't live long enough to see its completion-- clearly he didn't plan for it to take significantly more than 130 years.  Or he thought he was immortal.)

We had walked quite a ways by this time and were hungry, so we had lunch in an outdoor cafe, Afiparc, in the shadow (sunny shadow) of La Sagrada Familia.  We had really good patatas bravas and choricitos, which were tiny, slightly spicy sausages that were amazing-- one of the best things we ate in Barcelona.

We wandered around La Sagrada Familia

but never actually got to go in because there was a Christmas concert scheduled for that evening (something we did not know about before hand or we would have planned our excursion better-- or gotten tickets to the concert which was probably amazing).  But, we were undeterred-- there was still more Gaudi to see so we headed off to Parc Guell.

Parc Guell looked a lot closer on the map than it turned out to be-- it was a very long hike there, which make sense since it's more than 50 acres in size.  It couldn't be in the middle of the city-- and, in fact, it is on the edge and the walk is upwards, and very steep.  But we made it to the park, which is equally as steep as the walk there. 

I, however, decided to climb up some of the hill to see the views. (Martha's feet were horribly blistered by this point, so I showed her my photos of the Mediterranean when I came down.)

(I was also trying to spot the Gaudi statues and fountain, which are also surprisingly hard to see until you are right on them-- you can see they are not in the picturesque picture.  I'm not sure how Gaudi managed to create iconic buildings and structures that are also camouflaged within their geography-- it's really an impressive feat, though a little frustrating as a tourist trying to find landmarks to navigate by.). Fortunately, the famous fountain and statues are downhill from where we entered the park (which was not the main entrance), and towards the main entrance where taxis were waiting to take us home, so we did get to see the famous tiled benches,

"ceiling" tiles,


and the large pavilion it's all a part of.

Even the house that now serves as the gift shop is incredible.

The Parc Guell was a failure when it was created-- there were supposed to be 60 houses built but only three were completed (including the one that was Gaudi's house for several years and now serves as a museum but which was under renovation when we were there).  But, it's clear how magical it would have been to live there-- it was obviously going to be a fantastical place to live.

After resting a bit in the hotel, we ventured out to find another Spanish staple, paella.  We stopped at a place on Las Ramblas, Choquito

which was probably a mistake since everything on that main road is really touristy-- there is certainly better paella to be found (as we found out the next day), but it also would have been a lot more expensive (we were told that good, authentic paella can easily cost 40 euro a person) than our meal at Choquito was.

(Notice how orange our paella is-- this will be important shortly.)  It was good, even if it wasn't necessarily top quality paella.

To start off our third day in Barcelona, we went to a cooking class (which was Martha's brilliant idea)-- it was supposed to be a large group (like, 12 people), but it turned out that only Martha and I had signed up (I cannot recommend going to Barcelona in the off season enough-- the weather is still really lovely and there aren't horrible crowds  Nor does the pick-pocketing we were vehemently warned about seem rampant-- I think it's a lot harder to steal things when there's no crowd around to distract tourists or make "bumping into" victims truly seem accidental. And, fabulous things like getting a private cooking lesson happen in the off season.).

The cooking lesson was in this really cute kitchen

and taught by Chef Candido. It's his school, run by him and his wife Emma who are both really, really nice.  The wine started flowing as soon as we got there, and we spent a couple hours prepping and cooking our amazing meal.

Our menu for the day was butternut squash and pear soup (which the chef kept referring to as a cream soup even though there was no cream in it-- it got its creaminess from the pureeing at the end) finished with chives, Gorgonzola and candied hazelnuts

a Spanish Tortilla (which is a lot like a frittata, except it never goes in the oven-- it's done all on the stove-top) and tomato bread

and chicken paella (because we were taking this class on a Monday and were told that no one who knows anything buys seafood on a Monday in Barcelona-- it's not fresh)

which is a lovely slightly yellowed color, not orange like the one we got the night before, because our cooking class paella was made with actual saffron.  I showed Chef Candido the picture of our paella from the night before and he pulled out a jar of powdered orange food coloring from a drawer and told us that any paella with that truly bright yellow/orange coloring was made with food coloring, not saffron.  (Of course, paella made with real saffron and the array of vegetables present in the one we made in class would have cost a whole lot more... so we probably got what we paid for the night before.)  For dessert, we made Catalan Creme, which is similar to Creme Brulee, but the "creme" part is a lot lighter and not quite as sweet.

We left after several hours, incredibly full, with recipes for everything we'd made and the leftover tortilla and paella to have for dinner that night (the tortilla actually became breakfast the next day) and headed over to La Boqueria, the giant food marketplace (where you should never buy fish on Monday).  This is the only place where I thought it would have been easy to have something stolen- it's really crowded, even on a Monday when it's supposedly not as busy.  The array of food is amazing; even the seafood we were warned against looked like it would be good.

There were vegetables, meats, fish, cheeses, olives, prepared foods, chocolates, fruit juices-- all the food you could imagine really. And there were these things

which looked like they might be fried oysters and and some kind of fried fish stick with other stuff in a cone. What really threw us were the eggs on top-- we don't think they were actual eggs, but rather fake ones made from passion fruit (which is apparently a thing in Barcelona), but we've never actually figured out what they are.  And, we were way to full from our cooking school feast to buy one to try.  Instead, we bought a few assorted chocolates to have for dessert later that night and went to wander a bit in the Gothic Quarter where we visited the Basilica Santa Maria del Pi

which was built between 1320 and 1391, though the interior has changed a bit over the years because parts of it have been destroyed by fire. The basic structure is original though-- and, no matter how much I travel around, it still amazes me that buildings like this

could have been built so long ago.

In addition to being an amazing example of Catalan Gothic architecture, the church also has one of the largest rose windows in the world.

After wandering the Gothic Quarter (we were actually in search of the Catedral though never seemed to be able to get there), we had big plans to finish our day of gastronomical delights at the Chocolate Museum. However, we went back to the hotel to drop off our food leftovers and purchases (after stopping off to buy a cup of the richest hot chocolate I've ever had-- and still not as good as the hot chocolate in Bath. And it was so rich I couldn't finish it.)

where I laid down on the bed and fell fast asleep for about an hour and a half.  I don't know what happened-- I was awake and discussing the metro station we needed to go to in order to get to the Chocolate Museum and then I was waking up and it was too late to go.  But since it was mostly me who wanted to go to the Barcelona Chocolate Museum (I wanted to compare it to the one in Brussels), Martha wasn't too upset I fell asleep.

Instead of continuing our day of gastronomy, we decided to preview our activities for the next day-- we were planning to got to the Picasso Museum on Tuesday, so Monday evening, we went to 4 Cats, the famed restaurant where Picasso and all of his famous painter friends once hung out. 

We had read reviews of the place which said we had to go for the history and because it's really cute (as you can see from the pictures), but not to eat there because the food was overpriced and not very good. So, I had a glass of cava and Martha had absinthe (which should be mixed with a little water in order to not be toxically harsh to swallow-- as she found out the hard way) and we had chips (actual potato chips, not fries) and olives and an order of tomato bread (mostly because we wanted to compare it to the one we had made hours before at our cooking school-- we had been told that most places use cheaper, more watery tomatoes and that you can easily tell the difference between them and the really nice, much more expensive tomatoes we used in class. And, it turns out, you can.).  Instead of getting a "real" dinner that night, we wandered back to Las Ramblas to find the woman who sells roasted sweet potatoes (really-- she just sells cooked, plain sweet potatoes.  And, they're quite yummy.) and chestnuts and bought that to go with our leftover paella.  Finally, later that night, we ate our delicious chocolates from La Boqueria.  It was a very successful culinary day.

On our last day in Barcelona, we set off in the morning for the Picasso Museum. On our way, we happened by the elusive Catedral we had been looking for the day before, so we went in.  (Again, I don't know how we missed it-- it should have stood out above other buildings, but you can't really see it in the skyline.)

Like the Basilica, the inside is astounding.

The Catedral was largely built over a couple of centuries (13th-15th)-- how they even got all the stones up that high (I don't think the photograph truly gives a sense of the scale of the building) with no real machinery, let alone how they built something that has stood, solidly, for so long is unfathomable. (I know there are scholars who know the answers to these questions and that there are explanations for how these buildings were constructed-- I have even read some of them. It makes it no less amazing.)

Having finally seen the Catedral (which was high on my list) we continued on our path (which wasn't really that long-- it was reasonably close to our hotel) to the Picasso Museum (there are no photos of this part as photography wasn't allowed).  It's set up in a series of "mansions" (really, large apartments) and contains works mostly donated by Picasso himself.  The museum is set up chronologically, charting Picasso's development as an artist.  My favorite part was the section devoted to Picasso's paintings of his friend Jaume Sabartes with pin-up girls.(You can see the most well-known one here http://www.leninimports.com/picasso_jaime_pin_up_postcard.jpg, though it's not my favorite. I bought a bookmark with my favorite on it.)

The last thing on our list of must-dos in Barcelona was Montjuic.  Montjuic is a giant park and like Parc Guell, it's on a very steep hill. It's really too steep to climb to the top (every guide we read said you would have to be crazy or a serious hiker to attempt to do it from the bottom)-- so we took several modes of transportation to get to the Montjuic Castle: the metro, a funicular, and a cable car.  The view-- both of the Mediterranean and the city-- was totally worth it.

There is actually a lot situated on Montjuic-- so much stuff, in fact, that it really does take a pretty full day to see it all. There is the National Gallery of Art, the Olympic Park where the games were held in 1992 (though the stadium was built in 1929 as part of Barcelona's bid for the 1936 Olympics, which went to Berlin. There was actually a "protest" Olympics-- the People's Olypiad-- scheduled in Barcelona for later in 1936, but it never happened due to the Spanish Civil War.), the Fundacio Joan Miro, and lots of other things, but we focused largely on the Castle.

Montjuic, because it is so high up, has been used for thousands of years as a site of fortification-- it's historical link goes back to "prehistoric times" (I don't really get that phrasing-- if it's prehistoric I'm not sure how anyone knows what happened, but basically, it's been used as a defensive site for as long as anyone knows.).  The castle itself was built over the course of a couple hundred years, from the 16th to the 18th centuries and was used as a prison as recently as in the 1930s during the Spanish Civil War when it was used to imprison political leaders. 

As you can tell from the pictures, it was a gorgeous day out, so we had lunch in the cafe in the courtyard (sitting out in the warm sun) and wandered around a bit looking at the military relics, mostly cannons,

and some of the more random sites in the castle, including this work of art located in a small room on the edge of the courtyard.

It's called "The Double Cross." There's something about the mirror positioning that make it look like the Star of David in the reflection even though the actual sculpture looks like a cross.  It was created by Carles Berga around 2004.

After we descended part of the mountain by cable car, we wandered around on for a while on a lower level of the park, past this statue

which we both took pictures of because it seemed so bizarre-- why was there a giant purple-ish cone in the middle of a garden? (We tried to Google it later-- it turns out lots of people have taken pictures of this same statue and no one really seems certain about what it is.)

For our last evening in Barcelona, we decided we wanted authentic tapas, so we headed out to find a restaurant recommended to us by Chef Candido-- Canete.  It's off Las Ramblas, but it's down a pretty narrow side street and clearly not a touristy place.  In fact, the menu was in Catalan (not Spanish) and there were no menus in English available.  What was really cool about it was that the chefs cooked out in the open, so you could watch them prepare your food.

Despite the fact that we really didn't understand the menu, we did quite well with our ordering.  We had oysters (which Martha had heard we had to try in Barcelona) and empanadas

fried Parmesan croquettes (which had a fancier name that I can't remember-- in fact, all the food had fancier names, but they were in Catalan so the best I can do is describe what the food basically was) and ham croquettes

and a chorizo, egg and potato dish.

And, we ordered tomato bread again, once again to compare.

(This tomato bread was pretty good, but we still thought what we made in class was better.)

After dinner, we walked along Las Ramblas one more time, got some gelato (which is everywhere-- there is gelato piled up in every other storefront. I thought gelato was an Italian thing, but it is clearly popular in Barcelona.  This was actually our second gelato-- we had some Sunday evening as well.) and went back to the hotel relatively early (especially for Barcelona-- after living in Oxford for a few months, where all the stores close pretty promptly at 5 pm [though not restaurants-- they stay open quite late], it's a little shocking to have so many shops open at 10 at night-- and even later) since we had to leave for the airport at 4:30 am (I'm sure an early flight seemed like a good idea at the time I booked it, but it was painful when it actually happened.). 

And then, I landed in London to find out that it had snowed overnight and there was slush and ice everywhere.  The sunny warmth of Barcelona felt really far away even though I had only left a couple hours before.  I've decided that it's not so much that it's significantly colder in Oxford than it is in the US-- I think it's that it gets colder sooner and, more important, when it's this cold in the US, I can simply go from my warm car to the warm indoors.  The cold seems much more extreme after I've been standing at the bus stop for 15 minutes and then still have to walk a ways to get where I'm going once I get off the bus.  It is prompting me to think I may want to buy wool socks.  Or, a winter home in Spain.