The Natatorium

An emporium of oddities from around the world, complete with somewhat informative plaques that almost never match the item they are meant to be describing.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Barça, Barça!

Monday, May 4, Late Night

After our long and frustrating day on the trains, we took the Metro and followed the directions to our hostel, and found it quite easily. We were welcomed in by Marina, who is one of the owners of the hostel. We had a great feeling about the place immediately, because the owners and their family called it home as well. It was a pretty small hostel and Marina and Totti (the owners) made an effort to get people to socialize by hosting free meals and group activities. We happily signed up for the outing to Parc Güell and the free meal on the following day, then hit the sack.


The next morning we met downstairs for free breakfast and our park outing. Totti was there, and while he didn't actually come with us, he gave us directions and sent us out into the world. I think there were about 18 of us or so in the group, but we managed to make it to the park together, and actually managed to stay somewhat together throughout the park, though we were all randomly wandering. On the way to the park from the metro stop, Daniel made friends with a Japanese tourist named Tomoya who just happened to be headed our way. He was happy to have an opportunity to practice his Japanese, and I got to know some of the other members of our group. There was Mai, Candice, and Michelle from Australia, Martin from Argentina, Carlos from Portugal/US, Stephen from Canada and several others. It was a beautiful day but quite hot and sunny, and there were about 823,431 other tourists in the park. In keeping with tradition, Daniel of course insisted on climbing to the absolute highest point in the park, which was pretty darn high. I think I climbed a couple thousand steps before we reached the top and I headed straight for the water fountain.

After our exertions, we were ready for some lunch. Parts of the group were breaking off, but Martin, Carlos, Stephen, Daniel and I stuck together and headed for La Rambla, the main drag in town. We first went to an amazing market that Tomoya had recommended, and just as he promised we found an incredible fruit juice stand deep in the heart of the place, which was half the price of the juice they sold at the entrance. Now, in case you don't already understand this, I *love* fruit and I *love* fruit juice. This market was heaven for me. The juice stand had plastic cups packed in ice and stacked in towers according to which delicious variety of juice they contained. Each tower had a gleaming display of halved fruit on top to show what kind of juice it was. I wish I could remember all the varieties, but there were at least 15. I think I had something with blackberry the first day... blackberry kiwi? Strawberry melon? Raspberry mango? These are all possibilities. For only one euro, bliss was mine. As soon as I tasted the juice, I told Daniel we had to come back every day we were in Barcelona. I have never seen such beautiful, vibrant, absolutely *fresh* fruit in my entire life. Besides the juice stands, there were also vendors selling small plastic boxes of freshly cut fruit chunks, with tiny plastic forks attached. I couldn't help thinking that if someone set up Fast Fruit places like that in America the way they do McDonald's and Starbucks, our lives would be so much more healthy and delicious. Then again, I don't know if you can even get fruit that amazing outside of Barcelona.

After our fruity detour, we started searching for a place to eat lunch. We put Martin in charge, and he and Carlos soon found us the perfect place -- authentic, delicious, and reasonably priced. It was a set-menu course lunch, so we each got a started/salad, main plate, and dessert or coffee. I had a seafood-laced salad and a simple dish of chicken in olive oil and herbs. I think most of the guys started with beef carpaccio and followed it with a meat skewer which I will admit was *delicious.* The guys all had beer, I think, but I opted for a wine drink called a something "fresca," which the waitress said was a great summer drink. It was delicious, the whole meal was great, and we enjoyed the company as well. It was so nice to get back into the hostel groove of meeting new and interesting people from all over the world, and share a table with new friends.

After lunch, most of the rest of the group broke off again, but Carlos stayed with me and Daniel as we wandered through the old quarter a bit, then all the way down to the beach. It was rather warm, and Carlos was worried about his buzzed head getting burned, so we stopped at a pharmacy and got some sunblock. We wandered all the way down the beach, and discovered the swimsuit tops were optional. For everyone. It was a pretty thin slice of beach, though it did stretch on for a while. Perhaps my expectations of beach width are skewed since living in Berck, but still, it did seem quite small. The sand was thick and yellow with a really large grain, *almost* bordering on very fine gravel. Again, I'm used to the superfine gray sand at Berck Plage.

Later that evening we enjoyed Totti's free meal at the hostel, which was spaghetti with tomato sauce. It was delicious, and we once again had a good time eating with new hostel friends. We heard that the group would be heading out to a bar after dinner, and Daniel and I happily went along. It ended up being an English-pub style bar, but that didn't stop us from ordering about 8 pitchers of Sangria (a big group!) and having a great time. We eventually wandered back to the hostel and collapsed into bed. Something to note: we were out a bit late a few times while we were there, but no matter how late we got in, there was always someone (actually, most everyone) who got in later than we did.


After rolling out of bed roundabout noon, we headed out looking for some lunch. Despite the skeptical look on my face, Daniel opted for a very "authentic" looking place in an alley off La Rambla. It *was* authentic, and we both ordered paella, complete with shrimp, mini-squid, and (ew) blood sausage. Daniel happily relieved me of my (ew) blood sausage and I took a bit of his seafood, but he forced himself to power through that mini-squid, which he ate whole. I think it was one of those force-yourself-out-of-your-comfort-zone-for-the-experience travel moments, which I can respect. I usually just prefer that my "out-of-the-comfort-zone" travel moments involve dancing or jumping off of something, rather than mini-squid. After, I got some Carte D'Or ice cream, which was very gelato-esque. He had a few bites of the tiramisu flavor to get the squid taste out of his mouth, and we went shopping. On the way we stopped for More! Fresh! Fruit! Juice! at the market and once again, it was amazing.

Daniel (though he may disagree on this point) had been in need of new pants for quite a while. Ever since his backup pair of khakis had ripped somewhere in Scotland, he'd been traveling with *one* wearable pair of pants (again, khakis) and one pair of pajama pants. I asked him what his plan was if his last pair of khakis also got ripped/wet/stolen etc. What was he going to wear to go buy new pants? HMMM???? Anyway. Despite his aversion to shopping, my logic and persistence won out in the end and I dragged him down La Rambla looking for the H&M mothership store of the area. This was difficult because I think I passed about five H&Ms, and most of them were multi-level. I finally settled on one that had a full guy's floor, though I wasn't sure it was the mothership. Turns out it wasn't, but that's okay because I was successful in finding him a suitable pair of *jeans,* which I had convinced him were far superior to khakis both in a practical and fashionable sense. He also got some cargo shorts for our trip to the beach the following day.

That night, FC Barcelona was playing Chelsea in the Champion's League Semi-final, and our hostel was hosting a party downstairs to watch it on the big screen. Daniel really wanted to watch, but I was less than enthusiastic. I agreed to attending, however, because I am nice like that, and he had agreed to go to the beach the next day. Before the party, however, we went out to grab a quick dinner. We had our teeth set for this thing we'd seen earlier called a "Pizza Cone." Yes, whatever you're picturing, that's what we were picturing. In the photo outside the shop, it looked like a giant dough-cone filled with melty pizza goodness, cheese and sauce and meat all swirled together in hot perfection. The reality was extremely disappointing. It was really small, microwaved, and lukewarm verging on cold. It reminded us of Jim Gaffigan's "hot pockets" routine, and we made fun of it all the way back to the hostel. In fact, we were still hungry enough after that puny snack that we stopped at the KFC near the hostel and ordered this thing called a "Boxmaster," which we had seen advertised in the metro. It was basically a really big chicken wrap, but it soon became legendary with us due to its deliciousness and hilarious name. We took it back to the hostel and shared it as the game began.

Now, as I mentioned above, I was not enthusiastic about the idea of watching sports for two hours. Frankly, I usually find sports rather boring. However, just a few minutes into watching, with Daniel explaining all the rules and calls and such to me, I got really into it. It helped that I was in a room full of Spanish men rooting for their home team. The energy was great. However, things were not looking very good. Chelsea had scored a goal early on, and Barça, despite many attempts, just could not seem to score. I would get really excited when they almost made a goal and then really upset when they missed it. By the middle of the second half I was getting depressed. They still hadn't scored, and everyone was getting demoralized. Finally, with less than two minutes left in the game (in overtime!) Barça scored FTW. I jumped up and screamed with everyone else in the basement; it was an incredible high. I became a FC Barcelona fan that night, and watched them eagerly a few weeks later when they played Man United for the Championship. They won that too, btw, because they're AWESOME.

After the game there was talk of going out from several people in the hostel... groups were leaving and we started to feel like we were missing the train. We ended up going out, all right, but it wasn't exactly the post-game fun-fest we were looking for. More on that, we re-join our intrepid heroes in the next episode....

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Survival of the... Luckiest?

Monday, May 4 2009

We had a train from Carcassonne to Barcelona in the afternoon, so around lunch time we walked down to the McDonald's across the street from the station to kill a few hours on their free WiFi. We were supposed to take a train from Carcassonne to Narbonne, a larger town, then switch for the train to Barcelona. The tickets were pretty expensive, a lot more expensive than I thought they'd be. This was partly because it was a longer journey, but also because my youth discount card was no good for the leg of the trip involving Spain (I had a discount card for French trains), and neither was Daniel's rail pass, which was only for France and Italy.

So we were supposed to leave Carcassonne around 2:00pm, I think, and we'd have about a 30 minute layover in Narbonne before getting on the train to Barcelona. At least, that's what was *supposed* to happen. What *actually* happened was not so simple. When we got to the platform in Carcassonne, we found out that our train was going to be delayed for nearly an hour. This means that we were definitely going to miss our connecting train, which neither one of us were very happy about. We were afraid that we were going to have to buy more tickets, or worse, be stuck in Narbonne overnight. Daniel thought it would be a good idea to start yelling at people in English, but I disagreed (somehow I just didn't think it would be very effective). I succeeded in getting him to wait with the bags while I tried to straighten things out by talking *nicely* in French. I spoke with a woman at the Carcassonne station who told us to go on Narbonne and they would straighten it out there. When we got to Narbonne, we had indeed missed the train we were supposed to be on, but fortunately the woman at the Narbonne station gave us a voucher to get on the next train to Spain, which would be in about two and a half hours.

We were quite relieved to *not* be spending the night in Narbonne, but still nervous enough about not getting out of France to stay in the train station and keep a sharp eye on the departures board. While waiting for the train, we met another American, a girl named Carly, who was in the same predicament. She was also trying to get to Barcelona that night, and was not initially having the same luck with the French train officials, who at first told her she couldn't switch to the later train. She had a rail pass, and we eventually figured out she *could* transfer and get on the same train we were going to be on. We realized we had some time to kill, so we all started talking.

Daniel and I had been feeling a little discouraged that day by the headache with the trains, and, though it wasn't really our fault, I think we still felt a little like we weren't doing a great job that day. Well let me tell you, Carly made us feel a *lot* better about ourselves. She was a nice girl, but she was one of those people who make you just sort of shake your head in amazement and wonder how they survive. She was a college student who had been studying in Austria, and was now traveling a little bit through the rest of Europe. Through some kind of mix-up, she had ended up leaving her bank/credit card in a friend's purse, and the friend wasn't with her any more. She was apparently meeting her friends again in Barcelona, who would arrive in a few days, but for the next three days or so all she had was about 30 euros in cash. She had no hostel reservations, no credit cards, nothing but a small backpack and her wits.

I was a little concerned about her, but she didn't seem at all distressed. She had taken photos with her digital camera of screens on hostelworld dot com and was going to use them to navigate her way to a cheap hostel. She seemed to have found one for about 8 euros a night.... which I can tell you, is not a place I would want to stay. She also regaled us with tales of her misadventures in Europe thus far, including how she had accidentally crashed a stranger's funeral earlier that day in Lourdes. She was quite the impressive girl. She also told us about a friend of hers who had left her bag on a beach somewhere and gone swimming... only to come back and find all of her stuff (money, cards, passport, clothes, etc) stolen (duh). The only thing the thief left her was her coat, so she wrapped herself in it and rode the trains illegally all the way back to Austria, hiding in the bathroom when the ticket checkers came by. Now, I have been in a couple of slightly sticky situations myself during my travels, but I have to say I've never ridden trains illegally across of half of Europe in only a bathing suit and a coat.

Like I said, Carly's stories about her and her friends made us feel pretty good about ourselves.

Eventually the train arrived and we boarded for what we hoped would be a ride that terminated in Barcelona. It turned out we had to change at the border, but that ended up not being a big deal. Despite the fact that the windows were really filthy, the train ride to the Spanish border, before the sun set, was really beautiful. For much of the time we were traveling along the coastline, and we had stunning views of huge jagged cliffs towering over the waves below. There were times when the train went right along the edge, and we could see the water hundreds of feet below. It was absolutely breathtaking. I noticed that the stretch of coastline around Cerbère, which is in France almost right at the Spanish border, was particularly beautiful. We changed at Port Bou, just over the border, and were finally on our way to Barcelona.

It was late when we arrived, but fortunately the metro was still running, and we had no trouble finding our hostel. In fact, I was very pleasantly surprised by how nice the metro was in Barcelona. I wasn't sure what to expect, but in terms of cleanliness and modernity it was miles (or should I say kilometers?) ahead of Paris and light years ahead of New York. It was right on par with London, and in fact many of the stations were cleaner and newer than a lot of London stations. I'm sure this had something to do with the fact that Barcelona hosted the Olympics a few years ago, but even so I was quite impressed.

We got checked in to our hostel, which we had a good feeling about immediately. The owners lived there as well, and were really nice people. We could tell it was going to be a good experience, and we weren't wrong. We were tired enough to go to bed almost immediately, after signing up for a group excursion to a park and a free meal the following day. Happy to have reached our destination, we fell into bed and rested up for our first full day in Barcelona.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Sleeping in a Fortress

Here is a long overdue continuation of my travels through the South in late April/early May. I will try to catch up on everything soon so I can start posting about what's actually happening right now. ;)

Saturday, May 2

We arrived in Carcassonne in the late afternoon, with plenty of daylight to spare. Like many French towns, Carcassonne has an old quarter and then a newer section. However, because of the nature of Carcassonne, the "old quarter" is really a self-contained fortress on a hill, set back a couple of kilometers from the modern town. The train station was in the center of modern Carcassonne, so we had to walk a bit to make it to the old city, where we were staying. However, it wasn't exactly difficult to find this time, because all we had to do was head towards the castle on the hill, which was pretty hard to miss.

Carcassonne is a medieval fortress, still in really great condition, considering, and looks like something right out of a fairy tale. Consequently, it's a pretty big tourist attraction, mostly for French people with young children, I think. It's probably one of those "stay-cation" destinations for French people; something charming and educational and not too expensive. The whole of the old city is now a sort of tourist wonderland, full of restaurants, crêperies, little shops, and plenty of souvenirs. It consists of a castle keep within a walled city, so it's sort of a castle within a castle. Our hostel was within the walls of the fortified town, so we were actually sleeping in a fortress. I amused myself by imagining that I had done quite well in choosing the accommodations, as we would be quite safe in case we were besieged by Sarasins or PETA activists.

After throwing down our bags, we wandered around looking for a place to eat. I think we circled the fortress three times (it really isn't that big) before finding a little burger place. Since I was used to the massive cheeseburgers at my favorite stand in Berck, I just ordered a single instead of a double like Daniel. It turned out to be a pretty puny burger, though, so when I saw a little restaurant that said it served a lot of salads, I decided to get one to round out my meal. Thus began The Snack That Wouldn't End.

We sat down outside and I ordered a salad, but Daniel got crème brulée because he'd had enough dinner and just wanted to dessert. We think it was at around this point that the waitstaff's collective heads exploded. For those of you not familiar with french gastronomic practices, they take the courses of the meal quite a bit more seriously than Americans (or really just about anyone else) do. We have some ideas about courses here (bread, followed by salad, followed by main dish, etc.) but let's face it, they're really more like "guidelines." Not so in France. My friend Adil used to watch me eat lunch in the school cafeteria with great interest and more than a little criticism. He thought it was crazy that I'd start with the bread (they eat it with the cheese, which has to be last, right before dessert) and that I'd take bites of things willy-nilly instead of eating all of one course before moving to the next. Thus, I postulate that our strange order combo caused them to write us off, and could explain our experience there. I suppose we'll never know.

Anyway, after we ordered our food came relatively quickly, so that wasn't the problem. It was after we got our food that things sort of went downhill.... very, very slowly. Daniel ordered coffee but it took forever, maybe half an hour, for him to receive it. Then the waiter simply refused to look at us for about an hour. We were desperate for the bill because the sun had gone down and there was quite a chilly breeze in the air, but alas. We asked for the bill twice before it actually came, then we had to wait for him to acknowledge we were ready to pay (even though I'd been waving my bank card around for 45 minutes or so), then we waited for him to bring the portable card machine, then he actually *left* the machine on the table and went to do something else, so we had to wait for him to come back. When he finally came back to run the card, he turned the machine to Daniel to enter the PIN, even though I'd been the one waving the card around and asking for the bill. When I told him it was my card, he gave us a shocked look and said, "C'est pas normal!"

If there's one thing you can say about the French, it's that they usually don't hesitate to tell you what's on their mind. This "frankness," shall we call it, is usually something I appreciate, as I can be rather frank myself. Still, even for me, that "frankness" crosses over into "just plain rude." I think I have some sort of subconscious rule that keep me from being offended by people from other cultures, because it didn't really bother me much when he said that, I just thought it was absurd. If he had been American I would have ripped him a new one, or at least said something defensive. I suppose when it's someone from another culture, I just feel like there's such a gap of understanding that there's no point in being offended. In a way I feel more like an observer of the situation than an actual participant. Whatever the reason, I guess it's for the best. I don't think there's much point in getting huffy in a situation like that, and I didn't feel like getting into an in-depth conversation about gender stereotypes and relations with a 60-year-old French waiter, I was cold and tired and just wanted to go back to the hostel. So that's what we did.

The next day we went to see the castle-within-the-castle part of the fortress (complete with audio guide!) and once again people thought we were crazy when we expected them to perform some kind of job. On our way into the castle, the ticket-taker guy seemed really suspicious of us, as if he didn't know why we were trying to get into the castle. He looked at our tickets, and looked at us, then back at the tickets again, slowly. Then his eyes seemed to scan the ramparts and towers around the castle.... honestly, I was half-expecting him to signal someone in the tower to take us out. I mean seriously, his job is to take the tickets, that's pretty much all he does, right? So why was it so strange to him that we were giving him tickets and expecting to go into the castle? I dunno.

The tour of the castle was okay; it had some great views, but the audio guide was less than satisfying. I wanted intriguing stories from the middle ages, but instead they seemed to talk mostly about the project to restore it. After that, we mostly wandered around the town a bit; we were pretty lazy. We went to the train station to buy tickets to Barcelona (what fun that journey would turn out to be) then came back to the old city and had dinner. Daniel was brave enough to try the regional specialty Cassoulet, but I didn't think it looked that tasty. It's sort of a bean stew with duck and sausage in it... didn't look appetizing.

That night we had some roommates, an Australian couple named Phil and Fiona. They were really nice, and at first I was glad that they were older (mid-50s, I think) because I figured that would mean less noise... not so. They weren't drunk and giggly and annoying like young people sometimes are, but they weren't quiet, either. I was awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of someone trying cut down a fossilized tree with a chainsaw. It turned out that was just the chorus of Phil and Fiona's unconscious breathing. They both snored all night in a sort of duet... when one of them would stop, the other would start. I usually don't have any trouble getting to sleep or staying that way, but Phil and Fiona's Petrified Logging Operation kept me up for a while, and had me in a bit of a seething snit in my bunk. I must have dropped off eventually because I awoke the next morning only slightly out-of-sorts, and no longer planning their regrettable yet unavoidable demises.

We checked out of the hostel and headed into town for the oasis of free internet at MacDo while we waited for our train. Little did we know that another transportation odyssey was about to begin...