Thursday, April 11, 2013

Wild Water Adventure in Lisbon, Portugal

Walking back to my hotel, thirsty. A Chinese grocery store miraculously appears in front of me; still open this late in the evening.
After far too long of sifting through packets of dry noodles, canned fruits, and soy sauce, I finally notice a hidden cooler with bottled water. Hurriedly I walk to the counter with my prize.

The clerk is on the phone, making it clear through her body language and facial expression that I’m imposing on her conversation and my attempt to help the store to stay in business must not go unpunished.
Turning away from me, she continues her conversation in Chinese, a not so pleasant sounding language, especially when it reaches argumentative tones, which is constantly. 
Impatiently, my foot taps the ground as I wait. At one minute I’m about to leave, she turns subtly towards me, raising her index finger, commanding my patience. At a minute-thirty I’m curious how much longer she can go- another 45 seconds.
Turning towards me: “One euro,” she demands sternly … What a rip-off. I’d have paid it right away, but I’m not going to reward horrendous customer service. I leave the bottle on the counter, and walk out without saying a word.

A block up is a larger grocery store. I enter and find the water, return to the front of the store. The line is a half mile long with a dawdling elderly clerk from the 1950’s, his bi-focals falling to the edge of his nose, readjusting them before he picks up each item, stopping intermittently to make conversation  with a dark skinned 60 year old woman he seems to have known since birth, both for whom time moves at ¼ speed.
The pace of impatient tapping of fingers across the folded arms of patrons increases with each passing year, as we all slowly go grey. At last the elderly lady grabs her stuff, allowing the line to inch ahead.
A decade later, I’ve moved up to third in line, my singular bottle of water cradled in my arms like a child. I might have spent a decade here, but I'm set to save half a Euro- I certainly showed the rude clerk in the Chinese store what's what. 
In the midst of my pride, a 50 year old man, unshaven, inebriated, a ballcap low over his face, slides to the front of the line and hands his 4 items off to his friend. The line in unison shouts at him, even in his half-drunken stupor he’s knocked a step back by its force.
“What?” he asks with weaselly innocence. As the crowd continues to express its displeasure, his friend comes to his defense like a tobacco lawyer riding in on an ashen horse, proclaiming his amigo blameless. The crowd's not having it, as the two sides growl at each other like packs of wolves ready to fight over a kill, I feel as though I'm about to get torn in half being in the middle. The good natured clerk folds his arms in protest of the quarrel, releasing them only briefly every few seconds to readjust his bifocals. 
Instinct tells me to leave before the situation gets worse. Without a word, I drop my bottle of water on the counter and hurry back to the Chinese grocery store.
Closed” reads the sign on the front door. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Gaudi's La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

Gaudi, one of the greatest architects who has ever lived designed perhaps the world's most beautiful church, La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

This video show you what it's like inside the church- the video is probably better than the pics below to get an idea of the beauty and awe the church.

It's $20 to get in, the city continues to make residual revenues from the amazing work created by its most famous resident, a century and a half ago. It's hard to get an idea of the scope, size, and beauty without going there in person, but it's definitely worth $20 for the visit.

Gaudi's work imitates nature, where he spent much of his childhood waling and contemplating. He was fascinated by nature's seeming perfection and symmetry and was the first architect to employ it to his work.

Note the tree like (branch) structure of the columns
If you go to Barcelona, make sure to stop by!

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Joy of Seeing FC Barcelona + Lionel Messi in Person

I get off the Metro with the large crowd and blindly follow them to what I assume is Barcelona stadium to see the most famous Spanish sports team play in La Liga, perhaps the top soccer league in the world.
A half kilometer later the stadium unfurls itself, flags waving from atop the structure as the crowd pours in.
I purchase my ticket from a scalper for 30 Euros (about $40) definitely not a cheap ticket and a demonstration of how soccer crazy the Spanish are.
warm-ups at a FC Barcelona game
I find my seat at midfield., much better than expected, and am taken with the friendly nature of the fans. As they announce Barcelona's starting line-up the crowd cheers after each name, as opposed to  England where the hooligans smash beer bottles on each other's heads.
It's quickly apparent that Barca is the superior side, just a matter of time before they put one into the net; Messi hits the crossbar with a free kick.
Scoreboard at FC Barcelona game

check out this video and get a feel for the atmosphere at Barcelona stadium

My favorite moment of the game was when an opposing player believed he had won a ball cleanly and was called for a foul, expressed his displeasure by booting the ball far out of bounds, promptly earning him a yellow card, and a derisive chant of "Loco, Loco, Loco," from the crowd. (crazy, crazy crazy) I'm proud to say I participated in the chant.
FC Barcelona on the pitch
Watching Messi Play

Watching Lionel Messi play is probably like watching Babe Ruth play baseball in the 1920's, or Michael Jordan play basketball in the1990's. He is so superior to the other players, you sense it immediately when he touches the ball, and you don't even have to know soccer to aware of it. He scored twice and assisted on the other in Barca's 3-1 victory.

And by the way, to all you people who say soccer is a boring game to watch; it is Far better in person than on TV. In being able to see the whole field, you understand why players make the decisions they do. You gain a better feel for the speed at which the game is played, and the skill involved.

Should You go?
By all means, if you are in Barcelona when a game is played, and can afford the price, absolutely go. The atmosphere is far more family friendly than England, with their famed soccer hooligans who are only looking for an excuse to fight and cause mayhem. That just doesn't exist here.
All the fans seemed to enjoy the game, and it was definitely a highlight of my time in Spain!
"Barca! Barca! Barca!"

The Pick-Pockets of Barcelona + A Feel for the City

Beauty and Danger Mixed

Barcelona, one of the world's most beautiful cities. Set your bag down on the ground and gaze around at the gorgeous architecture, take in a breath, look down and discover your bag has ran-off. Pick-pockets and thieves are a HUGE problem in Barcelona, exacerbated by the economic crisis Spain is plodding through.
Barcelona architecture
I race into a bathroom to take a leak, dropping my bags by the door, inside a hostel, re-emerging 25 seconds later, and am immediately scolded by the staff for leaving my bags in the open, warning me that this was the pick-pocket capital of the world and not to do so again for my own good.

You must be extremely attentive at all times, and locals recommend that you if you have a bag, when on the subway, to wear it in front of you and hold onto it. Don't think, even in a crowd, that someone bumping into you was just a random occurrence, thieves work in teams and while one distracts you, the other pilfers your belongings.
Anyone who has been in Barcelona for any length of time has been a victim. My friend Robert had his iPhone stolen out of his hand on the subway, my father said goodbye to his wallet, my friend Anna had someone try to steal her phone while in a restaurant. Every single person I met had a war story to tell.
You don't leave your stuff out at the beach, you don't leave your bag hanging on the chair behind you, if you're suspicious of someone, tune in to it, there's a reason.

The challenge is, there is little disincentive for such behavior. The worst punishment from being caught usually comes from the intended victim, in the form of a bloody nose, and even then, those targeted by crime rarely do so for fear of retribution from larger numbers of bandits working in teams.
If, by some miracle, the perpetrators are arrested, a small fine is paid and they are back out on the street.

Economists believe that you can control most human behavior through incentives and disincentives, and the Spanish police and legislature do an extremely poor job of influencing would be thieves with them.
While Saudi Arabia's cutting the hands off of thieves might be extreme, you don't for a second have to worry about the safety of your possessions while there. The same cannot be said in Spain.

The Cost of Living
To live as a local doesn't cost much. The price of rent has decreased over the last couple years as the Spanish respond to an economic crisis, which, being tethered to Euro, they cannot print (inflate) their way out of. To make matters worse, the government raised the VAT (Value Added Tax) by 3 percentage points, to 21 percent, so in addition to making less money in their jobs, and unemployment hovering around US 1930 depression era levels of 25% (even higher for young people), the Spanish are paying more for their goods and services, leading to less money being spent, and furthering the vicious cycle.
This is what happens after bubbles (real estate)- a retraction, paying for the excesses of the past. It hasn't hit the United States as hard in part because we are the world's reserve currency, thus our money is in demand even as the Fed prints. China and Brazil recently tried to strike a deal to bypass the trade in dollars.

Indeed, you can get by living modestly for about 700 Euro a month here (about $950)
Vegetables and fruits are far cheaper than in California. At least the people can eat.

Spanish Manners
I generally found Spaniards to be quite direct, and in general friendly, but definitely not as polite as in, say, England. In fact, I met some Londoners teaching English in the country who complained about the lack of "please" or "thank you's" being circulated through Spanish society, and confessed that they wonder whether they are considered socially weak because of their knee-jerk polite attitudes.

check out this beautiful fountain in the middle of the park in Barcelona

Waste Not
In America many escalators go around the clock, leave a light on and it will continue to burn. Not so in Spain, who have installed motion detectors in many public areas. Alone at the airport? Think the escalator must be out of service? Wrong; it turns on when you step on it, and off when you reach the top. Lights in a public bathroom, motion detector; there definitely seems to be a conscious attempt to reduce waste here. They have plucked the proverbial low-hanging fruit of conservation, and the world would do well to follow suit.
monument by the ocean
The clubs and party scene in Barcelona is fantastic. Unlike Los Angeles, where last call is 1:30 AM, clubs stay open until 4 or 5 AM. The crowd is generally quite welcoming, and it's easy to make new friends.
The club scene is supported by the Spanish tradition of "siesta" where everyday from about 1:30-4 PM, the city sleeps.
While it might increase the quality of life, it's certainly understandable why the Spanish can't keep up with the economic output of the United States and Germany.

Tapas- or small plates of snacks are the popular choice for most Spaniards. Paella, seafood, pizzas, coffee, and vegetables make up the majority of Spanish cuisine. The Spanish generally eat in moderation, as opposed to America, I saw very few fat Spaniards.

Barcelona is perhaps the most beautiful city in the world, with a friendly atmosphere, clean, and while lodgings might be somewhat expensive and the taxes high, if you can handle insecurity in regards to your belongings, it is one of the few must see cities of the world, and one I could honestly contemplate living in.

The Beautiful Architecture of Gaudi and Barcelona

Barcelona, Spain

A lot of the notable buildings were designed by the architect Gaudi in the middle to late 1800’s. Gaudi blended nature into his designs, from floral patterns to pillars modelled after trees to support the structural integrity of the building, nature is beautifully infused into each creation by Gaudi. 

House of Gaudi-  Note the skull like balconies, and the floral pattern on the outside of the building. 

More of the stunning architecture you'll see in the center of Barcelona ..

check out a video of the architecture here!

Note the curviness of the building

The Palace of Justice, Barcelona
What is The World's Most Beautiful City?

Two cities rise high above the others in terms of physical beauty and architecture: Barcelona and Prague, both vying  for the #1 spot. In my estimation, it's a close race. While Prague, in its very center, is more beautiful than any Disney fairy tale animator could conjure, Barcelona is stunning over a greater area of land. I'll call it a tie, with Budapest a very distant third.
If you have a thought, leave a comment below.