Post-Barcelona Travels

Apparently, Inquiring Minds want to know about my post-Barcelona travels, so here’s a brief update.

I wrestled my duffel bag and backpack onto a Vueling Airlines flight from Barcelona to Paris, and settled into a nice Airbnb just down the street from the Parliament building in Luxembourg Gardens.

I took in the Toulouse Lautrec exhibit at the Grand Palais with a friend and it was enjoyable and well-presented, if too big. Took forever to get through it.

The next day I went to the Salon des Vins des Vignerons Indépendants, a gigantic wine-tasting event featuring 600 independent French vintners. Ooh-la-la! It’s simply amazing how few 1-2 oz. tastes of wine it takes to get sloshed. I had no idea, but learned, that Malbec grapes are also grown in France. Of course, there was cheese on offer, too, and lots of other gourmet delights. People show up with with hand-trucks in tow in order to haul off the cases of wine they buy here, which adds greatly to the general congestion on the floor. Nonetheless, it was amazing and great fun.

I was then lucky to be invited to a friend’s home for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, which included green bean casserole and a homemade pecan pie. I had to dust off my turkey-carving skills and do the honors, and everyone enjoyed the meal.

A few days later, I took the Eurostar “chunnel” train to London, getting myself out of Paris just before the massive (and as I write this, ongoing) general strikes started. It was nice to be back in the Paddington Hilton for a few days and to visit a few favorite pubs.

I took in the Troy: Myth and Reality exhibition at the British Museum, which was really interesting, and I visited with a couple of English friends. Finally I boarded my plane for the U.S. and have been enjoying seeing my U.S. friends ever since. Happy holidays, everyone.

Next stop – Dublin in Mid-January.

Hasta Luego, Barcelona

Entrance to the cool History of Barcelona Museum

My six-week stay in Barcelona has flown by and I will miss being here. Tomorrow I’m flying to Paris and London, and will be back in the U.S. briefly for the holidays. Hausman Tour 2020 kicks off in Dublin in January.

There are so many things to see here and, even living locally, I just scratched the surface. Sadly, I’ve been delinquent in writing about everything I’ve experienced. For example, my friend Marti Demetrion and I toured Palau Guell, the home of a wealthy industrialist, built in the late 1880s, and one of Antoni Gaudi’s earliest design commissions. It was awesome, even a little overwhelming (whew – all that gold leaf).

My stay was made richer by the many interactions I had with interesting people here. I was very lucky recently to be able to attend the 20th Anniversary performance of the Schizophrenic Spacers at the Sala Upload dance club, an evening I will not soon forget.

My amazing friend Sergio leads the Spacers

There were, of course, the independence marches, the well-treated dogs, the good beer, and the Happy Pills – really anything you might desire.

My Spanish has improved, though the occasional addition of Catalan, Portuguese, and Italian words sometimes made conversing harder, and I’ve learned a lot about Spanish culture. For instance, who knew that a little man taking a dump was a traditional figure in Spanish nativity scenes?

Seen at the Christmas Market being erected, the Caganer is a traditional symbol of farm fertility and good luck

After almost three months in Spain, I can say I’ve really enjoyed my visit. The Camino de Santiago was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done and my subsequent “recuperation” in Barcelona was just what I needed. Now I’m looking forward to the next chapter in my senior nomad odyssey and I hope you’ll come along with me.

Gracias y hasta la vista por ahora!

In Praise of Elsa y Fred

Named after the 2005 Argentinian movie of the same name (remade in 2014 starring Shirlely MacLaine and Christopher Plummer), this has been my favorite gastropub in my Barcelona neighborhood during my stay. It has excellent online ratings and deservedly draws a crowd of tourists and locals alike.

The restaurant isn’t large, seating 24 indoors and 10 outside, and it’s been fascinating from my perch at the end of the 10-stool, L-shaped, marble-topped bar to watch the imagination the staff brings to the delicate dance of seating patrons.

With and without reservations, almost no one is ever turned away. And, boy are they ever accommodating at Elsa y Fred: have a large baby stroller? Come on in. An electric Razor-style scooter, sure park it inside. A cello in a huge case? No problem. A dog? Come on in, we even have a water bowl for him right behind the bar. I actually saw ALL of these examples in the restaurant at the same time one day.

The all-female waitstaff of attractive young women, dressed in leotard tops and skirts, works incredibly hard. From taking orders, to tending bar, to clearing tables, to sweeping the floor, to cleaning the front door windows, they do it all. The are no runners, bussers, or bar backs. The kitchen, directly visible through glass walls, is staffed by young men and women who are very good at what they do. The dining room has a cozy, home-like feel and even when it’s packed, it doesn’t feel like a pressure cooker. Eclectic background music plays, though at times it can be hard to hear over the hubbub. On one of my early visits, I was delighted to hear Madeleine Peyroux singing Leonard Cohen’s Dance Me to the End of Love over the speakers.

They’re open from 8:30 am to midnight, so the full spectrum of food is on offer. The dishes served have the interesting quality of looking small and then filling you up. Their breakfast and brunch dishes are especially good and their Patatas Bravas, deep-friend potatoes covered with aoili and sauce, are truly outstanding – the best I’ve had in Spain. The food is cooked to order, so it’s fresh and hot, but it may take a little longer to arrive, so sit back and enjoy the vibe and your dining companions while you sip your beverage. WiFi is provided.

The Bravas are to die for

Like most restaurants in Europe, they use a wireless terminal to conduct credit card transactions at your table, so your card is always in your hands.

Yes, I’m wholeheartedly endorsing Elsa y Fred and I’ve spent several days and many hours during the last six weeks on “my” bar stool, observing it all and becoming semi-adopted by the kind staff.

Mostly I drink the nice Turia Marzen-style beer from Valencia, on tap, but I can attest that they also make a killer Gin & Tonic and have a nice selection of wines. When I leave, I shall miss this charming establishment but, if you’re ever in Barcelona, you shouldn’t. Reservations are recommended during peak hours, especially for groups.

Today’s Independence Protest

I’ve done my best to avoid getting too close to the protests going on here in Barcelona, as recommended by our embassy, but today I found myself up close.

I ran into a pretty large protest march I didn’t know was happening and did my best to get away from it, even going down into the Metro station and exiting out the other side to get across a big plaza.

My first encounter at Plaza Cataluna

I thought I’d gotten clear of them and a few minutes later settled down into a window seat at a restaurant on a different street for lunch. As I sat there, after a while it dawned on me that something was odd: there was now no traffic on the usually very busy, six-lane wide Via Laietana.

Then a police escort vehicle came slowly by, followed by a truck containing protest leaders exhorting the crowd through speakers, and press photographers. This was followed by hordes and hordes of protesters.

It was all quite orderly, if loud (what with whistles, drums, air horns, chanting, amplified voices, etc.), and very peaceful. The only uniformed police presence I saw was in the escort car and, earlier, directing traffic at major intersections.

It was definitely a Sunday family outing for some. People were in the street with their dogs, their young children, and their strollers. It was a real cross-section of humanity, all united in their quest for a dialog with the national government about Catalonian independence. I have no idea how many protesters there were but the they streamed by for about 30-minutes before the street cleared again and was eventually re-opened.

I suppose if things had gone bad, sitting as I was up against a window, I could have gotten a brick and some glass in the face, but they didn’t. It was uplifting to be so close and to see these determined people in the street. Their dedication was moving and I’m glad they had a nice day for it.

Speaking of protests, I’m hoping to dodge a big one in France in a few weeks. I’m saying goodbye to Barcelona on Thanksgiving Day and heading for Paris, London, and ultimately the U.S. a week later. However, many unions in France have called for “unlimited strikes” (read as: “country paralyzed”) starting the evening of December 4th. I’ll be leaving Paris on the Eurostar train to London early on December 2nd, so I should not be affected. But until then, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the French strike dates don’t change and that no other, sooner strikes are announced.

Learning to Speak Schengen

As a retired person, a U.S. citizen, and a senior nomad, I’m officially a tourist. So how does that work, with regard to visas and such, in and around Europe?

Countries around the world like to have some control over who comes to visit them. Europe is a relatively small area and having border controls everywhere, especially for really small countries like Luxembourg, was cumbersome and expensive. In 1985, a number of countries in the fledgling European Union signed onto the Schengen Agreement, allowing open borders and free passage between countries. This has grown today to include 26 countries, including some non-EU members.

Citizens of one Schengen treaty country enjoy free access and unlimited stays in other Schengen countries. However, visitors from other countries operate on a Schengen tourist short-term visa, with time limits (and fees, for some). U.S. citizens are allowed to spend 90 days in any 180 day period in the Schengen area (with no fee) before they have to leave.

This can be complicated if you go in and out of the Schengen area frequently but, fortunately for me, I tend to arrive, stay, and leave. For example, I arrived in Spain (in the Schengen area) on September 4, 2019 and I’ll leave exactly 90 days later, on December 2, for the U.S. Then I’m forbidden to re-enter the Schengen area until another 91 days goes by, so December 2 + 91 days = March 1, 2020. This Schengen Calculator is a handy tool for figuring this out.

For variety, I could have spent six weeks in Germany and six in France (for a total of 90 days) and then exited the Schengen area.

Notice on the map above that there are six nearby non-Schengen countries: Ireland, U.K., Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Cyprus. These countries also have their own 90/180 day limits but aren’t in the Schengen scheme. So my travel planning, if I want to stay in the European area, consists of hopping from the Schengen countries to the six non-Schengen countries and back every 90 days. An annual return to the U.S. for a month or so helps to balance everything out.

How much do these rules matter? Well, from what I read, it’s taken pretty seriously. You can be turned away at Customs and Border Control upon arrival if your entry-exit dates are off even by one day (as shown in your passport entry stamps and in their computers) and you can be deported. Having that “Deported” stamp in your passport is really undesirable, to say the least, and leaves a stink that doesn’t expire for three years. I recently made a mistake in calculating my Schengen dates, realized it, and had to cancel some reservations, which was expensive.

At one time, you could “reset” your Schengen days counter to zero by simply leaving the area for a day, but that was kiboshed by a change to the governing law in 2013.

The Internet is full of schemes for hacking the Schengen rules, most of which seem to depend on friendly or lazy customs officials and are too risky for my taste. There are also various other longer-term visas available (each country manages their own) for various lengths of time. Generally, these require student status, or family members who are foreign citizens, or owning foreign real estate, or depositing a lot of money in a foreign bank. Most of the rules are aimed at ensuring that you’re not going to a) work and take a job away from a native; and b) use the local healthcare system that you haven’t paid into. You could become a foreign or dual citizen, but I’m not going to get into that here. So for now, I must learn to be very careful with my date calculations.

In Which I Go To The Movies

I haven’t done this in years, but today I went off to a local movie theater to see a movie, in English but with Spanish subtitles.

Yes, I admit to being a die-hard Downton Abbey fan. In the summer of 2016, I even went to visit Highclere Castle, 90 miles west of London, where the series was filmed (you can read about that in my blog here). So I’ve been very interested in seeing the new movie, which was released while I was on my Camino walk in September.

I took a taxi to the Yelmo Cines Icaria, a 15-screen establishment in a mall, about half an hour away. Yes, Barcelona does have shopping malls. The ticket price at noon was €6 (about $6.60) and the box office and concession stands were just like those at any American multiplex. Food prices, however, were much more reasonable: a medium popcorn and small drink was just €7.

I was thrown for a moment when I was asked if I wanted “salty or sweet” popcorn. In addition to regular popcorn, it turns out they also sell caramel popcorn (aka Cracker Jack) – I went traditional. However, there was no butter (or even pseudo-butter) topping available. All the other usual items were there, the giant-sized candy bars and boxes, hot dogs, and such, but were not for me.

Theater #14 was my destination and I had it all to myself. Downton has been playing here for a while and is now down to just one showing per day. The smallish house had about 100 standard seats, all very comfortable and new-looking, with a center aisle and an excellent sound system. The show started with 10 minutes of ads and coming attractions, all in Spanish.

The reason I selected this theater is that they show movies with their original English soundtrack and Spanish subtitles. It was nice to hear the King’s English being spoken onscreen and I got a kick out of the occasional funny or inappropriate translation I saw in the subtitles.

I do, of course, have a crush on Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary) as I’m sure most men do. After the Downton series ended, seeing her in the TV series Godless was the topper for me. Her American accent was flawless and wow! – she put it all out there to be seen, in distinctly un-Lady-Mary-like fashion. British actors and actresses are just so good.

I really enjoyed the Downton movie today and was glad to be able to see the cast together again one last time. I can’t wait to see what Julian Fellowes, the series creator, comes up with next. My inaugural Barcelona movie-going experience was good, but expensive after adding in the taxi (€8 each way).

The Catalonian Independence Scene

I arrived here in Barcelona in late October, just after a weekend of massive demonstrations, including three nights of violence and destruction.

Really large peaceful protests (350,000 – 500,00) like the one above got a lot of attention, and not so peaceful, “anarchist-driven” riots at night had the city on edge.

What’s going on here? Spain is made up of semi-autonomous regions and Barcelona is the capital of the Catalan region. It has its own language, customs, culture, history, and economy, and frequently chafes against national control from Madrid. Sounds kind of like Texas.

In 2017, an “independence referendum” was held here, despite the national government declaring in advance that it was illegal. The result was 93% for independence but with only 43% of voters participating. The other result was that a bunch of local Catalan officials and independence leaders were arrested. They were tried for “sedition”, with the Supreme Court handing down final sentences of 12-15 years in October, touching off these massive protests.

Some of the worst protests were just a few blocks from my apartment here and you can still see the scorched pavement where fires were set. As I rode in from the airport in a taxi, I could see smashed and boarded-up store windows. The level of violence, injuries to police and civilians, and damage to local businesses gave everyone pause. The press reported “professional anarchists” were causing much of the violence (my view: probably funded by Putin 😊 ). An emphasis on peaceful demonstrations has since emerged. The national government has held firm, though, and the ardor of the protestors has abated somewhat. The pro-independence strategy now seems to be to hold daily, small protests that block a major road or occupy a major tourist site for 30 minutes.

The protest shown above just popped up during my morning stroll today. They’re in the middle of a traffic circle and the police were very cool about it, immediately directing traffic to go around them on the sides, and making no arrests that I saw. With regard to planned demonstrations, the American Embassy very kindly posts the schedule, so they can be avoided.

Polls indicate that the local population is evenly split on the question of independence. I’m glad to have missed the violence and hope some solutions can be found. I take heart from the existence of this store:

Solving the European Appliances Riddle

My apartment in Barcelona includes some nice, modern appliances. However, all their controls and instructions are, of course, in Spanish.

For the last 28 years or so, I lived with appliances in Virginia that were pretty primitive by today’s standards, but they worked well for me. However, that left me unprepared for all of the new features found on appliances today. “Water Saving Cycle”? Never heard of it. “Spin Speed Setting”? Same. And so on. In addition, the Europeans have been ahead of the U.S. when it comes to eco-friendly features (though it appears the U.S. is catching up now).

Isn’t that the Play/Pause button? Does this thing show videos, too?

Thank God for the Internet – I was able to dig up User Guides for them, in English.

One prominent difference is load size. The washer/dryer you see above is pretty small, with a maximum 8.8 lb. load. Compare this with a U.S. average washer load size that’s about 50% more. Put two pairs of jeans, a bath towel, some socks in my washer here and it’s full.

Another difference is efficiency ratings. The EU requires appliances to have “efficiency” ratings – for example, a washer’s water, detergent, and electricity usage per load must be disclosed for comparison purposes. Some of this translates into what we would think of as very long washing/drying cycles, 3-4 hours in some cases, per load.

One interesting thing is this washer/dryer has sensors that determine the state of the load and automatically adjust things, like drying time, to get the job done. Nice!

Okay, with the instructions in hand, I was ready to give my Camino duds a good washing. Oops – needed to buy some detergent. This resulted in my spending an inordinate amount of time at the store, reading and translating the Spanish on detergent packaging. That was entertaining!

Once I got the soap powder (I was strictly a liquid detergent guy in Virginia) home, I had few amusing episodes in which the soap was not being used. I’d wash a load, which segued into drying it, but the soap wasn’t used; it was still there in the little drawer! Turned out I set the controls incorrectly and it was pretty much just drying the load (it apparently adds a bit of cold water for wrinkle-prevention while drying, and that made the clothes feel like they’d been washed – one whiff revealed the truth, though).

I’ll pause here so that you can have a good laugh at my washer/dryer naivete. What a Laundry Rube!

In the end, I discovered that Less is More when in comes to setting the washer controls: Clothes in drum, Soap in drawer, Power Switch on (yes – has a separate power switch), push Wash button, then Dry button, then Start button. And voila! 3-1/2 hours later the machine plays a tune something like Yankee Doodle Dandy and my clean, dry, clothes are ready.

Based on my Camino experience, it sure beats hand-washing and then air drying my clothes overnight.

Dogs and Their Owners

My Barcelona neighbors include a lot of dogs, large and small. They’re well-behaved for the most part and are almost always on a leash, as required by law, when I see them. And, although they pee a lot on trees, door jambs, downspouts, and other vertical things, their owners seem pretty good about picking up the dog poop.

Businesses are pretty accommodating about dogs. The restaurant above, for example, allows them inside and even provides a water bowel, if desired. The city is generally pet-friendly.

I sat inside a cafe last week and watched the waitress serving the outside tables ooh! and ahh! over someone’s dog. She petted the animal repeatedly and he licked her hand, and everyone was happy. Then she came inside, collected some food, and served it, without washing her hands. I made a mental note not to eat there in future.

I almost never hear any barking, which is remarkable given the number of dogs in the area. I never see any cats. There is a store-front veterinarian clinic just down the block, which surprised me. It reminds me of the clinic I volunteered in when I was 12, in downtown D.C. Or rather, the one my mother volunteered me into one summer. My mother’s dream of her son becoming a doctor (for animals) died that summer when I came face to face with the reality that sick animals, no matter how cute, often did to.

Barcelona has its professional dog walkers. It’s amusing to see them pull up for a quick cafe cortado at a bar and have their legs quickly become mummified in dog leashes as their charges swirl around them. They seem to handle getting untangled well; maybe it’s the espresso.

It’s the law here that dogs that go out of the house must be identified either by tattoo or microchip. Dogs are allowed on the subway but must be on a leash and wear a muzzle.

I generally find it nice to have the four-legged wonders around; it brings a smile to my face and lifts me up.

Smokers Galore

There are a lot of smokers in Barcelona. None inside public places like bars and restaurants, thank God, but plenty outside. The many cigarette vending machines display strict-looking signs about having to be over 18 to use them. In one bar I was in, the bartender actually had to flip a switch behind the bar to enable the cigarette machine across the room when someone wanted to use it. Roll-your-own seems popular, too. A pack costs €4.5 – 5 (around $5).

Nonetheless, smoking is still pretty ubiquitous, and the resulting butts are all over the place outside, too. Yuck.

Tabacs, basically tobacco product shops, are fairly common. And, there are what look like marijuana shops. But, is pot legal in Spain? Yes and No. This excellent article spells out the details and there are two pot shops on my block.

Seeds, anyone?

In fact, every time I get in the elevator in my building, the smell of dope is strong, and I often get a whiff on the street. Not that I know anything about that…

Barcelona also has its own Hash, Marijuana, and Hemp Museum which, I understand, is quite a tourist draw (I haven’t visited it, yet).