Sunday, September 14, 2014

2014 Festa Major de Gracia

Late summer means vacation time!!!

Most countries in Europe require employers by law to provide vacation, in most cases four or five weeks(!). Back in the good-ole' U.S. of A., there's no mandated vacation time. For the most part, if you get two weeks vacation you count yourself lucky as something like 25% of employees get none.

Having grown up and worked in the United States for many years, I'm still confused when it comes to Euro vacations. Although Diana and I live in the center with its daily throngs of tourists, a lot of Barcelona is closed for a big part of August. Signs like this one (Closed For Vacation From the 15th to the 31st of August and Closed Saturdays in August) are on so many businesses you'd be amazed. I've even seen signs like this on places Americans would never imagine like car dealerships.

Even though a lot's closed, there's still tons for the tourists to do. For locals, not so much. One of the major exceptions is the Festa Major de Gracia (Gracia Festival), which takes place for about a week each year in mid-to-late August.

Almost every neighborhood in Barcelona has its own festival at some point during the year. They're kinda' like a big block party (and cultural celebration) but in the case of Gracia, the party's spread over more-than 160 square blocks!

Although some tourists find their way to these festivals, they tend to dominated by locals. Food and drink are everywhere and many of the streets and plazas are decorated according to a theme that's chosen by each block's residents. The plaza below had an Asian-inspired theme and, the evening we were there, they were having a wine-tasting festival. Woo-hoo!

The crowds on hand in Gracia are surprising when compared to the relative-emptiness of many other neighborhoods. It's nice to be able to get out, meet up with friends, get some food and drink, see the decorations, and watch a couple of bands play.

Diana and I lucked out and were able to do a guided tour of one of Barcelona's left-over Spanish-civil-war-era bomb shelters located below Gracia's Placa Diamant.

These shelters were built in the late 1930s to protect locals during air raids. When the sirens would sound, anyone who had paid their monthly membership fee (yes, membership has its privileges) hid out in the shelters around 50 feet below ground. The guide told us that residents were prohibited from bringing food or drink into the shelters during raids. Apparently this was a big cause of issues between residents. The shelters are austere but functional and definitely worth a visit if you get the chance.

Of course there's bragging rights to be had. Each year, the neighborhood association awards prizes to the different blocks based on things like theme, creativity, execution, and so on. The winning street this year was Carrer Progres with their zombie theme:

So marks the end of lazy summer afternoons, beach days, and sunburns. For most of the world it's back to work and school. But, don't despair, most Europeans still have one or two weeks of vacation to use up before the end of the year! :-)

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Soria Spain

Sometimes life gets in the way. Or at least it feels that way when you wonder what took so long to get around to something you've been wanting to do.

Diana and I have been wanting visit Paco and Alicia for a couple of years. Well, actually, it's been almost exactly two years as their daughter just turned two and we hadn't yet met her. How's that possible?

It was finally time. They were spending the summer in Paco's hometown of Soria and wanted us to come. We picked a good weekend, rented a car for the trip, and started making plans.

When I asked a friend about the best route to Soria he responded "You're going to see the painting, right?" I had no idea what he was talking about but I could sense from his posture and tone that it must be important. "Yes, the painting" he said again almost starting to do that laughing-crying thing like when you tell a joke and start to laugh uncontrollably when you get to the punchline. "You have to go. We've been trying to see it and it's been closed every time."

What the heck? Finally, between giggles, he googled "Ecce Homo" and showed me the first image result. It was a painting that looked sort of half-man, half-monkey. I knew it somehow. I was drawn to it.

You may know it too but, if not, it's a painting on a church wall in tiny Borja, Spain, which is located about 230 miles (370 km) from Barcelona and right on the way to Soria. The painting wasn't anything to write home about until a local 80-year-old woman took it upon herself to "restore" it in 2012. The results became, for some reason no one can explain, an internet sensation. She had transformed Ecce Homo (Behold the Man) into Ecce Mono (Behold the Monkey)!

I can imagine poor Cecilia Gemenez had the best of intentions when she went to work. Understandably, the people responsible for the church were pissed. They even considered getting someone to re-restore the painting but, before they could, the internet got a hold of it and people started showing up. Lots of them. If you look at the photo below, you'll see maps on the wall with thousands of toothpick-flags with the visitors' names and hometowns.

Yes, Cecilia managed to put Borja and its Santuario de Misericordia on the map. A modern-day pilgrimage site. The town's turned proud and the church even put up a glass panel to protect (?) the painting! Thank you so much Pablo for telling me. I would have missed it for sure.

Oh, wait, this story's supposed to be about Soria and Paco and Alicia and Violeta. I wrote about Paco and Alicia (pre-Violeta) when we visited them in Aranjuez back in 2010 and they were nice enough to come to the wedding but it had still been way too long. Looking back on that trip, I fondly remember their love of conversation, good food, and nice wine. Well, it didn't take long to rekindle those memories.

Within about 30 minutes of our arrival, we were already on our way to one of their favorite restaurants to have an amazing Sorian lunch. When I told friends about our plans to go to Soria, every single one of them said "the food's really good there". I can now confirm this to be true. We enjoyed many good meals with these guys.

Soria's a small town located about half way between Pamplona and Madrid in north-central Spain. It's not too far from the Monastario de Piedra where Diana and I went back in January. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of the small towns near Stuttgart, like Tübingen for example, that we enjoyed so much. It sits along the Duero river, which begins nearby, and is at a surprisingly high 3,500 foot elevation. I hadn't even bothered to look at the weather before we went and ended up feeling cold at times with its dry ~60 degree temperatures, which was a nice break from hot-and-humid Barcelona.

One of the small plazas in central Soria:

Although an entire vacation of good food, good wine, and good company sounds pretty, well, good to me, Paco and Alicia had planned a bunch of activities for us including taking us to search for the creature from the Laguna Negra (Black Lagoon). Unfortunately, we didn't see him but we enjoyed being out in the scenic natural setting.

We also explored Calatanazor, which is a medieval-style village built on top of a village-sized rock.

It reminded me of Garrigas near the Costa Brava. If you're interested living here, this fixer is available. My friend Jim, who's an agent, says real estate's all about location, which must be true in this case.

Near the center of the village, I saw this pole and went over to find out what it was. There was a small sign that said it was called a "rollo" (roy-yo). What I, at first, thought was some sort of religious art turned out to be a punishment pole. When someone in the village did something bad, they were tied to the rollo. Suddenly, I remembered the Spanish expression "todo es un rollo" (everything is a rollo), which is used like we use "pain in the ass" in English. I couldn't stop laughing at finding out what the expression was based on.

Diana outstanding in her field across the road from Calatanazor:

And, again, enjoying what's good in life:

A couple random notes from the trip.

Lots of cars in Spain have stickers showing where the owner's from. In Catalunya, it's a donkey. In Madrid, oftentimes it's an Osborne bull. In Soria, it's Numantian horse, which represents hard-fought freedom for the Sorians. Back in 134 B.C., villagers from Numancia put up a heck of a fight against 30,000 soldiers from the mighty Roman empire. After an eight-month siege, the villagers decided it would be better to die than surrender and almost the entire town killed themselves. It's a very similar to Masada in Israel.

If you look up while you're in Soria, you'll often see giant bird's nests topping many tall buildings. These wooden marvels are the work of the local stork population. The town not only tolerates the nests, they celebrate their neighbors by helping secure them in place if they start to shift. It's tough to tell from this photo but the nests are probably three feet (1m) tall and are quite the architectural marvel.

Finally, on our last day in town, there was kids' festival where large, costumed characters with giant heads chased children through the streets and beat them with balls tied to strings. Yes, you read that correctly. What might get you arrested in many places was a popular event in Soria. Hmm...I can imagine the marketing for this. Come to Soria for the food. Stay for the beatings.

Thanks to Paco and Alicia for the fantastic weekend. And an extra-big thank you and hug to Violeta for teaching me the differences between goat and cow cheese. Next time we meet up I'm counting on learning the difference between torrezno and chicharron. Oh, and when you're old enough, the different wines too.

We can't wait to see you again. We promise life won't get in the way!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Going Down The Shore

Philadelphia's somewhat unique in that it has four distinct, three-month-long seasons. Winter, spring, summer, and fall are all very different and generally last (at least back when I was young) right around three months each. I never noticed it until I moved away to California, where we said that there are also four seasons, shorts-and-a-sweatshirt (winter), shorts-and-a-long-sleeved-shirt (fall and spring), and shorts-and-a-short-sleeved-shirt (summer).

My dad's been pushing Diana and I to come during the summer as she's only been there for Thanksgiving and Christmas and he really wanted us to spend some time at his place in nearby Wildwood, New Jersey. Well, not wanting to let my dad down, Diana and found ourselves visiting Philadelphia recently so she could enjoy the summertime splendor of the Delaware Valley.

The Philadelphia airport's international-arrivals hall (there's a Dunkin' Donuts there too, which also would have provided a nice backdrop):

Before I write more, I have to say that, once I got back home after the trip, I was sad to realize how few pictures I had taken. Thinking back about it, most of the time during this trip was with family doing family-type visiting that didn't lend itself to taking photos. I'm bummed that I didn't though and, next time, I will (that's a promise and a threat). So, to everyone who doesn't appear in this story, I'll try harder next time.

Anyway, most of our time was spent visiting with family, eating, shopping, eating again, going to the shore, eating, and maybe a couple of other non-eating things I can't remember right now.

Hanging out with a couple nieces and a nephew at a family pool party:

A big part of the reason we were there was so that Diana could experience a piece of my childhood summers by going to my dad's place down the shore. The shore is what Philadelphia folks call the southern New Jersey beaches where they spend summer months. I've written about Wildwood before so I'll skip lots of the details.

But, definitely the highlight of our time there was the chance meeting of a bunch of family and family friends. I'm especially bummed I don't have any photos from this fun couple of evenings catching up with folks I haven't seen for awhile, in some cases, for maybe ten years or more.

Of course, we did a couple of beach days and other classic summer activities like the afternoon we spent checking out the boardwalk and its amusement piers:

My dad, Ginny, and Diana riding the log flume ride:

...and Diana and I on one of the roller coasters (I took a photo a lot like this one with me and my dad, which is still one of my favorite photos of us):

Of course no visit to Wildwood would be complete without overeating boardwalk food, which we did, and riding the Tramcar (watch the Tramcar please):

And, further confirming Diana's belief that all people in the United States do is drive and eat, eating breakfast at a local breakfast hot spot, which we drove to:

I love going to the U.S. with Diana. There are so many things that people/I/we take for granted in that there are just soooo stereo typically American that we don't even know it. Stuff like our giant houses, giant cars, giant streets, giant coffees, giant meals, and so on are things that the rest of the world notices while watching our television shows and movies. I have to say that I've been away long enough where things like Super Big Gulps do look pretty ridiculous.

During a couple of summers while at university, I drove an ice cream truck. It was a tough job as I had to work seven days a week and it was verrry hot, but I was my own boss and I was out and about. Diana's always kinda' laughed at it because they didn't have ice cream trucks in Colombia (although they do have coffee carts!) and it's something she's only seen in movies or on TV. While going back to my dad's house one day I spied a truck making the rounds so we stopped.

Diana enjoying her first from-the-ice-cream-truck ice cream cone:

A random bit of Americana that jumps out at me now:

Finally, my sister's family was camping for part of the time we were in town so there was no way we could miss out on the scene and making S'mores over the evening fire.

Diana checking out a game of Washers at a combo RV-and-tent camping place in south-central New Jersey:

Thanks dad for the great trip home. Getting to see everyone was a bonus and makes me miss home more every day. Until next time, when I'll take more photos, we'll miss everyone!