Sunday, June 19, 2016

2016 Nike Barcelona SLS Skateboard Contest

When I was maybe eight or nine years old, I started getting seriously into bicycle riding. It started out innocently with a BMX bike that my parents gave me and, over the years, moved into more and more higher-end bikes and got to the point where I spent almost every waking hour when I wasn't in school or working riding with friends. To pay for my addiction, I started peddling (ha - punny!) newspapers when I was ten and later other jobs included selling, doing repairs, and so on in bike and skateboard shops.

My biking "career" spanned the last couple of years of grade school, through high school, and even some time at university. A lot of it was racing BMX but, by the time I was in 10th grade, our group of friends started "doing freestyle", which was stunt riding on BMX bikes. It was right around then that we also got into skateboarding. Some of the same spots that were good for freestyle lent (and still do lend) themselves nicely to skateboarding. Plus, when it rained or snowed, the bikes stayed home; we were limited to skateboarding in Center City Philadelphia parking structures.

About half way through university, a friend from high school moved to San Diego to work in the skateboard industry. I went to visit him for a week or so one summer and, within a couple of hours of landing in Los Angeles, I was hooked. Right after university, I was off to California where I spent the next 19 years. The whole time I was surrounded by friends who worked in the skateboarding, snowboarding, and surfing industries. I was even lucky to work in the bicycle and snowboard industries for a while.

One those friends, John John, who managed what so many dream of doing - turn a love (of action sports) into an amazing job and lifestyle, recently messaged asking if I'd be around as he could get me tickets to the Nike Street League Skateboarding Pro Open contest.

I told John John that, of course, we'd love to go! When the day arrived, Diana and I took the train to the Skate Agora skatepark in Badalona, which is the next town north of Barcelona. We grabbed our V.I.P. bracelets and set in to enjoy watching pro skaters from around the world compete on the newish, well-designed, beach-side park.

Since moving away from California, I've only been marginally aware of the industry and sports that occupied such a majority of my time on this planet. Barcelona has its own (fairly big) skateboarding scene, the mountains are close, and you'll even see the occasional surfer at the beach but it's just not the same intensity as it was in Oceanside. It was nice to be back in the mix, even if just as an observer.

Thanks for the tickets John John! We had a great time (vicariously) reliving my youth. Maybe when you and the family come for a visit, we can roll around the park for a bit!

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Edinburgh Scotland

Never saying no to an opportunity, Diana and I were lucky enough to take a surprise, last-minute weekend trip to Edinburgh, Scotland:

The trip was almost exactly ten years since my last visit. Back then, pre-whereisdarrennow, I spent a couple of days in Glasgow, maybe four or five days driving up to Inverness and then back down to Edinburgh for a couple of more days. Here's a shot of me (with my hair just starting to grow out!) looking for Nessie at Loch Ness:

Being that it had been ten years, I couldn't remember exactly what Edinburgh was like. I think it was partially due to having visited Glasgow, Inverness, Edinburgh, as well as a few other towns along the way, which made them all kinda' run together. But, once we arrived and were walking around, many details came back.

The Edinburgh castle as seen from the King's Stables area:

We arrived in time for a late-afternoon pub lunch, which consisted of some kind of meat pie, mashed potatoes, and, of course, gravy. I'm generally a wine drinker but, when visiting England or Ireland, I like trying the different ciders. Sometimes they're really good and other times they're waaaay too sweet. It wasn't until going to this pub that I learned that there are different sweetness levels and that I could ask for a "dry" cider. Yummy food, yummy company, AND yummy cider!

We spent the next six or seven hours walking around town. Even after living in Europe for over six years, I'm still impressed by the architecture and walkability. Yes, I know that U.S. cities like Philadelphia, Boston, and New York can be similar but there's just something about buildings and places that have been continuously inhabited for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

I'm guessing that demographics and culture are changing in Scotland like they are in the United States. Near where I grew up, some churches and catholic schools are closing down due to a lack of local parishioners including my grade school. Walking around Edinburgh, we came across churches that had been repurposed into museums, theaters, restaurants, and even night clubs. I've always wanted to live in an old firehouse including being able to go downstairs in the morning using the pole but I had never considered an old church before now!

We walked up to the castle to take in the city view. Looking out towards the Salisbury Crags (the hill off in the distance - more below), I remembered this scene very well from my last trip.

It was fairly late in the day by the time we reached the castle so we decided it wasn't worth it to go in for only an hour. Plus, I had done it before...gotta' love that hair!

On our way back to the apartment, we stopped to take some professional portraits overlooking the city:

...and mine (Diana's definitely a better photographer!)...

Okay, so a bit of a random digression. Why is it that if you try to use "Scottish" pounds in a London shop do they look at you like the money is fake but when using "English" pounds in Scotland it's no problem?

In the photo below, you'll see two ten-pound and two five-pound notes. The middle two were issued by the Bank of England, the top one by Clydesdale Bank (a Scottish bank), and the bottom by the Bank of Scotland. Regardless of where the money is issued, it's worth the same; a ten-pound note is always worth ten pounds, or at least I'm told. I just know that I'll probably have trouble trying to use my leftover "Scottish" money during my next trip to England.

One last thing; if you look at the two middle notes, both have similar (the same?) picture of the queen. But, and it's probably just me or maybe even the fact that the five-pound note is more wrinkled, the queen on the five appears to be pensively looking out to her right while the one on the ten-pound note seems to be looking at us with an almost sexy stare!

Our second day in town started with me eating a Full English, which is like a U.K. breakfast Bandeja Paisa. As with its cousin from Colombia, there are eggs, sausages, (baked) beans, ham (bacon), fried mushrooms, toast, and white and (my favorite) black pudding. All that and a cup-o-Joe and you're all set for a good day. Yummy!

Our big bust out for the trip was taking the Underground City tour, where you go below what is now the city chambers to see old dwellings. When the building was built, they removed the top floors of housing and left the bottom few floors as foundation.

They do a great job of setting the scene for what life was like in the city during the late middle ages. The housing of the era could be up to maybe nine floors with the distance between facades of maybe five feet apart. There was very little light that got to the bottom floors where the poorest people lived in their tiny, low-ceiling, one-room dwellings.

I'd imagine it was quite lovely walking down Mary King's Close (the name of the street below) especially considering the residents would dispose of their waste, including human, out their front windows twice a day. There was no sewer system to speak of, other than the rain - bombs away!!!

Apart from the thought of the "black rain", the guide told us about how the plague impacted the city. Much like Barcelona and other European cities, the flea-borne disease decimated the local population.

Many cities had doctors who would go out among the victims to try to help them and to also provide accurate counts of the dead. These "plague doctors" wore heavy garments and masks as protection from the evil spirits that brought the disease. The masks sometimes looked like a bird's beaks due to their long "nose" where the doctors would place herbs and other aromatic materials. It's now believed that these heavy garments provided some protection from flea bites, which helped them to not (always) get sick.

I took a photo of the Doctor Rae exhibit (Edinburgh's famous plague doctor) in one of the rooms where people used to live. I'm not sure what happened but the LED lighting must have confused my camera resulting in this unretouched photo, which I really like!

After the tour, we walked the rest of the way down the Royal Mile with a plan to hike up to the top of the Salisbury Crags, which is a large hill and rock formation in the center of town.

We stopped for a bit to enjoy the views and to watch some kids playing in a fountain. I laughed because it was maybe 60 degrees (15 C) and the kids were in shorts, some with shirts, and all having a fun time splashing around. The reason why I found it funny was because in Barcelona when it's that temperature parents have their kids (and most likely themselves) bundled up in winter clothes and would never imagine their kids playing in water at that temperature. But, much like when we lived in Germany, a 60 degree day is summer in northern Europe!

The Crags are lovely natural backdrop to the city and offer a 360-degree view of the whole Edinburgh area. It took us about an hour to make it to the top and we hung out and enjoyed the city and water views for another 30 minutes or so.

We were super lucky that the weather was great while we were in town. Locals told me that it was 16 days straight without rain, which ended the last morning we were in town, when it rained lightly.

Diana and I had a great time and really enjoyed the city and, of course, the food! A special shout out to some friends who made our last evening in town extra special with a nice dinner out. Thanks for the fun Scotland!

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Fez Morocco

After spending a couple of days in Marrakesh, we took an early morning train up to Fez. The train left about 6:30 am and took almost seven hours with about 20-plus stops including Casablanca. Unfortunately, our plan didn't include any time there as it's definitely one of those places I've heard about and would have liked to see. Maybe next time?

Seven hours in a train, especially one in Morocco, could understandably be a bit intimidating. We were wise enough to cough up the cash for first-class seats, which were set in small, semi-private compartments each with six seats. I partially expected it to be like that scene in Trading Places with Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd. Well, it wasn't quite that nice. I think my favorite part was the bathroom where you could watch the ground pass by the bottom of the toilet. Yes, for real. But, they did have a guy who came by regularly with coffee and snacks, which, along with the fabulous views, made it a surprisingly nice trip overall.

After we arrived in Fez, I got to experience the Moroccan three-taxi intercity transport system. This involved taking a "small" (local) taxi from the Fez train station to another taxi station slightly away from the center of town where we got into a larger long-distance taxi. This one took us to the outskirts of Adil's hometown, Sefrou, where we caught another small taxi to his folks' house.

The two local taxi rides were each about ten minutes and the long one was well over 30 minutes. I don't remember what we paid for the long ride, which was in a well-traveled 30+ year-old diesel Mercedes, but it cost surprisingly little. A bonus was that all of the taxi drivers we had, with the exception of one, drove conservatively enough where I didn't fear for my life. Actually, it was a lot less scary than that but I had expected the worst. I still wonder if Adil preemptively said anything to the drivers...

One of the long-distance taxi stations:

We arrived at Adil's family's house and immediately settled in. His mom and dad were super gracious and welcomed our what seemed now like an exceptionally large group. Adil's mom had tea and snacks ready and we spent some time getting to know each other.

After a bit, Adil, Adil's brother, who lives in Italy and also happened to be in town. their sister, and the rest of our pack walked to the old walled Sefrou medina stopping off along the way to get more tea and coffee at an outdoor cafe. I kinda' liked the French-inspired stop-at-a-cafe culture in Morocco!

One of the entrances to the Sefrou medina:

Compared with Marrakesh and Fez, each with around a million people, Sefrou was a village. Adil's hometown feels like a suburb with working families going about their daily activities. I'd imagine lots of folks make the trip into Fez every morning so "their kids can grow up in a family-friendly area" - yeah, just like wherever you're reading this from. Sefrou's probably not on the Marrakesh-Casablanca-Fez-etc. tourist trail, which made it a nice contrast to what we had already experienced.

Around 9 pm in one of the plazas in the Sefrou medina:

When we got back to Adil's house that evening, his mom had prepared a way-to-big and way-too-delicious feast for us. I'm not sure anyone was hungry when we got there and I can assure you that we were all stuffed by bedtime! Ladhidh! (Yummy in Arabic.)

The next morning, after another incredible homemade meal (I could get used to this!), we did the three-taxi trip back to Fez to check out the medina, which seemed every bit as giant as the one in Marrakesh.

Can I just say again how much I loved all the cafes and what a view!

Some of our group with Adil's brother just about to enter through one of the gates:

It was relatively quiet when we went and kinda' felt like a recovery day or something in that people seemed to be taking it easy.

Some local kids hanging out:

Taking advantage of the bright colors for a (not my) family photo.

Another random Fez medina street scene:

If you're like me, you've probably been wondering about the hat. Before the trip, I was curious if I'd see anyone actually wearing a fez in Fez. And, really, what the heck is a fez anyway?

Let's get it out of the way, yes, I did see people wearing fezzes like the man at the bottom of the photo above and on the coppersmith in the photo below.

I learned that the fez served (and may still) as a sort of wearable anti-French nationalist symbol in Morocco. The felt-covered hat, which I read is a "modernized" turban, was being worn mostly by older men. I don't remember seeing any on younger folks although, at a higher-end fez shop we passed, there were three 20-something guys waiting for the fez maker to finish sizing a fez for one of them.

Where is Darren now? Wearing a fez in Fez, of course!

Beyond its namesake hat, Fez is also known as a place where you can buy inexpensive leather goods. There are both processing and manufacturing facilities located inside the medina. These active preparation and dying vats seen from the roof of a leather shop are one of, if not the iconic image of Fez.

A random photo - we briefly followed these three donkeys carrying construction supplies (bricks and bags of cement) through the medina.

A big ole' shukraan (thank you) to Adil, his family, and especially his mom and dad for having us (all!). You and your home were warm and welcoming, the food was beyond delicious, and the experience is something we'll never forget! We can't wait for you to visit Barcelona so we can repay the favor!

A bit of a postscript to this story. Adil's family owns some farmland not far from Sefrou where they grow olives and make olive oil. His mom served some alongside every meal and, like the homemade wine we had while in Cabra del Camp, I couldn't get over how fresh, light, and delicious it was. I was afraid that I was going overboard repeatedly telling her how amazing it was and how much I loved it.

Well, my being impressed with their oil must have made an impression on Adil's mom and dad because, about a week later, when Adil's brother was in Barcelona on his way back to Italy, he gave Diana and me a liter bottle of oil that their mom had sent us. Can. I. Just. Say. How. Amazing. It. Is? Thanks again for making our Moroccan visit to continue back in Barcelona!