Friday, April 29, 2011

Locks Of Love (Paris)

No, I didn't cut my hair...yet...but I'm open to suggestion!

While walking across a bridge near Notre Dame in Paris, I couldn't help but notice that there were thousands upon thousands of locks attached to the railings. I didn't know why they were there but I snapped a bunch of pictures to remind me to look into it once I got back to Barcelona.

It turns out that it's a tradition believed to have originated in China where couples etch their initials/names onto a lock, attach it to some local landmark (such as a bridge), and then throw away the key (into the water). I didn't see any locks while at the Great Wall but apparently there are a lot of them in the Badaling area where I was and that this was one of the original locks of love locations. The couples who attach locks at the wall hope that their love will last as long as the Great Wall has. Awwww.... :-)

I saw locks on at least three bridges that crossed the Seine near Notre Dame and the Louvre. The ones in these photos are on the Pont de l'Archeveche:

The trend is mostly in Europe (here's some in Cologne, Germany)and Asia right now but there are some places in the United States such as on the Brooklyn Bridge. There's even a town in Nevada that hopes to use locks of love to promote tourism! I'm not sure that I'd head out to the northern part of nowhere Nevada to attach a lock but I love the sentiment and its representation.

(Chicken and egg question: Which came first? The charity by the same name or the name given to attaching these locks? Hmm...)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


Not Perris. Not Paris Hilton. Not even that casino in Las Vegas. Nope. The real in FRANCE!

I was here a few years ago during a work-related trip to France and had an amazing amazing amazing time so I jumped at the chance to come again. With my dad "in town" and with how much he loves all things about the European part of World War II history, I suggested that we head up to Paris and on to Normandy so he could check them out. He was game so we loaded up the fam and went to get our fill of French Fries, French Dressing, French Bread, and Peru!

Let me just start out by saying that Paris is everything that you've heard it is but better. It's an amazing city that you just absolutely must visit at least once in your life. I have a few different stories to post about the trip to France but this one's kinda' an overview of Paris and some cool photos that don't really fit into any other story such as this one of the Eiffel Tower during the day looking down a typical tree-lined street near Invalides:

Les Invalides is a building from the 1600s that used to be a hospital for for war veterans. It's a museum now but is probably best known as being where Napoleon is buried. This is a statue of Napoleon inside one of the courtyards of the hospital:

...and this is my dad doing his best Napoleon in front of the Arc de Triomphe:

Little did I know when we planned my dad's visit that pretty much every high school student in Europe would be doing a class trip. Everywhere was full of teenagers in heat large packs. The Arc de Triomphe was no exception. We didn't bother waiting in the long line to go up to the top but we did walk around and check it out up close for a while. The Arc was originally commissioned by Napoleon as a place to memorialize/celebrate his military victories. By the way, have I ever mentioned how much history you can see in such a small area as you can in Europe? It's very cool. Anyway, I didn't have a chance to visit the Arc during my last trip to Paris so I was happy to get some photos out in front while my dad was very happy imagining all the history that took place there.

In the (new) tradition of Darren-and-Dad photos, here's us in front of the Louvre, which I love to pronounce like "loo-ver":

...and in front of the Eiffel Tower:

Although Paris is always a beautiful city full of amazing architecture, the City of Light really "shines" at night. This is the view up the Champs-Elysees towards the Arc de Triomphe just after sunset:

We took one of the Seine River boat tours. I wasn't super excited to do it but it turned out fun and was full of nice views. This photo of the back of Notre Dame was taken from the boat and I like the random angle and the way the water looks:

Finally, probably one of the better photos that I've ever taken is this one from one of the bridges looking toward the Eiffel Tower just after sunset. Ahhhhh...Paris...

A special thanks to Ginny for all the planning that made for an amazing visit!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Books And Roses: La Diada De Sant Jordi

A celebration of the patron saint of Catalunya, La Diada de Sant Jordi (Saint George's day), took place this last Saturday. Dia de Sant Jordi feels similar to Valentine's in the U.S. since it's a day that couples celebrate and demonstrate their love for one another. I was at the Alhambra last year and was looking forward to being here for this year's celebration. It turns out that it was exceptionally well attended this year probably due to it falling on Saturday of the four-day Easter weekend. There are celebrations all over the city but the largest gathering takes place on La Rambla that runs through the middle of Barcelona.

To show their love, tradition dating back to at least the 15th century dictates that the couple give each other a rose. It is said that when Sant Jordi saved the princess by killing the dragon its blood turned to roses and the tradition comes from this. Today, it's men who give their woman a rose.

Like Valentine's day taking place on February 14th, Sant Jordi day is held each year on April 23rd. This date corresponds with the anniversary of the deaths of Shakespeare and Cervantes (author of Don Quixote). Recent tradition has a women giving her man a book. To meet demand, book vendors are set up all over La Rambla and some even feature signings by writers.

The Dia De La Rosa (Day of the Rose - another name for St. George's day) is another of many local events that are steeped in Catalan tradition. It's another chance for the residents of Catalunya to demonstrate their nationalist agenda. Booths are set up by groups to raise awareness and support for their political views. Actually, it seems that many of the booths, but especially the flower vendors, are raising money and/or awareness of something or other. I like that you can buy your flowers/books AND support a cause at the same time, even if it's something as non-political as the local rugby team.

Sant Jordi day is a neat tradition enjoyed by both lovers and whole families. I saw lots of parents buying their kids books and flowers/books for each other. Of course, what event would be complete without hanging out with "the gang"? Thanks for coming out to celebrate and walk La Rambla.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Seeing Barcelona With Dad

My last week has been lots of fun because my dad came to Barcelona for a visit! We mostly did stuff that I've done at one point or another before but I did have a few firsts...and a bunch of new photos with us at the local hot spots.

For example, I finally got to see the inside of the Barcelona cathedral. Unfortunately, I didn't get any photos of me and dad there but this is us in front of the the very cool Santa Maria Del Mar church:

The pope came to town last November to bless the Sagrada Familia, which I'm sure helped to speed up the ongoing construction a bit. It was nice to see the whole interior of the church basilica without the scaffolding. They've also removed lots of the exterior scaffolding too, which made for great photos out front of the Passion Facade:

...and over on the other side at the Nativity Facade:

My dad goes walking around his town pretty much everyday but I think I broke him more than once with all the walking we do here "over on the continent". For me, and I hope for him too, it's all worth it when you get to see things like this view from the fortress up on top of Mont Juic:

My dad did say a few times that one of the highlights of Barcelona (other than Diana's cooking) was the visit to La Pedrera where he got to learn all about Gaudi and see those awesome Star Wars-style water tanks and chimneys on the roof:

Part of the fun of having visitors come to town is that you get to do stuff that you don't normally do. It was nice to have the opportunity to see Casa Batllo again. Other than the Church at the Colonia Guell, Casa Battlo is probably my favorite Gaudi work. It's even better with dad in tow!

I had a ton of fun visiting other old faves like the Cafe de l'Opera and Sagardi. Even just buying coffee in the Gothic Quarter was fun.

Thanks for stopping by dad! I miss you already and can't wait to see you again!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Domingo De Ramos (Palm Sunday)

I went to a Domingo De Ramos (Palm Sunday) celebration last weekend at a local Catholic church here in Barcelona.

If you're like me and need to brush up on your Christian traditions, Palm Sunday celebrates Jesus' entry into Jerusalem in the days just prior to the Last Supper. From what I understand, people placed clothes and tree branches on the path for him to ride his donkey on. Today this is symbolized by the use of palm fronds (or other tree branches) for the ceremonies and processions that take place in front of the church. This is a photo of some members of the congregation that gathered outside of a local Barcelona church:

As with many traditions in Catalunya, Palm Sunday has been given a local touch. Palmas (for girls) and Palmones (for boys) are artistically-designed palm (for lack of a better description) sculptures given to the kids by their godparents. The Palmones look like sort of like a (shepherd's) staff and the Palmas are much more elaborate three-dimensional objects. I saw some that were highly decorated, such as with Barça logos or Hello Kitty, as well as covered with candy. These are some of the kids that were up on stage with their palms:

During the celebration, the palms are blessed and then taken into the church while everyone attends mass. They are later hung behind the door or on the balcony of the child's home for protection from harm.

I didn't go to the service inside the church but it was cool to get to see this slice of Barcelona life up close. Thanks to Pau for the inside scoop on the Palmas and Palmones. If you'd like to see some more examples, check out

Thursday, April 14, 2011

IKEA Furniture Testing With Pau

When I left Barcelona last year to go to visit China, Philadelphia, Colombia, and California, there were three of us living in the apartment here in Vall d'Hebron. A fourth roommate moved in so now that I'm back, there's that much less space. It's not that it's bad, just that we need to be super efficient with the space we've got. What's a boy to do when he needs to get organized? Head to the local IKEA, that's what!!!

(Quiz: Why is the word IKEA in all capital letters? Answer below.)

Just like apartment dwellers in every country in the world (or at least in the 38 or so that IKEA has stores in) who feel compelled to buy home furnishings that come disassembled in a box, I decided to head to IKEA to pick up just what I needed. Before I left, I made a quick call to my friend Pau to see if he wanted to join me and he was game.

There are two IKEAs in the Barcelona area, one's in the south part of the city by the airport (L'Hospitalet) and another to the north (Badalona). Pau thought that the Badalona location was easier to get to and better so we went there. The Badalona IKEA has underground parking but otherwise it looks just like every other IKEA I've ever seen including those in Japan and China; they're huge industrial-looking buildings that are blue and yellow just like the Swedish flag. Once inside the front door, this one's the same too right down to the ball room for the kids as well as the yellow shopping bags.

If you look closely in these photos, all the signs are in Catalan. I guess I had assumed everything would be in Spanish but was pleasantly surprised to see that IKEA had taken the time and expense to translate everything into a "local" language that's probably only used in two or three of their stores. I think it's super cool that they'd take the time to cater to a hyper-local market like that. Nice.

So what else was memorable? Well, about half way through the showroom part of the store there's a cafe that you can stop and get a snack. They've got the classic Swedish meatballs, Lingonberry cake, coffee, and miscellaneous other stuff. Well, surprise, surprise! Pau had some sort of discount card where he gets free coffee on each visit while I had to pay 0.80 Euros for my coffee. I was a little sad until I saw that REFILLS WERE FREE! I could go back to the automatic espresso-based coffee machine until I had the shakes if I wanted to. In this photo, you can see my coffee cup waiting for its next couple of shots:

Once Pau and I were sufficiently jacked-up on IKEA coffee, we charged off to get to one of the purposes of our visit. Pau and Pili (his lovely wife) live in a very nice apartment that, like lots of the apartments in Europe, is the size of your bathroom and they need more space. One of the options they're considering is to raise their bed up high and use the newly opened area for a work space. Not being a fearful chap (and possibly unable to read the sign that was in Catalan) he jumped right up and got to testing the raised beds. Here's Pau in action:

We didn't have much luck on the bed front because I believe that they're really designed for kids and only one at that. Pili and Pau both are fit but I don't think that they want to wake up by falling to the floor when the bed collapses one night.

With bed testing behind us, we finished walking through the showroom and headed down to the warehouse area where I got to testing the storage capacity of different cabinets. This one might just fit but, even on sale, 169 Euros seems a bit high to me.

Even though we didn't end up buying any furniture that we tested, the trip was a success because I picked up a new frying pan, a set of shower shelves, two new pairs of 2 Euro slippers, a set of fluorescent light bulbs, and some other odds and ends.

Thanks to Pau for the fun day. I enjoyed our furniture-testing trip to IKEA, the stop at the overlook of the city (don't worry Pili, we didn't make out), and our drinks at the local watering hole later that night. Swedish furniture, Catalan company, and Irish whiskey make for a great day!

Quiz answer: IKEA is an acronym for the name of the founder (Ingvar Kamprad), the farm name (Elmtaryd), and village (Agunnaryd) where he grew up .

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Spain Improved: Now Non-Smoking!

Especially after living in California for the last 20 years, I had forgotten how much the rest of the world smoked. California is exceptional, I know, because not many people there smoke and as you move east and south in the U.S., the percentage gets higher. It isn't until you go overseas to places like Japan and China (where it seems that everyone is smoking) that you realize how good non-smokers in California have it.

Lots of people here in Spain smoke. I'd guess that the percentage is way higher than in Philadelphia but way lower than in Asia. In the past, after getting home from a night out at a restaurant or bar with friends here I'd want to burn my clothes because they'd smell so bad from all the smoke. It took some getting used to because even in Philadelphia people can't smoke in public places like restaurants. Well, that's all changed now. Since January 2nd of this year, many public places are now smoke-free!

Signs with ¨Espai lliure de fum¨, which is Catalan for ¨This space is smoke-free¨ are posted all over town now.

I have to be honest that I didn't even notice during my first night out at a restaurant. I had just gotten back from California and never even thought about it. It wasn't until I was going out for drinks with Pau to a local watering hole and I saw smokers crowded outside lighting up that it ocurred to me. Once inside, amazingly, the air was pure...or at least as pure as a smoke-free bar can be!

I'm sure that, just like when they changed the laws in the U.S., all the businesses are complaining that they'll lose money and the smokers are crying about ¨lost rights¨and whatnot. For me, though, it sure is nice that everything in Spain is non-smoking now. Spain, now new and improved...non-smoking! Just another reason to love it!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Welcome Back To Barcelona And Early Birthday Party

I've been in Barcelona for two weeks but haven't had a chance to write any new stories yet. Up to now, I was catching up on the last of the California stories and working (if you can believe it). Well, welcome back to Barcelona with me!

The trip back involved a close-call, weather-related delay getting into San Francisco from San Diego but the flights from SFO and FRA (Frankfurt) ended up being uneventful. Unfortuneately, I didn't get much sleep so I was really tired once I got in. Let me say, it's nice to be back here. Barcelona is, as you probably already know, a pretty amazing city and it's good to see my friends from here again.

On the Friday night after getting back, we had an Asian-themed Welcome-Back-T0-Barcelona and Early-Happy-Birthday get together at the apartment in Vall d'Hebron. Victor somehow found and brought sushi and Andrea and David hand made some too. Pili and Marcos can be seen enjoying some of the feast in this photo:

We ate a light dinner of Diana's "Asian Pasta" and Gyoza that Pili and Pau brought. It was all really delish. We broke out the bottle of Pinot Noir that I brought back from California and drank it and a bunch of bottles of Cava and wine that everyone brought with them. Yummy--lot's of treats!!! During the party, I was given an ice-cream birthday cake and a remote-control helicopter as a gift:

It was a great time with a bunch of great friends. Thanks to the team for the food, drinks, gifts, and the lovely welcome back (clockwise from next to the TV): David, Leiris, Pili, Gema, Andrea, Pau, me, Victor, Liliana, Elizabeth, Vladmir, David, Nadia, Marcos, and Dianita:

(Side note: the group in the photo above is made up of people originally from six different countries. Kinda' cool.)

Monday, April 4, 2011

Abierto's? Pectopah? Rebaixes? Roberto's!!!

Although basically the last story from my most recent visit to San Diego, this one's more about an idea that I've wanted to write about for a while. It wasn't until I went to get dinner one night at my all-time favorite Mexican-food take-out place, Roberto's, that it finally hit me that I needed to write the story.

Imagine for a moment that you're in another country where you don't know the language. Pretty much every business that you walk by has signs in the window but you don't know what they mean. For example, if you're in a mall in the U.S. you'll see the word "Sale" in the windows of almost all of the stores. Well, what if you didn't understand what "Sale" meant? Here's a photo that I took in Barcelona of a shoe store that has signs saying "Rebaixes" (ree-buy-shazz) in the windows:

Rebaixes means "Sale" in Catalan. Like the Sale sign in the U.S., it's in almost every store window you go by. These examples lead to a story that is apparently somewhat common. A friend of a friend (who I actually know) was telling another friend about his favorite Mexican restaurant in San Diego. He described the area, the building, how to get there, all about the food, and he even gave the name: "Abierto's". "You can't miss it", he said.

(Note: If you're not from San Diego you'll need some background. Almost every fast-food Mexican place in San Diego has a name with some variation of someone's name with "-berto's" at the end. For example, Roberto's, Adalberto's, and so on. It's pretty much a running joke to use -berto at the end of every place's name. See the somewhat hard to read sign out in front of my favorite "Ro"berto's for an example.)

It turns out that our Mexican-food-loving friend was reading the sign in the window that said "Abierto", which means "Open" in Spanish. He didn't actually know the name of the place; he just knew it as "Abierto's". It'd be like calling the Barcelona shoe store "Rebaixe's" if you were describing it. The story was good for many laughs for years and years and years.

Welcome to Roberto's #13, Oceanside, California. Don't let the mild-mannered decor throw you.

So you don't think this type of mistake is limited to silly surfer dudes, the same thing happened to a good friend of mine from my grad-school days. She's super smart and works in the movie industry scouting locations and being on scene during shoots. It involves lots of traveling and getting to hang out with famous's a verrrrry cool Hollywood job and she loves it.

While shooting a movie in Moscow last summer, she had gone to a great restaurant that wasn't too far away from where the crew was working. Some friends wanted to go but she didn't have an address to give them so she told them how to get there. "Go two Metro stops, change lines, go two more stops, go around the corner, down an alley, down a smaller alley by a mural on the wall, up some stone steps, and you'll come to the place. It's called Pectopah." Unfortunately for the friends, "Pectopah" means "restaurant" in Russian. I agree with her that a map might have been easier...

Like I mentioned, my favorite Mexican fast-food pectopah is Roberto's. They're abierto 24 hours a day seven days a week and they don't need rebaixes because their food is already really inexpensive. More importantly, their food is amazing. I sometimes have dreams about their carne asada burritos, refried beans, and delish salsa. Yummmmmmy...the taste of paradise!

Goodbye California. I miss everyone very much already. See you soon! Oh, and if you get a chance, have a margarita for me.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Creativity...And Good Food Too!

My first job out of graduate school was at a company that made helmets for riding bicycles and horses. It was a great experience for me because I learned all about product design, manufacturing, and testing while there. Some of the good stuff was that it was casual, we got to ride our mountain bikes on the nearby hills during lunch, and the people who worked there were a diverse and interesting group.

One of those folks was a guy named John who worked in R&D helping with product design, building prototypes, and basically solving problems. John was one of the guys who went on our almost-daily bike rides; he was one of the "fun ones". Over the years I lost touch with him but, through the magic of Facebook, we got back in touch this past year. We wrote to each other a few times and decided that we needed to get together sometime. Finally, about two weeks ago, I headed out to the east side of San Diego to have dinner and catch up with him.

What I remembered about John was that he had a variety of different interests. For example, I knew that he liked to go out to the desert to ride off-road vehicles and that he liked to build "stuff" at his house. Wow. Before my visit, I couldn't even have imagined what I'd find. John's an impressive guy and what you might call somewhat of a mad scientist. He's got a handful of patents for a variety of different products such as this completely weather resistant and flexible solar panel that can be used anywhere power is needed and can be connected with one quick connection:

Yeah, okay, so it turns out that the guy is smart. Lots of people are. So what? Why does this story get anything more than a "I-went-to-dinner" mention in the blog? Well, see, it's not just John who's got the creative gene. Actually, it's the whole family. John's house is like a research and development lab that just happens to have things like beds, a dining room table, and a couch. It's not to say the house isn't nice; they're currently remodeling the whole thing and it seems to be turning out great. No, what I'm talking about is that the whole family is way too smart and creative...and they make great food and serve fantastic wine!!! As an example of one of the current things they're doing, this is a family-tree project that John's wife's working on in the dining room:

John explores lots of ideas for himself but he earns a living doing projects for lots of other people and companies. Everywhere you go with him in the house, he can show you cool things that he's worked on or is working on. When he gets into something, like decorating for Halloween for example, he doesn't just run out to Target to pick up any old thing. Nope. He showed me this eerie head that he made a bunch of to decorate the front of his house. It's not completely clear in the photo but as you move past the head from side to side, it looks like it's following you. It's creeeeeeepy!

As I mentioned, it's not just John and his wife that "have the bug"...they've handed it down to their kids too. Here's a photo of one son's chemistry lab, which also doubles as a laundry room, where he makes his own rockets and rocket fuel. He then goes out to the desert to launch the rockets and other "vehicles". They've even shown up on a Discovery-channel-style TV show!

It was fun to catch up with John and his family again. Unfortunately, it made me feel less smart than I did before (how can I compete?!?) but it did motivate me to pursue some business ideas that I've had floating around in my head. Thanks to John and his family for having me out to the house. I had a great time and can't wait to do it again soon. John's son Tyler had left for the night before I had a chance to take photos with everyone so here's me with John, his wife Leah, and J.P., one of their two sons: