Thursday, December 22, 2011

Rudolph The Redneck Reindeer Music Show

Christmas at home this year! It's nice to be back with family after having not been in Philadelphia for the last two Christmases (last year was Colombia and two years ago was Japan). All the old traditions are looking so good! Eggnog anyone?

And, what better way is there to celebrate both the season AND being back in the good ole' U. S. of A.? How about some Bluegrass and Country Christmas music? It's this slice of Americana that my dad had in mind when we loaded up the car and headed "down the shore" to the Albert Music Hall in the Pinelands:

The Albert Music Hall, not to be confused with Royal Albert Hall, is a community/volunteer-run music venue where each Saturday night they feature local musicians who play mostly country-style music. It's a fitting genre if you know anything about the Pine Barrens, also known as the Pinelands, of New Jersey. Think Deliverance and it'll be a good approximation of what folks from "outside" think about the area. Between you and me, let's just say that if you want a slice of real middle America without actually going to the middle of America, this is about the best place to find it.

The weekly show starts at about 8pm but my dad was adamant that we arrive early so that we could check out something called the "Tuning Shed". The shed, it ends up, is a large industrial-style garage next to the main hall where the musicians can warm up before going on stage. There's a combination of local folks "sitting in" and jamming with the performers and, since no one seems to be aware that they can go in and watch, it's a cool up-close-and-personal look (and listen):

After we checked out the Tuning Shed, we went inside the main hall to wait for the show to start. On the way to our seats, we stopped at the kitchen area and bought some hot coffee and a couple of pieces of what my dad told us was the best carrot cake since Hector was a pup:

Don't tell anyone but we stopped by the gift shop to look at some New Jersey Devil (which, I believe, is the patron saint of south Jersey) as well as Albert Hall merch, which we didn't end up buying...maybe next time.

In a bow to the modern world, the show started at 8pm with a YouTube video of some kids up in Alaska singing the Hallelujah Chorus. It was cute and the old folks enjoyed it, I think. Anyway, the "real" show began with the "Warm Hearted Christmas Carolers". The country-style band was made up of mostly of people from the same family with daughter number one leading the show and the granny-like mom belting out some serious tunage:

The WHCC played Christmas hits for about 45 minutes are were surprisingly good. The next band to take the stage, "The Santa Set", was co-led by Santa and a guy who was the spitting image of Don Imus:

The band, which wasn't that good, was nice enough to invite every kid in the place up onto the stage to simultaneously ring sleigh bells while they played. It was a madness-inducing hour but we hung tough in hopes that the effort would be repaid by any one of the following groups. Our prayers were answered when "Girls Night Out" took the stage:

This group, who was led by Joan Baez's sister (just kidding), were awesome. They played country-stylized Christmas songs and both their voices and music were top-notch. GNO finished up about 930pm followed by a half-hour break in the action, which is when we took our leave.

Being that I was a little scared that I'd either be killed by zombies out in the middle-of-nowhere Pinelands or fall asleep during the Rudolph-the-Redneck-Reindeer country-music Christmas show, I was very impressed! It was a lot of fun, the musicians and audience were great, and it was a nice piece of Americana for Diana's first American Christmas.

In case you're not too familiar with this type of music, here's a quick video I shot in the Tuning Shed:

...and, to celebrate "being home for the holidays", here's another one with the Santa Set during the main show:

Thanks dad for the invite and taking us to the show. We had a great time! Oh, and the carrot cake alone is worth the trip.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christmas Party With Friends In Barcelona

This past Friday I went to a Christmas party with a bunch of our friends in Barcelona. It was my first time at the party but they do it every year just before folks start heading out of town to visit with their families. Leiris, Elizabeth, and Senda (the resident pooch) were nice enough to host this year's soirée at their place near the Sagrada Familia.

Since it was pot-luck style, everyone brought their own specialty, which resulted in me eating "a little bit of everything" and ending up extremely stuffed by the end of the night. My contribution, homemade eggnog, got generally positive reviews and made me realize (again) just how addicted I am to it.

Thanks to everyone for such a fun and memorable evening! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to, and from (left to right): Marcos, Nadia, Vladimir, Pau, Pili, David, Andrea, me, Diana, David, Leiris, Victor, Elizabeth, and Senda (on Elizabeth's lap).

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Christmas Log That Poops Gifts (Tio Nadal)

If you've been keeping up with your whereisdarrennow, you might remember that last week I wrote about a Christmas tradition where folks here in Catalunya put a Caganer in their nativity scene. A Caganer is a statue of a person, real or made up, taking a poop (caga = poop in Catalan). The idea is that the Caganer is "fertilizing the earth" as a gesture of good luck for the coming year. It's an odd tradition but aren't most traditions a bit odd?

Well, just when I thought that this "crappy" Christmas tradition is fairly unusual, I came across...another Catalan fecal-related Christmas tradition. Outside world, meet the Tio Nadal:

Yep. It's a log with a face, a hat, two legs, and most importantly, a blanket covering it's butt. Tio Nadal means "Christmas log" in Catalan, which I guess is similar to saying "yule log" in English. The funny thing is how, when you're a kid, how you make fun of "yule log" as in "I finished my morning coffee and went and made a yule log." Who knows, maybe they're related.

The tradition goes something like kids would go out into the woods towards the beginning of advent and find a small stick to bring home and put into the corner with a blanket on it (to keep it warm). The kids would then take care of it. Over time, assuming proper care and feeding, the Tio Nadal would grow in size until Christmas came. SPOILER ALERT: Kids skip the next sentence. The parents would periodically replace the Tio Nadal with successively larger versions until Christmas. On Christmas day, presents would shoot out his butt so size would matter and you wanted to take care of your Tio so that he'd be big and really full!

While out looking at Christmas lights with David and Diana, we went by the Santa Lucia market. There, up on a stage, where in the U.S. kids might be sitting on Santa's lap, there were kids beating on a giant Tio Nadal with sticks!

(If you look carefully at the right side of the round part of the sign in the background above, you'll see a Caganer doing his "duty".)

The violence that befalls the Tio Nadal is part of the tradition. The kids sing a song that basically says that if you don't poop me some candy (or presents of some type) I'll beat you with a stick until you "produce some" (out your butt).

Nice. Beating the poor Tio Nadal with a stick until he takes a dump. Welcome to CAGA-lunya I guess!

By the way, I think I found a suitable part-time job for me for next Christmas. I want to be the guy "offloading" the Tio Nadal at the Santa Lucia market:

Can I just say that I love me some unusual traditions, especially when there's kids involved. The kids that I saw were happy campers when they got their back-door-Christmas delivery.

"Hey mom, look! My lollipop's chocolate covered!"

Friday, December 9, 2011

Smashing Pumpkins Concert

As Nancy Reagan never said, "Just say yes!"

This past Wednesday Pau called me up around 7pm and told me that he had an extra ticket to see the Smashing Pumpkins at Razzamatazz, a local Barcelona club. The catch was that I had to leave immediately because he was already in line waiting to get into the show.

No problem! I hopped on the metro and got to the club in less than 30 minutes just as he and Pili were approaching the front door of the venue. I'm not the biggest Smashing Pumpkins' fan but I am familiar with their material and do like a handful of their songs. Regardless, I was stoked to get to see such a big-name band at such a small venue.

With Pili and Pau waiting in line for a while before the show, we were able to get right up against the stage. We were close enough to lead-singer Billy Corgan to watch the massive spray cloud emerge from his mouth as he spit a huge hocker between each song!

The club is a relatively intimate space - my guess is that the place holds less than 3,000 people but I'm not really sure. The sound quality seemed to just be okay but that could have been an artifact of being so close to the stage that most of the speakers were pointed behind us. Also, it's standing room only with no seating on the first level but some folks sit on the floor along the railing of the second level.

Since we were against the stage during the whole show, there were no bathroom or adult-beverage breaks but no biggie. The band played just enough of their "classics", including two of their most popular during the encore, to keep the audience fired up. This one's called "Zero" and is one of their better known songs:

So, following along with my plan to try to never say "no" when someone asks me to do something new, I got to enjoy a great show with some great folks. Thanks for the invite Pau!

By the way, I'm so old that I can remember when it was absolutely forbidden to ever take a camera, much less a video camera, into a concert. Now, every person in the place is shooting photos and/or video. My, how times have changed...wait, where's my buggy whip?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Christmas Lights In Barcelona

Just about two years ago I was in the process of selling or giving away most of my stuff as I was getting ready to start traveling for a while. On Christmas day in 2009, I was on an airplane headed to Japan for what was basically the start of the path that's led me to where I am now. Flash forward a year later and I was down in Colombia hanging out with Diana's family. During the whole month of December 2010, I took photos of Christmas lights pretty much everywhere we went and ended up putting some of them into a story called Christmas Lights In Colombia. I have no idea why but that post has ended up being one of the most visited stories on my blog.

This year, I decided that I wanted to do a story about Christmas lights here in Barcelona so this past Saturday night I journeyed out with David and Diana into the (not-so-cold) night to take photos of Christmas spirit. We started our walk around town at the top of La Rambla right near the Hard Rock Cafe and Plaza Catalunya:

Plaza Catalunya is considered the center of Barcelona and often has things happening during the whole year. Right now, they've got an ice skating rink set up in a large tent along with lights in (fake) trees (in the bottom left, you can also see the lights on the wall of the department store El Corte Ingles):

There's also a large Christmas tree covered with lights where we stopped to take a self-portrait (bummer I cut the top off!):

We then left Plaza Catalunya and walked over to the Portal del Angel (Angel's Door), which is a pedestrian shopping street that leads towards the Santa Maria del Mar church and Gothic area of the city:

Everywhere we went that night was busy, busy, busy. There were a lot of people out walking and shopping. It was a nice time and definitely got me into the holiday spirit a bit. The next photo is from Calle Feran, which runs between Plaza Sant Jaume and La Rambla. During weekend nights, they block access to private vehicles because of the number of people who are on the street.

I was surprised when in Colombia last year just how much decorating the city does during the holidays. Barcelona's similar in that they've got lights and decorations up on most of the major streets as well as these cutesy "Feliç Nadal" (Catalan for Merry Christmas) banners:

The decorations in some neighborhoods are themed. On Avenida Parallel, right near where we live, the lights have a theater theme since the area is home to a bunch of live theaters:

Over on the nearby Ronda de Sant Pau, which runs by the Sant Antoni market, the theme seems to be holiday food with what looks like a roast turkey (is turkey holiday food in Spain too?), cava (Spanish champagne), grapes (not sure why), and a Rosca de Reyes (a ring-shaped, slightly sweet holiday bread):

Some streets don't seem (to me) to have a theme but the lights, like these on Avenida Diagonal, are lovely nonetheless:

It was fun walking around looking at lights with David and Diana. The highlight, though, was our end-of-the-evening stop at the Cafe de L'Opera for some churros and hot chocolate. Yum!

I can't wait for Christmas this year. Bon Nadal (merry Christmas) from Barcelona!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Pooping In The Nativity Scene (Caganers)

Yesterday I happened to walk by the Santa Lucia Christmas market located in the plaza in front of the Barcelona cathedral. There were a few hundred people checking out about 50-or-so stands that are set up to sell mostly Christmas and other seasonal decorations. I was super happy to see it because, now that Spanish Thanksgiving is out of the way, I'm definitely interested in seeing what Christmas looks like in Spain.

There were a couple of things that were unusual/unexpected about the market though. First, there are no food stands (yes, I was hungry at the time). Whenever there's something like this in the United States, there are always stands selling different food and drinks, especially things like hot cider or other seasonal drinks. I'm guessing that there's a rule against it as there are none, as in zero food available. Another thing that was unusual was something that I had heard about but hadn't seen yet and is interesting enough for this crowd to gather around:

What could possibly cause so much excitement that a bunch of folks are gathered around to check it out??? Caganers, which are small statues of people TAKING DUMPS...that's what!!! If you look in this photo, you'll see Caganers of all different things, from sports and political folks to cartoon characters:

Yep, pooping, haciendo caca, growing Shaq's arm, dropping the kids off at the pool, or pinching a loaf! I had no idea either! It turns out that Caganers (which roughly means "pooping person" in Catalan) have been around at least since the 1800s and are traditionally placed in a Christmas nativity scene "to fertilize the earth", which is considered good luck for the next year. The market had a bunch of Caganer stands mixed in among other stands selling items for a design-it-yourself nativity scenes:

Here are some Castellers doing their doody:

I read that the local Barcelona government caught a lot of flack a few years ago because they had built the city-funded nativity scene (pesebre in Catalan) in the main public plaza, Plaza Sant Jaume, but had failed to include a Caganer. They've since rectified the situation and now always have one. I found this year's just to the right of the exit:

Other than meeting all sorts of interesting people, the part of traveling around that I find most interesting are the traditions and festivals of the places I go (like this unusual one I went to in Japan). Add Caganers to the list! Here are some more examples that I saw in a shop window in the Gothic area of the city. I particularly liked the Darth Vader in this crazy cultural diaspora...

It might be tough to believe but this wasn't the only Christmas-fecal-themed tradition I saw yesterday...but you'll have to tune in next time to learn more... It appears to me that Catalunya is full of crap around Christmas time!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Eating At La Paradeta

About a week ago I went to watch the Castellers with Diana, Bea, Toni, and Lena and afterwards we went to eat at La Paradeta restaurant in the Born area (near the Parc de la Ciutadella).

I'm not sure how many times that I've been there now but I continue to love it every time. After (usually) waiting in a line outside, you stand at a counter where there's fresh seafood on ice. You point at what you want and the guy gathers some up in a piece of paper, shows you how much he's got, and you say "that's great" (well, usually in Spanish) or "more"/"less".

This is an action shot of Diana ordering our lunch with Lena, Toni, and Bea mugging for the camera:

Once you're done ordering your seafood, you move around to the side counter and order your drinks and bread. The specialty drink of the house is a white wine in an unlabeled bottle that's fairly dry, pretty cheap, and (for the money) deeelish. At that point, everything gets paid for, the food gets sent to the kitchen, and you go find an open table.

It's a super casual place. Your receipt has your number on it, which they call as each item you ordered is ready. At a small window that opens into the kitchen, the cook takes your receipt, crosses off that item, gives you back your now greasy receipt, and "serves" your food. Actually, the way they serve the food reminds me a little of when I worked at Nifty Fifties.

We also took my family there when they were visiting Barcelona:

I know that Lena and Toni loved it and my family did too. In both cases, the favorite item was probably the Chanquetes, which are a small (two-inch long) fish that are breaded and fried. (Of course, what breaded and fried thing isn't really good???) On the other hand, the only thing that we ordered that my family wasn't crazy about was the mini octopus sauteed in butter. I think that Diana and I ended up eating the whole pile ourselves...

If you're in Barcelona and you're looking for a really good, not-too-expensive seafood meal that the locals eat, this is definitely it. Of course, if you do go after reading this, you'll need to take me too!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

A Rockin' Thanksgiving With Victor!

I can't believe another year's gone by and it's Thanksgiving time again. Last Thanksgiving, I was lucky enough to be back with the family in Philadelphia but this year it was Thanksgiving Barcelona style!

But wait, Thanksgiving's a purely American holiday you say? What's a gringo to do when it's time for turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and most importantly, pumpkin pie when he's in the land of sangria and tapas? Get yourself invited to Thanksgiving the local HARDROCK CAFE (!!!) your friend Victor who spent his formative years in Florida.

Yep, the Barcelona Hard Rock Cafe offers a special "Thanksgiving Dinner" fixed-price meal that includes turkey with gravy, mashed potatoes, stuffing, string beans, cranberry sauce, and wine (we are in Spain after all):

Even if it wasn't my picture-perfect venue for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, the food (and the company too!) was surprisingly good, especially since we were at least 3500 miles from the United States. The highlight for me, though, was that they served what they called pumpkin pie but what I'd call a dense pumpkin cake. It was a bit sweet and not really too pie-like but it was really good. Diana was even kind enough to let me eat about a third of hers too. Pumpkin pie has to be one of my biggest addictions! Yum!!!

Thanks to Victor for taking us to Thanksgiving dinner this year. It was a rockin' good time!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Do You Want To Touch The Sky? (Castellers)

Vols tocar el cel?

Yeah, my Catalan is a bit rough too. It translates to "Do you want to touch the sky?"

About 150 years ago or so people in the Tarragona region of Catalunya (not far from Barcelona) started engaging in Michael-Jackson-style street battles like in his Beat It video. But instead of tying their hands together with a silk ribbon and dancing in circles with knives, they built human "castles". The Castellers (pronounced "cass-tay-yehrz" and meaning "castle builder"), continue the tradition to this day. This past Sunday, after over a year of waiting, I finally got my chance to see it for myself.

The event took place as part of a festival in the Gracia neighborhood of Barcelona. Over the course of the year, each neighborhood has a big festival kinda' like a street fair that we'd have in the U.S. There's food, music, and lots of other stuff too. Finding the plaza where the Castellers were going to "perform" wasn't difficult as spotting them on the Metro in their tell-tale white pants and colored shirts was, umm, really easy. The Plaza del Sol was jam-packed with different groups each getting ready.

Each Casteller wraps a wide strip of cloth around their waist to provide support for building the castles. I noticed that each group was very tight-knit and that everyone was talking with everyone else while helping each other wrap up their waists.

Just before noon, the Colles (groups) started leaving the Plaza del Sol and walking down a nearby street on their way to the Plaza de la Vila de Gracia where the main event would take place. On the way, each group built their first castle in the tightly-packed side street. My first official Castellers event!!!

During the construction, each Colle's musical group would play a tune. They're sort of like a minstrel band and they play flute-like instruments and drums. I later found out that they are playing a sort-of Casteller's theme song called the "toc de castels" (castle song) and that they begin to play the tune as the castle construction reaches a certain level, which depends on the castle design and overall height, and continue until the castle is disassembled. There's also apparently a "toc de vermut" that's played at the end of the event that signifies that it's time to go have a vermouth...on Sunday morning!

Once the procession to the other plaza was done, the Colles each took turns building castles. When you look at the photos and videos below, keep in mind how tall these things really are and how much all those people must weigh! This was a three-people-by-seven-level castle built by the Castellers de Barcelona, a Colle from near the center of town:

Diana and I met up with our friend Bea who is an awesome photographer. She was kind enough to let me use a couple of her pictures. I like her photos because they have a very different composition from my typical photos. I particularly like this close up of the connection between the first and second levels of a castle showing how many people and the type of teamwork involved in building them:

The castles were...WOW! Watching how the structures are assembled and how the folks who climb up the outside to the upper levels move is pretty amazing. At the base, called the "piña" (pineapple), are lots of "regular" folks who form the support for the upper levels. The next couple of levels were mostly burly dudes. After that, it was mostly women and then younger girls.

The whole thing is topped off by a small child wearing a helmet called a Enxaneta (pronounced "en-sha-net-ta"). He or she, upon arriving at the top of the castle, extends their hand towards the sky to salute the other words..."Tocando el cel" (touching the sky)!

The photo above is another one of Bea's.

I know I'm a bit crazy here but...I'm addicted! I want to be a Casteller! I don't know why...I just do. Let's see what happens!

And finally, I took some video that really shows what's going on. The first is the Colle de Poble Sec who are from the neighborhood where I live.

The next video is the Colle from Granollers, which is located about a half-hour north of Barcelona:

And finally, yes, the castles do fall. It's rare for serious injuries to occur but there were definitely some (relatively) minor injuries this week. This video shows the collapse of the one of the castles of the Castellers de Barcelona:

It was super fun hanging out with Diana, Bea, Lena, and Toni for the day. See if you can find everyone in this photo:

After we left the Castellers, we went for a great lunch at La Paradeta seafood restaurant. I took my family there when they came to Barcelona for the wedding. Thanks to Bea for letting me use the photos and everyone make sure to keep an eye out for a gringo Casteller trying to tocar el cel!