Steve's Weird Food for Spain: Pig Ears

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

I blame Rick Steves. He’s the one who wrote about this particular little spot, "Oreja de Oro", and when I read the phrase “pigs' ears” I knew I’d found Steve's Weird Food for Spain.

The menu

I ordered, “Una caña y orejos especial por favor.”* It’s a good thing I’d already had a drink when I arrived. And it’s a damned good thing I ordered that beer too. I should have ordered about six more.

The ears were cut into slivers, and you could see the ridge of cartilage running through each slice. I think they’d been deep-fried and after the guy put them on the plate he drizzled them with olive oil. A LOT of olive oil. So much that as I watched him drizzling it went on so long that I got bored watching, and then looked away for a bit, and then looked back and he was still drizzling, and then I looked away again, and back again, and yes, he was still drizzling. There were also some cooked potatoes on the plate (thank God), and a bit of other sauce. Mostly though, it was just strips of pig ears.

Here they are. They look innocent enough...

They came with a fork, but I found the best way to tackle them was to pick them up with my fingers and try to strip the meat off the cartilage with my teeth. And when I say “meat” I am being extravagantly generous. I estimate the makeup of each bit was 20% cartilage, 70% fat, and 10% meat. I have no idea if you’re meant to eat the cartilage bits or not. I tried that with one or two bits but…. ugh.

The aftermath. I did not clean my plate.

I did the best I could Steve, but I’m not convinced that even your legendary appetite would have been able to polish off a whole plate of pig ears.

After that debacle, and despite the fact that I was quite stuffed full of ear-y goodness, I promised myself a treat.** And here it is:

Chocolate con churros!

They’re freshly fried long, skinny donuts that you dip into thick hot chocolate! I had them in Barcelona too, and frankly the Barcelona variety was far superior to these ones, but at this point anything that didn’t taste like fingernails was ambrosia. Let's hope that the weird food for Portugal is some kind of improbably delicious confection. Or at least doesn't involve parts of an animal normally found only in pet stores.

* Ok, if those were “especial” I shudder to think what the “ordinario” would be like. Perhaps they are still attached to the pig…

** Also keep in mind that I’d run 30km earlier that day so I was doubly deserving of something chocolate.

Random Stuff on Spain

Sunday, September 27, 2009

More short thoughts, because I can’t be bothered to try and string this all together into something more coherent.

- Almost as soon as I’d crossed into Spain things seemed a but more untamed than in France. It was a bit like moving from England to Scotland. Maybe the sun is stronger? Or bigger? It feels like the light is different. And the landscape is just more… Spanish. It’s brown and scrubby, and the hillsides are covered in trees planted in straight lines. Olive trees maybe?

Taken on the run, on the hillside past Alhambra, with my cell phone camera

- Trains are a dirty way to enter a city – it's all back lots and industrial buildings and stray dogs and garbage and laundry and it's the same everywhere. It’s not pretty.

- Trains in Spain, at least the ones I’ve been on, require an airplane-like check-in system, complete with baggage x-ray. However, the x-ray seems to be entirely for show. I’ve sent the Aeronaut through two x-rays now, complete with small folding scissors and large exacto knife, and have received nary a second glance from the eagle-eyed inspectors.

- Café Bom Bom! It may be my new favourite thing. It’s sweetened condensed milk topped with a shot of espresso. It’s kind of like Vietnamese iced coffee without the ice. YUM.

Cafe Bom Bom!

- As I suspected, the language is frustrating. My French is certainly not brilliant, but I was totally functional in France. In Spain I’m once again reduced to grunting and pointing. I went for breakfast after I first arrived in Barcelona and the waiter said something that required me to respond in the affirmative. Here’s what I said: "Oui… Yeah… Si... Oh God..." It’s a bit depressing to realize that this is what it’s going to be like for the foreseeable future.

- Also, the whole “Castillian lisp” thing sounds really funny. I know it’s not really a lisp – that’s just how things are properly pronounced in these parts. As one website I read pointed out: not recognizing the difference would be like expecting “sing” and “thing” to have the same meaning in English. But I still find it odd to ask for “una therveza”.* And it’s tricky to remember when to replace the “s” sound with the “th” sound and when not to. For instance “gracias” is pronounced “grathias” not “grathiath” or “grasias”. It’s only Cs that get replaced, not Ss or Zs. And not all Cs. Weird and frustrating.

- La Rambla in Barcelona has more than its fair share of living statues, including, at various times: 2 different headless men, a gorilla, a man covered in artificial flowers, an all-brown soldier sitting on an ammo box, a guy with wings, and a woman in a sparkly sequined dress. I happen to believe that the “living statue” is pretty far down the ladder of artistic expression (somewhere alongside balloon folding and bongos), but for if you’re going to do it, then there is one simple rule you need to follow: DON’T MOVE. Really. If you’re not standing stock still, then you’re just somebody dressed strangely begging for money. Have some professional pride.

- I didn’t mention it in my posts about Barcelona, but the festivities surrounding La Mercè didn’t only start on the day of the parades and Castellars. For the whole week leading up to the big day there were stages being set up in almost every square I walked through, and there were concerts at night. On Day 101, as I made my way home from kayaking, I happened on the tail end of a very cool video show. They were doing large-scale projection on the facade of a building in Place Jaume, and it was really well done. The pictures don’t to it justice, but here’s a still shot:

Video Projection

And a VERY short video that shows the Big Finale

(I told you it was short...)

- I did get in to Alhambra at night, just as Rick Steves promised. In fact, I saw everything except the famous Palacios Nazaries during the afternoon and returned to see the palace at the (to me) ungodly hour of 10:30pm, when the rest of Spain was just starting to think about having dinner. It was interesting being at Alhambra at night, and a bit strange. It’s a long walk up the hill in the dark, and there were almost no people around, so it was a bit nervous-making. This meant I was surprised to see how many people were already in line for tickets when I got there.** There were actually loads of people waiting to get in to the palace, and it was a bit of a crush moving through all the rooms. I can’t imagine what it must be like during peak daylight hours. Still it was quite nice, and a change of pace to see a sight like that in the dark. My Rick Steve guidebook had a nice blow-by-blow description of each room; my favourite was the Grand Hall of the Ambassadors, where the sultans*** used to sit. This was was also the room, years later, where Columbus made his pitch to Queen Isabel for a few ships to go check out the Orient.

It was hard getting decent pictures in the dim lighting, but here’s a bit of the palace. (There are lots more daylight pics of other Alhambra sights at Flickr.)

- I finally dipped my toe in the waters of tapas in Granada which is, as the LP points out “one of the last bastions of that fantastic practice of free tapas with every drink.” And it was true! I went into a little bar advertising free tapas and got a small beer and it came with a toasted ham and cheese on a bun and some fries with Spanish sort of ketchup and spicy mayo. All that for €2.00! (That’s quite a lot more food than most tapas). The next round, there was more free tapas but something different. Impressively, the guy doing the food was able to keep track of what round everyone in the bar was on. Odd numbered rounds came with fries, even numbered rounds came with olives. (Round 1: Toasted ham and cheese sandwiches with chips, Round 2: tiny hamburgers with olives, Round 3: open-faced tuna and spicy mayo with fries.) Better still, both nights I went to this place I met friendly English-speaking people that I ended up chatting with for ages! The first night it was Karen – a Spaniard who was nearing the end of a 3 month trip and was happy to dust off her Edinburgh-learned English to help me figure out the whole free tapas thing. The second night I met Nick and Simon, two Londoners who visit Granada every year. Yay for free tapas!

A plate of olives I got with my beer in Granada. And notice the brand of beer…

- Granada has a large contingent of Roma (gypsy) women with a very particular modus operandi. They stand with a bunch of sprigs of rosemary and press one on passing tourists. As Rick Steves says: “The twig is free… and then they grab you by your hand and read your fortune for a tip. Coins are bad luck, so the minimum they accept is €5. Don’t make eye contact, don’t accept a spring, and say firmly but politely, “No, graçias.”. They were aggressive, and I found the best tactic was to keep my hands in my pockets and my head down.

A rosemary lady in the square outside the Royal Chapel.

- The street signs in Madrid are BRILLIANT!! Not only are they more reliably present than anywhere I’ve been so far, they are made of pretty ceramic tiles and they have pictures on them showing what the street name means.

- The siesta - how I have grown to love it! Perhaps it’s because I’ve been fighting this slight cold, or perhaps it’s because I’m generally kind of tired and run down, but I have been taking full advantage of the mid-afternoon nap. It helps that lots of places shut down for a few hours in the afternoon, and it helps that lots of places stay open late at night. This means you can have a full morning, a hearty late lunch, a nice long nap, and then wake up refreshed and ready for, say, a bit more sight-seeing, a short run, and some beer and tapas. Eminently civilized.

I may have more to say about Spain, and Madrid in particular, in another post. Or I may not. Right now I’m taking it fairly easy,**** trying not to let this minor head cold turn into something more, and seeing a maximum of one sight per day. Mostly I’m looking forward to getting to Portugal where I have a care package from home and a friend with a spare room awaiting me.

* The trick with this particular word is to avoid the whole question entirely by ordering “una caña”, which means a small beer, and also sounds less touristy.

** While standing in line I overhead the two women behind me who were talking in English, but with strong German accents. They were whinging about having to wait in line because only one ticket window was open, and lamenting their lost sight-seeing time. Clearly these two were not cut out for the pace of life in Spain. In fact, they might want to reconsider their priorities entirely since one of them said, "The most important is this palace. If I don't see this palace will kill myself." Lady, you need to relax. I skipped the whole freakin' Rijkssmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and I lived to tell the tale.

*** Are you kidding me? SULTANS? When I was a little kid I had an LP of “Tales from the Arabian Nights” and for a time I used to listen to it almost every night when falling asleep. And there I was in the SULTAN’S ROOM! It was a moment.

**** Ok, I’ll admit that “taking it easy” today included going for a long run. But it turned out to be the best long run I’ve had of the whole trip. The weather was perfect - cool and overcast, and Retiro Park turned out to be an almost-5km loop, just like Assiniboine Park at home. And much to my surprise, I was able to complete FIVE loops. I was really really happy - the whole run was 30 kms, and exactly 3 hours long. It's by far the longest run I've had, and though it wasn't fast, it was a huge confidence boost with Athens only 39 days away (oh God...).

Kayaking and festivities and more Gaudí

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Ok, the kayaking. The people who run that outfit really know their target market. The Kayak Guy wandered though the backpacker bar I was in at precisely the right moment to catch people just drunk enough to sign up, but not so far gone that they couldn’t fork over a deposit. And even smarter, the whole business didn’t start until noon the next day. Naturally I got there a bit early, and since we were on Spanish time we didn’t actually get on the road until around 1 or 1:30pm. Miraculously though, this didn’t really bother me. I haven’t been wearing my watch much these days and I was determined just to let things happen in their own time. No, really!

There were 8 of us in total. Two “workers”: JB the Kayak Guy (American), and Renate, an employee of the larger organization* (Croatian, or maybe it was Slovenia), and 6 participants: JP (Canadian – Quebeçois), Jessica (American) and her boyfriend Spiro (Australian), Ellen (also Australian) and her boyfriend Tyrone (you guessed it… Australian) and me.

We got on the road in a rattly blue minivan with Renate at the wheel and JB navigating, which turned out to be a less-than-ideal combination. In fact, the whole thing had a real seat-of-the-pants feel to it that did not inspire extreme confidence. Most if the gang slept the whole way north, but I was awake so I got see how many wrong turns, about-faces, and scenic detours we took before we finally got to the beach. Then again it was a really nice beach, and it was a perfect day:

Sunny, sandy Mediterranean beach. No complaints here.

The confusion continued, but eventually we were kitted out with double kayaks (I shared with Renate), and lifejackets, and paddles, and were given the most perfunctory kayaking instruction ever. This did not inspire confidence, nor did Renate, who had arms like twigs.

JB, and kayaks, and snorkels

Nonetheless, we got underway and made it over to a rocky shore where we got out our snorkels. I’ve never snorkeled before, so even though there wasn’t a lot to see it was still really cool. I followed a school of fish around for a while, and generally enjoyed the fact that I was snorkeling in the freakin’ Mediterranean, on the Costa Brava. Others of the group reported seeing an octopus that I missed, but sounded really neat. I’ll definitely try snorkeling again. It’s amazing how much you can see even though your face is only inches from the surface. I had no idea.

Then we got back in the kayaks and headed across the bay to try and find a cave** that JB had heard about from the guy at the kayak rental place. It was a hard paddle, and the waves were mildly concerning, but eventually we made it to a nice cove. It was too shallow and cold for snorkeling though, and we headed out again to try and find the mythical cave. We never did find the cave, but we got to watch JP (apparently a very experienced kayaker) dump his boat and lose his t-shirt and take a somewhat worrying amount of time to get himself sorted.

By this time I think all anyone wanted was a beer and something to eat and to be warm and dry, so we headed back to the beach. And that’s where we found just what we needed.

Spiro and Jessica, with chips on the side

Ellen and Tyrone, chilling

And JP, and me!

We had a long ride back to the city, where our BBQ turned out to be a meal at Travel Bar Port (“You can order anything from this side of the menu”). But there was more beer, and I had a nice time talking with everybody, especially Spiro, who was on his way to Clown School in a few days. (Good luck Spiro!) All in all, it was a good day. I got some sun and sand and clear blue Mediterranean water, and I got out of the city, and I met some new people.

The next day – my last in Barcelona, turned out to be the beginning of the biggest yearly festival in the city:

La Mercè is the "most important festival" of Barcelona (Catalonia, Spain). It has been an official city holiday since 1871, when the local government first organized a program of special activities to observe the Roman Catholic feast day of Our Lady of Mercy. (In Catalan, La Mare de Déu de la Mercè -- The Merciful Mother of God; in Spanish, La Virgen de la Merced -- The Virgin of Mercy.) Although the actual date of the holiday is September 24th, the festivities begin a few days before.

The year 1902 saw a new impetus to the celebrations, with parades containing the first appearance in Catalonia of papier maché "giants" (known as gegants i capgrossos in Catalan or gigantes y cabezudos in Spanish), the first Castell competition and the importation from the Emporda region of a dance that was spreading throughout Catalonia: the Sardana. The holiday has enjoyed immense local popularity ever since.

Among more recently introduced traditions are the annual Catalonia Wine Fair, a special "correfoc", a marathon race***, and the particularly popular pyromusical, which is a spectacular display of synchronized fireworks, water fountains and music conducted at the base of Montjuic hill. (Wikipedia)

My hostel was really close to the action, so I spent quite a bit of time just wandering around the area. I visited Place Jaume early in the day, and saw some of the papier maché "giants". There was a stage set up, and an announcer, and every once in a while a couple of these gegants would get picked up and would dance around in front of the stage, accompanied by music played mostly on some unidentified double-reeded oboe-like instruments that were very duck-like in their tone.

Gegants i capgrossos, all lined up in Place Jaume.

The main event of the afternoon was to be the Castell competition, but that wasn’t due to start until 12:30 so I wandered some more, and ran into the beginning of a parade! Marching bands (Including marching bassoons! No mean feat.), more funny oboe-thingies, and more dancing whirling giants…

Who doesn’t love a parade?

I made my way back to Place Jaume to see the Castell competition (the building of human pyramids, for those too lazy to click on the link above). By the time I got there, the parade had found its way there too, by a different route. And if I thought the square was packed before, that was nothing to what it was like now. It was scary-full. I stuck around long enough to see the entrance of three of the teams of Castellars – they came into the square in a pilar formation – a tower four people high supported by a load of beefy guys at the bottom, with one weary and nervous-looking guy on top of them, and a woman on top of him, and a young girl on top of her. It was impressive but also scary. The little girls at the top wore helmets, but the whole thing seemed quite dogdey.

In fact, the last team I saw enter – I think they were the local Barcelona gang - were downright scary. In every case the guy at the second level of the tower (called the dosos – the one supporting the two above) looked like he was trying really hard to hold it together, but in this last case it was obvious that the dosos was in trouble. He knew it, the crowd knew it, and it seemed like it was just a matter of time before the whole thing ended badly. Thankfully, the tower made it through the square (did I mention that the towers were moving?) and was safely dismantled. By this time I’d seen enough and really just wanted to get out of the crush of people, but that was easier said than done. In the end, I “hitched” a ride with a couple of older women who had the right combination of tough-old-bird and crowd respect to manage to burrow through. I just followed in their wake.

This is how crowded it was. That kid was lucky.

I heard second-hand accounts later from people at the hostel who’d stuck around for the actual Castell competition – it sounded like it was interesting to see, but not worth the crowds.

More wandering, and I happened on a demonstration of Sardana dancing. As Rick Steves says:

“For some, it’s a highly symbolic, politically charged action representing Catalan unity – but for most, it’s just a fun chance to kick up their heels. Participants gather in circles after putting their things in the centre – symbolic of community and sharing (and the ever-present risk of theft)… Holding hands, dancers raise their arms – slow-motion Zorba the Greek-style – as they hop and sway gracefully to the music.”

It was just that kind of day. It was like every corner I turned revealed some new inexplicable but festive event. Even the museum I went to – the Museu d’Historia de la Ciutat**** – was free that day. Eventually it all got to be too much and I retreated to the hostel, but it was great way to end my time in Barcelona.

Oh, and that’s not even mentioning my visit to a second great Gaudí sight – La Pedrera. It’s an apartment complex that Gaudí designed and it was just FANTASTIC. There was a really good audioguide and a nice sort of museum in the attic. And you got to tour the roof terrace, and a typical apartment, and it was great. I think my favourite parts of Barcelona were anything to do with Anton Gaudí.

La Pedrera

I tried to get out to see Parc Güell, also designed by Gaudí, but by the time I got off the metro and realized how long a walk it would be I turned around and went right back to the hostel. It’s been over a hundred days now, and I now have a very highly developed sense of when I am DONE.

In fact, I was done with all of Barcelona. I’m in Granada now, and the head cold that was threatening yesterday has held off a bit, and I’m at the end of a nice long lunch. Things are not so bad.

* The larger organization being “Travel Bound”. They had two bars in Barcelona catering to the backpacker crowd. This means they had cheap but crappy food (including the inevitable full English breakfast and Marmite on toast), lots of drink specials, lots of nightly activities (pub crawl, anyone?), wifi, and the chance to mingle almost exclusively with 20-something Americans, Aussies, New Zealanders and the occasional German or other. These places are good relief sometimes, but I wouldn’t want my whole trip to be about them.

** The whole thing had been advertised as “kayaking and cave snorkeling with a BBQ included.” A bit of over-selling, I think.

*** Reading this Wikipedia entry was the first I heard of the marathon. It was clearly not top-of-mind for Barcelonians. (Barceloners? Barcelonitas?)

**** Great Roman ruins, and you know how much I like a good ruin. There were even spots where you could see the wheel ruts on old Roman streets and mosaic tile floors. Very evocative.

Sangria with single-serving friends

Friday, September 25, 2009

It’s been an odd few days. The last time we spoke I was blissed out by the magnificence of the Sagrada Familia and generally getting my mojo back. Since then things have been up and down, and I’m now on my 3rd overnight train (and the most comfortable one so far*) on my way to Granada to see the famous Alhambra Moorish palace.**

But back to Barcelona… the morning after I had my little epiphany at la Sagrada Familia, I woke up and it was Day 100! I went out for an early-ish run and then headed to La Bouqueria Market to find some breakfast. I love a good market, and La Bouqueria might be my favourite one so far. I didn’t manage to get very interesting breakfast, but that's because I wasn't really paying attention. If I had been I would have realized that “huevos fritos and tostados” might sound exciting, but really it’s just fried eggs and toast. Nonetheless, the café con leche was good and the orange juice was freshly squeezed on the spot.

They take their ham seriously here.

After the market I headed to the Picasso Museum. The guidebooks warn that this museum is primarily focused on Picasso’s childhood and early career, so if you’re looking for a lot of paintings of people with both eyes on one side of their face, you’re in for a disappointment. I found the museum interesting, but I had trouble really connecting with any of the work. I finally decided that “my” Picasso – the one I’d take home if offered the chance – was "El Passeig de Colom". But really, it didn’t hold a candle to my Monet at the Musée D’Orsay.

However, running, market-ing and Picasso-ing were just a warm-up. The big event for Day 100 was the Spanish Cooking Class I signed up for when I checked in to the hostel. It sounded like lots of fun, and the woman at the front desk said it was popular. For only €18.00 you got some tapas, sangria and paella, so really it would be hard to go wrong. It turned out that the “class” part was pretty minimal. There was no Food Network-like kitchen, and there were no aprons and there was no chopping or peeling or stirring. But there was a chef from the restaurant who demonstrated how to mix sangria, and then we got to mix our own pitchers. It was fun, especially since I ended up sitting with a load of young and friendly Australians and New Zealanders (no surprise, they really get around, and are always chatty).

It was also fun because there was a LOT of sangria ingredients provided so we were able to perfect the recipe through much trial and error (“Hmmm…. maybe a bit too much brandy in that one… next time let’s try a bit more red wine… ok stop adding fruit, the fruit is taking up way too much space in the pitcher…).

Libby, Jason and… er…. sorry. Also: a fresh pitcher of sangria, and some paella. (To Rob H: Look - people! See, I am listening.)

The chef demonstrated how to make paella in a huge pan, and he was fun in that bossy chef kind of way. Mostly though, I just hung around with the kids and had fun talking. After we ate we hung around more, and we drank more sangria, and the kids proved to be perfectly charming when we got talking about everyone’s age (it was Jason’s 22nd birthday the next day). They decided I was about 27. Did I mention they were nice kids?

The paella… really, it turned out to be a minor player in the evening’s events.

At some point a guy came around trying to sign people up for a day of kayaking and snorkeling up on the Costa Brava the next day . Considering all I had on the agenda was another museum, and the cost was a reasonable €45, and we were well into our 4th or 5th pitcher of sangria, I signed up on the spot. I mean if I could surf in Ireland, surely I could snorkel in Spain.

But that, as they say, is another story. Let’s leave it with me and the charming but hard-drinking Aussies, and talk about kayaking another time. Suffice it to say that I managed to extricate myself before it got too late, and before I started drinking sangria straight from the pitcher through a straw. And my semi-inebriated navigational skills once again delivered me safely to my bed. Maybe that’s my problem. Maybe I need to have a couple of beers before I attempt to use any map.

Stay tuned for the kayaking report.***

* And one in which I find myself in the unfamiliar role of translator. The woman in the couchette across from me speaks Spanish, Italian and French. The woman in the couchette under her speaks English and Japanese. Therefore my English-French is the common denominator. It’s cool.

** There’s just one small hitch – I don’t actually have a ticket to get into the Palace, and when I tried to get one online they were sold out. Apparently September-October is the busy season. No problem though, I have Rick Steves in my corner. Rick assures me that I have several options. I can either get up early and stand in line – the ticket office opens at 8:00am, and you generally have to be in line by 7:30 to get an entry ticket for that day. Or I can pay through the nose for a guided tour booked at one of the fancy hotels. Or – and this is likely what I’ll do – I can go at night! Rick says “If you’re frustrated by the reservation system… late-night visits to Alhambra are easy (you never need a reservation – just buy your ticket upon arrival) and magical (less crowded and beautifully lit). The night visits only include the Palacios Nazaries… but hey, the palace is 80 percent of the Alhambra’s thrills anyways.” Rick, don’t fail me now.

*** Spoiler: I survived with all body parts intact and unsprained, strained or otherwise mangled, so kayaking and snorkeling were really more fun than surfing.****

****Also stay tuned for news about the huge festival in Barcelona that just happened to start the day before I left. And the report on my health, which has taken a sharp downward turn since I felt the tickle in the back of my throat on the overnight train. Yup. I had to happen sooner or later – I’m getting sick.

Getting back on the horse

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

It’s been a rough few days on the trail here at Go See Run Eat Drink. In fact, it’s been more like Sit Stew Mope Eat Drink. I wasn’t in a good mood when I arrived in Barcelona. I wasn’t happy about leaving France, and I wasn’t really feeling up to the challenge of another new city and language and map and metro system and on and on. Add to that the whole wallet fiasco, and you may understand why I holed up in a private hotel room for most of the weekend. By about mid-afternoon on Sunday, though, I was getting a bit restless, so I took the opportunity to wander by the hostel I’d originally been aiming when I arrived (before I realized I really really needed my own space for a while). It seemed nice, so I decided it was time to kick myself out of the nest and return to the backpacker fray of an 8-bed hostel room. The longer I spend by myself, the harder it becomes to reach out and connect with anyone around me, and that’s no fun at all. In fact, it may have been a little hit of Rick Steves that got me going again: “Extroverts have more fun. If your trip is low on magic moments, kick yourself and make things happen.” Either that, or the Spirit of Rob Hamilton is with me.

Whatever it was, I reserved three nights at Hostel Itaca, and I made plans for the rest of my time in Spain and Portugal. I booked a walking tour. I went for an 11km run in the rain. I “chatted” with a few people on my email list. And on Monday morning, bright and early, I packed up and moved to the hostel, and then headed out for a day of proper tourist business.

The walking tour I did was a disappointment. Perhaps I was still distracted by my lingering self-pity, but I just couldn’t get into it. I did get some good errands done afterwards, though. I got a fresh roll of clear tape for abbreviating guide books and laminating paper wallets. I got new copies of my passports made, since I realized I was walking around with no ID other than bank and credit cards. And I made train reservations to Granada, Madrid and Lisbon. With that done, and feeling pretty good about things, I headed for my big destination of the day, Sagrada Familia – the famous unfinished church by Anton Gaudi.

I arrived, but I was starting to feel that creeping “meh, so what” feeling again, especially when I realized that I had almost no cash on me. The revived only-carry-one-day-of-cash plan is in effect, but the train reservations were pricier than I expected, so I wandered around looking for a bank machine. This lead to a long series of episodes wherein I would ineffectually sticking my bank card into machine after machine and be rejected by each one, growing more and more annoyed by the minute. By the time I gave up and sat in the park across from the church the attitude I had to the whole thing was, and I’m quoting directly from my thoughts here so this is not G-rated (sensitive readers, avert your eyes), “I don’t give a flying fuck about this fucking church.”

So of course I went up and forked over my (almost) last €11.00 for the admission and €4.00 for the audioguide. Because that’s what we go here at Go See Run Eat Drink. We see things.

Well I have to tell you that I owe Anton Gaudi a big thank you because as soon as I stopped and really looked, and listened to the excellent audio commentary, I was hooked. Sagrada Familia is at once impressive and whimsical, imposing and inviting, overdone and restrained, and really just simply fantastic. I’m sorry York Minster, Sagrada Familia isn’t even finished yet, but it may still be my new favourite church.

In fact, it’s only about 50% complete even though they’ve been working on it since 1882, and that might be one of my favourite things about it. I think it’s wonderful that it’s taking as long to build this church as it used to take when they really knew how to build churches. Again, to quote Rick Steves:

“There’s something powerful about an opportunity to feel a community of committed people with a vision working on a church that will not be finished in their lifetime.”

I knew somewhere in the back of my head that the church wasn’t finished, but I really had no notion of exactly how not finished it is. It is really really not done. There are gigantic towers and facades that haven’t even been started. And the whole inside of the nave is full of scaffolding and construction materials and scissor-lifts and guys in hard hats and steel toes. It’s a freakin’ construction site. It was great. There they were, going about the business of building this amazing thing, and all around them tourists were filing through taking pictures.

Worker, watched over by a statue of St. Jordi, Barcelona’s patron saint.

Despite the unfinished nature of the place, it’s easy to see the absolute genius of the design. It’s bloody great. The columns in the nave were my favourite bit I think. Everyone talks about them being like trees which is true of course, but I really liked hearing about the geometry of the shapes. Gaudi wasn’t just mimicking nature – he was using those forms as a springboard to create these brilliant twisted helicoidal shapes that start out 8-sided at the bottom and get more and more circular the farther up they go. And where they break into more smaller columns – like the limbs of a tree – the meeting point is a big parabolic* shape, with other small parabolas taken out or added on like knots in a tree, but geometrically perfect at the same time. It was fantastic, and though I understood about 1/100th of it all, it was right up my alley. It was art and engineering at the same time.

Nowadays they test the viability of these shapes with computer models, but back in the day Gaudi used to build (or have built) complex plaster models to test different shapes. These models became important insights into Gaudi’s original plans after his death, and there’s still a thriving model-building workshop in the basement of the church. That was my other favourite part.

The model shop

When he started the project, Gaudi knew he wouldn’t be alive to see it completed. He knew other artists and architects would have to carry on and he accepted that they weren’t just going to dig out his drawings and treat them like gospel. He knew that every person along the way would put their own stamp on the design. I think that’s cool too. Not just practical, but generous.

I could go on and on. There’s actually a lot more to see outside the church than there is inside. I like the controversial Passion Facade (only completed in 1970s) by Josep Maria Subirachs.

It took a while, but I really warmed to this style.

Other might prefer the “cake-in-the-rain”** effect and over-the-top ornamentation of the Nativity Facade.

Not my style, but it had the donations pouring in when it was completed before Gaudi died.

Once I’d finished the audioguide (which was supposed to last 70 minutes) two hours had passed. I had another quick look around and convinced myself I was well and truly done with Sagrada Familia. Better still, I was starting to feel like my old self. I wandered*** back to the hostel via a small grocery store and picked up the makings of a nice omelet, and a bottle of wine (I’m continuing to break in the corkscrew). And I made myself supper, and sat and wrote and felt pretty good.

I may not be all the way back on the horse yet, but at least I have a vague notion of where the horse, and I’m heading in his direction.

* I think they’re parabolas. Then again, they might be ellipsoids or hyperbolas or tetrabolicoloidinaldecathromodons. Or something like that.

** That’s a Rick Steves phrase. Credit where credit is due… It’s been really nice having Rick around again, I must say. The LP is still the gospel, but RS has an infectious enthusiasm that I’ve been lacking lately.

*** Ok, I’ll admit that I tried to go see the “Block of Discord”, a series of Modernista buildings near Place Catalunya that looked like it would be a quick and pleasant detour, given my new-found love of all things Gaudi. Astute GSRED readers will be able to predict what happened next. Yes, that’s right, upon emerging from the Metro station I went the wrong way. Again. Oh, and then when I realized I was going the wrong way I stopped to figure things out and set off again in a new and different wrong way. God, it’s a wonder I can make it from my bed to the door most days.

Expensive Bonehead Mistake, The Sequel

Saturday, September 19, 2009

God, I am stupid. They never should have let me out of my own back yard, let alone out of the country. You probably all remember the first Expensive Bonehead Mistake:


Well I’ve got a new one for you. I arrived in Barcelona on Friday night. I was tired, I was distracted, and I was not feeling at all ready to tackle a new city. However, when I changed trains in Port Bou there were no connections to Winnipeg, so I had little choice. The train arrived at Estació Sants and I had to get the metro to the area where I was staying.*

The Barcelona metro has automated touch screen machines for buying tickets, and having studied my LP Spain for most of the trip from Port Bou I knew I wanted a 10-ticket pass for €7.20, which is a substantial savings over the €1.30 single ticket. I got my wallet out, but then noticed that the machine I was at did not accept bills, only coins. And because I was tired and fed up I decided to buy a single ticket with the change in my pocket and deal with the 10-ticket pass thing in the morning. So I fished out my change, and bought my ticket and plunged into the metro looking forward to a private room and a day off in the morning. I was at least five stops down the line before I noticed I didn't have my wallet. At first I thought I may have been pick- pocketed but my passport was still there in the same pocket where my wallet has been riding for the last 97 days, and I thought it unlikely that a thief would take one and not the other. Then I realized I must have set my wallet on the machine when I fished the change from my pocket, and just left it there after getting my ticket. Brilliant.

Of course I got off the train and turned around and took the next train back, but the wallet was long gone. I’m sure it was gone 2.7 seconds after I turned my back. The metro guy I talked to was nice, but there was nothing to be done. He was kind enough to let me back in to the metro without a ticket, but there was nothing more he could do.

So off I went, and after a bit of frustration I found the hostal** I’d had my eye on, and the stairwell was clean, and the place was great, and the man at the desk was very nice and sympathetic and said they had one room left. It was a double, but he let me have it for €35.00/night. I dug out my back-up bank card and my back-up credit card and checked in for two nights. And then he gave me the key and I got into the room and dropped my stuff and sat on the bed and cried and cried and cried. Up to that point, mind you, I think I was being a very brave little soldier and holding it together pretty damned well, thank you very much.

With that out of my system, I got to work. Besides about €300 in cash***, I’d lost my Citizens Bank ATM card, and my Mastercard, and my Manitoba Driver’s Licence, and some business cards of people I’ve met along the way, and the photocopy of my Canadian passport I keep so I don’t have to carry the real thing for ID. I phoned Mastercard right away and canceled my card and arranged for the delivery of an emergency replacement. Again, the hostal guy was great, he wrote out the numbers for me to call (they weren’t the right ones, but it was a sweet gesture), and he helped me figure out how to use the hostal phone to make reverse-charged calls.

I also texted Karen, my North American P.A., and she was able to get my |ATM card canceled, since I was completely unable to connect to any of the Citizens Bank numbers from my cell phone. And she figured out what I need to do to get the driver’s licence replaced. Once that was taken care of I headed out into the night with my backup bank card and got some cash and went to the grocery store to pick up something to eat, and something to drink. And since we were just having a look at my gear situation, you may not be surprised to hear that I added a new bit of kit to the team that night.

Welcome on board, corkscrew!

I’d already planned to take Saturday off – I really felt like I needed a break. And since I discovered an open wifi connection that works in my spacious and lovely €35/night room, there was no doubt that Saturday would be an easy day. Here was the entire plan for Saturday: sleep in, do laundry, hash.

I’m happy to report that the plan was carried out to the letter. In fact, I really must have needed a lie-in because I woke up at 11:15am, by far the latest I’ve slept since the trip started. Miraculously, my replacement Mastercard had already arrived. (Miraculous, but largely useless since the replacement card doesn’t have a chip in it and most places over here require a chip. Thank God my Visa card has one.) Laundry was a non-event, and easier than I expected since helpful hostal guy directed me to a laundromat much closer than the one listed in the LP. And then I noodled around on the internet and made myself a new wallet out of four pages of old cribbage scores taped together and folded cleverly.

Carefully modified to accept €50 notes. And a pleasant reminder of past cribbage triumph.

I’ve decided that I’m going to take Sunday off too. I just feel like this is one of those times when I need to stop and withdraw from the world for a bit. Catch up with the blog, update my budgets and plans, actually hang up my clothing, relax, and regroup. Get my mojo back. One day more or less will not make a difference in the schedule. The world will still be there.

And besides, I think that corkscrew is going to need a bit more breaking in.

* On top of everything, this is the first time I’ve arrived in a city with no confirmed accommodations. It was laziness. I did try and phone the hostel I was thinking about (twice) but either I was cut off, or they hung up. So when I say I was heading to where I was staying really I mean “I was heading to the area in which there was at least one likely spot for me to stay, and hoping to God that it was available and did not have anyone shooting up in the stairwell.” (Though I may have been flexible on that last point, given the lateness of the hour and the fragility of my spirit.)

** No, that’s not a typo. As the LP says, in Spain there are hostels, hostals, and hotels (those are in ascending order of cost). Hostal Campi is fantastic. Great location, big, bright, clean rooms, and a decent library of "trade-in" books that included a 2009 Rick Steves Guide to Spain (!!!), which I snatched up in no time. I've become a confirmed LP girl, but Rick has an infectious spirit and reading through his book is helping me get back into the swing of things.

*** Ouch! I’ve been getting careless about the amount of cash I carry. Everyone says you should only carry as much as you need for the day and leave the rest in your money belt or locked up at your hotel. I’ve been lazy and have been carrying it all, and I’d just made a withdrawal that morning before getting on the train, so I was loaded. Again, quite arrestingly stupid.****

**** Actually, I keep saying how stupid I feel about this all, but I'm pretty pleased at how it turned out. Here it is, about 27 hours after the event and I've got cash in my pocket, a new credit card, and a new (custom-made) wallet. The only real damage is to my ego and my budget. This could have been a real show-stopper, but instead it was just a hiccup. Maybe I'm actually am smart enough for this.

The Gear Update

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

In general, I’m happy with how the gear is performing. There are very few things I’ve packed that remain unused (the first aid kit and the malaria meds… so really that shouldn’t even count). Even better, I don’t recall any moments when I’ve thought, “Damn! If only I’d brought… (fill in “essential” item here:) a reversible ski jacket, Peterson’s Field Guide to Nordic Fungi, soap*. My clothes are showing some wear, and developing what might generously be termed a patina but would more accurately be called perma-grime. However if no one looks too closely and I don’t spend too many days around the same people it’s all fine. I’m getting a bit tired of the wardrobe, and am on the lookout for a new shirt (see below), but otherwise I’m content.

The Aeronaut is performing like a champ – even when I was hauling around two unedited guide books, and two books of fiction and two computers I was still about to cram everything in. I admit I’ve had to check it on my most recent flights, but that wasn't because it was over-sized, but because it weighs about 30lbs when it’s really packed tightly, and that’s well past the 10kg carry-on limit. I’d love to lose some of that weight, but I’m not sure how. And I’m still miles ahead of the people with backpacks so large they can’t walk under low bridges.

All packed up and waiting for the train to St. Petersburg.

As for everything else, here’s an update:

Gold Stars:

- My Palm Centro is always with me. I can’t believe I was thinking about not bringing a cell phone. It’s brilliant to be able to send text messages to friends at home, or new friends over here, or Twitter. And it’s great to be able to call ahead to hostels and hotels and museums and such. And I’ve got all those PDA functions to note down train times and keep track of expenses, and I can read e-books, and keep my packing list, and it’s my alarm clock, and has even pinch-hit when I’ve forgotten my digital camera.

- Miraculously, my sunglasses are still with me. I honestly can’t believe this, because I lose sunglasses all the time. I bet I could lose a just-purchased pair of sunglasses between the checkout till and exit door of the store. These ones have even survived me dropping them AND stepping on them outside the Guinness Brewery in Dublin. Both arms popped off and one lens is scratched, but I was able to snap them back together, and now just have to keep reminding myself that the irksome smudge on the right is a problem with the glasses and not my eyeballs.

- The convertible packing cube/shoulder bag has been handy; I’m glad it made the cut. It works really well to pack all my “in flight” (or, more commonly, “on train”) stuff into so it can be extracted neatly before stowing the Aeronaut above seat. I bought a light strap for it and now I can use it as a day bag when I don’t have a lot to carry or don’t feel like looking quite so geeky with my bright red Canada flag daypack.

Gone, but not forgotten:

- The fork from my cutlery set, carelessly forgotten at a cafe in Paris, but not mourned for long since it was the instrument that dealt the death blow to:

- The Asus Eee PC 901. No need to dredge up those sad memories, but for those who want the whole sorry tale again, it’s here.

- The Kwikpoint translator. In fact, I’ve only recently realized that this has gone missing, and I’m quite miffed about that. How will I find the waterskiing goats?

- A pair of socks that parted company with me so early on that I barely remember having them. It think it was Day Four, and I suspect they hitched a ride with one of the three Australian girls who were in my room at Stalag Russell Square. Then again, the Australians in question could not possibly have noticed they had my socks because their wheelie suitcases were so enormous they each could have accidentally packed a stray Volkswagen without realizing it.

- My space pen. I used it to draw up my plan of attack on a map of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, and left it on the bench where I was sitting. It was gone by the time I realized it was missing and went back to retrieve it. That was a blow indeed. My ability to jot down notes upside-down, underwater, and in the vacuum of space has been severely curtailed.

- My Steripen water purifier. It worked beautifully in Russia… twice. Then the UV light refused to turn on and the little indicator screen showed a sad face. I had to send it back to Canada, along with my broken computer. Luckily Karen (my Personal Assistant, North American Division**) found another one and it will soon be on its way to me. When it worked, it was great.

Sad face.

Welcome to the party:

- A belt. My pants were getting a bit too stretched out and falling down-y. Now, however, I may have drunk enough Guinness and eaten enough bread, paté and cheese that I could dispense with the belt.

- Asus Eee PC 1005HA. Bigger screen, longer battery life, much bigger drive, and a funky UK style plug. It’s all good.

- Cotton t-shirt from my cousin Pam, mostly worn for sleeping in and when doing laundry. It’s been comfy. I only wash it at laundromats and other locations equipped with tumble-dryers.

- A pair of black running socks, acquired in Belfast. Excellent because they’re already black, hence I can pretend they’re still clean until they get so funky they actually go out for a quick 5k on their own.

- A roll of clear tape and an exacto knife. These were originally bought for slicing and re-binding guide books into lighter and more convenient sections, but both items have proved to be useful beyond those roles. It turns out an exacto knife will cut up a tomato or a melon just as well as a Swiss Army knife will, and clear tape will help keep the screen protector on a digital camera or a stupid plug in a wall (see below).

On Probation:

- My headphones. Creative EP-630s. One side has stopped working, but I haven’t bothered doing anything about it yet. It turns out that I mostly use the iPod when running, and it’s kind of handy to have one ear open to listen for large trucks and suicidal motorcycles careening around blind corners.

- The Patagonia Sol Patrol shirt. This one is crushing. I looked for the perfect shirt for so long that it pains me to have to report that the material the shirt is made out of is crap. About a week in to the trip I noticed that it was developing patches of “pilling” where my day pack must rub up against the back of the shirt, and around where the straps sit. ONE WEEK IN TO THE TRIP. Seriously? That shirt was not cheap, and it’s Patagonia, for God’s Sake, not some Salvation Army hand-me-down thing. I took it in to a Patagonia store in Dublin and the sales woman there agreed that it was unacceptable and offered my another shirt in return, but they didn’t have anything that fit properly. I still need to send a strongly-worded email to those slackers at Patagonia.

- Power adapter, euro-plug attachment. This is definitely a case of something trying to do so many different things that is does none of them especially well. Stupid thing. It was fine in the UK because UK-style plugs are so ridiculously large, heavy and tight-fitting that they sometimes require a swift boot in order to make contact. The problem comes with the euro adapter, which is just a flimsy little thing with two round prongs. It doesn’t grab into the recessed round sockets here very well so it’s always losing contact. I seem to spend endless hours cursing and grubbing around behind bunk beds among renaissance-era piles of dust trying to get the damned thing to stick into the wall. Then I give up and break out the roll of tape and literally have to tape the plug to the wall. Then the tape gives way and the plug gradually works loose and the whole cycle starts over again. I finally gave up and bought a specific adapter just for Europe, and now I just don’t know what to do with all this free time.

Good riddance:

- The neck pouch thingy for carrying valuable. Yuck. It was sweaty and uncomfortable and it looked stupid. I used it for the flight to Heathrow and I vowed that dead weight would never hang from my neck again. I bought a proper under-the-clothes money belt in London, and it is MUCH better. I wear it with the pouch part around back, and usually forget it’s there.

- The protective sleeve that came with the new computer. “What?” I hear you cry. “Wasn’t that the reason the now-missing fork was able to wreak such havoc?" Indeed, yes, but the sleeve supplied with the new computer was irksome. It didn’t fit particularly well, and the outside was covered in an annoyingly grippy material that made it hard to extract from the depths of a bag or backpack, and attracted dust and lint like a full cooler attracts hashers. I bought a smart new sleeve at a Fnac store on the Champs Élysées.

Much more fun than basic black.

- Every guide book I own. I’m normally a book-lover and am slightly Nazi-ish about the state in which my books are kept, but I’ve gotten over these tendencies when it comes to guide books. Instead, I try to think of them as tools and cull them mercilessly as I travel. Leaving Paris? Toss out the pages on Paris. Know I won’t be visiting the Loire Valley? Pass the exacto knife. It’s the only way to go.

There’s other stuff to report, I’m sure. After all, I’m in France. But you’ve heard about baguettes*** and you’ve seen my pics of the Eiffel Tower. I’ll get back to the travelogue soon, but until then, I’ve just got to send that email to Patagonia. What’s a polite way of saying “shoddy piece of over-priced crap”?

* It turns out that the only soap one really needs is shampoo. It will clean hair, skin, clothing, and dishes. The trouble comes when you’re carrying only 3 oz at a time. It’s pretty easy to power through the stuff when it’s performing four functions. I’d just like to say thanks to every hotel I’ve stayed at that's equipped with a big bottle of shampoo/shower gel bolted to the wall. They're really handy for refilling those tiny travel bottles…

** As opposed to Anne, Personal Assistant, UK Division. Or LJO, Mailing Address and Chauffeur Services, Dutch Division. Or Kai, IT Department, France. Or Nigel and Margaret, Camping Supplies, Scotland… and on and on and on…

*** Actually, you haven’t heard ALL about baguettes. I know I go one about it a bit, but they really do love their baked goods here. You can hardly walk 50 down any street without passing at least one or two bakeries. I see people wandering around with baguettes ALL THE TIME. And I've actually seen people do that thing where they tear the end off the baguette and eat it as soon as they leave the boulangerie. I have a vague memory of my French teacher telling us about this practice when I was in high school 150 years ago, and I guess if I thought about it at all it occupied the same area in my brain as beret-wearing, phrases like "Ooo la la", and Pepé le Pew. Turns out it's really true. And I've seen one or two berets, and heard a few "Ooo la las. No talking skunks yet.

Endless Summer

Monday, September 14, 2009

As I write this the calendar says it’s September 13th, but I’m finding that really hard to believe. My life for the last 3 months has been stuck in a sort of permanent July, and there’s no end in sight. Labour Day came and went and the only reason it meant anything at all to me is because I could Skype with Karen and Steve earlier in the day because they weren’t at work.* It’s strange.

Fall is my favourite time of year. The days are still warm, but there’s a crispness to the air in the morning and the trees all turn colours and you get to dig up a favourite sweater again and start thinking about cooking things that need to bubble in a pot on the back of the stove for hours. And because I’ve spent my life either in school or in a kind of job that works in seasons, every September since I was about four years old has come with that exciting fresh start feeling you get with a new year of school or a new season of shows. I’ve often thought that we should celebrate New Year’s in the fall, though eliminating any holiday from the cold, dark days of January would be extravagantly cruel.**

At this time last year I was hard at work – we were building the first show of the year, and were about to start rehearsing it too (And if that’s not a “first day of school” feeling, then I don’t know what is. The first day of rehearsal for the first show of the season? Grand.) I’ve had a look back through my agenda from September 2008 and it’s all full of meetings with designers and consultations with outside trainers and staff photos and stuff like that. And I ran a 14km trail race on the 13th and a half marathon on the 14th. And I had my teeth cleaned, and my eyes checked. That was my totally normal life one year ago. Today I’m in a cheap (but nice) hotel in a small city in France, with one bag of belongings and no responsibilities and not much of a plan other than “Barcelona some time next week, and Portugal after that.” It’s funny how the wind blows sometimes.

I’m not complaining. Well, not seriously anyways. I admit that when I think about it, I think how nice it would be to have a walk in the old neighbourhood, shuffling through dry leaves and thinking about what to make for supper and zipping up my jacket because it’s a bit chillier than I expected. Instead, I think I’ll wander down and have all-you-can-eat mussels and frites and possibly contemplate a glass of wine or two.

Like I said, I’m not complaining.

* The fact that, regardless of their holiday schedule, I didn’t end up Skyping them until about 12:30am Paris time is beside the point. As is the fact that part of the reason I was late is that once again I ended up walking for about 10 minutes in exactly the wrong direction after deciding to get off the metro one stop early and walk a bit further rather than changing lines. This time I blame my $3.00 compass, because I knew I was supposed to be going west, and I’m sure that’s what the compass said, so I just kept striding confidently down the dark street next to the elevated metro tracks, past an uncomfortable number of the kind of coffee shops and bars that come equipped with a permanent collection of shady characters who hang about at small tables outside the place, smoking cigarettes and giving off a vaguely menacing aura. By the time I reached the metro stop before the one where I’d got off, I really didn’t fancy walking back past all that again, so I just got on the damned train again, and changed to the other line like I should have done in the first place, and took the new line that single stop, and it was all fine, except that my time-saving shortcut ended up taking about an extra 45 minutes, and Karen kept texting me saying “Skype??”

**God, could you imagine the bleakness of going all the way from Boxing Day to Easter without a break? People would be stabbing themselves with icicles.

Lance Corporal Mervyn Shopland Gibbs

Friday, September 11, 2009

The day I arrived in Caens was a beautiful, hot, sunny day: blue skies, with hardly a cloud to be seen. It was an ice-cream-and-bare-feet day. The next day – the day I went to find the grave of my great uncle – I woke to a completely overcast sky and cool temperatures. Rain, or at least drizzle, was forecast. It seemed appropriate.

No one from my family has ever visited the grave, so when he knew I would be in the area my Dad asked me to go and take some pictures. He doesn’t ask for much, my Dad, so I was happy to do this. He also gave me copies of the letters from the Department of National Defense about the whereabouts of the grave. They were terribly sad. I can’t imagine what it must be like to receive a letter like that.

So when I arrived in Caen yesterday my first stop, after a sweaty 20 minute trudge from the station, was the Tourist Information Office (or “TI”, as we “RTW” types like to call it). I had a bit of a tricky task – the Canadian War Cemetery at Bény-sur-Mer is not exactly on the beaten track, so I needed some advice on how to get there and back. The woman who helped me was really good and very friendly and tolerated my poor language skills and odd requests with a smile. However it seems that the good people at the Caen TI are not often called upon to get visiting Canadians to and from a cemetery 20 km away. Wikipedia, on the other hand, made it sound like finding the place would be a simple matter:

The cemetery is about 1 kilometre east of the village of Reviers, in the Calvados department, on the Creully-Tailleville-Ouistreham road (D.35). It is located 15 kilometres northwest of Caen, 18 kilometres east of Bayeux, and 3.5 kilometres south of Courseulles-sur-Mer. The village of Bény-sur-Mer is some 2 kilometres southeast of the cemetery. The bus service between Caen and Arromanches (via Reviers and Ver-sur-Mer) passes the cemetery.* The cemetery can be accessed any time, and tours of the cemetery are available through companies offering tours of historic D-Day locations in the area. The cemetery is easy to find, and plenty of parking is available.

I’m sure that’s all fine if one has a car and a proper map. However, if one is à pied, it’s another matter. And to confuse things further, it turns out that the Bény-sur-Mer cemetery is actually closer to the tiny town of Reviers than it is to the slightly larger eponymous town of Bény-sur-Mer.

Nevertheless, there is a way. There really is a bus that goes from Caens to Reviers (Ligne 6, from Place Courtonne, €3.20 one-way, for future reference), and it’s a short walk from the town to the cemetery. The first bus of the day leaves Caen at 12:37 pm and arrives at Riviers at 1:12 pm. Perfect. The problem comes if one desires to return from Reviers to Caens. The last (in fact, only) bus from Reviers to Caens departs at 1:36 pm, allowing just 24 minutes of time in Reviers. I ask you, what kind of slack-jawed cretin devises a bus schedule like that? Honestly.

Back at the TI we looked at alternatives and determined that the simplest thing would be to reserve a taxi to pick me up at the cemetery and deliver me back to Caen. Not the cheapest option, but the one with the greatest chance of success. By this time I’d reached the very limit of my ability in French so the long-suffering woman at the TI phoned and made the reservation for me. And then I decided I should probably leave because they were actually turning out the lights.** No matter, I was sorted.

The next morning I got the bus as advertised and had no trouble finding the cemetery. I really was a short walk from the town, and it’s surrounded by farmland, which seemed very appropriate. I knew I'd found it as soon as I topped the hill, and just seeing this had me blinking back a few tears:

Notice that the Canadian flagpole is slightly taller than the French one - nice touch. The French may be arrogant about some things, but they can not be faulted when it comes to acknowledging their debt to the men who gave their lives to free them.

My first stop was the cemetery register. Every war cemetery I've been to has a register - it's just a plain bunch of bundled sheets that lists every marker in the cemetery, ordered by last name, along with a few details about the soldier. Some entries have notes about medals won - I saw one at Essex Farm about a Victoria Cross winner. And there's always a Visitor's Book too, where you can sign your name and leave a message. They're normally stored together in a little recess in a wall, away from the elements.

I had no trouble finding the entry I was looking for:

There was nothing for it then but to go find the grave, which was a simple matter. He was right where he was supposed to be – Plot 11, Row A, Grave 5.

It was really emotional standing there in front of that headstone. Ypres was emotional too, but in an overwhelming and abstract kind of way. This was personal. Here was someone I’d never met, in fact never had a chance to meet, but who was still part of me. Mervyn Gibbs was the oldest son of four siblings – he had one brother and two sisters. One sister was my grandmother and one is my great aunt who I still visit when I’m home. If it hadn’t been for that war I might still be able to visit him too. Granted he’d be about 88 years old by now, but that would mean he’d have had 65 years more life than he got.

I’ve been thinking about this side-trip for a while, and a few days ago I realized that I wanted to leave something at the grave just to show I’d been there. Just to show that someone had been there to personally acknowledge the sacrifice of this particular man. I thought about flowers, but that didn’t feel right. It felt like it should be something from home, but I really couldn’t think what that might be. I could see that people sometimes leave Canadian coins, but I’d long since got rid of any of those. And some people simply balance small pebbles on the top of the headstone, but that didn’t seem right either. Then I figured it out. I cut the little Canadian flag badge off of my daypack, and I left it tucked into the plants at the base of the headstone.

It's not much, but it was left with care.

It feels strange to be without it – like I’ve lost a bit of my identity. But it feels better knowing it’s there, and it seemed right that it should be something that had traveled as far as he had. At 23 years old he came all the way over here to fight for people and a place he’d never known, and he died doing it, and now he’s here forever. That really struck me – how very very young he was and how very very far from home. Now at least there’s a little bit of home with him.

The whole cemetery is fairly large – slightly bigger than Essex Farm at Ypres, but much smaller than Tyne Cot. It contains 2049 markers, many of which are for those who were killed in early July 1944 in the Battle for Caen. And I’m happy to report that it is immaculately kept – the grass is neatly mowed, and the leaves falling off the maple trees must be raked up regularly. In fact there was a gardener there this afternoon tidying things up, and he was kind enough to take my picture for me.

There’s also been an extensive program to replace many of the markers due to faster-than-expected deterioration. I could see some of the ones that hadn’t been replaced yet, and they were indeed looking a bit sad. The marker for my uncle is almost certainly new – it was pristine. The people at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission do good work.

And then I looked around, and I took a lot more pictures, and just sort of thought about things. I was there for about an hour and a half before my cab arrived, and it was a good amount of time. Long enough that it felt appropriate and respectful, but not so long that I was spending more time thinking about how it really must be time to have something to eat*** than about what I was there for. And then the cab came and whisked me back to reality, or at least what passes for reality for me these days. All that remained was to try and find a late lunch and to gather my thoughts about the day. And so I did.

What to say in closing? All I can think of is this: Thank you, Lance Corporal Mervyn Gibbs. You gave your name to my father and you gave your life to us all. I wish I could have known you.

Rest in peace.

Lance Corporal Mervyn Shopland Gibbs, died July 8, 1944, Age 23.

* In fact this is true, but only between July 3 and September 1. Convenient.

** They really were, but I hasten to add that everyone at the Caens Tourist Information Office was unfailingly pleasant, with nary a Parisian “Pffftt” to be heard. The fact that they turned out the lights on me is just because it was 6:02 pm and they closed at 6:00 pm.

*** And let me tell you whatever crazy Frenchman decided that every decent restaurant in Caens must be closed between the hours of 3pm and 6pm should be forced to eat at McDonald’s for eternity. And super-size that, please. I ended up noshing on a sandwich and beer in my hotel room, which is in flagrant disregard of the notice declaring Il est interdit de manger dans les chambres. Hrrummmph.... Il est aussi interdit de faire la lessive (already done it), d'accrocher du ligne aux fenêtres (easily accomplished) et de cuisiner (slightly more complicated but not impossible). If I put my mind to it, I could manage to break all the rules before sunset.

Random Observations on Paris

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

As with Moscow, there are a number of things I’ve noticed that are interesting, but don’t really warrant a proper long post. Here you go:


There are buskers on the Metro here. Notice I didn’t say in the Metro, as in “hanging about in the tunnels between platforms”. I said on the Metro, as in “riding on the trains”. The first time I saw this was on the train out to the Catacombs – there was a guy in my car who actually had a microphone and amplifier and was doing some kind of karaoke act. Despite the fact that I’ve recently made the acquaintance of someone who is busking for his dinner and thus am more aware of how precarious an existence that can be, I was tight-fisted with this particular guy because really, karoake to a canned sound track? The next day there was a nice violinist in my car and since I am a generous sort I gave him fifty cents, so now he can probably get that 96” plasma screen TV he’s been saving up for.


One night I went to a one-man comedy show near le Bastille; it was billed as being 100% English, and promised to teach you how to become Parisian. It was only sorta funny, but some of it was really true. For instance, the guy taught us what he called the “Parisian Sound”, which is that contemptuous “pfffft” noise usually accompanied by a quick roll of the eyes that marks a true Parisian’s reaction to, well, almost anything. The funny thing is that a few days later I found myself making that very noise after deciding to have a coffee and pastry near Notre Dame, solely so I could use the toilet in the café. Upon discovering that, even for paying customers, the toilet cost an additional 50 cents, I instinctively let out a “pfffft” that would have made any Parisian proud and departed instantly. Well I mean, really.

Pleasant street near the annoying café


Some of the metro cars here have little buttons or levers you use to open the doors when the train arrives at the platform. The cool thing is that if you push the button early, the doors will actually open before the train comes to a complete stop, which lets you hop off in a rakish manner, somewhat like being on one of the old Routemaster doubledecker buses in London. Ah, it takes me back…


It seems like all hostels in Paris have a mid-day lock-out period, which is really annoying. I remember this from London twenty years ago, but all of the hostels I’ve stayed at so far have evolved since that time. Not in Paris. The lock-out is ostensibly so that the hostel rooms can be cleaned during the day, but if the staff at the hostel I currently inhabit are really spending 11:00 am to 3:00 pm cleaning the place then I shudder to think what the place would be like without that time. It’s conveniently located and has free wifi, but I wouldn’t want to have surgery there or anything.


I think I’ve mostly got the whole computer disaster sorted out. The new machine still needs some tweaks – iTunes is being, well, iTunes-y, and I need to get in under the hood and expunge a bunch of Microsoft bloatware and such, but generally it’s working fine and the battery life is brilliant. I was also able to arrange a pleasant evening of quality time with an external monitor and the “forked”* old computer, so I rescued the files I needed from it and it’s now been dispatched home along with my broken steripen and a few other odds and sods. It’s a relief not to be dragging all that (literally) dead weight around with me. And though I suspect he’ll never see this, I have to thank Kai, the sort-of hasher** who invited me over to his flat to let me use an old monitor, and chatted with me, and gave me a cup of tea, and then opened the bottle of wine I’d brought as a thank you, and then walked with me through a nice park back to the metro. What can I say? It’s all about the kindness of strangers.


The Arc de Triomphe is smack in the middle of a gigantic traffic circle. It’s madness – 12 streets converge at that point, which is called Charles de Gaulle Etoile, I guess because it looks like big star on maps. The roundabout – the world’s largest, according to the LP - is about 5 lanes wide and I honestly can’t figure out how that many cars manage to negotiate it without everyone ending up in a crumpled heap. From the sidelines it looks like utter chaos.

The Arc de Triomphe


The food… God. I keep walking down streets that are lined with shops selling beautiful bread and pastries that are works of art and fruits and vegetables and artisinal sausages and paté and oils and wine. It’s become apparent to me that in order to really experience the best of Paris you need three things:

  1. An infinite budget
  2. An infinite appetite, and
  3. An infinite ability to ingest calories without actually becoming infinite.

Despite having none of the above, I think I’m making a game stab at the first part of number three, but failing miserably at the second.

Macarons! They will be my undoing.


That’s all for now, stay tuned for news about my trip to the Bény-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery, near the Normandy coast. I’m going there to visit the grave of my Great-Uncle Mervyn, of the Regina Rifles.

* Ironically, I’ve actually lost the fork that was the cause of all the trouble. I used it at a café near the Musée D’Orsay and forgot it on the table. It was gone by the time I realized it was missing and went back to look for it. So now the computer is gone, and the fork is gone. It’s like the whole episode has been erased, which isn’t necessarily bad.

** Sort-of hasher because he’d hashed exactly once a couple of weeks ago and found it wasn’t quite what he was expecting. Still, he was on the email list to which my cry for help was sent, and he responded. Nice guy.

Encore! Encore!

Monday, September 7, 2009

I’ve had a good few days in Paris since we last spoke – seen some more of the highlights, and had a few distinctly subterranean experiences.

The Louvre was, as expected, entirely too big. I didn’t even try to see it all. In fact I swanned in around noon to get my entrance ticket and my ticket to the 2:30pm guided tour, and then went off to find lunch. After a lovely crêpe (well two crêpes actually, one savoury, one sweet, and a bowl of cider… it was a set menu, how could I refuse?) I wandered back for the tour. This one was similar to the one I did at the Musée D’Orsay in that each person in the group was given a headset and the guide wore a wireless microphone, which means that you were free to wander away from the guide’s immediate area and still hear the never-ending patter. It worked quite well until my guide, in an excess of passion, shouted at two miscreants fingering some priceless objet d’art saying “Ne touche pas les objets!” at top volume, which was then amplified and transferred to my ears at a dangerously ear-drum-damaging level.

Anyways, the tour was nice, and I saw all the big important stuff, like the Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory of Samothrace and this:

It’s small, and completely mobbed all of the time.

The crowd in front of the Mona Lisa. Wild.

I’ll only add that doing a tour of the Louvre in the mid-afternoon after a substantial lunch and a glass of cider leaves one feeling a bit dopey and more in the mood for a nap than a Da Vinci. Lesson learned. Objet d’art before lunch. Also: Ne touche pas!

On Friday morning I went to the market at Rue Cler – just a small street with a nice stretch of shops - and I bought the makings of a picnic to eat in a nearby park, before proceeding to the Catacombs (one of the aforementioned subterranean activities). Rue Cler was nice, and I got a chunk of cheese and a small baguette and a basket of really good strawberries and an enormous macaron and a café au lait. It was all really nice, so I took a picture.

Oo la la!

While I was eating my little picnic, in the metaphorical shadow if the Eiffel Tower (it was cloudy), I was treated to the overture of a well-known tourist scam, and am happy to report that I did not fall for it for one second. Here’s what Rick Steves says about how the scam is supposed to work:

The found ring: An innocent-looking person picks up a ring on the ground in front of you, and asks if you dropped it. When you say no, the person examines the ring more closely, then shows you a mark "proving" that it's pure gold. He offers to sell it to you for a good price — which is several times more than he paid for it before dropping it on the sidewalk.

And that’s exactly what happened, at least up to the “When you say no” part. The guy continued to talk and, having twigged to what was going on, I just held up my hand and shook my head and kept saying, “Non, non, non… allez!” Obviously the guy realized I was on to his little game and off he went to find someone more gullible (who would, no doubt, be wearing flip-flops). And so I finished my macaron, which was fantastic.*

After the picnic it was time for the Catacombs, a site that was on my “Must See” list. You’ve probably heard about this place, and seen pictures. It’s a series of underground tunnels – actually the remains of an old quarry under the city that’s now filled with bones exhumed from cemeteries all over Paris.

At the end of the 18th century, rampant disease in the les Halles neighbourhood caused by the adjacent Cemetery of the Innocents led to the mass grave being entirely exhumed. In 1785 it was decided that the bones were to be moved to the building stone quarry under the Mountsouris plain in the south of Paris. On April 7, 1786, after being properly converted and readied the quarries were consecrated and became the principal ossuary of Paris. Until 1788, cartloads covered with black cloths, escorted by priests chanting the office for the dead, crossed Paris by night to deposit their remains.

Not surprisingly, it’s pretty much off the charts on the Creepy Scale. Being underground in disused quarry tunnels, wandering for what seems like miles under the streets of Paris, feeling the chill in the air, slipping on the wet floor, and occasionally being dripped on would be interesting enough. Now add this:

And this:

And cheery messages carved into stone tablets, like this one:

Un monstre sans raison aussi bien sans yeux

Est la Diviniteé Qu’on adore en ces lieux;

On l’apele la Mort et son cruel empire

S’etend également sur tout cequi respire.

- Philip Hebert **

It just went on and on. At first chilling, and then sort of moving, and then finally kind of tiresome. (“Hmmm, I wonder what’s around this corner? Aha… more bones…”) At the end of the tour you emerge into a tiny, featureless office blocks away from where you started and a friendly attendant asks to see inside your bag to make sure you haven’t taken a souvenir. I’m not kidding, he looked into my bag and said, “No bones? Good.”

The other subterranean activity of the week was a visit to the Musée des Égouts de Paris – The Paris Sewers Museum. It was markedly less creepy and definitely more pungent than the Catacombs. I was hoping for something much more Jean Valjean, but it was all quite modern. Then again, next time you're in Paris with 45 minutes to kill and €4.20 burning a hole in your pocket, you could do worse. If you won't be here any time soon, the two most interesting tidbits from the tour are these:

  1. They really did discover a small crocodile in the Paris sewers, who was apparently flushed down a toilet in a pet shop or something. She was about 1 metre long at the time, and now resides at the zoo in an enclosure painted, ironically, to look like the Paris sewers.

  2. If you drop something down a sewer grate in Paris (like, say, your car keys, or your wedding ring, or your crocodile) you can phone up the sewer hotline and tell them where you were, and they will go try to find it for you. Apparently they have an 80% success rate, and there is no charge for the service. Maybe the pet store people above should have taken advantage of this (“Hello? Yes, I’ve lost something down the sewer at Place de la Concorde. Car keys? No, not exactly, but trust me you'll know it when you see it…”)
And of course I've hashed in Paris. Twice, in fact, on consecutive days. Both times involved taking a train out of town and crashing around in the woods for a while before settling in for some post-run beer. And since it's France there was also baguette, and cheese, and various other post-run treats. I'm not sure the French can do anything that's not accompanied by at least one baguette. Then again, you'll hear no complaints from me in this department.

*So good, in fact, I thought briefly that it might supplant sticky toffee pudding as my favourite dessert, but then I regained my senses. I did not, however, regain any self-control when it comes to macarons, because when I stopped to pick up a cheap grocery-store supper that evening I also dropped in to the local boulangerie/patisserie and decided to try one of each flavour of the small macarons, and there turned out to be eight (chocolate, lemon, raspberry, strawberry, pistachio, coffee, orange and something else unidentifiable). They were all fantastic, none more so than the chocolate, naturally.

** Here’s my ham-fisted, Google-assisted translation effort:

A monster without reason and also without eyes

Is the god adored in these places

We call it Death and it’s cruel empire

Extends equally to all that draw breath.