© 2012 Daniel IMG_0363

Hola, Barcelona!

Dear friends…

I cannot rest from travel; I will drink
life to the lees. All times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
that loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vexed the dim sea. I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known—cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honored of them all—
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.

– “Ulysses”, Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The welcome has been tremendous. Eunice carpet bombed my taste buds in a tour de force, taking me out to cuisines spanning what felt like a dozen continents. Myna and Lay traveled over from Philadelphia to eat dinner with me in New York City. I think Crystl let me win in Clue, because I hardly ever legitimately beat her at anything.

Yet three weeks into my return to America, I continue to search for continuity between my past and future. Everything seems so comfortable and natural that I’m afraid that Bulgaria was just a dream. It is one thing to segue from one phase of life into the next, and another thing to jump towards the next phase and not look back.

It’ll be something on my mind for a long time, I think. But for now, I feel well. I’m no longer thousands of kilometers away from my friends and I can cure my weariness. And looking back on my four day vacation in Barcelona and my weeklong stay in New York City, I am happy reflecting on time well spent. (Note: there’s a lot of “looking back” in this post, about 160 pictures’ worth, plus videos. I’m just giving fair warning.)

My vacation in Barcelona did not start in Barcelona. It began in Teia, a small village on the outskirts, where a friend of my godfather works. His name is Father David, and he is the director of an orphanage for children with special needs. The complex was under exterior renovation when I visited, but the interior was a massive labyrinth of colorful bedrooms, activity rooms, and open spaces, designed to hold up to about forty orphans at capacity.

I am extremely grateful for the hospitality. I had a room to myself in the orphanage’s administrative building, free of charge. Father David, along with two other priests, Father Roberto and Father Reuben, took time out to show me around parts of Barcelona, but I was free to venture off alone whenever I wanted. As such, I managed with their help to see many of the must-see spots in the city while still feelings like I could explore spontaneously when I felt like it.

The first place in Barcelona I visited was the Arc de Triomf. I was taking the train down to Barcelona from Teia, but I didn’t know which stop to get off at to be closest to the city center. I chose to get off at the “Station Arc de Triomf” because I figured no one would build a giant archway in the middle of nowhere.

To some extent, I was wrong. There was nothing really interesting in the immediate area, but there was free public wifi that let me pull up a map. I was roughly equally far from anything worth seeing, so I started walking.

One of the great things about Barcelona is the number of unexpected delights that pop up. Sometime’s there’s a bank that looks like a church. Sometime’s there’s just something special with a building’s architecture. They’re probably too small to be mentioned in any guidebook but they contribute greatly to the experience.

The first place I headed to was La Rambla, a wide promenade flanked by two streets, that was packed with street performers, restaurants, shops, and tourists. It reminded me of Istanbul’s Taksim Square in intensity, but much longer; It felt like the street would never end.

I didn’t get any good pictures of La Rambla because it was so crowded and I was worried about being pick pocketed. I took a breather by wandering into a side street and wandered into the side entrance of an area called La Boqueria. It was the worst breather ever because La Boqueria ended up being much more crowded than La Rambla, as it was a street market reminiscent of Taipei’s Shilin night market.

La Boqueria is very obviously more upscale, however, and it was a bit lacking in the ready-to-eat department. There were a few bars that served made-to-order seafood, but they were packed and it looked like most customers had precious few minutes to scarf down their food.

The fruit and smoothie stands were pretty underwhelming, and my mango smoothie tasted watered-down. The seafood stands were a treat to see, though, and I loved the mushroom stand.

There was one fruit stand I really liked. They had one guy stock the fruit and I saw him carefully place every fruit to look presentable. Every fruit looked free from blemishes, like the gift fruit they sell at some Japanese speciality shops.

A shot of La Boqueria’s main entrance from La Rambla:

I’m a big fan of Barcelona being walkable. There are hundreds of small paths for pedestrians and bicycles. I should have rented a bicycle but out of fear of pickpockets, I never carried around enough money to pay the 50 euro rent deposit. I spent most of my time on foot, intentionally getting lost and seeing where I’d end up.

One of the great ironies I ran into during my trip was going into one of the exhibits at the Museum of Contemporary Art. They had a special exhibit dedicated to a photographer who went around the world taking kitschy photographs, like a tourist.

I hated everything in there, aside from the super-long escalator ride. I found it funny that I walked into a museum only to find that all of the real art was outdoors. This was some island sanctuary of tastelessness.

So I escaped towards the sea, only to find that Barcelona likes Christopher Columbus.

For those who don’t know, Columbus was a greedy tyrant at whose hands thousands of people suffered, from the crew he hanged for disobedience to the natives he denied baptism so that they could be enslaved. I didn’t know this when I was five years old, and when my mother asked for a suggestion on what to name my soon-to-be baby brother, I suggested “Christopher”. Seriously, who listens to a five-year-old? What if I had suggested “Smeagol”?

Near the tall monument were some performers acting like statues. They were doing a very bad job because they were moving and real statues would not move.

By the docks they had some pirate food:

Parts of Barcelona reminded me of college. There was a large grassy area on a small peninsula filled with couples reading and sunbathing before the Barcelona World Trade Center.

Art was scattered all throughout the city, even outside of the main thoroughfares.

There was also this lady, just doing her thing:

When I returned to Teia, I saw a small crowd across the street from me, peppered with dancing performers wearing large masks. They were celebrating St. John’s festival. The priests told me they hated it; The locals always set off fireworks well into the morning hours, disrupting their sleep.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed walking around Teia. Considering how little time I had in Spain, I spent a good bit of it in a village.

It was so peaceful there. I sat on a bench and listened to the birds.

The area was somewhat hilly, but in a way that gave the village personality without making it annoying to traverse.

It was very obvious that a great deal of care had gone into beautification. I had a hard time imagining how a country such as this could possibly be ravaged by economic turmoil.

Up a small, winding road was the orphanage. The road’s name, translated from Catalan, means “road of the sisters”, as the orphanage had previously been run by nuns.

I didn’t really photograph the interior. I didn’t think the kids would feel comfortable. But, I took some pictures of the outside.

On Saturday afternoon, for lunch, a nice lady parishioner treated the priests out for lunch and decided to invite me, too. I normally stick to street food when I travel, though I make a point to always splurge once.

The gazpacho (not pictured) was fantastic. I tried to recreate it when cooking with Crystl and Jes, but only succeeded in trying. The star of the meal was the paella.

I love paella. My mother earned her bachelor’s degree in Spain and the first food I ever ate that wasn’t American or Chinese was paella. Times were harder back then and I was very young, but she scraped together some money and bought the ingredients to make it. I still remember the colorful rice and the way she arranged mussels in a circle on the edge of the plate.

Paella from Barcelona is a bit different from paella from other parts of Spain because it uses seafood, often in lieu of chicken, pork, or rabbit. And as far as I’m concerned, seafood paella is paella. The other ones are “paella with chicken” and so on.

Dessert was overwhelming. The flavors were intense, piercing through the cold and light numbness brought on by the ice cream. I had a scoop of pistachio, a scoop of mango, and a scoop of raspberry.

And then it was time to walk it off. Father Kelly drove me to the gothic park and gave me a brief tour. We started at the cathedral.

Taking clear photos inside was difficult because the lighting was poor. The details were mind-blowing, though.

Father Kelly explained some of the features of the cathedral to me. This particular cathedral was originally built by nobles and was attended by nobles. There was an area near the center of the cathedral for the monks, and the nobles would sit in chairs above them. Each chair had a particular family crest, reserving it for a certain noble.

The cathedral was founded by the Count and Countess of Barcelona at the time, and their remains are kept in coffins attached to the wall.

A special walkway let the bishop travel between his private quarters and the cathedral. That’s a pretty sweet gig.

I think the following three pictures are of the city hall and some sort of palace. I don’t remember exactly, but I did make a mental note that the entire gothic park was a place of great consolidated power, populated with several buildings representing both church and state.

Some very fortunate people live in the nearby streets, privileged to walk among such beautiful buildings every morning. The steady flow of tourists from dawn to dusk might be tiring, though.

The previous cathedral was built by nobles and was reserved for nobles. The common folk wanted their own place of worship and so many of them contributed towards building the cathedral of the sea. Fishermen would haul rocks from the seaside for the masons to work, and it was from this that the cathedral found its namesake.

So deep is the cathedral’s connection to the sea, that there is even a little ship underneath the statue of the Virgin Mary.

Father Kelly said that he liked this cathedral better than the other one. It was less embellished and there was a clear view to the rose window from the altar, giving the priest a “glimpse of heaven” as he performed mass.

Afterwards, I went to see Barcelona with Father Reuben, who wanted to practice speaking English. He will be transferring to their brotherhood’s Indian operations next month for a three month temporary stay. We started off by driving up to the site of the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics. I half wanted to take a cable car up, but taking the car saved precious time.

It was nice, but everything seemed too clean and organized. Compared to the gothic park, everything here felt a little sterile.

But I liked this tree:

Not too far from the stadium was the art museum. I didn’t have time to go in, so I had to appreciate it from the outside.

Around the back of the museum, there were some steps where people sat to enjoy the view and listen to street performers.

Then it was time to hit the road again, this time to see some of the late Anton Gaudi’s works. Here’s a video of driving through Barcelona, as well as a picture of a bullfighting ring we passed. Because bullfighting was banned, the ring was converted into a mall.

So, here is the Sagrada Familia.

I saw a picture of the Sagrada Familia on the Internet a few years ago and decided that I had to see it in person. And so I went… after they closed. I came back the next day, but for now, here is a slew of pictures I took from the outside. Capturing the detail in pictures is impossible, so I hope these photographs motivate you to see this wonder of the world in person.

From a distance, the carvings on the walls look like some sort of coarse patterning. As you get closer, you can see that not only do they depict scenes, they all depict something different.

Large sections were still under construction. Groundbreaking was done in 1882 and the project is anticipated to be completed by 2026.

Gaudi did more than just his cathedral. Here are some pictures of Casa Mila, originally designed to be an apartment block.

Here is Casa Batllo, also by Gaudi. It looks like it was made with hot wax.

Next door was another apartment, but I don’t think it’s famous. I took a picture anyways because I liked it.

Finally, it was time for dinner. Father Roberto had told me on my first day that Americans have it backwards, with our small breakfasts and generous dinners. In Barcelona, breakfast is the meal of the Lord; lunch is the meal of the king; and dinner is the meal of the pauper.

Botifarra, a type of sausage, is traditionally served with beans and is a food specific to Catalonian cuisine. Traditionally, however, it’s also half the size of the one they gave me.

I didn’t know it was going to be so large, so I also had an order of snails. I love eating them, and I remember poking at and pulling out the meat as a kid on the rare occasion that my mom brought some home. I washed everything down with some sangria.

That just about ended my day because it was late and I have no alcohol tolerance. I had to wake up early the next morning to head with Father Roberto to Monserrat, a monastery in the mountains about an hour from Barcelona. I honestly wasn’t prepared for what I saw up there. I thought the monastery would be tiny, limited in scope by the difficulty of constructing anything that high in the mountains. Instead, Monserrat was very spacious and beautiful.

Video:

Imagine how difficult it must have been to construct of all this. I love stubborn people.

Once again, the attention to detail was mind-blowing. A fun fact about all of these churches and cathedrals is that they are all still operational and masses are held despite the tourists. They usually temporarily kick out tourists during service, however.

I’m not sure if Monserrat is more known for its monastery or for the views the monastery affords. There’s a funicular that takes people higher up the mountain, but the monastery is in a great spot where there is something to see both above and below.

Looking up above lets you gaze upon unique rock formations, while looking down below gives you the Paul Bunyan experience.

The monastery itself is quite large with much more to see than just the church. There are also a few paths that can be hiked.

A children’s choir was also in the area and were performing in one of the streets.

Some of the art at Monserrat differed in style from that commonly seen around Barcelona. This statue looks constructivist.

I think the church had some sort of holy relic, but the lines were obscenely long and I was hungry. You can see people walking up above to stare at the relic in the next picture. I was content with my zoom function.

I liked the organ’s horizontal pipes.

After Monserrat, I returned to the Sagrada Familia. Father Roberto ran over a girl on a scooter while driving us there, so I ended up having to go alone. Thankfully the girl was fine. Father Roberto is pretty old, so I think that while he runs over people more often than he ought to, he doesn’t rack up as many fatalities. Anyways, here is the door.

And here is a video of entering and walking around:

The Sagrada Familia is awesome. It is enormous, its high ceiling held up by a forest of massive columns.

A little more of the exterior:

Soon, it was time to take the lift. When I bought my ticket for entrance, I paid a little extra for a lift ticket to God-knows-where. It turns out you can take a small elevator up to the towers and then climb down the steps. The elevators are operated by the staff and people are brought up in groups of four or five at a time.

My elevator took about five minutes to start up because one of the guys in my group had severe claustrophobia and had to be slowly coaxed by his friend to calm down. The elevator operator reassured him that the ride would only take a few seconds. He made it up, only to find that he had to descend down about ten minutes’ worth of cramped stairway.

I didn’t even know that the towers were even accessible; I thought the lift tickets might take me to an upper level. Turns out, the views from the towers were great. I wish I could have stayed longer, but the narrow stairs made it impossible to backtrack.

There was a small section of the tower scarred with graffiti. I was horrified that anyone would want to deface this places’ walls.

Eventually, I reached a more refined-looking spiral staircase. I wonder if the claustrophobic guy made it out all right.

Next to the Sagrada Familia and underground lies the museum. It described the planning process, Gaudi’s multiple revisions, and the building’s history. There also was a small workshop filled with scale models and several tools used to checking structural integrity.

Outside, there were special houses Gaudi had designed for the craftsmen’s families.

After seeing the Sagrada Familia, I went for a walk and headed for Park Guell, a garden complex worked on by Gaudi. On my way there, I saw this building, though I don’t know whether or not it’s famous. It stood out, so I took a couple pictures.

I got lost on my way to Park Guell and eventually ponied up for the taxi fare. The taxi ride was terrible, with my driver constantly talking to me about all the prostitutes he’d been with from different parts of Europe because I told him I had worked in Bulgaria. By the time I left, we had exchanged unpleasantries and, despite his encyclopedic knowledge of whores, I stiffed him on his tip.

The park itself was great. Had the entrance to Wonderland been anything other than a rabbit hole, I imagine it’d look like this.

The building at the top was interesting to me. The outer columns are slightly tilted, and the interior roof is scalloped. The outer roof is actually covered with sand and is level with the ground for the park’s higher elevation. Blah, blah, blah, I doubt anyone is actually reading down this far. Look, pretty pictures!

I love how organic Gaudi’s works look. They appear as if the earth itself conspired to aid the architect in his creations.

The front of Park Guell is crowded, but it is easy to find tranquility within the park itself. I sat at the edge of a trail, feeling the breeze and the sand beneath my feet, looking over the path as dogs and their owners walk on by.

Afterwards, I took my last evening stroll in Barcelona as I headed to dinner.

I felt slightly out of place when I walked into the restaurant for dinner. I was in full adventure mode, slightly unshaven and entirely unrefined, but I was hankering to treat myself to something nice. Luckily, the waiter didn’t seem to care, and likely understood that travelers don’t go around packing dinner jackets.

For an appetizer, I ordered a terrine of foie gras. I usually sear foie gras when I make it at home, so it was interesting to try a different take on the same ingredient.

And for the main dish? Paella, of course! The version I ordered was chock full of seafood and had most of the shells already taken off. It was amazing, though a bit on the salty side. The pan was huge and I portioned out three servings for myself.

Walking back to the orphanage was difficult. Apart from dealing with the challenge of carrying around a food baby, I was disoriented from exhaustion. I wandered around aimlessly for a while before realizing I had to return and get rested up for my flight.

A terrible mistake happened next. I went to the right train station and to the right track, but got on the wrong train. I realized my error within a few stops, but by the time I alighted, it was too late: I was on the northern outskirts of the city and Teia was to the east. I couldn’t find a pay phone or a taxi, and there wasn’t a line that directly ran from the north to the east, so I had to head back into the center.

Late at night, few trains run, and I didn’t manage to return to the station I needed to go to until slightly after midnight. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to me, the trains in Barcelona stop running around midnight. I was stranded. I gave Father Kelly a call and he came to rescue me; I think it was around 2AM by the time we arrived back at the orphanage.

I’m extremely grateful to him (red shirt) and Father Roberto (blue shirt) for everything they did for me in Barcelona. Father Kelly was the one who drove me to the airport the next morning, my four day experience probably having aged him four years.

On my way back to America, I had a layover in Dublin. I wasn’t there for much, but I had a good first impression: People were friendly, the accent was sexy, and the food was excellent for having been served in an airport. I had an open faced roast beef sandwich with a mug of hot chocolate for lunch, followed by a small meat and cheese platter with a pint of Guinness.


One cannot say the same of Irish airplane food.

On June 26, at 7:40PM, I finally set foot once again in America, in New York City. I have to say, the moment of return was pretty anticlimactic. I think I literally said out loud to myself, as I got off the plane, “Whoop, I’m back.”

But I could feel inside me a greater, dormant joy. Looking around me, I saw people of all different races, and they lived and worked together. I missed diversity. I also missed the overt friendliness to strangers common to many Americans. Eunice had agreed to host me for the week at her apartment, but I didn’t know how to get there from the airport using public transportation. I asked a TSA agent for help and he not only gave me direction, he walked me right up to her apartment. (He was headed home from work and happened to live in the same neighborhood, forty minutes away.)

Once at Eunice’s apartment, I ate my first meal since coming home.

And the next afternoon, my second meal:

The world truly has changed while I was gone. McDonald’s offers a triple cheeseburger now, and cheeseburgers and small fries are no longer a part of the dollar menu. Did the terrorists win?

For dinner, Eunice and I went to Red Hook Lobster Pound. The last time I was in NYC, I wanted to try their lobster rolls, but didn’t manage to fit it into my schedule. This meal was over two years in the making and eating it felt like taking a bite out of destiny.

We did an extensive food tour. Eunice showed me Koreatown and Japantown, and we ate food from cuisines from around the world. Bulgarian food, in my experience, wasn’t very flavorful, so everything in NYC just about made my head explode.

My favorite meal was eating dinner at an Indian restaurant where Myna, Lay, and Jeff showed up and surprised me. I was especially surprised to see Myna and Lay there because they live in Philadelphia, but I was happy to see them again. The food was great, too.

I didn’t see much in NYC because I went around to many of the landmarks during my last visit. I spent most of my time relaxing and enjoying speaking English to every single person I saw. I did a bit of shopping there as well, as my shoes had fallen apart in Bulgaria and my flip flops were barely holding together.

Eventually, it was time to go back home to Chicago. But, this post has gone on long enough and I’ll write about Chicago (along with Washington D.C.) in my next and final blog update. Graduate school orientation starts on the 13th of August and that’ll be my next big life adventure until I find a job, hopefully in the D.C. area.

Daniel

2 Comments

  1. Helenc
    Posted August 10, 2012 at 9:18 pm | #

    Welcome home, Dan! I think after reading this last entry you remind me of the pilgrim in Pilgrim’s Progress. Perhaps you are one who lives their lives in defined segments. Perhaps you were sent to Bulgaria for 1 tiny reason unbeknownst to you. God has counted the cost to make you who He has designed you to be. Praise God that you have come back safely!

  2. Jar
    Posted August 19, 2012 at 6:45 am | #

    dan, what a fitting end to your epic 2-year adventure…loved reading about and seeing all the art and architecture through all your wanderings and musings…im amazed you could pack so much into such a short itinerary. i’m glad Father Kelly rescued you from the station–ive been there, realizing too late that i’ve stepped onto a train in the opposite direction. i’m glad everyone’s given you a proper homecoming and that you’re looking forward to this new chapter in your life.

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