Friday, August 2, 2013

Vacation (Not Much Of A)

The day started, as they sometimes do, with a (strawberry-flavored) East German condom and a bottle of vinegar. They were waiting for me next to the bathroom sink as a reminder. I was up at 5am, so I kind of needed reminders. And, since I'd be gone for the better part of three days, it was a perfect opportunity. Ahead of me, I knew, was a glimpse of God, and, unknown to me, remaining eggs and a gigantic bikini.

But first things first. It's good to know engineers. Over the past few days, I'd cleared the spigots in my house -- the kitchen one and the shower-head -- of the lime that accumulates in our hard water. The one that had eluded me was the bathroom sink, whose spigot is raised just enough that getting a glass full of vinegar up to it was impossible. An engineer friend had suggested filling a condom with vinegar and slipping it on -- a perfect fit. The first time I'd done this I'd returned to find a white sediment in the bottom of the condom, the lime in the screen dissolved. But now, the water was going everywhere again (including onto my pants, which was embarrassing) and, since it takes a while and I use the bathroom sink a lot, this was the perfect time to do it.

Although, to be honest, 5:30am isn't otherwise perfect. Still, I had a 7:28 train to catch to Barcelona. To be honest, I didn't want to do this. A couple of friends from Texas had been going on a blitzkrieg European trip, and were going to Barcelona and then Avignon. Their travel agent had told them that a stop in Montpellier, located smack in the middle of the line between those two places, was impossible. So, although I really couldn't afford it, I booked a trip. Boy, is it hard to find a hotel room in Barcelona at the height of the tourist season! But I did.

Then they cancelled. Something had happened at home, tell you about it later, they said. So I was stuck with a non-refundable (first-class senior special) rail ticket and a non-refundable (expensive) hotel room. Damned if I do, damned if I don't. I withdrew all the money I had in the bank, €80, and hit the road.

Montpellier has totally revamped its railroad station in little over a month, since the last time I was there.  Not only was it 7 in the morning, but I had to find my way around anew. But I managed, found the train, found the seat, and I was off. I know exactly three people in Barcelona, and two of them hadn't replied to e-mails. The third was a woman who's just bought an apartment and is going to get rid of the huge one she's in right now. I've been fantasizing renting it when she leaves, although that's a ways off. That's okay: so is the money to arrange the move. She, at least, was around, albeit for only a short while. But she could see me on Tuesday.

And she did. I got to the hotel, and there she was. Her name is Rachel, and she does stand-up comedy and other theatrical work in Spanish. Also a blog that's very entertaining. She's been there a while, knows people, and is well-integrated into the place. I, not having had breakfast, was ravenous, and we repaired across the street to a place I'd heard about, Ciutat Comtal, a choice of which she approved. Their menu is weird: the English menu is, as she noted a lot now are, the product of Google Translate. How else was I to make sense of a place I passed the next morning which was offering "bacon, eggs, remaining eggs" as a single offering on its English menu in the street?

We didn't get anything spectacular. Padrone peppers, green asparagus (I'd OD'd on this during this past spring, so she got it all), anchovies (which came with one of those great green Spanish olives the size of my thumb knuckle), a steak sandwich thing that didn't really do much for me, in part due to the poor condition of my teeth.

Refreshed, we walked to her apartment so I could see it. It's over twice the size of this one, has a wonderful kitchen, a luxurious bathroom and a smaller, less luxurious one, a huge balcony, numerous rooms, and, being on the top floor, no Mme Merde upstairs. The building has only one flat per floor, which is somewhat typical of the neighborhood, the Eixample, that it's in. On the downside, being on the top floor makes it hot, and cross-ventilation by opening the windows in the front rooms isn't possible because it's on a huge main street with 24-hour traffic. But it's central. Boy, is it central. We took a walk after looking at the place and she pointed me to some wonderful places and generally oriented me to the surroundings before heading off for a doctor's appointment.

One thing Rachel hipped me to was the amazing amount of what she called "modernism" and I called Art Nouveau that just hangs around Barcelona. Her neighborhood is well off the beaten track for tourists, but there's a lot to see for architecture aficionados, including a "Modernism Museum" that's on my list for next time.

Not the entry to Rachel's building, but a random place on the walk back to the hotel.

Soon enough, it was dinner time and there was no question where I was going. Money was definitely an issue, but a place Rachel had pointed out had a €19 menu. She had also raved about it considerably. I found out why.

El Nou de Granados (because it's at Enric Granados 9) is one of those places that has grand ambitions. It also has Google Translate. To make up for that, it has a genius chef and wonderful service. And great food. Here's what I mean. Earlier, I had spotted a weird tapa at Ciutat Comtal that I'd never seen before, which seemed to be fried eggs on top of a mound of fries with something red. Suspecting that that's what was being offered here, I ordered it: ous estrellats. Here's what I got:

The finely-shredded potatoes were on top of the eggs, but the red stuff was missing. Instead, that brown thing hanging out there turned out to be an intensely-flavored mushroom, a number of which formed the bed for this dish. I wondered if they applied this sort of re-thinking to their tapas menu, which I'd forgotten to look at. No matter: there were two more courses.

Now, in Berlin, there's a thing called Eisbein: pig's trotter, usually boiled. It's about 90% fat, which is why it's weird to pay so little for such a huge hunk of pig, but once you cut into it, you find that there's only a little meat there. So what these folks have done is to take a pig's trotter and fashion it into what the menu calls a terrina, ie, they've pasted bits of it together and put it in a meat-loaf pan and baked it. Then they've reduced the hell out of the juices and added a pinch of this and that and put some over the meat. It was incredible.

Again, the base was mushrooms, this time the local delights called girgolas, which I noted last fall when returning from California. By this point I was kind of levitating.

Now, I generally don't eat dessert. I'm just not a big sugar fan, and too often desserts are sugar bombs -- which is what a lot of people want out of them. But this came with the menu, and I actually saw something that intrigued me: lemon sorbet with...gin-and-tonic jelly. Okay, bring it on.

The matchsticked lemon peel was the perfect foil to the not-quite-sweet sorbet and the absolutely perfect gin and tonic jelly. Although I later discovered that the g&t might have been courtesy of Nigella Lawson, I still think the combo was genius. And the bill for all of this, including two beers -- I was going for broke, literally, here -- was a whopping €24.00. (There's a 15% surcharge for outdoor dining). It was one of the best meals I've had all year, seriously, and there's no way I'll go back to Barcelona and not go to this place.

I got back to the hotel and discovered my Internet connection had run out. It was the "free" one offered by Swisscom, the Swiss national telecom, which I chose because I couldn't afford €20 for 24 hours of unlimited use and, when I had been able to afford it, it was no faster than dialup -- when it worked at all. This way, I had all the inconvenience with none of the charge, and a huge 100mb up, 100mb down allowance to play with. Which had lasted six hours.

Thus, I was happy that Rachel had pointed out a Starbucks a couple of blocks from my hotel, where, for the €6 a muffin and a huge cup of coffee cost me, I had 45 minutes of actual speedy use and was able to transact a bit of business. It was on this walk that I noted the "remaining eggs" as well as this, which may be of use to some of you:

How the word bikini got to mean grilled-cheese sandwich I cannot say. It became the name of a bathing suit because Bikini Atoll was a nuclear test site in the '50s, and a bathing suit like that was like seeing an atomic bomb at the beach. But there you are.

After breakfast I went onto the roof to scope out the pool. The hotel is really tall, and the roof is a great place to integrate your geographical knowledge of Barcelona. It was also, with this many tourists in town, as close as I wanted to get to the Sagrada Familia.

No idea what the building in the foreground is. From the roof you can also see the harbor, a place I have yet to look at (or, needless to say, eat at).

I totally did not see that cruise ship there when I took the picture! I was trying to get the container ship in there and was looking at that.
It's also a place to stare at some of the fantastic architecture in the neighborhood.

But it was getting warmer, and I had a plan for at least part of the day: to head to the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya and finish the look at their collection that I hadn't done on my previous visit. I also wanted to see the Miró Foundation, but finances were tight and I knew that I could get into MNAC as a senior citizen (which, I later discovered, I'm not, yet). I could try Miró later in the afternoon.

As if. MNAC is huge. Last time I'd had sensory overload in the middle of the Gothic/Renaissance galleries, which was actually okay, because I'd managed to see the stuff I'd been seeing reproductions of for my whole life -- and more. But I'd also photographed a lot of it and made a slideshow of that folder my computer wallpaper, so now I was familiar with a lot of it. Still, I shot a lot more for future reference.

Late Medieval/early Renaissance goat-crossing highway sign. 

As Robert Hughes had warned me, there's a distinct fall-off after the Baroque era, especially towards the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries when it seemed like the purpose of a lot of the art was to get the artists' girlfriends to take off their clothes. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it doesn't necessarily make for great art. More amusing is the idiosyncratic painter who daubed a bunch of happy drunks in a local wine-cellar where artists and writers and such used to gather.

Leaving the MNAC is easier than getting there: there are escalators about 3/4 of the way up the mountain, but those last 200 or so steps have to be done by foot, which means that this is probably the least-accessible museum on earth. (There are, however, wheelchair lifts, so there must be another way in). As I left, I realized that the afternoon had progressed nicely, and found my way back to the hotel, where I took a siesta and turned my computer back on. There was an e-mail that a kind reader of this blog had spontaneously donated $50, so, if PayPal was quick enough, I might yet have a tiny bit left for shopping the next day; it was silly to come all this way and not have enough for chicken broth, that elixir and useful item that's not available here in France, but is, in a commendably well-made product, in Spain.

At the hotel, I napped and mooched around, waiting for dinner. I wasn't quite sure what I'd do, frankly. And what I wound up doing wasn't very smart. For years, I've noticed this; the blood sugar gets low and I do, well, just anything. And what I did was go back to another fine restaurant I'd discovered that, as my memory told me, was not that expensive: Matamala. I remembered, too, that they'd had tapas, which would be less expensive than the regular meals. Which, considering what happened next, was a dumb decision.

I ordered salt-cod croquettes,

which were delicious little bombs of fishy goodness, and anchovies,

which turned out to be two filets -- ie, one fish -- with a blob of balsamic, a halved cherry tomato and two of the smallest olives I've ever seen in Spain (tasty, though), all for €4.50, and something called torrada amb escalivada, three slices of bread with, from left to right, sliced cooked mild (too mild: I couldn't actually taste them) onions crossed with another anchovy fillet, superb tuna and roasted peppers, and tasty grilled, mashed eggplant crossed with another blob of balsamic.

Yum. I was ready for dinner. Except...that was dinner. "Don't you want to order more?" the waiter asked. Well, yeah, I did. But if I were going to have breakfast the next morning before heading to the train, and if the PayPal money didn't arrive in my bank account, I couldn't.

Although I maintain that they owe me at least one more anchovy, and that €24.30 was a bit rich (there was a beer: you can't have tapas without some kind of alcohol nearby), I still like Matamala. They seemed like a different restaurant in tourist season, though, with a guy out front urging you in like all the other restaurants in that area. Their no-nonsense organic, locally-sourced, Slow Food approach is great. I'll be back, but not in high season.

The next morning I woke up, quickly started the computer, went to the bank website and hooray! The money had arrived. I could withdraw €50 and have lunch and shop and have money when I got home, which was good because there was zero food in the house. Just as I logged off the bank website, the cheapo Swisscom connection was cut. Whew. Off to Starbucks, then back to check out of the hotel. The train wasn't until 4:30, so I had several hours to kill. First, I started checking out the neighborhood again. Rachel had pointed out a place that, she said, had the best ham in Spain. That's a mighty big statement; Spanish ham is like nothing else. If you've ever had really good Smithfield ham from an artisinal producer in the American South, you're getting close. I went in to see what the vacuum-packed slices were going for and the guy carved me a slice from one leg. "This is from the South, very intensely-flavored," he said. It was mind-blowing. "This one is from the North, and is quite a bit lighter." He was right, but it had other virtues, a nuttiness that was present, but more subdued, in the first sliver. He handed me a brochure, and I made a note to come back when I had some money. I also noted they have a Japanese website: the Japanese tourists who come to Barcelona may be annoying, but they're also fabulously wealthy. I can imagine that it costs a bit to ship a €514.50 ham to Japan.

I wandered and looked, and tried to stay away from the tourists, but dammit, the taste of that ham stayed with me and it was time to go back to Ciutat Comtal for a second breakfast. I'd order that eggs-and-fries mess. Which, there, turned out to be called huevos estrellados. The red stuff? Flakes of Iberian ham, fried until crisp and scattered over the dish. Only €5.95, too.

And, lingering at that table, watching the tourists go by, I realized it was time to end this non-vacation. My friends had told me that I needed to get away from The Slum, and they were right. I wanted air conditioning, silent nights, a dip in the pool, and there they were. I wanted good food, and I got that. But every single moment I was there I worried about money, wished I had my €420 back, wondered when a bill I'd submitted was going to get paid. Vacations should be longer and more stress-free. But there was nothing else to do, so I did it. I'm glad I did, although now it appears my phone's going to be turned off sometime soon. Maybe not. At the moment there's nothing I can do, so, as I'm fond of saying, I live like the alcoholics, a day at a time.

Oh, and the condom? Cleared that spray problem up just fine, although this time the residue was green and there was very little vinegar left. No idea what that's about. But it's nice to have a working sink again.


  1. Mmm, I want me some of that food! Glad you went, Ed!

  2. Ed,

    I'm living in a serviced apartment in Bangkok, Thailand, that has AC, cable TV, and a fast internet connection 24/7: total $350. For meals from local vendors, groceries, transportation, and miscellaneous, add another $250. So I pay around $600 a month to live in Bangkok, about what you paid for your trip to Barcelona. So my question is why you're living in Europe when your finances are reduced these days. Why not move somewhere cheaper? It sounds like you do most of your work over the internet and you can find good internet all over the world.

    By the way, I've been reading your blog for several years, starting back when you were still in Berlin (where I lived in 1987-88), but I was just curious why you're in France and not in a country with cheaper cost of living.

  3. Well, the answers are pretty obvious -- at least to me. First, I was marooned in Berlin, so my choice of next stop had to be one I could afford to make. Bangkok does sound nice, but consider that I know not a word of the Thai language, cannot read the Thai alphabet, have very little sense of Thai history and contemporary politics, and no sense of the contemporary Thai culture. Cheap isn't everything: I speak reasonable French (and, by now, okay German) and have a very good understanding of the history of the land I occupy. I understand the food and how to prepare it, which means I don't spend that much, and had this vacation not been compulsory, I wouldn't be in trouble at all. Much of my financial problems here have their origins in something I haven't written about here and can't go into detail about, but suffice it to say that I was burned for the money I'd budgeted for my first year here -- $20,000 -- and that set off a cascade of dominos. At some point, my agent will sell one of my book proposals and things will improve considerably.

    That's about all I'm willing to say in public. If you know Will Yaryan or Jerry Hopkins over there, say hi from me. And I may be over your way for some dental work at some point, too. But live there? I don't think so.


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