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120 reasons to visit Boston

Written by Emmy on 26 June 2012

Chaz and I first met once upon a time as writers at The Brown Daily Herald. Then we graduated to being editors and along with a wonderful cohort of friends became the 120th Editorial Board.

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Post-graduate life has flung us up and down the east coast — well, Boston, NYC and D.C. — but we’ve done our best to keep in touch. And from time to time, we reunite up close and personal. I missed the D.C. version of the reunion back in December, but in mid-March, nearly all of us made the trek up to Boston.

Ben, Joanna and Seth made their way up on Thursday evening and Friday afternoon, but I wasn’t able to leave till after work on Friday. I boarded a train late afternoon and arrived in Boston in time for a late, late dinner. I walked into the restaurant and was immediately handed a wine glass and, in 120 tradition, a tequila shot. There is nothing I love more than a good tradition, even if the cheap shots are hard to swallow.

On Saturday we met up with some of Chaz’s local friends for brunch. A few of us threatened to board a train to Providence in order to eat omelets at our favorite dive diner, but we practically decided to settle for something a bit closer, paying a visit to Mike’s City Diner, which perfectly fit the bill of casual, diner and dive. We sampled a huge portion of the menu between the ten or so of us. As I snapped my way down the table, Chaz remarked, “How many pictures of omelets do we really need on the blog?” The answer: Quite a few.

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After lunch we walked the city and took in some modern art, applying a few of the skills we picked up as liberal arts students. But after walking through glass curtains and interpreting symbolic art, it was time for a new activity.

We had decided to make an afternoon event out of Drink, a trendy hotspot in Boston, where there is no menu — the idea is that you are at a cocktail party with your friends (albeit a much classier one than the kind we would throw for ourselves). You sample drinks based on the loose description of what you would like to be imbibing. We arrived only 15 minutes after the 4 p.m. opening, and there were already no seats available. But we were able to finagle ourselves into a little spot at the bar, and we settled in for a cultural experience.

The waiter asked us each what kind of drink we would like and we each responded with a poetic description of our ideal beverage, using adjectives like “light” and “minty” and “citrusy” and specified our favorite base liquors and mixers. Our waiter took it all in and returned with a selection of beverages, handmade to match each of our descriptions.

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The result was an array of exciting drinks, but we felt like we had given our waiter almost too much direction. Because we had each described — using a bevy of adjectives — our preferred drink, we each got our preferred drink. We had hoped for more surprise and so for round two, took a different tactic.

Instead of describing a drink, we each supplied one word — “mint,” “cucumber,” “orange,” and “fruit.” This time, the results were a little more unexpected.

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Not only were our drinks exciting, but they were new and unfamiliar. We started probing a waitress about what had gone into each drink (I mean, come on, we’re all ex-journalists); she did us one better and supplied us with printed receipts detailing the precise calculations that had gone into the delightful cocktails we were sipping.

Fully equipped with the knowledge of what had gone into our drinks, we took on new airs of sophistication around our fancy drinking. Chaz and I also invoked an old rule from a previous classy drinking experience and mandated that everyone had a chance to sample each beverage.

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We also ordered a few snacks, but given that the establishment was called Drink, the beverages were more the focus of the event. The french fries were a delight, but we found the cheese plate to be a bit stingy. (We have high cheese plate standards.)

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By the time we were ready for round three, the establishment was really hopping and there was a long line to get in. We briefly debated cutting our visit short, but our spot at the bar seemed almost too valuable to give up.

For our last round, we went the single-word route again: “creamy,” “caramel,” “nutty,” “gin” and “mint sour”. OK, so “mint sour” is two words, but that was intentional. I ordered “mint” in round two and had been delighted by my drink. So delighted that I wanted to experience mint again, but I wanted it to be sour. So I felt I needed to provide a directional nudge. My punishment — if you call it that — was two somewhat similar drinks, but with enough of a difference that they felt like two distinct rounds.

“Gin” had been Chaz’s word and upon receiving his drink, he remarked, “This is the alcoholiest drink I have ever loved.”

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Several drinks and several hours later, we emerged into broad daylight, and after taking a few moments to adjust, returned to reality outside of underground cocktail parties and fancy drinks with poetic titles and potent ingredient lists.

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Rice to riches

Written by Emmy on 4 November 2011

Spain is a very quiet country on Sundays. Owing to the strong Catholic tradition that still prevails (despite some modern unorthodox practices), Spain shuts down and heads to church. But I learned when I went for a morning walk that Valencia also revels in the other national religion on Sundays: fútbol.

Crowding the streets of the old city, children tote large binders and stacks of cards while their parents stand nearby ticking names off of a list. Collecting cards with soccer players on them is a huge pastime, and the parents seemed just as taken by the process as their children. One mother proudly told us that her son had just gotten a card for free that was being sold nearby for five euros. Some little girls had Hello Kitty cards in lieu of soccer players, but children of all ages — stroller through teenager — were playing the game.

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Nearby at La Lonja, stamp and coin collectors gathered to show off and peddle their wares. One stamp collector overheard us speaking in English and waved us over to show off his collection of American stamps, which featured everything from WWII-era stamps to the ubiquitous “Love” stamp. The stamps were rather expensive though, so we said thank you and moved on.

Toni and Marisa came to pick us up near the stamp sellers and we drove down to the beach. As big of a deal as lunch in Spain is on the average day, Sunday is a whole other story. With the entire day open, why not devote three hours to eating?

Valencia is renowned as the birthplace of paella. Served all over Spain and the world, paella is characterized by a yellow rice — it gets its color from cooking in saffron — and is usually filled with a plethora of ingredients. Traditional paella is less of a hodgepodge than the type often proffered in copycat establishments. Paella Valenciana, for example, which comes from the region, contains chicken and rabbit. Paella de mariscos, which I used to eat on the boardwalk in Barceloneta, contains a variety of seafood items.

The beachfront strip in Valencia is lined with restaurant after restaurant serving a very similar menu of paella and other seafood items. The true measure of a good paella restaurant is whether they make their dish on the spot and the way you can judge authenticity is when a restaurant serves paella. Despite its seemingly heavy nature, paella is meant to only be served at lunchtime. Paella for dinner would be sacrilege.

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We sat down at one of the many beachfront restaurants where Toni had made a reservation for the four of us. We left all ordering up to the masters and had several appetizers in advance of our paella. First we tried another version of esgarrat, the dish composed of red peppers and cod. This time it was served with a dried, salted tuna, which had a taste and texture similar to that of lox (but more tuna-y, obviously). We also had calamares romanas, fried calamari rings, and the same chipirones, or squid, dish that we had eaten Friday night. This time the squid was served with green beans and chickpeas, which Jessica and I were both pleased by.

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Based upon Toni’s recommendation, we had paella with fish. The official name of the dish is arròs de senyoret in Catalan, or arroz de señorito in Spanish. The name translates to mean something like “playboy’s rice” because the fish in the paella is already peeled and so it requires next to no work to eat it. The paella was placed in the center of the table still in the giant metal pan it was cooked in. Though a serving spoon was provided, we were advised that it is totally appropriate to just stick your fork in the center dish and go at it. And go at it we did.

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Just as we were finishing our paella, a waitress from the restaurant next door came in looking for Toni. It turns out that we had sat down at the wrong place and our reservation was actually supposed to be next door. To be fair, every restaurant had the same awning and identical menus. When we asked if there was a table for us and were told yes, how were we supposed to know the difference?

After handling the reservation debacle and drinking a coffee, we went for a walk along the water. Valencia has historically been one of the most important Mediterranean port cities and the waterfront is still lined with containers and cranes. Just a few paces down the coast, the scene is one of umbrellas and cabanas, rather than ships.

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But Valencia has always lagged its Spanish sister cities in tourism and has been pushing to change that. The Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias was one attempt. A new high-speed train runs between Madrid and Valencia, creating a 90-minute journey to a weekend getaway. (Toni commented that the madrileños consider Valencia to be “their beach.”) Valencia hosted the America’s Cup and built several monstrous waterfront structures to house all the activity. But today, they sit empty – another sign of the money that has been poured into an industry that is currently dormant and another point of contention for the local people.

We took a stroll back down the boardwalk before hopping into the car and heading back downtown.

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We bid farewell to Toni and Marisa and made our way to the Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno, or IVAM as it is usually known. The museum was filled with some rather strange artwork and I was trying hard not to fall into a serious food coma (the wine at lunch wasn’t helping with that either). So we entertained ourselves while looking at the art, thanks to a fairly liberal photography policy.

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Playtime aside, we perused the rest of the museum galleries for a while. We walked one final loop around the old city, finding even fewer things open than the day before. But, one item we hand’t been able to visit on Saturday was mobbed with visitors late Sunday afternoon: Horchateria El Siglo, the neighbor and major competitor to Horchateria Santa Caterina. The outdoor seating area was packed with locals who all looked like they had just come from church activities. By this point in time, I had mysteriously lost my voice and so I ordered a tea. Jessica got in one final dose of Spanish hot chocolate.

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It took us a while to come off of our mid-afternoon sugar high (and lingering fullness from lunch), but eventually, much later, we were ready to eat again. We opted for the lightest of dinners — tapas — and a fare we had not yet enjoyed. Tapas from the Basque Region are a bit different than those from elsewhere. Up north they’re known as pintxos and all ingredients are served on top of bread. Typically, each pinto is then speared with a toothpick. Most Basque bars are do-it-yourself and so you are responsible for holding onto your toothpicks so they can be counted and tallied at the end of the meal.

Basque bars have become popular all over Spain (and recently in New York too!) and we had noted several interesting ones near our hotel. So we chose the one that Let’s Go liked too, grabbed a table and started grabbing pintxos.

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The height of our eating spree actually came at the very end, after our delicious tapas. Jessica is a huge fan of frozen yogurt, but it turns out that the Romans are not. However, the Valencians are. She capped off the day with authentic chocolate frozen yogurt, served by an English-speaking man who let her have free samples.

The food-filled adventure was a great way to spend our last day together in Spain.

Happy Columbus Day!

Written by Emmy on 25 October 2011

When I was abroad, we constantly had off from school for mysterious-sounding holidays. Like my friends back at Brown, we coincidentally had no class on Columbus Day (though on neither campus did we call it that). I assumed initially that our Spanish day off was for yet another Catholic occasion, but as it turned out, we too were celebrating Columbus Day! Just from a different perspective. Unlike the American holiday, the Spanish version is tied to a particular date and so it happened to fall on the Wednesday of our stay in Barcelona. The holiday had no major effect on us, save for a large number of school children everywhere reveling in their day off.

Having done a Gaudi warm-up the day before with his apartment buildings in L’Eixample, we were ready for Barcelona’s main attraction: Sagrada Familia. Sagrada Familia was intended to be Gaudi’s opus, a massive modern church for his beloved city. Construction began in 1883, but during the process Gaudi went bankrupt and died, leaving his church incomplete. Architects and historians have argued since about what the final product should look like, and though construction has been ongoing for the last decade, it is predicted that the church will not be finished until 2023. (The anticipated end date keeps getting pushed back. It’s like Barcelona’s version of the Second Avenue subway.)

Despite its cranes and scaffoldings, Sagrada Familia is the most visited site in Spain, and by 10 a.m. the line to enter stretched around the block. The inside is impressive, but the outside is really the must-see spectacle, so we walked around the block a few times, gazing up at the whimsical towers and controversial facades.

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From Sagrada Familia we walked south about 10 blocks to do a drive-by of the building I lived in while I was abroad. Residencia Onix is an apartment building for students — no Spanish universities have dorms like in the U.S. — and so our hallways were filled with Americans and Spaniards alike. CASB uses a different building for its students now, but to me, Onix was home.

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Just beyond Onix is one of the city’s landmarks and home to my once-upon-a-time Metro stop, the Arc de Triomf. Very similar in appearance to the Parisian arch, Barcelona’s version was built for the world exposition in 1888. As one of my books noted, the only triumph that the supposedly triumphant arch celebrated was an on-time completion.

The Arc sits at the top of one of the city’s biggest parks, Parc de la Ciutadella, home to my one-time attempt to learn to like running. Ciutadella was once the site of a military citadel — where it gets its name — but it now houses ample gardens and walking paths, a field of ping pong tables, Barcelona’s zoo and the Generalitat de Catalunya’s parliamentary building. At the center of the park is a massive fountain, decorated with traditional Roman chariots and fantastical water-spewing dragons, a testament to the mix of history and whimsy throughout the city.

Ciutadella is always crowded and was particularly so because of Wednesday’s holiday. Families lined the block to get into the zoo, runners in neon apparel filled the paths and mothers sat at the fountain-side cafe with strollers parked by the water.

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We continued south of Ciutadella to the beach. Normally by October, Barcelona’s beaches are empty, but with no school and persistent 90-degree weather, bathers lined the waterfront. On our walk to the Mediterranean, we passed teenagers socializing on the boardwalk, old men playing dominos and more publicly displayed modern art than on Brown’s campus.

IMG_6617IMG_6614IMG_6654IMG_6610Clockwise from top left: Frank Gehry’s “Fish,” which overlooks the water from between the city’s two skyscrapers, Hotel Arts and the Mapfre office building; Antoni Llena’s “David i Goliath,” which was built for the 1992 Olympics; Rebecca Horn’s “Homenatge a la Barceloneta,” which was built to memorialize the oceanfront shops and restaurants destroyed for Olympics construction.

The old men playing cards under the boardwalk looked like they had been coming to the beach to do the very same thing for decades. One player saw our cameras and yelled out, in Catalan, “Take pictures! No charge!”

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From the steamy beach, we walked up the Barceloneta boardwalk, a touristy strip lined with paella restaurants and parked cruise ships. Barcelona is an enormous port for passenger vessels bound for the Mediterranean’s waters; my entire flight from New York was filled with cruise passengers. The scenic beaches are broken up by industrial docks and vestiges from the 1992 Olympics, which makes parts of the waterfront less than ideal for sunbathing. Still, the mild waters provide great relief on a record-setting hot day.

We walked inland fron the shores to la Ribera, a neighborhood also known as the Born and renowned for its food and art. Both categories were on the agenda, but after our long sweeping walk, lunch would have to come first.

We paid a visit to El Xampaneyet, an example of the old world charm of tapas bars. Packed with people, the bar is a total free-for-all. You grab whatever table or inch of bar space that you can and just start pointing at food, all of which is displayed on top of the bar. We fought our way to a little table in the middle of the action and the food just started flowing: red peppers stuffed with tuna, spicy marinated olives, tortilla española, a traditional omelette made of potatoes and onions, pan con tomate, sundried tomatoes, manchego cheese and peppers stuffed with soft cheese. I washed down my tapas with a glass of cava, sparkling wine made in Spain.

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Lunch was delicious, but eating at El Xampanyet was as much about the experience as the food.

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After lunch, Jessica paid a visit to the Picasso museum, which is housed in a series of old houses down the street from El Xampanyet. I’ve seen the art in the native Barcelonian’s museum a few times before, so I decided to go for a walk around the Born instead.

I should have expected it because of the combination of siesta and holiday, but nearly everything was closed. But as I wove my way through the Born and circled several of the surrounding neighborhoods, it gave me a chance to people-watch and eavesdrop. Everyone in Barcelona speaks Spanish, but Catalan is the city’s lifeblood. After the Franco-era ban was lifted, locals returned to speaking their native tongue, and today, it is the language of choice among many young people. Catalan is a close relative of the other regional romance languages; as one of my friends once put it, Catalan was born the bastard child of Spanish and French, dropped on its head in an Italian hospital. It’s not quite as phonetic as Spanish, which makes the accent tricky, but when written, it bears many similarities.

Many people are critical of Barcelona as a study-abroad choice because of the almost secondary place of the Spanish language. But I disagree. All of my classes were conducted in Spanish and the castellano of most people in the city is fairly unaccented, as compared to people in Sevilla or South America. I had ample opportunities to practice my written and verbal comprehension of the language. Plus, as a two-for-the-price-of-one bargain, I learned Catalan. My speaking abilities are atrocious, but I was shocked at what I had retained from a comprehension perspective, thus validating the placement of “conversational Catalan” as a skill on my resume.

Jessica and I reconnected and continued our walk around the city. Down the block from the Picasso Museum is one of the city’s more beautiful churches, Santa Maria del Mar. In contrast to the church’s Gothic style, a nearby modern sculpture commemorates those who fought for the Catalan constitution in 1714. (It’s hard to let go.)

We walked down to the water in time to see the sun beginning to set over Roy Lichtenstein’s “Barcelona Head,” a fun pop art sculpture that rises above the waterfront buildings. Down the block from the “Head” is a sculpture of the man of the day, Cristóbal Colón, as he is known in Spain, pointing out to the sea.

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For dinner we headed up to Gracia, the neighborhood north of L’Eixample. Gracia is quieter and more filled with locals than other parts of the city. The neighborhood is dotted with squares that are filled with bars and restaurants. One of its more well-known streets, Carrer Verdi, is tree-lined and closed to cars. The street is filled with young people, filtering in and out of restaurants of all different world cuisines.

We chose a Lebanese restaurant and sampled the muhammara, a dip made from red peppers and walnuts, a salad and musakaa, a dish of sauteed eggplant, pepper and chickpeas.

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Yet another delightful, delicious day.

More country sun

Written by Chaz on 30 August 2011

After my first wonderful day exploring the archipelago’s natural offerings, I spent my second full day in Sweden in the big city. Well, sort of. Norrtälje — population 17,200 — is the biggest town in the northern archipelago region, and it comes alive in the summer with tourists and locals on vacation.

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After walking around a bit and checking out some adorable little shops, it was of course time for a fika, so we stopped in at the Cafe Landkrabban for coffee, some beautiful little sandwiches and a sweet or two.

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Fortified, we took a walk along the river that runs through the center of the town to look at a public art installation called “Konst i ån,” or literally, “art in the stream.” Eleven pieces of art had been designed to be shown right in the river, and each was weirder than the one before it.

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Lest there ever be a break in the food tour nature of my travels, we headed home for a delicious dinner of grilled pork and halloumi cheese, accompanied by potatoes, salad and green beans. Coincidentally, I was first introduced to halloumi in Sweden, when my friend Ellen bought some at our supermarket in Stockholm and fried it up on the stove. Apparently it has since become quite trendy in Sweden, no doubt thanks to Ellen and me.

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After dinner, Erik, Karin and I took a walk along the shore to watch the sunset. It must have been close to 11 o’clock, but it was still plenty light out and the sun had yet to dip below the horizon.

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After some more reading and relaxing, I headed off to bed, excited to return to Stockholm the next day.

Where in the world is Emmy?

Written by Emmy on 11 July 2011

Chaz has been providing updates from the Arctic north — well, Scandinavian north — but really, you’re probably wondering what I have been up to since Asia.

A Blackberry camera captured sunset over Mill Neck Creek

I’m at home on Long Island, working on a couple of different projects. Currently, I’m doing research on child poverty for an upcoming book by author/journalist Paul Tough; volunteering at my favorite nonprofit, Free Arts NYC; taking an online business accounting and economics course (no fun link provided); and spending some much needed quality time with my family. Just last week I learned to sand, stain and seal a dining table. I got a wok for my birthday, but I have yet to wreak any havoc on my kitchen. That’s the next adventure.