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The (belated) end to a Peruvian adventure

Written by Emmy on 19 May 2013

After departing the natural wonders of Titilaka and Lake Titicaca, we flew back to Lima and hopped into a van bound for our last destination. We were headed to the city of Paracas, an oceanfront town known for its natural reservation and spectacular wildlife. We drove south with the ocean on one side, and sparsely developed land on the other.

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Except for the occasional small town, the majority of the drive looked like this, exposing us to another side of Peru — the migrant farming communities that look abandoned or industrious depending on the time of year. Looking out on the arid land, it was hard to imagine who was farming what and when, but we were assured that more people lived and worked just over the hills.

The drive took a while, mostly due to the underdeveloped nature of the roads we were traversing. We watched as the sun beautifully dipped below the Pacific.

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When we finally arrived in Paracas, we found ourselves among a very different set of Peruvians than those we had spent the last few days with. Because of its proximity to Lima and its beautiful waterfront, Paracas attracts the moneyed crowd of the capital city, particularly around events like New Year’s. The traditional floral woven dresses were replaced with racy clubbing outfits and skimpy bikinis. Still, we were among very few foreign tourists, so it still felt very Peruvian — albeit a different side of the same country.

We finished off the evening with pasta at the hotel’s trattoria. Because of the ocean’s proximity (less than 100 yards away), most dishes were dotted with seafood. I enjoyed a squid-ink pasta with shellfish.

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We woke up early the next morning, ready to explore what the Reserva Nacional de Paracas had to offer. We boarded a boat and headed out to sea. Our first stop was a mysterious candelabra drawn in the sand. Though it looked from afar like it could have easily been blown away, the etching has in fact been there for hundreds of years. Indigenous tribes carved into the rock under the sand, creating a permanent fixture up on the rocks.

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This is very similar to the Nazca lines, a popular destination further south of Paracas. Indigenous people drew massive pictures in the sand and tourists flock to them; the only way to appreciate them is to take a small plane above the etchings. We had opted to skip this destination, so our mysterious candelabra served as substitute. It is suspected that the candelabra dates back as far as 200 B.C., a relic of the ancient Paracas culture and meant to symbolize the staff of an ancient god.

After boating through open waters for a little while, we saw something rising out of the ocean. As we got closer, we could see that it was a series of large rocks, each completely covered in birds. The stench was overpowering — the rocks have changed color over time from the sheer amount of bird defecation on them.

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Since the 1970s, these rocks out in the ocean have been under protection from the Peruvian government because of the many natural and cultural treasures they hold. Driving around, we saw a dizzying array of birds, including the hilariously named red boobie. (Okay, so we’re a little immature.) We also happened upon a large pack of sea lions.

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It was apparently mating season for the sea lions. This seemingly entails a lot of sleeping, though we were taught that each female sea lion was staking out her area on the beach. The males would later waddle around and start the courtship process. But for now, the large mammals were just hanging out.

Nearby on the rocks, we encountered the most exciting of the Paracas National Reserve’s residents. For reasons I can’t exactly explain, I have a deep fascination with penguins. I was extremely excited when I learned we would meet some of them on our trip to Paracas. While I had always learned that penguins require ice and snow, there are a couple species that thrive in the equatorial climate in Peru, Ecuador and Chile. They’re a bit smaller than their Antarctic brethren, but still very adorable. They do, however, smell terrible.

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We spent the next few hours weaving in and out of the rock formations, observing one interesting animal species after another. We saw many more sea lions, all of whom were either asleep or searching for a new nap spot. The variety of birds was endless — we made many more boobie jokes and spotted several flocks of pelicans. Though harder to spot, we did find more penguins. They were generally more sedentary than I was expecting, but perhaps that’s the influence of movies like Happy Feet.

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After spending a couple hours with the native creatures, it was time for us to head back to shore. We waved farewell to the napping sea lions, the waddling penguins and the very stinky birds.

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Back ashore, we revisited the ocean, but on our plates. Being able to see the water from our lunch table meant very fresh fish. For me, this came in the form of Peruvian ceviche, prepared in a style very similar to that which we had learned from Penelope earlier that week. This time it was a bit spicier, which I was naturally excited about.

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We spent the afternoon exploring our surroundings and taking it easy in order to prepare ourselves for midnight and the start of 2013. Many of our fellow hotel guests were partaking in a massive party on the beach, the entry ticket to which cost about the same as the annual wages of a salt miner. Truly, we had managed to see both ends of the Peruvian lifestyle spectrum over the course of a week.

We had a more low-key evening, but still managed to get dressed up and watch the fireworks light up the sky.

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We woke up to a calm and peaceful 2013 under the southern sun. After our hectic touring schedule of the earlier part of the week, we took the next two days to relax before heading back to work and reality.

We took bicycles out onto a path that very quickly became beach, working against the resistance of the wet sand. During low tide, we came upon the most remarkable creatures I have ever seen — jellyfish with bodies nearly as large as our bike wheels, dotting the entire coastline. They looked prehistoric in size and nature, and navigating around their tentacles added another challenge to the ride.

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We set sail, repeatedly, taking in the coastline from another perspective.

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Our proximity to the water also continued to give us access to a wealth of seafood dishes. Some of the native Peruvian items continued to perplex me, like causa, the boiled potato stuffed with crabmeat and mayo. Others were more redeeming, like the countless ceviches we continued to encounter. Some came prepared with the traditional corn-and-onion base; others artfully decorated seashells and came spotted with brightly colored peppers. I avoided the former and over-indexed on the latter.

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After our week of planes and trains and boats and drives and hikes, Paracas provided many quiet moments to sit and reflect on the trip.

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Peru turned out to be one of the more culturally fascinating places I have ever been. In one country, there were so many different cultures — not to mention languages – and each seemingly lived independently. Among all the Peruvians I met, there was a great sense of pride for their nation and for their people; the same sense of pride in Peru’s growth and confidence in the brightness of its future seemed to extend from the cosmopolitan residents of Lima, like Penelope, to the young weaver near Titilaka. In some ways, I found myself surprised at the underdeveloped nature of the country, but at the same time, it presented us with a richness that I have never seen elsewhere. Truly, colors seemed brighter in Peru, and I still see that now as I look through my photos.

The country and its residents welcomed us with open arms and let us explore what they had to offer, and we really saw just a fraction of the nation’s diversity. The food may not be as spicy as I’d like, and the roads may not all be easily traveled, but Peru is a country worth seeing, and one that I would love to see again a few years down the line.

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Lake in the sky

Written by Emmy on 26 March 2013

We departed the cosmopolitan city of Cusco, and flew up, up and away. We landed in the small town of Juliaca, situated at over 12,000 feet up. Yikes.

We got into a van, opened up our picnic afternoon snack — Andean cheese and tomato sandwiches, and shortbread cookies — and started cruising south.

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We hit the city of Puno and there it was, Lago Titicaca — the highest navigable lake in the world. At this point, we were sipping our coca tea and trying to cope with the altitude adjustments. But the lake under the glow of the sunset was also pretty exciting…

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We drove around the perimeter of the lake for an hour or so before arriving at our destination, Titilaka. (We spent the next few days perpetually confused between Titlaka, the town and hotel, and Titicaca, the lake and region.) We were also now shockingly close to the Bolivian border, but the crossing is not recommended for those with American passports.

Our hotel was a beautiful lodge poised right on the edge of the lake. Climbing to the second floor of the hotel was a little bit of a challenge with the altitude, but we recovered and made it back downstairs for dinner.

We enjoyed a lovely meal composed of local ingredients while overlooking the lake. I started with a carpaccio of eggplant and zucchini, the hotel’s special for the night. I followed with chicken brochettes and quinoa risotto. Quinoa can in fact be used in anything, as the Peruvians regularly demonstrated.

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And then, just for good measure, we had some cheesecake with local berries.

We woke up the next morning to the beautiful light streaming over the lake, looked out on Lake Titicaca, and prepared for our day of adventure.

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We set out on a boat for the island of Taquile, about 45 minutes away from the shore. The island is filled with traditional people who speak Quechua, despite being surrounded by Spanish and Aymara speakers. For centuries, the island was totally isolated, and an independent culture and society developed.

The island is less isolated today than it used to be — we saw homes with solar panels and heard Rihanna blasting from one area. But on the other hand, the island is still governed by its ancient rules. Our entry fee to the island was collected by an older man — the mayor — who put the change inside his hand-sewn fanny pack. Families on the island are restricted to a limited amount of space and can only have two cows and twenty sheep because of a strong desire to protect the land.

Walking around, we met a group of little boys who begged us to take their photos so they could see the result on the little screen.

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The views from the island were incredible, especially as we climbed up into the hills. In every direction, all you could see was the very blue sky and the glassy clear lake. I would say that it took my breath away, but the altitude had already done that.

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After walking around the island for a bit, our guide led us to the home of Roberto and Alicia. Lifelong residents of the island, the two are its unofficial welcome committee, along with their two-year-old daughter, Martiza. They are farmers and weavers, and Roberto oversees several branches of the extended family who come by to do their sewing and work.

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The family showed off several of their wares and explained the island traditions to us. For example, all boys are required to learn to sew and the most important item they can make is their own hat. Starting at a young age, boys wear floppy colorful hats made from alpaca wool; any alternates they have are ones they have made themselves. Walking around the island, it’s not uncommon to see boys following sheep with knitting needles in hand. Once the boys enter their teenage years, they begin making a stiffer, sturdier hat, and when a boy has found a girl he wants to marry, he brings her father his hat. The father pours a cup of water inside and if none leaks out (meaning the boy is capable and industrious), he is granted the daughter’s hand. But if his hat leaks, he is considered an unworthy candidate.

Once married — which happens only after the couple has lived together for about two years in a sort of trial run — the boy becomes a man and graduates to a bigger, floppier, more colorful hat. This hat is adorned with a pom-pom, which carries a special meaning. On the island of Taquile, you never ask a man “How are you?” — if the pom-pom of his hat is on his right shoulder, he is having a good day; on his left, and you’re better off saying nothing at all.

For women, subtle communication is done through scarves. The more you are searching for a man, the brighter and more colorful the tassels on your scarf will be.

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After explaining and modeling the local traditions, Alicia and Roberto served us a lovely late morning snack — quinoa soup and fried bread with a spicy topping of peppers and onions. It was very authentic, and quite delicious.

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We bid our new friends farewell (only after giving Martiza an extreme number of hugs — she was easy to grow quickly attached to) and continued our journey around the island, pausing for epic vista after vista.

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We headed back to the boat and back to the mainland, leaving behind the somewhat magical little island of Taquile.

And because one lunch is not enough, we got back just in time for a very colorful quinoa salad, continuing my culinary journey through all possible iterations of the local grain.

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IMG_3171We went on a little canoe expedition after lunch, staying in the protected area of the reeds to prevent from flipping (as we saw several other people do). Nevertheless, it was not an adventure my camera was invited to attend — we got quite wet paddling around as the afternoon current picked up.

Since we had arrived at the hotel, we had been admiring the pillows and other weavings all around us. We mentioned this to one of the guides, who offered that we could go meet the family responsible for all of the beautiful handicrafts; we happily accepted the invitation.

We drove through fields and farms for about 30 minutes before coming upon a village made up of huts and farming plots. We were led into one of the homes, where we met three generations of weavers working together in the courtyard: the grandmother worked on embroidery, her son operated a large loom, his wife stretched out a carpet, and their 14-year-old daughter spun wool into yarn.

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The process is collaborative — meant to be a shared family experience as the four sit together sewing and talking. Midway through our visit, mother and daughter took a time-out from their separate projects to come together for an instructional lesson. Like we learned earlier in our trip, everything about weaving patterns is passed down through the family, and so it is critical for mothers to teach their daughters the special patterns and techniques.

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The older generations spoke only Aymara, in which we had not gotten much further than “Hello and nice to meet you,” but the shy teenage daughter spoke a bit of Spanish. After showing us around and telling us about the work her family does, she offered us an opportunity to play dress up. The blue coat she let me try on she had made for a school event of hers held earlier that year.

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We decided to take a couple pillow cases home with us, and when we went to pay, the matriarch of the family pulled the cash register and her cell phone out of her chest. That’s a tight security system. Jokes and costumes aside, it was a unique and wonderful experience to be so welcomed into the family’s home and to be given an introduction to the work that they do.

Back on the shores of the lake, we rose the next day to a similarly spectacular view as the sun climbed above the water.

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We piled back into a van and drove toward the largest town on the lake, Puno, which we had passed through in the dark on our way in. Puno has the largest harbor of the surrounding towns and instantly felt more touristy than where we had spent our previous few days. But Puno is the launch point for many areas of the lake, and that was the cause for our visit.

The destination of the morning was Uros, or the Floating Islands as they are better known. Until we came up upon them, I could not even begin to conceptualize what a “floating island” meant.

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The Uros islands are an old tradition, but even today, new islands sprout up all the time. The man-made islands are called the Floating Islands because the hunks of land, though somewhat anchored, are pretty movable. One tour guide we met at the hotel told us that he grew up on an island and his mother cared deeply about education; when he was in primary school, she relocated their island so it wouldn’t be such a far commute for him to go study.

Most of the islands are just a bit bigger than my Manhattan apartment, and over 70 of them dot the area.

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We pulled up to one of the islands and were greeted by Rita, her sister-in-law, Gladys, and their mother-in-law, Lucia. Rita is currently serving as president of her island and its neighbors, so she was more than happy to give us a brief explanation of life on the island. Only catch? The island dwellers speak mostly Quechua. But no problem — Rita had it down to a science.

Using a diorama, she showed us how the islands are constructed — a process that takes a better part of a year as the roots of reeds are laid down, and then covered in carefully piled reeds, with each layer interwoven into the next. Residents constantly add to the floor to make sure it’s stable. Then, families build small huts atop the island. Sons always stay with their mothers and their brides come to join them on their islands. Rita and Gladys both married onto the island we visited; Gladys, though younger, had a much nicer house. We learned this is because her husband is a better fisherman than Rita’s; much of the local people’s livelihood depends on the success of their men at hunting, and skill is rewarded.

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We spent time exploring Rita, Gladys and Lucia’s island — they also insisted in dressing us up in traditional costumes and showing us their weavings. It was fascinating, mostly because all the while we were standing on a man-made island. The only downside was our proximity to Puno, which has turned the Uros into a major tourist attraction spot and has made the area much more popular than Taquile and other islands. It colored our vision of the islands’ authenticity a bit, but it was still a truly unique spot to visit.

After bidding our hostesses farewell, we set our course back to the shore, where we piled into a van and said adiós to the beautiful Lago Titicaca.

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Taking the subway to Singapore

Written by Chaz on 15 July 2012

In the middle of April, I went to New York to see a live broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion with my mother and a few friends, as we do nearly every April and December when the show is in New York. The show was great — in fact, one of the best I’ve seen — but for blogging purposes, the events before and after were more significant.

On my way down to New York from Boston on Saturday morning, I was trying to coordinate plans with Vernie, who was planning to come to the show with us. She revealed that she was planning to spend the day at Singapore Day, an event for overseas Singaporeans being held in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. The event even included chefs flown in from the most popular hawker centers in Singapore, Vernie said. I called Emmy right away and told her to scrap whatever she had planned for the day. This sounded like an event we couldn’t miss.

IMG_8892Singapore loses tons of its citizens to other countries, not least because it’s such a small country, and as a result, the government goes to great lengths to keep the diaspora connected to the homeland. And it appears to work. Vernie was super excited to go to Singapore Day, and as soon as we got there, it was clear she wasn’t the only one. People had come from all over the country for this event. In addition to hawker center chefs, the Singaporean government had also brought in Singaporean celebrities, who were performing on an enormous stage surrounded by exhibits about how great life in Singapore is. And lest you miss the point, the entrance gates to the event were modeled after the fare gates on the MRT, with big signs reading, “Welcome home.” Though Emmy and I were probably not their target audience, we nevertheless felt a bit like we were making a triumphant homecoming to our favorite tiny island nation.

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By the time Emmy, her roommate Dana and I made it to Prospect Park, the event was in full swing, and the food lines were already long. We immediately jumped in the roti prata line, which was one of our favorite foods in Singapore. Perhaps it was because it’s not actually a complicated food item, but it was just as delicious as I remembered it in Singapore, with a small fraction of the journey.

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Our next stop was at the penang laksa booth. We had only had this Peranakan dish’s cousin, katong laksa, during our time in Singapore. Penang laksa is more sour and less spicy than katong laksa, and even though I didn’t enjoy the flavor as much, it did take me right back to the plethora of noodle dishes we had in Singapore.

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Our next dish was rojak, which we had in Singapore as a side to the katong laksa. The rojak suffered the most from being 10,000 miles from home. I remembered it as crunchy in Singapore, but this was soggy at best, and rather than being spicy and sweet, it just tasted overwhelmingly of soy sauce.

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Our final dish, of course, was the mystery, the wonder: chicken rice. By this point in the afternoon, we were quite full, but we nevertheless recalled our professional training on assessing the quality of chicken rice and dug in. Simple in its elegance, chicken rice did not disappoint.

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After sitting for a while and enjoying the sun and entertainment, we headed back to Manhattan for a breather before heading to the show, where we met my mother. Afterwards, we made our way to Ngam, a new Thai restaurant that Emmy had chosen for us. At this point, we had been joined by Ben, Diana, her boyfriend, my mother, and a friend of hers, and had become a somewhat unwieldy group of eight — the benefit, of course, being that we could order more dishes. After a bit of an ordeal as we attempted to claim our reservation, during which we observed the open kitchen, we were seated.

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Emmy was quickly deputized with ordering for the entire table, and before long, we were showered with appetizers. Ngam is a Thai restaurant, but they take a bunch of liberties from tradition, which was immediately noticeable. Our appetizers included a crab cake, sweet chili chicken wings, a papaya salad topped with strawberries and cashews, “Chiang Mai fries” made from pumpkin and sweet potatoes, and spring rolls with noodles and mushrooms. Nothing was familiar, but everything was fantastic.

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After some ordering confusion with our main courses, we ended up with quite a selection. One of our favorite dishes in northern Thailand was khao soi, a spicy coconut milk curry that includes both soft noodles and fried egg noodles with which we had recently become reacquainted when we came across it in suburban Boston. Ngam had a new variation on the dish: instead of the more traditional chicken, they had prepared it with lobster. It was delicious.

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Our other dishes included curried vegetables, a curried duckling with lychees and pineapple, crispy chicken laab, and a shrimp pad thai that featured papaya instead of noodles. Everything was just one step away from a dish we were familiar with, making each dish a new, innovative twist on an old standby. For me, the lobster khao soi and the papaya pad thai were the real standouts. The duckling and crispy laab were a bit fried for my preference.

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We headed back to Emmy’s apartment for the rest of the evening, having reenacted a couple of the cuisines of our trip to Asia using only the New York City subway system.

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In the shadows of memories

Written by Emmy on 7 November 2011

Monday morning marked the end of the official LisSister journey through Spain. I had to make my way up to Barcelona in order to fly across the ocean Tuesday morning, though Jessica was able to fly back to Rome directly from Valencia, thanks to my favorite airline. And so we bid farewell and I took the train and arrived back in Barcelona just after 2 p.m and just in time for a menu del dia.

When I first got to Barcelona two years ago, I went through a six-hour teacher training in order to work at La Mar Bella. We received a midday break for lunch and with three of my friends, I headed to a nice cafe near the CASB building. We had heard about the wonders of menu del dia, but had not yet partaken. So we sat down, ordered our three courses, and then because the concept of day drinking legally was still novel to us, we each ordered wine, expecting a glass. Instead, we received two full bottles. The afternoon part of training was far more fun.

I continued returning to Por Sant with my friends because of the delightful outdoor seating, copious amounts of wine and unbelievably good food. When my mom came to visit, I brought her there and when Chaz came to Barcelona, we spent several happy hours on the Por Sant patio.

There was no way I could return to Barcelona and not eat there, so I went by myself for a delicious lunch. The menu changes daily, but rarely disappoints. I was pleased to find several new options available, as well as some old favorites. I started with zucchini baked with mushrooms and cheese in a light tomato sauce.

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I followed this with chicken stewed with prunes and apricots. This was always my favorite Por Sant entree and I was pleased to see it was still a menu regular. The dish is served in a sweet wine sauce, though it has a little bit of a citrusy kick.

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One of the beauties of the menu del dia and meals in Spain in general is that you will never be rushed away from your table. Lingering is encouraged, and so I sat for a while with my personal bottle of white wine and watched the quiet commotion of the streets nearby. The waitress who served me was the same waitress who always helped my friends and I. She was much nicer to me as the quiet solo diner of ambiguous origin than she was to me as a member of the crowd of loud obviously American teenagers.

For dessert I had the cheesecake, which in Spain is far lighter than in the U.S.

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From Por Sant I took a long winding walk down La Rambla, through Plaça Catalunya and into the heart of the Gothic Quarter. I paid a visit to La Manual Alpargatera, the world-renowned espadrille-manufacturing store. Espadrilles are quite possibly the most comfortable shoes in the world and I am very pleased that they have remained a fashionable item in the U.S. While you can find them in most nice shoe stores at fairly high prices, at La Manual they will stretch their handmade shoes to create a custom fit and the average pair costs nine euros.

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From La Manual I took a weaving route back to my old neighborhood. By Monday I was experiencing serious nostalgia for my time abroad. I went to my neighborhood Mercadona to pick up Spanish candy for my friends back in New York and sat on a bench in the Onix courtyard for a while. The courtyard was, as always, filled with little kids playing soccer, despite the rampant “No fútbol” signs. The adults couldn’t care less; they were all busy having a beer or playing bocci ball nearby. I saw several girls around my age walking into the supermarket from Onix and had to resist all temptations to start talking to them. I thought it might be a little creepy, so I refrained and just drank my 18-cent seltzer. (Grocery shopping in Spain is a remarkably cheap experience.)

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I had a similar reaction to returning to Barcelona as Chaz’s homecoming to Sweden, which he reflected upon after returning. Ever since leaving Spain, I have wanted to return and I built up the experience in my head. My homecoming too did not disappoint. That our high expectations were met is the only similarity between our experiences though. Chaz had remembered Sweden as the ideal country with the ideal system of functionality and it fulfilled his hopes. I have never believed Spain to be the pinnacle of success nor the perfect model of self-governance. Its current track record severely begs to differ. But what I loved about Barcelona while I was there and what I was so eager to return to was the spirit of the city and the disposition of its people.

Barcelona is a city tied to its rich cultural and linguistic past and a city constantly at odds with its surroundings. The people who live there firmly believe in themselves and all that their land stands for. They are lively and vibrant, occasionally angry, but always passionate. The city is unique and special. It’s something easy to catch onto after only a few days there, but a sentiment you come to regard as your own after enough time living there. Catalunya is not Spain, and Barcelona is like nowhere else.

I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering in my old territory, soaking up as much of the local energy as I could. For dinner, I headed to Ciutat Comtal, the sister restaurant of Cerveceria Catalana. Slightly less well known, it’s also slightly less crowded and they have a long bar, which makes for convenient solo eating. I fought my way toward the bar and picked out a stool at the very end. The woman next to me turned to tell me she and her husband would be vacating their seats soon, but because I was alone and had ordered a drink in Spanish, she assumed I was native and so spoke to me in English in the way my family always jokes that my father speaks to foreigners: slowly, loudly and with simple words. Trying hard not to laugh, I responded in my very New York-ish English, wished her well on the rest of her trip and turned to order my tapas en español.

The line between tourist and local was a hard one to ride in Spain and a very different experience than my other summer trips. In Asia, there was no disguising the fact that Chaz and I were foreigners. Between his blonde hair and my large camera, not to mention our maps and guidebooks, it was game over. At the Grand Canyon, of course we were tourists. Who isn’t? When I was last in Barcelona, I spent four months trying to convince people I belonged, by dressing in a nondescript way, picking up the local accent and just generally blending in. This time though, I wanted to take pictures and cause a scene — for blogging and for personal purposes — but at the same time, I still wanted to be mistaken for a local student. At the bar at Ciudad Comtal, for instance, I could have potentially passed when I first sat down alone and ordered in Spanish. But my food came and then I was that strange girl in the corner photographing her dishes, clearly not a local. And once the waitstaff start posing for your photos and using their few key English phrases, how can you argue you’re getting the authentic experience?

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Cracks about my photography aside, I did have a delicious dinner of some standard tapas favorites. Tapas for one is really difficult, so I just over-ordered and sampled from my various personal plates, which included a seafood montadito, the Catalan version of a pintxo; a pepper stuffed with tuna; escalivada, the same eggplant, pepper and onion tower we had the first night at Cerveceria Catalana; and some grilled veggies.

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Much as I love Barcelona, I know better than to traipse around solo at night and so I retired early in order to prepare for my departure, so that I could still have the morning to play.

I woke up early, but then remembered why Barcelona stays sleeping till at least 9 a.m. At 7:30, the city was still dark. I had grand ideas about storming the gates of Gaudi’s Park Güell, but thought better of it and instead of heading outside the city, dove back into its depths one final time. For as many visits as I made to the Boqueria, I had never been in the morning when it first opens and so I decided to catch a glimpse of the merchants unloading their produce and other wares before heading out. I was definitely the only tourist among the fishmongers taking their giant animals off ice and the fruit sellers unpacking cartons.

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IMG_7513For one final bite of authenticity before leaving the city, I returned to Cerveceria Catalana. Despite the fact that they fend off crowds and feed them tapas until late in the night, the bar opens at 8 a.m. in order to serve coffee and flautas to hungry locals on their way to work. I sat down at the bar and lingered for a while because I had time to spare, although in the time I sat there several cycles of people shuffled through, taking a moment to sip their cafe and read their newspapers before heading off the start the day. I had coffee and some manchego, which was a standard order, though one man to my left had a glass of wine and one to my right had a cognac. Nothing like starting the day strong. Inspired by a worker who took his sandwich to go, I requested a second flauta in tin foil — a preferable lunch to whatever Delta was going to serve me.

With my tuna and olive sandwich in hand, I made my way to the very familiar Barcelona airport terminal. Saying goodbye to the city was shockingly hard and I found myself getting a bit emotional, but it only reaffirmed what I had already determined: I would be back.

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Arab influence

Written by Emmy on 3 November 2011

We began Saturday morning’s walk in a corner of the old city we had not seen the day before, Russafa, which is generally considered the Muslim neighborhood. The further south you travel in Spain, the stronger the Moorish influence is, in food, architecture and population composition. Second to Sagrada Familia, Spain’s most important sight is La Alhambra in Granada, a spectacular structure that was at different moments a church, a fortress and a mosque. Here in Russafa, the Moorish influence is a bit more subtle, but evident nonetheless.

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One of our first stops was obviously the market. Like in Barcelona, Valencian neighborhoods have their own small markets, reserving the central market for mayhem, tourists and special visits. The Mercat de Russafa was more manageable, but no less filled with delicious food.

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Sitting next to the fresh fruit at several stands were pumpkin halves, lightly browned and ready to be eaten. True to Toni and Marisa’s explanation, the people could not seem to get enough of the roasted pumpkin.

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We bought a slice of pumpkin of which Jessica raved so much that we bought two more, sat on the steps of a church and ate them with our fingers. The pumpkin in the market was far superior to the pumpkin at dinner; it tasted very fresh and had a natural sweetness.

We didn’t see much else open during our brief stay in Russafa. Spanish business hours are a fickle thing. Some stores open early and close for siesta, some stores open late and bypass nap time, some stores open in the afternoon and stay open for bar hoppers to take a peak. It’s really very hard to predict (and might have some bearing on the economic struggles of small Spanish towns). In the main part of the city, everything was open by 10 or 11 a.m., but in smaller neighborhoods, it seemed to be each man’s rules for himself.

We roamed the streets, walked into another big market and a few stores and then before we knew it, it was lunchtime. (I swear we did more than just eat on this trip; the photos I have just don’t reflect that.)

We dined al fresco at a restaurant highly praised by several guidebooks, El Rall. The restaurant is largely renowned for its paella, but we already had plans for a paella feast on Sunday, so decided to sample some of the other notable items instead.

When we sat down, we were greeted with do-it-yourself pan con tomate, proving that despite Catalunya’s claim over this item, it does exist elsewhere. We ordered coca, a paper-thin Valencian bread, topped with goat cheese, onions and zucchini. We also had roasted chicken. Our lunch was delicious, but looking around, it appeared that we were doing it all wrong. While we happily ate from our two plates, our patio-mates were on at least their third or fourth course. Perhaps they hadn’t pregamed with pumpkin.

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After lunch, Jessica returned to the hotel to get a little homework done. Blissfully responsibility free, I explored the back streets of the old quarter, wandering through little squares and pausing at a tiny cafe for a cortado. I saw a ton of signage for the protests scheduled for that night, part of the international response to Occupy Wall Street. There had been signs in Barcelona too for the coordinated international event.

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Jessica and I continued our perusal of the old quarter, still finding an odd number of places to be closed. Still, we were able to check out a few local hotspots as well as some rather quirky art galleries. We got lost several times, owing in large part to our very poor map, but discovered that even locals had only a sketchy sense of direction. One shopkeeper we asked for help had to pull out an atlas in order to assist us.

We finally landed at Plaça de Santa Catalina, a gathering spot for locals of all ages. One of the items Valencia is most well-known for is horchata, an icy cold drink different from the one of the same name found in Mexico. It looks like milk, but contains no dairy — perfect for me and my milk phobia! Valencian horchata is made from ground tigernuts, water and sugar.

Two of the most famous horchaterias sit in Santa Catalina, but only one was open, so our decision was easily made. We fought our way to a table — the place was packed, mostly with families — and ordered a horchata for me, an absurdly thick hot chocolate for Jessica and fartóns, a puff pastry traditionally dunked in the two drinks.

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Following our late afternoon sugar high, we returned to the hotel to detox and digest. After a long while, it was time to eat again.

We headed to a new neighborhood, up in the organized grid part of the city near where many of the university buildings are located. Valencia too calls their more modernized section the Eixample. Our restaurant of choice had been picked from the New York Times’ 36 Hours, ever the trusty resource. The restaurant, Balansiya, offered a range of Moorish foods; the restaurant’s name is how one would say Valencia in Arabic.

We started with hummus and babaganoush, two familiar-sounding favorites of the Liss family. They were a little different here — the hummus was thicker and chunkier, tasting intensely like its chickpea base, while the babagnoush had much more of a sesame taste than I’m used to. They were served with bread, as opposed to pita.

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IMG_7169For our main course, we ordered a chicken tagine, seasoned with almonds and saffron, and a pastel de pollo. The chicken cake, as it is literally translated, looked like a cinnamon-and-sugar coated pastry when it arrived, but once we cut into it, curried chicken and nuts emerged. Both dishes were very reminiscent of the food we ate on a family trip to Morocco a few years ago.

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The restaurant served no alcohol because of its Muslim ties, but our waiter did offer to put our names on a list at a nearby hopping club. After all our eating we were feeling a bit sluggish, so we declined. I ordered tea and watched as the waiter poured it from up high in traditional fashion. Even though we had turned down his invitation to go clubbing, he also gave us a complimentary sampling of house desserts.

The night was just starting for most young Spaniards as we left, but for us, it was bedtime.

Speaking Valenciana

Written by Emmy on 2 November 2011

On Friday morning we bid farewell to Barcelona and boarded the train to Valencia. The three-hour ride was pleasant and comfortable and our train had assigned seats and in-flight entertainment, more than I can say for Amtrak or Thai Railways. The journey began and ended along the coast, weaving inland between the seaside stops. Just outside Barcelona, the landscape became totally rural, with farmhouses, fields and mountains lined with windmills.

We arrived in Valencia just in time for lunch. After quickly dropping our belongings at the hotel, we headed to Mercat Central, the large food market that claims to be the largest in Western Europe. This is a superlative I’ve heard thrown around a few times before, but Mercat Central was pretty impressive.

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We picked up a lunch picnic to eat on the steps outside the market. Jessica sampled some of the market’s prepared foods, while I went for more of an a la carte antipasto approach, purchasing manchego cheese, hummus, artichokes, sundried tomatoes and peppers.

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Valencia is organized similarly to Barcelona, with a condensed egg-shaped historic center and a more sprawling modern section built along a grid. Though Valencia has an equally large share of Mediterranean coastline, the historic part of the city is a solid 10-minute drive from the water. The old walled city kept its distance, earning Valencia the translated-from-Catalan tagline of “the city with its back to the sea.”

We had plans to explore the old center later in the afternoon, so we decided to be atypical and check out the parts of the city that do touch the sea. The main thoroughfare that begins at the old gates of the city and heads toward the water stops about a kilometer before the Mediterranean. Blocking the major avenue from continuing straight ahead is the neighborhood of Cabanyal, and this is a major source of municipal tension. El Cabanyal is the old fisherman quarters and is filled with charming old townhouses, but it has a bit of seedy reputation these days. Tired of prostitutes and poverty and interested in connecting the water to the old city, local politicians have campaigned to knock down part of the neighborhood in order to build the last kilometer of road. This has incited quite a bit of pushback from locals, who are advocating for restoration of the neighborhood instead. Clearly people are very up in arms about the whole debacle; a woman saw Jessica and I taking photos and began screaming at us in Spanish, assuming we were with the pro-destruction group.

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A mile or so down the water awaits a very different sight. Now a decade old, the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias – the City of Arts and Sciences – was Valencia’s attempt to build a major tourist attraction. The architectural fantasy of native son Salvador Calatravas includes an art museum, a science museum, an underwater restaurant and several other attractions. The ticket to enter is pricey though, and really, the exterior is the most exciting part. Most tourists we saw there were doing the same thing as us: wandering the perimeter, taking photos and then leaving. This is problematic for Valencia as the complex was expensive to build, is expensive to maintain and now the responsibility is falling on local citizens. Particularly in the current Spanish economic climate, the Ciudad doesn’t exactly generate goodwill among locals.

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After walking the exterior and frolicking in the sculpture garden, we headed back to the old city to meet up with our tour guides for the afternoon, Toni and Marisa. In my final semester at Brown, I was desperate for one last chance to take a Spanish class. Normally the offerings are limited to centuries-old literature, but there was a one-semester-only course being offered on the topic of communication, with an emphasis on modern-day journalism in Spain. Syllabus unseen, I was prepared to sign up. The class far exceeded my expectations. The professor, Toni Mollà, was visiting from Spain, where he teaches at the University of Valencia and works as a journalist. Our small class formed a strong bond with him, in and outside the classroom, and I had the chance to make tapas with him and his wife Marisa in Providence. When I told them Jessica and I were coming to Valencia, they graciously offered to tour us around and share their infinite knowledge of the city.

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We began our tour in the heart of the old city, the Jewish Quarter, and visited the ancient Universitat de Valencia. The old university was built in the same style as many other European colleges that I have seen: a central open atrium, where students and professors could gather and socialize, surrounded by a ring of classrooms. Classrooms on upper floors could all be entered from a communal balcony so there would be even more space for socialization. In my experience, that’s where students gathered for a quick coffee and cigarette between classes. The old university is only used for municipal ceremonies today; the University of Valencia outgrew its old building and the different departments are now scattered around the city.

IMG_6977We had arrived that morning at the newer and uglier of the city’s two train stations, the Penn Station of Valencia. The older station, Estacion Nord, is an example of the Spanish modernismo style, which is nearly as plentiful in Valencia as it is in Barcelona. The interior of the station is decorated in a tile mosaic style typical to Valencia.

The main thoroughfare of the old city that begins at the station is punctuated by several squares. The first is Plaça del Ajuntamento, home to Valencia’s city hall. Like Barcelona, Valencia is the capital of its autonomous community, so the city is filled with government buildings from the various federalist levels. Valencia’s community is conveniently called Valencia. Bordering Catalunya, Valencia is part of the ancient group of Catalan speakers. The language is still spoken there today, but it is called Valenciana, and don’t you dare insinuate it is the same as Catalan. (But really, it is. It would be like saying the languages spoken in Boston and New York are different.)

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The next two squares are Plaça de la Reina and Plaça de la Virgen, which house the cathedral and basilica, respectively. Every Spanish city has its big cathedral and the one in Valencia was built over the span of several centuries. The thee entrances represent the three different styles used and are arranged in chronological order: Romanic, Gothic and Baroque.

IMG_6992Behind the cathedral, we found we had looped back to the Mercat, which looked even prettier at night.

Just beside the Mercat was the Lonja, an open forum where silk manufacturers once gathered to trade their wares. Today the space is used for conferences and city events, but every Sunday, stamp and coin collectors gather in the traditional fashion to make sales and trades.

By this point, we had completed our historic walking tour, but no self-respecting Spaniard dines out before 9 p.m. We planned to eat in Carmen, a trendy neighborhood within the old city walls, and so decided to get a drink first. In an almost comical fashion, our table of four began to expand as we saw people Toni and Marisa knew and we suddenly found ourselves at a table of twelve, which included Valencia’s most famous journalist and a prominent local photographer. Several jokes were made comparing Carmen to the Village in New York.

After bidding our new friends farewell, the four of us walked into Can Bermell, a restaurant in Carmen that Toni and Marisa have been visiting since they were in their 20s. They reportedly were eating lunch there the day their daughter Marina, who is my age, was born.

We offered a few suggestions forth based upon the menu, but took a very backseat approach and let the locals do all the decision making. The dishes were much larger than tapas, but everything was placed in the middle to be shared.

The food was pretty similar to what I’ve had in Barcelona, though with perhaps a bit more emphasis on seafood. I thought everything we ordered was positively delicious. The dishes came out of the kitchen individually, which made it easier to enjoy and appreciate the flavors of one dish at  a time. The first was esgarrat, a typical Valencian dish. Composed of dried, salted cod, red peppers and oil, the name translates to mean “broken” because of the aggressive manner in which the ingredients are mixed together. We were instructed to eat our food with fresh bread and learned that an upside-down roll is bad luck.

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The next dish was the house salad, a composed tower of tomato, fresh cheese, homemade croutons and basil, doused with balsamic vinegar. The delightful salad was followed by fresh mussels cooked with olive oil, which we fully demolished before I remembered to take a picture. Butter is an unheard-of ingredient in Spanish cooking; olive oil is considered king. Following my semester in Barcelona, I adopted a similarly firm stance and only cook with olive oil. (It’s a good thing I don’t bake that often; the result could be kind of gross.)

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We also enjoyed a salad of mushrooms topped with grated truffles, which one of our new journalist friends had recommended. The final dish, which was probably my favorite, was chipirones con ajos tiernos. It translates to squid with garlic, but the dish was cooked with a kind of garlic I’ve never seen before. Toni and Marisa explained it as the stem of the garlic bulb; it was green and flavorful, but not in quite the same biting way as a garlic clove.

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I was personally a bit full for dessert, but the waiter told Toni and Marisa he had a pumpkin in the oven and that was something we needed to see. Apparently in the fall, one of the most popular things to do is slice a pumpkin in half and pop it in the oven. No sugar, no cinnamon, no nothing. You just let the pumpkin roast for about an hour and then eat it as is. It was hard for me to conceptualize, but really, it would be just like eating roasted butternut squash for dessert. Pumpkin is eaten at all times of day and is very healthy. To balance out the healthy nature of the pumpkin, we also had a slice of chocolate almond cake.

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Spanish dining practices place far more value on personal pleasure than communal table manners and so there is no inhibition about just sticking your fork in the central plate. It creates an element of community and sharing to the meal and we caught on quickly. Our dinner was overall phenomenal and it was so great to see Marisa and Toni again. We picked their brains for advance on Valencian activities and made plans to meet up again on Sunday.

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Put a bird on it

Written by Chaz on 6 September 2011

After leaving Joanna in Los Angeles, I headed up to Portland to visit my friend Sophia, who was interning for the summer at the Oregonian, the city’s newspaper. I’d heard a lot about how wonderful Portland is, and I was very interested to see it for myself — especially after watching Portlandia, a niche TV comedy about the city, when it ran earlier this year. Portland certainly lived up to its reputation.

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I spent my first day in Portland exploring the downtown area. The city has no major tourist sights to speak of, but I didn’t mind that. I was mostly interested in walking around and getting a feel for the city’s famous coffee-sipping, skateboard-riding vibe.

IMG_4077The Portlandia statue, a symbol of the city and the TV show’s namesake.

But one major landmark and highlight was Powell’s Books, a bookstore the size of a city block. I spent at least two hours there, combing every section. The selection was incredible. Frankly, I wouldn’t have thought there was a single bookstore in the country in which I could compare ten different Swedish grammar books.

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As I walked around, a few things really stuck out. First, of course, the streetcars, for which Portland is well-known. I was able to take a few steps out of the airport and hop right on a light rail train that took me right into the heart of the city, and they’re equally useful for getting around downtown and to a number of suburbs. To top it all off, they’re free in the central area.

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Another was the parks, which are everywhere and beautifully kept. My personal favorite was Tanner Springs Park, which is a reclaimed wetland nestled into an extremely urban setting. It’s in the Pearl District, a trendy neighborhood just above downtown.

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Sophia and I had dinner on my first night in Portland at a place that could not have epitomized Portland better: a worker-owned vegan cafe. It was actually pretty good, too. We had a bunch of different veggie-based dishes that were inexpensive and, I’m sure, nutritious. Sophia is a vegetarian, and we spent most of dinner talking about how difficult being vegan would be.

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Afterwards, we explored another scene that Portland is known for, its craft beers. We checked out two places that were near dinner. One had a wide selection of local beers and the other made its own line of sour beers, which were sour like sour candy. Not my preference, but an interesting idea, I guess.

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Sophia and I went hiking in three great parks just outside the city center: Forest Park, a huge park that extends from downtown out to the northwest; Council Crest City Park, which had gorgeous views out of the city; and my personal favorite, Tryon Creek State Park, a lush oasis of green still within the city limits. Here’s Sophia, doing what she does best and reporting live from the scene.

We also took a longer expedition down to Oregon’s wine country, where we visited a few vineyards before stopping for a delicious dinner at Cana’s Feast Winery in Carlton. The view from our table, out over the rolling fields into the mountains, was spectacular, and dinner was very good too. Wonderful, fresh produce.

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The next morning, we had breakfast at Bijou Cafe, which all the guidebooks called a must. It was very FLOSS — a Portland term that means “fresh, local, organic, seasonal and sustainable.” I had a (vegetarian-fed) beef hash and Sophia had a beautiful omelet.

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Because the news never stops, not even when I’m in town, Sophia had to work the last afternoon of my visit. I took the opportunity to get a little closer to Mt. Hood. I took a short hike out to Mirror Lake, which reflects the mountain in its waters.

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I drove back through the beautiful Columbia River gorge, stopping at the incredible Multnomah Falls. As I approached Portland, the sun was setting, and the colors of the sky were amazing.

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I got up early the next morning and headed back to the airport and Philadelphia. Portland seemed similar to Philadelphia in only one way: a perfectly nice place to visit, but a fantastic place to live. I definitely understood why people love it.

IMG_4154Taken at a vineyard by a random person; highly suitable for wedding invitations.

Saying goodbye

Written by Chaz on 5 September 2011

I slept late on my second to last day in Sweden, and after I packed my things, we headed back to Lögla for one last gasp in the country. After the trip, and stopping at the grocery store, it was of course time for a fika. Anna had made kardemumabullar, like cinnamon rolls but with the flavor of cardamom instead of cinnamon, and sockerkakor, which we know as pound cake. They were both amazing, and it was wonderful to be back in the tranquility of the Swedish countryside.

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After one more dip in the Baltic, it was before long time for dinner: beef, halloumi again, potatoes, salad and green beans.

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After watching a rerun of the previous night’s Allsång to see if we had gotten ourselves on television — unfortunately, we had not — and looking at amazing photos from my family’s spring trip to Iceland, it was time to head to bed for my last night in Sweden.

I rose early on my last day in Sweden, determined to squeeze every last drop out of my remaining time, and we went for a long walk around the shore, ending with a swim.

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Even my last meal in Sweden was remarkable. It’s very traditional in Sweden to use a cheese slicer, the sort that scrapes off a thin slice, all the time. In fact, it was originally a Nordic invention. I had a fried egg and some sliced Swedish cheese on toast. Delicious.

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I packed up my things and we left for Stockholm’s Arlanda airport with plenty of time to spare. But when we walked into the airport, prepared for an emotional goodbye, I was hit with an entirely different emotion. The departures board grimly informed me that my KLM flight to Amsterdam had been cancelled, and it was immediately clear that there was no other flight to Amsterdam that would get me there in time for my connecting flight to the U.S.

Naturally, the ticketing office was using the kölapp system, the much more efficient alternative to lines that is only used at supermarket delis in the U.S. but is nearly universal in Sweden. (You take a little piece of paper with a number and wait for it to appear on a screen.) The numbers were being called at a glacial pace, so I bid farewell to my family, assuring them that the airline would have to do something for me.

Luckily, thanks to earning “elite” status after our trip to Asia and a trip earlier this year, I was able to take a priority kölapp slip and got rebooked after only about an hour onto Air France flights through Paris. The KLM agent even gave me a coupon for 100 Swedish crowns worth of food in the airport. And so, before too long, I was rushing for my flight, which turned out to be wearing a nice retro paint scheme.

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Before my trip, I was very curious to see my reaction to my second time in Sweden. Over the last two years, I’ve really built up Sweden in my head: wonderful people, wonderful scenery, wonderful culture, and so forth. And I wondered how much of that had a basis in reality, and how much was just me romanticizing my time abroad. I’m happy to report that Sweden, on second visit, was just as wonderful as I remembered. And I was especially surprised and pleased to realize how much progress I’ve made with the language. Even though I still have tons more work to do, I feel much more like learning Swedish is an achievable goal.

The moral of the story, of course, is that I really need to figure out a way to get back there for another extended period. Ten days just wasn’t nearly enough.

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Singing along

Written by Chaz on 1 September 2011

I began my last full day in Stockholm with the ultimate trip down memory lane: a return to my apartment in Sundbyberg, just outside Stockholm in the direction of Spånga. Erik and I took the tunnelbana to Duvbo, and despite having been up the station’s escalator hundreds of times, I was still impressed by its height and length.

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As two years prior, the front door of the apartment building was unlocked, so we went right in to the first landing and saw the door of my apartment. Having done just about enough creeping, we walked down to the center of Sundbyberg and hopped the pendeltåg into Stockholm.

I had two errands to take care of in Stockholm before starting the day’s touristing. First we stopped by the Stockholm tourist bureau to buy a map of the city’s ABBA tour, a gift for my friend Joanna. And second we stopped by an office building downtown to drop off a copy of my friend Vernie’s fantastic senior thesis for her Swedish host family.

IMG_3672In the last two years, Stockholm has added yet another means of public transportation: the spårvagn running from Sergels torg down to Djurgården. And in fact the spårvagn ended up coming in handy quite a few times during my visit. We hopped on at Sergels torg and rode all the way to the end of the line, Waldemarsudde, the former home of Prince Eugen. The prince, himself an artist, spent some of his life in Italy and brought back art, and his house is now a museum of his collection, temporary exhibitions, and the house and grounds itself. The weather was fantastic, and our walk down to the museum past the cruise ships, Baltic ferries and pleasure craft was spectacular.

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After exploring the museum and its grounds, we rode back up to the Djurgården ferry and headed over to Slussen. Once again, the views across to central Stockholm were fantastic.

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We walked from Slussen down to Fotografiska Museet, the photography museum, which is new since my time in Stockholm. The museum, perched right on the Baltic by the ferry terminals, was terrific. In particular, I really liked the exhibit of Liu Bolin, a Chinese photographer known as the invisible man because of his knack for painting himself right into a photograph.

We took the tunnelbana up to Odenplan to meet Erik’s friend Jasmin, and as it had begun to rain a bit, we made a beeline for dinner at Ramen Ki-Mama. Both Erik and Jasmin are in Stockholm University’s Japanese studies program, so it was only fitting. It was my first ramen since our ramen in Hong Kong, and I have to say, it compared very favorably. The near-natives approved too, which is worth something.

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After dinner, we headed back to Djurgården for a Swedish tradition: “Allsång på Skansen,” a one-hour singalong at Skansen, Stockholm’s outdoor museum, that features well-known Swedish musicians and is broadcast live on Swedish public television. The songs, all widely known in Sweden, are available in a little book, and the host says the number of the song they’re going to sing so that you can find it in your book. The TV broadcast also has the lyrics at the bottom of the screen, karaoke-style. The show had a new host this summer: Måns Zelmerlöw, a pop singer who rose to fame from Swedish Idol and Melodifestivalen. The show also had a “web host,” Anton Lundqvist, who, I was shocked to learn, is younger than I am.

We had seen the show on TV at Lögla, and since the show is free to attend after you’ve bought a ticket to Skansen, I thought it would be pretty cool to go. We arrived a few minutes before the show’s live broadcast began at eight, and immediately wished we had allowed more time.

IMG_3723The line to buy Skansen admission tickets.

But we did make it inside in time, and while our viewing spot wasn’t optimal, I had a pretty good view thanks to my height. I was really glad we went! There was a huge crowd, and lots of people had brought signs. It was also a beautiful evening — the rain held off — and the view from Skansen out over the city was great.

IMG_3768Above: Måns and Anton, and a whole lot of blond heads. Below: the crowd at Skansen and the view over the city.
IMG_3771IMG_3822IMG_3794IMG_3804Above: Erik, Jasmin and the Allsång lyric book; and Allsång‘s youngest, most excited fan. Below: Måns singing a Killers song after the broadcast ended, and an excited fan.
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Allsång was also interesting to me culturally. I can’t really imagine the U.S. having an equivalent, not least because there aren’t that many songs that the whole country shares as folk knowledge. Sweden is a small enough country that this kind of thing is possible. The show also reflects Swedes’ well-deserved pride in their country and its capital. The show always opens with a song called “Stockholm in my heart,” really a love song to Stockholm.

After the show ended around 9:30, there was still plenty of light, so we took a walk through the Nordic animals section of Skansen, checking out the foxes and the bears. Exhausted, we took the spårvagn back to the central station, where we parted ways with Jasmin and headed back to Spånga. Another wonderful, busy day in Stockholm.

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Reflections on historical memory: Singapore

Written by Chaz on 6 July 2011

Of the places we visited, Singapore struck me as having perhaps both the least and the most sense of historical memory. On the one hand, the tiny city-state pays the past no mind, forging ahead as a free agent economically and politically. On the other hand, this drive to succeed is fueled by a keen awareness that all of Singapore’s growth is thanks to the nation’s own deliberate action.

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Singapore is a little island with few natural resources and a whole lot of people. As a result, it’s relied on human capital to grow its economy. Since the second world war, the country has built itself into a economic powerhouse. And this hasn’t been an accident. Singaporeans are very aware that they have the careful planning of the People’s Action Party (PAP) to thank. Though it’s hard for me to ever get behind a truly one-party system, Singapore is the best argument for it. If it weren’t for creative ideas strictly applied by the central government to make exactly the society they envisioned, Singapore wouldn’t have come as far as it has. This isn’t a secret, or even particularly insightful. It’s a fact of life in Singapore.

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It’s so widely accepted, in fact, especially among the generation that remembers a different, poorer Singapore, that it’s particularly impressive that opposition parties managed to garner 40 percent in this year’s national election. Because of the structure of national representation, the opposition only got 8 out of 89 seats in parliament. But if I were the PAP, I would be quaking in my boots. The older generation won’t be around forever, and it’s the younger generation currently paying the highest tax of all: two years of their life, for mandatory military service.

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The pragmatism of the discourse in Singapore reminded me of Sweden, actually, even though their political systems couldn’t be more difficult. Perhaps I give the two countries too much credit, but the two countries seem to take the same approach to national problems: identify the best solution and implement it. Just like Singapore, Sweden was relatively poor until the second half of the 20th century, and its economy today is built entirely on an educated, competitive workforce.

There are differences, of course, in their means. Singapore, for example, bans most public discussion of racial issues, an effective solution to a certain variety of problems but a clear encroachment on free speech. (I hope it doesn’t apply to commentary on the ethnic origin of delicious food, because we might be in trouble.) Meanwhile, Sweden remains effective despite a liberal democracy standing in the way of getting things done. The PAP should take heart: If Singaporean elections stop reelecting them, all hope is not lost for the country’s future. It’s also a distinct possibility that the PAP is quite safe as long as they keep producing results.

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Singapore also evoked some of the same feeling of Hong Kong, of course: an oasis of developed Westernness in a third-world desert. But the fact that it is its own nation, and one that has been independent for a relatively long time, changes everything, giving it the added feeling of a nimble, dynamic free spirit that has a clear idea of what it wants. Much more so than any of the other places we visited, I’ll be fascinated to see where Singapore is in ten or fifty years.