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The ancient wonder of Machu Picchu

Written by Emmy on 8 February 2013

Just as we were growing accustomed to the Sacred Valley, we woke up early on Wednesday morning, packed our things together and (with very little time to spare) boarded a Peru Rail train. The colorful railroad company has a 90% hold on the market of trains bound for Machu Picchu; we were very much among tourists as we climbed aboard in a small town along Rio Urubamba.

The train chugged along with nice thematic music in the background and we were each served a morning snack in an equally thematic basket.

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When people say they are climbing Machu Picchu, what that means is that they are walking the Inca Trail — an approximately 100 km path that winds through the Andes and follows a route that the Incas are are said to have taken themselves. There are a couple entry points to the path — doing the full hundred isn’t mandatory — but regardless of where you start, you are required to take a guide and two porters with you. For even the most experienced of hikers, there is a worry about the 10,000+-foot altitude. Also, requiring you to hire guides and porters is a great source of revenue for Peru.

For those who opt to take the train (us), you take a winding path from the town of Ollantayltambo along the river and up the hills until you get to the town of Machu Picchu, which is still several hundred feet below the site.

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We pulled into the station at Machu Picchu, dropped our stuff and boarded a bus, taking a narrow and winding path up the mountains for about another 30 minutes. I can confidently say my eyes were closed the entire time.

We got up to the top and filed through the line alongside many, many other tourists. Over 3,500 people visit Machu Picchu every day — the government caps it at 4,000 for safety reasons — and they have their system down to a science. Passports are required to enter because so many people try to reuse tickets or manufacture their own. There was something lost in translation in the issuing of my ticket, which said I was 13 years old, but that somehow didn’t seem to bother border patrol.

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Once through the gates, we walked along a narrow path surrounded by rocks. And then suddenly, Machu Picchu appeared.

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It looked like a page out of my high school Spanish textbook. The shockingly tall peaks against the blue sky, alternating between clear and cloudy, with the perfectly constructed villages below was truly a sight.

Machu Picchu was accidentally discovered by Hiram Bingham in the early 1900s and has remained somewhat of a mystery ever since. There are a handful of competing theories as to its purpose — last hideaway from the Spanish, religious retreat, summer vacation home of the king — but none have been validated thanks to the lack of written record. We have many clues and there’s a pretty clear understanding of what purpose each individual structure served, but we’re left to imagine the broader purpose.

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We spent several hours touring around, climbing in and out of little houses. The wealthiest families had multi-room abodes, complete with what look like toilets. The lowest of the three classes had about five people sharing a space the size of my bedroom. (And my bedroom is not very big.)

Around the site, there are countless examples of the Incas’ scientific prowess — running aqueducts, sundials that could tell the time of day and time of year, original structures that have withstood many earthquakes, and complex systems for growing and storing resources.

The ingenuity of the place just seemed endless.

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When we completed our tour and came back through the gates, we noted a long line of people near the exit. Intrigued, we got up close and to my grand surprise, found a passport stamping pad. I felt immediate pangs of regret for not packing my NPS passport. But, I did have my real passport and so we followed the example of other tourists and all put Machu Picchu’s ink on our pages. There is a chance we may have all invalidated our passports as a result.

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We took the bus back down the mountain after having a touristy buffet lunch, and took a quick look at the town of Machu Picchu. There wasn’t much to see, so we retired to the hotel for a bit of rest and relaxation. We took in afternoon tea — the common coca tea, which is said to relieve altitude sickness, but may just have been getting us all slightly high. Either way, it seemed to have some soothing principles and kept any of our headaches from getting too bad.

At dinnertime, we migrated into the hotel’s dining room, where we were greeted with a number of delightful Peruvian specialties. To start, I enjoyed a creative take on a classic local dish. Called causa, the dish is traditionally a potato stuffed with anything from crab to vegetables to meat to fish. The hotel decided to put the potato on the side and stuff avocado instead. Yum. This rendition had veggies inside, though it tasted almost like cole slaw thanks to the mayo-like dressing.

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Other members of my family enjoyed quinoa soup and quinoa with local cheese and peppers.

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My main course was probably one of the better things I ate while we were in Peru: simply grilled tilapa over a fava bean puree with pomegranates. It was simple in preparation, but the combination of flavors was very well thought out and the result was excellent.

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IMG_2931Normally, I have a take-it-or-leave-it approach to dessert — I generally would rather just eat more food — but cheesecake happens to be a personal weakness and here it was offered with muña, the same local mint we had encountered in other dishes. It was not overly sweet, and quite enjoyable.

Many people do just a day trip to Machu Picchu, but given the distance and the sheer awesomeness of the site, we had opted to do a day-and-a-half. Our visit coincided with the start of rainy season and in Machu Picchu it rains 80+ inches a year, so we knew we were taking chances. Generally the weather rolls in and out though, so a messy morning is not necessarily a sign of a calamitous day.

But Thursday morning was indeed messy and so we slept a bit later than planned to try and wait out some of the dense fog. We didn’t want to waste our time at the site though, so we did board the bus in the drizzle and made our way back to the top, where we found ourselves essentially in the clouds.

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The day before, our guide had joked about it being Machu Poncho this time of year; we joined the ranks when we bought plastic ponchos in five different colors and put them on over our raincoats to better guard ourselves (and of course, the cameras).

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We had been deliberating over one of the area’s more intense hikes, but decided to skip it because of warnings of slippery, steep steps. Instead, we took a calmer route to an old Inca bridge, which supposedly boasted good views of the full area.

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Because of the altitude, it was actually amazing to watch the weather. The clouds were rapidly rolling in and out — but all below the point where we were standing. This only enhanced our usual intensity around photography as we all waited for the clouds to move to the perfect spot to enable the perfect picture.

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It wasn’t happening from our spot on the bridge, so we headed in the opposite direction on a different hike, toward the Sun Gate. This is the spot that marks the end of the Inca Trail, or the Intipunku, and it provides the first glimpse of Machu Picchu to those who do endure the three- or four-day adventure.

It also enables those doing just a day trip to envision what it would be like to have that moment; there were many posed photos to reenact that victorious ascent from the other tour groups around us. Okay, and us.

After taking one last foggy, wet look at Machu Picchu, we boarded the bus yet again and made our way to the bottom. We had time for a luxurious lunch before boarding our Peru Rail train, and so returned to the hotel for more fresh fish. This time I enjoyed a piece of trout cooked with local vegetables.

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IMG_2998We boarded the train and each plugged into our headphones and other devices, but quickly put them away once we realized there would be on-board entertainment.

First, we were introduced to an elaborately dressed (and somewhat disturbing) clown, who began dancing down the aisles to the tune of the festive music now blaring over the train’s announcement system.  He pulled people out of their seats to dance with him (including the Lissisters) and gave a sort of lap dance to those unwilling to get up and join him. The whole thing was a bit hard to comprehend, and no one in the car could keep a straight face.

After the clown went away, one of the train attendants announced that the crew would be coming around with the company’s line of alpaca goods. On the way to Machu Picchu, the crew had pushed a cart down the aisles with sweaters and scarves, much like duty-free sales on an airline. But today, the crew would be taking advantage of our rapt attention and began parading down the aisles in a fashion show.

This was also a bit odd and unexpected, but made even more extreme by the contrast of our surroundings. The train had stopped between two towns and so we sat on the rails near rundown homes and farmland. A group of young kids, who clearly knew the train would be there, had scampered down the rocks and were politely rapping at our windows, making mimes for money. And meanwhile, the train crew was strutting to the tune of very loud music inside our fairly luxurious train and trying to entice us into buying expensive woolen goods. The contrast of the two scenes — inside and outside the car — was a perfect encapsulation of the split between haves and have-nots in Peru.

Machu Picchu is the area’s pride and joy, and economic engine — entry to the site costs $45 per person (and multiply that by nearly 4,000 every day, 365 days of the year). But less than 12% of the money goes to the maintenance of the site and to the surrounding towns. The rest flows to Lima, creating somewhat of a bitter relationship. And so every day, countless train cars of tourists with money run through the riverfront towns, but none of that money ever really touches those towns. The windows on our train car were sealed, but there was a little crack at the top. Many of us with window seats pushed our Peru Rail snacks out the opening, where they were caught by the kids below. They waved goodbye to us when the train finally started moving again, but no doubt they returned to the same place when the next train came rolling through a few hours later.

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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.

A Spanish education

Written by Emmy on 31 October 2011

On Thursday, we began our day yet again on Passeig de Gracia. Jessica turned south to tour another Gaudi structure and I went north, back to Gracia. Gracia is a great neighborhood to explore because it feels so much more authentic than the other parts of the city. It’s a little less accessible by Metro and the bulk of the city’s business is conducted closer to the water, but throughout the morning, Gracia was bustling with people.

Every neighborhood in Barcelona has its own fresh food market. The Boqueria is king of all the markets, but as a result, is sort of the least user-friendly. For natives looking to buy groceries and get advice from the vendors about produce and how to best prepare it, one of the smaller neighborhood markets is far better. These markets are generally covered, featuring an array of stalls, and they stay open all morning, often closing at lunchtime for the day. Gracia features two great markets and I visited both: Mercat de la Llibertat and Mercat de l’Abaceria Central.

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After wandering around Gracia for a while, I circled my way back to L’Eixample and stopped by one of my favorite places, La Central. La Central is a glorious bookstore, packed floor to ceiling with books, and contains a cafe with reliable wireless — a rarity in Spain. I spent a ton of time here while I was abroad, doing “homework” and browsing the Spanish, Catalan and miscellaneous other language books.

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From there, I took a long and familiar Metro ride. When I was abroad, CASB formed a great partnership with the Catalan Ministry of Education and placed many of us in semester-long teaching roles at local public schools. I worked at La Mar Bella, a primary school in the once industrial neighborhood of Poble Nou. The neighborhood today is undergoing a bit of a revitalization. As one of the teachers once put it to me, the parents are workers, but the children will grow up to be professionals.

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For eight hours a week, I served as an assistant teacher in the first, third, fifth and sixth grade English classes. The primary language of schooling is Catalan, though Spanish is phased in as children get older. English is taught starting at a young age, but there appears to be minimal retention. The two English teachers – both named Ángels – told all of the children that I spoke no Catalan or Spanish in an attempt to get them to practice their English with me. It worked for most of the semester… until I accidentally let on that I understood what they were saying.

Since my time at Mar Bella, I’ve kept in touch with Ángels and Ángels and was excited to go back and visit. When I arrived, they were in the middle of hanging Halloween decorations. Halloween is not a holiday that is celebrated in Spain, but the children celebrate it in their English classrooms as way of practicing language and learning foreign culture.

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In the middle of the school day, the children all go home for lunch. Many teachers return home too, but there is also a lunch available for them at the cafeteria. In my elementary school, the only option the teachers had were the same defrosted chicken nuggets we were eating, and so most went to the local bagel store instead. Lunch at Mar Bella is a gourmet experience, because God forbid the midday meal be lacking. Trays of food are brought out and the teachers serve themselves to three courses, menu del dia style. For starter, we had the option of a seafood paella or spinach with pine nuts, raisins and cured meat. For entree, we had the choice of grilled fish or pork ribs with a side of french fries and salad. Since I last ate at Mar Bella, the school hired a new cook, who makes highly praised hand-rolled chicken croquettes to go with the main dish. For dessert we chose between yogurt, whole fruit or sliced fruit. And then because there were still 15 minutes before class restarted, we went across the street to have a coffee. Definitely beats Bagel Boss of Jericho.

While we sat outside, Ángels filled me in on what’s been happening at the school over the last two years. Spain’s dire economic situation has had a massive impact on the little primary school. The teaching staff has been cut in half, and as a result, the school day is an hour shorter for the children, but each teacher has an additional hour of instruction. On top of the extra work, their salaries have gone down. There is less and less funding for school programming, and the teachers fear it will only go down further. The gates of Mar Bella are covered in brightly colored papers, advocating for the importance of public school education and asking the government to stop making cuts. School budget cuts are among the issues that enrage Catalan nationalists, who argue that their hard-earned tax dollars are sent to Madrid and then used to subsidize education in southern Spain, while their own children suffer.

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At 3 p.m., the children and teachers returned to class and I bid farewell to my little escola. I went to meet Jessica atop Montjuic, which is the largest park in Barcelona and is effectively a little mountain rising out of the center of the city. To reach the top, you can take a glitzy cable car or the funicular, which is part of the Metro system. Montjuic is home to countless beautiful gardens, several museums, an old castle-slash-fortress once used to protect the city and many of the stadiums, pools and buildings used during the Olympics.

I met Jessica at Fundacio Miro, a museum Joan Miro bequeathed to his hometown just before he died. Several of the galleries were closed, but my favorite part of the museum is the sculpture garden, which offers spectacular panorama views of the city.

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From the museum we walked around Montjuic, taking photos at various intervals. We arrived at Plaça España just as the sun was setting. The square is lined with a series of fountains that at certain times over the weekend spurt in time with music and lights. The Fonts de Montjuic are said to have inspired the Epcot light show. It is indeed a marvelous display, but unfortunately did not take place any of the days we were there.

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IMG_6848Around the corner from the fountains is a former textile manufacturing factory that was repossessed by Catalunya’s largest bank in the mid-1900s and transformed into a free art museum. CaixaForum has retained its old world charm, and the setting makes for a unique museum-going experience.

Following our very cultured trip around Montjuic and its environs, we headed to the Born for dinner. The central square surrounding Santa Maria del Mar and the other landmarks we visited the day before turns into a hopping nighttime destination. We ate at Casa Delfin, a tapas restaurant with a slight international twist.

Because of its nontraditional nature, the dishes at Casa Delfin were also a bit bigger than those at most tapas bars. In order to avoid total gluttony, we toned down our usual ordering parade and selected three items: cod pan-fried with chickpeas, avocado salad with shrimp and strawberries and a tortilla de escalivada, an omelet with roasted peppers, eggplant and onion.

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We strolled along the beautifully lit Barceloneta boardwalk before retiring for the evening.

Right back where we started from

Written by Emmy on 22 October 2011

Staying in L’Eixample put some of Barcelona’s most beautiful buildings right at our fingertips. Cerda’s streets were lined with trees and filled with spectacular examples of architectural innovation. The majority of the buildings emerged in the late 1800s and early 1900s and follow the modernismo style. (Elsewhere in Europe it’s called Art Nouveau, but Barcelona likes to be different.) The main thoroughfare of the neighborhood, Passeig de Gracia, includes several houses from Barcelona’s patron saint of architecture, Antoni Gaudi. But Gaudi is not the only one to have made a name for Barcelona modernismo, and the buildings of L’Eixample have stood the test of time. Even the sidewalks in the neighborhood are highly stylized!

IMG_6745IMG_6763IMG_6769IMG_7463Clockwise from top left: Gaudi’s Casa Battlo, an apartment building, photographed at night; Gaudi’s other noteworthy apartment building, La Pedrera, also known as Casa Mila; the elaborately designed sidewalk tiles found throughout the neighborhood; a wide tree-lined avenue in L’Eixample with rounded buildings on the corner.

Barcelona was a fantastic place for Jessica and I to visit together because while I caught up with old friends, she explored areas I had seen before. After gawking sufficiently at the buildings on Passeig de Gracia and Rambla de Catalunya, which turns into Las Ramblas further south, she headed to La Pedrera to take a tour of the building and I made my personal homecoming to the CASB building.

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The program I studied abroad on has the obnoxious full name of the Consortium for Advanced Studies in Barcelona, but we only ever called it CASB (or “the consortium,” said in a pompous accent when we were feeling cheeky). CASB is a partnership between seven American schools, of which Brown is one, and three universities in Barcelona. American students enroll directly in Spanish classes, braving Catalan-speaking students and highly disorganized university systems. The program is masterminded by the on-site director, Juanjo, who also teaches one course each semester. I absolutely loved the program: it was the perfect balance of no-holds-barred immersion and support. I could go on and on in my ode to CASB, but that’s a subject for another post.

IMG_6475I visited Juanjo in the very familiar office where I once sat panicking about registration and details lost in translation. It was a strange sensation to be on the other side of the desk as several current students came in to do exactly that.

After catching up (and admiring the photos of my CASB class hung on the wall of Juanjo’s office in a beautiful collage), we headed to lunch. Lunch is the meal in Spain. The way we take salads to go and eat sandwiches in the car is effectively sacrilege to people on this side of the ocean. Children go home from school and adults pause their workday in order to eat a substantial and relaxed midday meal. However, that can obviously cause some disruption to the workplace. The solution? Menu del dia. Most restaurants in the city offer this price fixe option that generally includes a first course, second course, dessert, wine and bread. Usually at an affordable price, menu del dia ensures that lunch will not be compromised, even for the working adult.

IMG_6486Juanjo and I walked around the corner to Moon, a small restaurant I had been to before for CASB-sponsored events. One of the new CASB co-directors joined us, as did Teresa, who was Juanjo’s second-in-command when I did the program, but who now runs Boston College’s Barcelona program. Teresa and I both started with the ensalada de queso fresco, a salad with fresh cheese and nuts, while the men went for arroz cubano, a dish I have never quite understood — rice covered in tomato sauce and served with a fried egg. The popular main dish was a Catalan stew of meat and vegetables. In danger of entering a midday food coma, we all opted for coffee rather than dessert.

It was a real treat to see Juanjo and Teresa. My CASB class remained particularly close after our semester abroad and my friends were quite jealous of my mini reunion. However, next year is CASB’s five-year anniversary and a celebration is in the works. I suggest Juanjo fly us all to Barcelona, but it’s a bit more likely that he’ll come stateside for the event. As long as the vino is flowing…

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After lunch I headed to Estació Sants, the city’s major train station, to pick up our train tickets to Valencia for Friday. You can purchase them online, but in my experience, if you can conduct a Spanish business transaction live, you should.

I caught back up with Jessica and we returned to El Raval, this time during business hours. Raval was historically a bit of a seedy neighborhood and not the kind of place two girls would want to be walking around alone. However, it has cleaned up tremendously in recent years and, as is often the case, is now occupied largely by young hipsters. There is also a substantial population of immigrant families and many residents fight to demonstrate that El Raval is no longer a de facto red light district. Signs hung from apartment balconies translate to read, “We are a dignified neighborhood.”

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Situated at the top of the neighborhood is the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, or as it is more commonly known, MACBA. The modern art museum is closed on Tuesdays, but that actually makes it the most interesting day to visit. The museum houses a pretty bizarre collection of art, but its mirrored exterior and large courtyard make for a great people watching location. The entrance ramps and open plaza are filled with skateboarders daily, but they multiply in number when there are no museum guards around to bother them.

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From the museum we continued into the heart of the Raval, which is filled with vegetarian restaurants, vintage stores and tons of graffiti, much of it political. Barcelona has always had a precarious political situation and it seems to have only intensified since I was last there.

The Catalan people settled in Barcelona centuries ago and built a city with a vibrant economy, language and culture. In the earlier days of its development, the Iberian peninsula was filled with several independently ruled communities who coexisted peacefully for the most part. But with the strategic union of Ferdinand and Isabella and their aggressive reign in the late 1400s (think Columbus and the Spanish Inquisition), a Spanish unification movement began to grow. Catalunya maintained its separation and independence, but in the early 1700s, fell prey to a siege and was placed under the Spanish crown. The Catalan people celebrate September 11 as the day they lost their independence, a holiday with a bit of an ironic tinge.

For the next few hundred years, the Catalan people were permitted to maintain their cultural independence under the rule of Madrid. The strong economy of the region bought its people their linguistic and cultural liberties. But as political tensions swirled in the early part of the twentieth century, the Catalan people began to suffer. The region was the last hold-out against Franco during the Spanish Civil War and so when his dictatorship began in 1939, Catalunya was punished. Because it hindered national unity, the Catalan language was banned from public use. Street signs were changed to Spanish all over the region, some of which still hang alongside their Catalan counterparts today.

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When the dictatorship fell in the 1970s, the Spanish people were charged with rewriting their constitution and redesigning their government. As penance to the slighted regions, the new federalist system granted a great deal of self-rule to those parts of the country that wanted it. Seventeen autonomous communities were drawn, Catalunya being one of them. (The region is actually spelled Cataluña in Spanish, but no self-respecting Catalan would ever spell it that way.) While some of the autonomous regions came to rely heavily on Madrid, others took on as much independence as was allowed.

The Spanish federalist system is fraught with problems and resentment. In the Basque Country, this has translated into an extremist terrorist movement fighting for independence. In Catalunya, there was always a cultural movement and a drive to maintain the Catalan way of life, but it was never quite so political. However, that has changed dramatically in the past few years. It’s no secret that the Spanish economy is a total mess. Unemployment for kids my age is nearing 50 percent. But in Catalunya, the economy has remained relatively strong. The region pays taxes to Madrid though, and does not see its money returned to the Catalan people. Instead, many Catalan people feel that their hard-earned dollars are going to support regions with no economic engine that are entirely dependent on the central government, like Andalusia and Extremadura.

The once small independence movement has grown in size, particularly among youth. I watched fights break out in my classes as students called for their peers to rise up. It is not uncommon to see “Catalunya is not Spain” written across public buildings. Demonstrations and protests are constant with locals calling for self-rule for the Catalan people.

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It seems that the movement has gotten stronger and more vocal even in the two years since I was here. As Spain continues its economic free fall, it will be fascinating to see what happens in Catalunya.

After our lesson in politics — many thanks to Jessica for enduring my musings on catalanismo throughout the trip — it was time for a snack. We visited Juicy Jones, a colorful juice bar at the southern end of the Raval. The small cafe is perhaps more noted for its decorative walls than its beverages, but my drink was pretty good too. I sampled a homemade lemonade with mint (advertised as having no sugar, it was quite tart) and Jessica tried the apple banana strawberry juice.

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Juice in hand, we walked through the Barri Gotic, stopping to peer into art galleries and take samples at an artisanal wine and cheese fair. Once we had sufficiently circled the whole area, we headed back to L’Eixample for dinner, selecting one of the many tapas bars with outdoor seating.

We had a spinach salad with goat cheese and chickpeas (so good that we ordered a second one for dessert), a chicken brochette, grilled vegetables, a shrimp and mushroom brochette and cod baked with white beans.

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Another great — and delicious — 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.