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A marathon trip to London

Written by Chaz on 26 November 2012

In early September, my mother and I joined my aunt Jan, uncle Ash and cousin Maggie on a whirlwind trip to England for my second cousin Stuart’s wedding. Though we were only on the other side of the pond for about three days, we managed to see, do and eat quite a bit — and, of course, we attended a lovely wedding.

I arrived early Thursday morning from Boston and met my aunt, uncle and cousin for a winding trip through the English countryside on several buses and trains to the small town of Guildford, our home base for the first few days of our trip. My mother’s flight had hit some snags, putting her arrival a few hours later — hours that I put to good use catching up on sleep.

After we were all arrived, rested and cleaned up a bit, we walked down to Guildford’s high street and met Cathie, my mother’s cousin and mother of the groom, for a light lunch. We were all ravenous, not having eaten since our flights, and I enjoyed a beautiful and tasty sandwich of brie, grapes, walnuts and greens.

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We spent the remainder of the afternoon walking around the town, the highlight of which is the ruins of an old castle. On the castle grounds, we found some exciting rounds of a game called “bowls” taking place. After our exploration, we met the British wing of our family for a great dinner in Guildford and retreated to our hotel.

IMG_7188IMG_7203IMG_7210My aunt Jan, cousin Maggie and I.

Never ones to let an opportunity pass by, my mother and I rose early the next morning and boarded an early train to London to see the Queen’s jewelry, on exhibition in conjunction with her diamond jubilee. This was not the so-called crown jewels, but rather the jewelry the Queen herself actually wears for important events.

Our train into the city was full of British schoolchildren in uniforms. Basically it was the Hogwarts Express. Before long, we had arrived at Victoria Station, just a short walk from the palace.

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The state rooms and the diamond exhibition were stunning. Unfortunately, photography was prohibited, but we saw quite a few huge rocks, including the tiara and necklace the Queen wore in her diamond jubilee portrait. The tour ended with a walk through the palace grounds.

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A short train ride later, we were getting ready for the wedding, which was followed by toasts, dinner and dancing. It was a terrific night with our English family.

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On Saturday, we packed up and returned to London, where we were spending the weekend. After dropping our things at our hotel, we tubed to the Thames’ south bank, where my mother and I explored the Real Food Market at Southbank Centre. We composed our lunch out of several cuisines from the market’s many stands.

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We walked along the river to the Tate Modern, where we saw the Munch exhibit — which, strangely, was almost entirely on loan from the Munch Museum in Oslo, which I had seen three years prior, to the point where I wondered if the museum in Oslo could even still be open. Returning to our hotel, we got in a short rest before leaving London again to join our family for a relaxed dinner in Teddington, home of the newlyweds.

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We rose early again on Sunday to meet my second cousin Elise and her husband Nadson to see the Paralympics marathon. Though the London Olympics had ended before our visit began, the Paralympics were still going on, so we were able to get a taste of the event that had captured the world’s attention a few weeks earlier. The route went right by our hotel in front of Buckingham Palace.

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As we walked back to our hotel across Green Park, we caught the wheelchair heat of the race. The whole event was very inspiring and captured the best of the Olympic spirit.

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Bidding farewell to Elise and Nadson, we picked up our things from our hotel and met Ash, Jan and Maggie at upscale department store Fortnum & Mason‘s Fountain Restaurant for brunch. I enjoyed a delicious pea soup while my mother opted for eggs benedict.

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After brunch, we took a cab to the train and were shortly on the train speeding toward Heathrow. It was a terrific short trip to England, and it was especially wonderful to be able to see our British relatives again — not to mention the sights we fit in between the festivities!

Sweden once again

Written by Chaz on 9 August 2012

Nearly three years ago, I was leaving to spend a semester studying abroad in Stockholm. It was awesome. And so about a year ago, I was again leaving for Stockholm to spend a week with my contact family and reacquaint myself with the country I missed so much. I returned from that trip with renewed affection for the place. So it was only logical that, when it came time to plan my first real vacation from work, I decided to return to Stockholm. This time I wasn’t as curious to see whether it would be as wonderful as I remembered it in my head — I was pretty sure it would be — so I was just looking forward to relaxing, seeing my family, enjoying the sun and having time off away from work.

I arrived at the Stockholm airport early on a Saturday morning after an easy flight from Boston through Amsterdam, where immigration and security couldn’t have been more efficient. My Swedish family picked me up and before long we were on the way to their summer house in Lögla. We made a quick stop along the way in Rimbo to pick up some groceries, and after a little breakfast at home during which I remembered how delicious Swedish cheese is, we took a walk by the shore.

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Though I knew I shouldn’t for jet lag’s sake, I was dying to take a nap, so I closed my eyes for a bit. When I woke up, a major blueberry pie operation was underway, so I jumped in to help pick the stems off a ton of freshly picked berries.

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Shortly afterward we sat down to a delicious dinner of salmon, potatoes, and salad, followed up by the blueberry pie, fresh from the oven. Over dessert, we discussed the difference between kanelbullar, the famous Swedish cinnamon rolls, and other kinds of pastry bollar. Boll, which is the word used for such treats as chokladbollar (chocolate balls), translates to ball, but bulle, the root of kanelbulle, doesn’t really have a direct translation. And the large sugar that goes on kanelbullar, known as “pearl sugar” in Swedish, is barely known in America. This led to Nils imitating a Swede trying to buy pearl sugar with half-English in an American grocery store: “I am a foreigner and I need sugar for my balls!”

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After dinner, we took a walk down to the dock to enjoy the late Swedish sun.

IMG_6276IMG_6277IMG_6279Left to right: Torbjörn, Nils, Karin, Anna and Erik.

When we got home, it was time for “Grattis kronprinsessan!“, literally “Congratulations, crown princess!”, a television show that airs every July 14 to celebrate the birthday of Victoria, the crown princess and next queen of Sweden. The show featured performances from several well-known Swedish musicians and raised money for the princess’ fund, which benefits sick children. It was, to say the least, incredibly Swedish.

IMG_0013By the end of the show, I was already falling asleep again, and even though I was in bed by 10, I slept until nearly one the next day. Clearly I was not only jet-lagged but also a bit behind on sleep. After a light breakfast and an afternoon relaxing and reading, we had a dinner of herring and gravlax and packed up to drive into Spånga, outside Stockholm. We stopped along the way to pick up some groceries at Coop, which was an exceptionally Swedish experience. We loaded specially made baskets onto a specially made double-decker cart and proceeded to scan each item we chose with a handheld scanner that automatically totaled our purchase at the register.

Arriving home, Erik, Karin and I walked to the pendeltåg, the commuter rail, to head downtown and walk around a bit, since we still had a few hours of light. We alighted at Karlberg station and walked down to the path along Karlbergskanalen, strolling down towards Stadshuset, the city hall where the Nobel banquet is held.

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Turning east, we continued onto past the Swedish parliament onto the island of Gamla Stan, up to the picturesque Stortorget at its center.

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Walking down through Slussen, we headed up to Monteliusvägen, a walking path that has incredible views across Lake Mälaren to Gamla Stan, Kungsholmen and Norrmalm. The city looked radiant in the late evening sun.

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We returned to Spånga via a pendeltåg station on Södermalm that I never knew existed, after a very warm welcome back to Stockholm.

120 reasons to visit Boston

Written by Emmy on 26 June 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The reunion before the reunion

Written by Chaz on 29 January 2012

After Thanksgiving in Washington, I headed back home to Philadelphia for my fifth high school reunion, which was a bit unreal. It wasn’t a real reunion — just basically an informal get-together at a bar in Center City — but it was supposed to be my class’ first time gathered together since graduation, and of course that’s bound to be an interesting experience.

At the end of my senior year of high school, I went out to dinner every Monday night with a few friends, including Gabi, who is no stranger to the checkpoint, and my friend Julia. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we obnoxiously called ourselves Monday Night Club. So before our class reunion, it seemed only fitting to have a reunion of our own. We chose Lolita, a Mexican restaurant on 13th Street.

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Lolita is known for their BYOB margaritas: You bring the tequila and they do the rest. This results in every table having a bottle of tequila on it.

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We started with a blood orange margarita with wild mint and moved onto a pineapple margarita. I’m not the biggest margarita fan, but they were definitely state of the art.

Dining with Monday Night Club was great from the blogging perspective, as our rules were always the same as the checkpoint’s: everything is shared and nobody can get the same thing as anyone else. We began our meal with a few appetizers: guacamole with chipotle and mango, served with different chips, including some plantain chips; a salad of beet, mango, arugula, sweet plantains and goat cheese; and fundido con queso y chorizo, essentially melted Mexican cheese with sausage and homemade corn tortillas.

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Of those, only the fundido was particularly outstanding. The sausage was spicy and delicious, and even the cheese was something more unusual than your usual Mexican cheese blend. We moved on to our entrees: orange-ginger pork carnitas, served with pico de gallo, guacamole, and homemade corn tortillas; hazelnut-crusted duck breast with jicama-orange slaw; and my personal favorite, grilled mahi mahi with more chorizo sausage and a shaved apple salad.

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Though I’m not usually the biggest fan of red meat, something about the combination of fish and sausage was really doing it for me. I continue to grow and learn to love seafood, and I think mahi mahi is among my favorite fish. The others were big fans of the duck, which was also very good.

Fortified by both the food and the margaritas, we headed over to the Black Sheep Pub for our class reunion, which was a very good time. It was strange to see high school friends in an adult setting, and hear about what everyone’s up to. But it was great to see people I hadn’t seen in forever.

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Feliz cumpleaños, Chaz

Written by Emmy on 21 December 2011

As I once mentioned in the early days of Absurdity Checkpoint, I believe birthdays to be very important. And though I could not be in Boston for the actual day of, I journeyed up north in order to take part in at least the celebratory portion of Chaz’s 23rd.

I arrived on Saturday afternoon in time for some last-minute party planning efforts and, of course, dinner at a neighborhood Thai/Vietnamese restaurant. As is apparently tradition with a checkpoint birthday dinner, little photographic evidence survived. (Monochromatic dishes in a dark restaurant just don’t pop well on a cellphone camera.) We celebrated afterward with Diana and many of Chaz’s new Boston friends.

My visit was brief, but there was obviously as much food stuffed in as possible. Sunday’s main event was brunch. We went to Masa, a southwestern restaurant not far from Chaz’s apartment that I had been to with friends the year prior and remembered as being quite excellent. There was a wait to be seated, as is often the case with a Sunday brunch expedition, and so we had coffees at the bar. At the peak brunch hour of 1 p.m., Masa was packed entirely with twenty-somethings just like us.

By the time we were seated, we were both feeling ravenous and so quickly devoured the homemade cornbread, served with three different spreads — apricot and habanera jam, molasses honey butter, and cranberry and chipotle jam.

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Chaz had the stuffed Mexican omelet, filled with fresh veggies and cheese.

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I ordered the “ultimate” breakfast burrito with black beans, veggies, cheese, chorizo and eggs. Much to Chaz’s chagrin, I ordered it with egg whites.

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We powered through our meal so that we would have time to take a tour of Chaz’s office before I set off on my train back to New York. The trip, though very brief, gave me a quick glimpse into Chaz’s new grown-up life. This was the checkpoint’s first reunion since we bid farewell in the Detroit airport and so much had happened in the few short months since. Since the checkpoint began, we’ve gone from college kids to carefree summer adventurers to “professional,” working “adults.” But the moral of the (still-evolving) story is that we’re still best friends, despite the daily separation of about 225 miles. And so the checkpoint lives on — one adventure at a time.

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.