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Chili Time

Would you believe the Spaniards don’t eat chili in the winter? Come to think of it, they don’t eat any spicy food at all, and I have yet to find a dish containing ground meat.

I’ve been suffering a cooking mental block lately, and went on some recipe websites, where I saw the promotion of chili as a winter comfort food. Of course! How could I have forgotten? I busted out my cumin and spicy red peppers and went to work.  I used real beans, not the canned kind– they are hard to find here, and was pleasantly surprised to learn that this results in less mushy chili. Some oregano, cut up canned tomatoes, and a head of garlic later it was beginning to smell like home this time of year.  New secret ingredients: brown sugar and a touch of cinnamon. Keeps ’em guessing.

The results were dang tasty, but, as always, bummer about the cooking vs. consumption time disequilibrium.

Note to self: don't use phone camera to photograph food if you want to translate its actual appearance.

Andorra Skiing

It’s pretty boring hearing  about other people’s trips or athletic events.  The good parts are the really serious injuries, or better still, mere demonstrations of the places sans words. This is why all the snowboard videos rarely have dialogue. You mostly see dudes doing crazy tricks with loads of gorgeous snow, mountains and sunshine as a backdrop and some variation of reggae or punk music. And even still, a good third of those videos are typically the wipe outs.

Hence, I won’t ramble on about a three-day ski trip to Andorra. Simply put:

  • The serrated mountain tops make for incredible scenery. Skiing on the tippy tops of the Pyrenees, verses down a mountain’s face (aka in the Vermont), is a trip
  • Going up the lifts you can occasionally spot birds of prey, eagles I think, which is cool. Albert swears he also saw a fox, but I’m not sure I believe him.
  • It’s cold. -12C=10F. By end of day two I get frostbite on my toe, and am out of commission for our last day of skiing, which sucks, since the skies open up and its completely sunny.
  • We are puzzled to learn that in Pas de la Casa, the village where we stay, Spanish is practically useless. We are as relentless in continuing to speak Spanish to bar and restaurant owners as they are in answering in French.
  • Andorra is a real country. Or it has been since 1993, when a mere 9,000 of its eligible voters cast their ballot for independence.  Know what it was before that? A co-princedom, going back to Charlemagne. It’s not in the EU, probably because  80% of its GDP comes from selling tax-free booze, cigarettes, and luxury products; ski tourism; and anonymous account banking (where do you think all the Swiss depositors are fleeing?).

Andorra, the country

Some photos of the mountains and ESADE crew, who organized the trip.

Diarmuid and Dim

With the English board shop manager, who kept a bottle of vodka by his workbench, and lent Dmitry his personal snowboard

All smug after eating a spicy beef wrap. So hot....mmmmm

Shark's teeth peaks

El final del semestre

Well it’s official: Ayer terminé mi curso de español (yesterday I finished my Spanish level 2 course).

I’m happy to be done. I find out if I placed into the level 3 next week. I’m going to miss my crew, our bumbling discussions of our favorite foods in Barcelona, description of our family (mine was very short), comparing everything to our ‘home city,’ the professor’s comical ineptitude in remembering many of the Chinese students’ names (one girl was bold to point out every other week of the professor’s mistake). Crossing my fingers about moving on, excited to finally figure out when to use the various past tenses, nervous about finding the time to dedicate to Spanish with a full load at Uni this semester, and on the lookout for a new language exchange partner. I semi-lost Albert to graduation, he’s back in Lleida after finishing his studies at the culinary institute.

Of the week-long final exam,  my favorite part was a listening comprehension video of a show about Spanish expats around the world. The episode was about a 30-something chick, long dark knotty hair,art-print tee, extra wide pants, describing her life in Guinea, Africa. One of the characters which we have to identify, via multiple choice, was a man whose responsibility it is to open the gate to her house. The girl points to scores of canvases of comic book style drawings of her topless native boyfriend/fiancée, who interjects when the topic turns to the baby they are expecting and the her family. We are to note that he is a bit perturbed with her Spanish family, because they are constantly trying to fatten him up. He looks about 6 foot, 140 pounds. They then talk about their obsession with watching a daily soap opera, and she shows us some of her favorite art pieces she’s collected while there, one of which is a voodoo looking doll that (I think) she says still gives her nightmares. I can’t make out much more.  They talk so fast and float about the room, pointing out one thing or another, constantly turning away from the camera. I guess I still have a long ways to go…

Here are some photos of my classmates from our end of semester trip, which took place right before the Holidays– a walk through the historic Barri Gotic and Born neighborhoods of the city. The last is with Albert. He drove up for the day to ski with Dim and me for our long weekend in Andorra  last weekend.

Mary, from Perth, looking sharp on Plaza Reial

Miro's pavement mosaic on the Ramblas

Eating pinxos at the tasca vasca

By Albert's hard core Range Rover, in Andorra

Pillow Fight on Plaza Espana

Exiting out of Joan Miro park, a few blocks from our new place, I almost accidentally spilled out on Plaza Espana– a big landmark. Hmmm, I guess its pretty close. Excellent. I was nervous about the move and changing neighborhoods, but so far so good.  I climbed up to the top of Palau Nacional, and turned 180 degrees for a grand view of the city, soaking in the rays of the afternoon sun. Walking back, I looked up to see the state of construction on the old bull ring, which takes up a big chunk of the plaza, and noticed an enormous wraparound ad covering the building. It was for Corona. At first I thought it was a scene from a rock concert, the typical music & booze tie-in. However, upon further brain wracking over the Catalan inscription, of which I could only make out that this was taking place in New York, and the sudden realization that feathers were flying everywhere, it hit me that this was a shot of the annual pillow fight from Union Square. Of all the things to remind me of New York…

Which brings me to the current state of things: finals finished, winter in full effect, parents here and now gone. So many things have happened over the past few months, school, city exploring, nights out, Spanish learning, changing apartments. Recalling it all each week became overwhelming so I just stopped. I’m back now, and will tell you a few stories, chronology be damned.

Pillowfight atop the Arenas de Barcelona bull ring

View onto Plaza Espana

Good Eatin’

Question for all my restauranteurs– can you please help a friend find a spot in a NY kitchen this winter?

My language partner Albert, who rules, will be in NYC end of Dec-April to get the opportunity to work at the mecca for foodies, New York, while improving his English skillz. He’s a student at the super fancy Hoffman culinary school here in Barcelona (he is currently #1). Their restaurant has a Michelin star! I couldn’t meet with him last week because he was prepping for a catering event for 50 people, where he went on to serve a seven-course meal. The guy is insane.  So…if you know of anyplace that may take him, please let me know!

Speaking of food, I finally visited, nay, made the pilgrimage, to Boqueria market.  Yes, with Albert. The colors and smells of fresh fruits, breads, fish, and meat are overwhelming. The hoards of tourists are evened out by equal quantities of locals picking and pointing out the ingredients of their next meal. If my memory serves me well, while Barcelona developed and grew throughout the centuries, one of the few buildings that refused to be moved or torn down was the market, because it was and continues to be the epicenter of town. The Barcelonese are absolutely mad about food and quality, the origin of produce and meat, seasonality, and freshness. I love cooking here!

Albert Surveys the Fruit @ Mercat de la Boqueria

Ruski Table at the International Food Fest at Spanish School. The 'sirniki' I made are on the left in the front, behind the sour cream. And that bottle of vodka and its 2 friends were gone in <1 hr. Did I mention this thing started at 10AM?

Montserrat

A light descended from the sky and illuminated a spot hundreds of meters above Barcelona’s sea level where the holy virgin mother was sighted over 1,000 years ago. Right there monks built a monastery. Montserrat, which literally means the serrated mountain because of its jagged outline, is the epicenter of Catalan culture and history.

The Virgin of Montserrat

During the Franco dictatorship it was refuge to Catalan revolutionaries, and contains a pretty creepy wooden Virgin statue with baby Jesus on her lap that is considered Catalunya’s patron saint. Tourists and natives make pilgrimages to rub a little ball she holds in her right hand, for good luck. Why would she be holding a ball you ask? Right…no idea. The rest of her is encased in plexiglass.

The church is gorgeous, with detailed mosaics of saints and animals in bright azul, green and gold; silver sculptures of lions and monks, and cast iron candle chandeliers that seam to float down from the dome.

Mosaic

Flanking the abbey are huge mountains which we wasted no time in climbing. We hiked up the 1,200 meter peak of Sant Jordi (the other patron saint of Catalunya) with out labyrinth companions Dani and Yi-Hsiu, and her super cool Japanese friend visiting from Madrid. Along the way we spotted formations in the rocks that I took to be a penguin and a camel. The original plan was to go proper mountain climbing in the area with a group from Dmitry’s uni, but that’ll have to wait for another day. Can’t just waste good company. We did spot some climbers at the peak though. One very tired looking guy smoked up while eating a bag of hazelnuts, which he said helped open up his lungs a bit. Nice! The other one was completely baffled to learn that we were from New York and told me about a few other famous climbing locales in the Pyrenees, but said that for lack of funds he and his friend were staying local.

The Gang on Top of Sant Jordi


We got lost on the way down, and separated from our peeps. Fortuitously, we stumbled upon a funicular, and took it back to the monastery. It’s not cheating if it’s not a competition. Mwhahaha.

Surrounding Mountains


To balance all of this wholesome goodness on Friday we patronized several notable Barcelonese bars– the first which foolishly put out free tapas. We hung with my bud Ieva and her classmates. Students on a budget+free food=loss in profits for bar. I introduced Ieva to the bloody mary, which she added to her repertoire without much opposition. She then showed us her favorite Barcelona dive– a place in Raval that smells like cats and sports mostly torn dumpster furniture BUT also pours out cheap and tasty caipirinhas. Worth the trek across town.

I’m beginning to think of one-upping Lonely Planet and writing my own guide to the city.

Learning to Sail

This post dedicated to my friend Andy, for whom sailing is leaps and bounds above any “rowing-type” nautical sport.

Someone up there in the heavens, manifested in the form of the ESADE “Sea and Wind Club*”  granted my wish of learning how to sail. Better still, it was a regatta race, not just your average day out on the high seas. It’s been on the Nina To-Do list for about 6 years now, and due to feasibility problems–have you ever tried to convince someone in NYC to take you out on his 40 footer?– taken a bit of time to realize.

The sensation of being propelled forward via manipulating the wind through mechanical engineering made me feel damn proud to be a human being. Working the jib (smaller sail in front of the mainsail) on a few of our tacks (turning the boat to have the wind hit the sail from the other side) was super cool. It’s a hell of a workout turning that crank, which explains Popeye’s large forearms.

Our Competition

Four sloops, each 40 feet in length, accommodated our group of about 30. In our boat we had nine people, four of whom had previous sailing experience. I chatted up a woman who learned to sail by answering a New York online sailing forum query. She went on to join a sailing team in City Island (Bronx), and thus got herself involved with a crew of insanely competitive lawyers, and their boat, for four years. For the first few hours we practiced sailing up and down Barcelona’s coast, tacking, and just took in the views. The wind finally picked up, and we had our first regatta race. An imaginary line between a black and yellow buoy and a boat inside the port provided the starting line and we set off, parallel to the coast, towards the finish, about two kilometers in the distance. The team blamed our loss on the false start of one of the boats, but we made up for it by winning the second regatta, hands down. I happily trimmed the jib, and took orders. Sometimes its kind of nice to be in an atmosphere of hierarchy, where only experience can earn you rank. Chefs in their restaurant kitchens come to mind. To round out the day, we cruised into one of the city’s ports to scope out the visiting Russian luxury yachts. I spotted a speedboat with two guys, one of whom was wearing a wetsuit. Surprised that there was diving in the area, I was corrected in my thoughts by being told that these were the boat divers, responsible for scraping the barnacles, which cause friction, off the bottoms of the sailboats.  A boat with lots of seafood on its underbelly is known as having a ‘dirty bottom.’ Hehe.

Fun sailing terminology:

  • Starboard: right side of boat, looking forwards
  • Stern: left side of boat
  • Bow: front of boat
  • Aft: back of boat
  • Boom: horizontal spar (pole) to which the foot of the sail is attached.
  • Tell-tales: little strings tied to the sails or masts that help tell which way the wind is blowing. Pretty low tech, but still common.
  • Trimming the sails: adjusting the angle of the sail, by loosening/tightening or letting it out/taking it in

Lessons Learned:

  • Seamen use a daunting amount of jargon
  • There is more than one sail and one rope to operate
  • 80% of the time nothing happens/there is no wind, the other 20% you scurry to change the sails and try to keep your head from getting whacked
  • You don’t “grow out” of sea sickness
  • Drinking and driving? Ok

* I’m not joking, they really have one of those. Business school. Typical

Chilling in the Aft