New York City’s great pretenders

Carrie Bradshaw proudly dines alone.

Carrie Bradshaw proudly dines alone.

Most people have vivid memories of their first moments in New York City. Famous authors remember the feeling of hopping into an airport cab and crossing the Queensboro Bridge, the whole island of Manhattan laid out before their eyes. Broadway actors reminisce about emerging from underground for the first time to encounter an exhilarating crush of people, lights, and billboards.

My first New York moment happened somewhere unlikely.

The day I landed at JFK, it was 90 degrees outside, and my West Coast sensibilities weren’t prepared for the high humidity. The hellish conditions were even worse below ground, and as I waited for a train to Flushing Meadows, the straps of my heavy backpack were slipping from sweat.

But what I remember first and foremost about that inaugural moment in New York was the six-foot man immediately to my left, also drenched in sweat, who suddenly burst out into soulful song:

Oh, yes, I’m the great pretender
Pretending that I’m doing well
My need is such I pretend too much
I’m lonely but no one can tell

Yes, I’m the great pretender
Just laughin’ and gay like a clown
I seem to be what I’m not, you see
I’m wearing my heart like a crown

Look, I’m no idiot. I know people perform for money all the time in the Subway, and I know because I witnessed more than five such performances in as many days. Most of the music was cheesy mariachi or badly-tuned barbershop, and the clear target was some clueless, wide-eyed tourist who didn’t know to avert his eyes and keep a straight face.

But at this particular Subway platform, in the heart of an immigrant neighborhood in Queens, no one around me wore track shoes or Jansport backpacks or I ♥ NY paraphernalia. I appeared to be the sole luggage-bearer and non-commuter. And that singer? I believed him.

Just an hour into my stay in New York, I’d already bought into a tired cliché, the idea that all the city’s inhabitants were secretly lonely. I imagined they were all great pretenders, happy and thriving from without but isolated islands from within. This was my romantic first impression of New York, and I suspect it stemmed from preconceived notions.

Luckily for me, New York was hell-bent on proving me wrong.

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Good morning, Santa Cruz…er, Brooklyn.

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The city dealt its first blow at a cafe in Brooklyn the next morning. The Jamaican barista took my coffee order and then stopped mid-pour. “Wait,” she said. “Are you related to someone who lives near here?” I shook my head and said sorry, no. “It’s weird. I have a friend who works two blocks away and she looks exactly like you. She said her sister was in town, so I thought…”

Even after I correctly identified myself as a visitor and stranger, the conversation continued…for five minutes. I learned about her family and she learned about my life. We chatted about the weather. Then, a regular customer came in and the barista introduced us.

If this had happened in Seattle or Boulder, I’d have found it exceedingly odd. In places where I’ve lived, baristas–sane ones, anyway–do not launch into conversations with perfect strangers. Sometimes, they barely have two words to say to regulars. For such a small-town moment to occur in a city of 8.5 million was baffling to me.

And yet these moments kept repeating themselves.

 

That night, at a jazz concert near Lincoln Center, a stranger told me his life story and invited me to a friend’s dinner party in Brooklyn the next day. Nearby, a college student and a retired man who had never met were learning the tango together.

On a Saturday morning in Soho, a shopkeeper walked up to me and smoothed out a wrinkle in my shirt without a word of warning or a “May I?”, something even my close friends might never think to do.

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I love these cool old streets.

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The clincher was a moment at The Central Bar, an Irish pub near NYU. I’d stopped in to catch the Oregon football game, and I wasn’t surprised to find a small group of men in the neighboring booth rooting loudly for the opposition. When they found out I was an Oregon fan, they tossed a little bit of good-natured heckling my way. But after a tense moment on the field and a bad play on my team’s part, I was stunned when a couple of them made a conciliatory “O” with their hands and offered to buy me a beer.

I’d been in New York for three days, and I had to admit that so far I felt neither lonely nor overwhelmed by crowds. (Granted, I may have felt differently had I ventured into Times Square.) In this place that I always assumed was its own ungovernable living organism, I found that I could completely control my social experience by deciding where, when, and how I traveled. During the day, I chose to visit tourist haunts early in the morning and at lunchtime; I felt as if I had whole sections of Central Park and the Met to myself. Later, I gravitated toward popular nightlife neighborhoods, and the teeming sidewalks insulated me from loneliness and danger.

 

One night, I grabbed dinner with a friend who said she’d long ago abandoned her fear of dining out alone. Now, I could see why: in most restaurants, the unrelenting energy (and yes, friendliness!) will seep into your skin, dissolving your misgivings in a matter of minutes.

Why is it that being alone in New York City feels so right, when elsewhere people seem to run in pairs or not at all? On my last night here, I went out solo to Highlands in the West Village and mulled the question over.

 

I thought of all the people I knew, scattered across the country and the world. For the most part, those who now live in small towns are married, and they moved there because they were offered specific jobs. In contrast, most of those who now live in cities moved there before they’d found work or love.

Most of my city friends arrived in their respective cities as islands, single and without many connections. With time, they all found work and friends. Many of them found partners and got married, too; many more still thrive as singletons, both socially and professionally. While in some places life as an unmarried 30-year-old may be difficult–Utah, Idaho, parts of Colorado–it certainly isn’t in New York City. Statistics show that 42 percent of women and 47 percent of men here have never been married. Furthermore, New Yorkers are among the least likely to get married by age 26.

If you’re single in New York, you’re in good company. If you’re dining alone in a restaurant on a Tuesday night, you are far from the only one. If you’re attending a free jazz concert by yourself, there’s a 99.9 percent chance you’ll find company in someone else who’s doing the same thing.

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Had to come down here.

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I’d been tricked into believing the big city was full of isolated islands, but I was only half right. New York is, indeed, full of islands, so many that they form an amicable archipelago too large even for Dubai’s developers to duplicate. New York is a big city that’s really just a giant collection of small towns, each one filled with people who are perfectly content to coexist alone together.

Now, when I return to the memory of that soulful, sweaty man on the Subway platform in Queens, I laugh to myself. If he could convince a cynic like me that he was lonely, I guess he really is The Great Pretender.

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Fall

I visited Seattle for the first time in the fall. The weather was still temperate and sunny, the days were still long and the late afternoon light was perfectly golden. The city’s natural beauty was fully on display, and I fell in love.

ImageI know what you’re thinking–how can you possibly make it through another rapturous essay on apple picking, pumpkin spice lattes and changing leaves? But while I’m a sucker for all these things, I love fall because it’s been the season of so many good memories.

I’m sure I’m not the only one with fond memories of my first college term. I had no idea what to expect of the campus, the people or even my major, and I was pleasantly surprised to immediately love everything about the University of Oregon–even its retro student union, overly enthusiastic football fans and giant lecture halls. All of us who start college in the fall probably think of autumn as a time of year for fresh starts and self-discovery.

ImageTwo years later, I had one of the best autumns of my life studying in Paderno del Grappa, Italy. I spent much of the semester traveling all over Europe, and one of my most vivid memories is of the varied weather. It was practically summer one weekend in Florence, but two weeks later, my soaked ballet flats squelched all over Dublin during a daylong downpour. We wandered Paris in mostly T-shirts in October, but we needed to buy more layers and lots of mulled wine to  keep from freezing a month later in Köln. It was thrilling to experience Europe while the seasons were changing.

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ImageThree years ago, in the fall, my favorite people came together on the scenic rooftop of my first Seattle apartment.

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ImageAnd the next fall, when there was no more roof, we settled for a cramped kitchen.

ImageAnd to start this fall, some of us made a pilgrimage right back to the place where my love for fall started…at the University of Oregon.

Image…We were a little overwhelmed.

Waiting at the Venice Mestre train station

I’m ready for a vacation!!

It’s down to the wire here at the Istituto Filippin. There are four academic days left until we leave the CIMBA campus for good and jet to our homes back in the States. We’re getting weepy, but surprisingly, we’re also glad to be going home. We’re all, as we’ve said to each other for the past week or so, “over school” and for the time being and we’ll be happy to get a little ( or in my case, a lot) relaxation time before hitting the books next term.

Budapest Hungary Chain Bridge

I never knew how much travel could take out of me. The fact that, during this whole program, there was never really a “break” in terms of mental or physical relaxation because we were either studying or traveling the whole time, has really gotten to me. My back is sore. I’m probably sleep deprived, but I can’t tell anymore. This week, made up of three days of classes and three days of finals, has pushed me even further to the limit. I’ve been typing nonstop for three days, and I’ll probably continue to do so until Friday, the day before my last paper is due. In the meantime, I have to figure out when (and HOW!!) I’ll pack, where to get a hotel near the Venice Mestre train station for easy access to the airport in the morning, secure a CIMBA yearbook, fax my course syllabi to my home university and–tear!–say goodbye to everyone. Wish me luck.

This term, though it was technically much longer than any term at U of O, has gone by faster than any other. I feel like it was barely a month ago that I came here, sweaty and confused, with my huge suitcase and my shy smile, dubious about whether I’d be able to call this place home. I needn’t have worried. In fact, I should have been more concerned about how I would leave without pulling out a generously sized Kleenex box. I’ve gotten to know 89 American college students, four tabacchi employees, a pastry shop owner, two taxi drivers, a pizzeria owner and a jewelrymaker, and to have known these people so intimately for three months and then to never see them again seems so odd.

Waiting at the Venice Mestre train station
I’ve seen nine countries, flown on 15 planes, taken a dizzying amount of train trips all over the place. (And even with all that travel time, I still learned valuable things in my classes!) I should feel worldly, but instead I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of what the world has to offer. I’ll be back–I hope–to conquer Rome, to ride the train all the way down the Rhine, to discover the undiscovered parts of Eastern Europe, to freeze my butt off in the Scandinavian countries, and to revisit every inch of London.

In the meantime, I’ll be glad to return home, where Mexican food tastes good and where my pillow-top bed awaits. I hope to see all of you soon.

Fisherman's Bastion at night Budapest Hungary

Back to class

I returned from another great travel week on Sunday, and once again, I had barely enough time to rest before the work rained down on me. On top of keeping up blogs for two classes and getting all my homework done, I had to deal with class scheduling woes in the wee hours this morning while attempting to wash my clothes in broken machines. I’ve also just accepted a position as a student blogger at the U of O and I’m now dealing with very unfun employment paperwork, made doubly unfun by the fact that I don’t have access to a lot of financial information I need while abroad. I think this week, with all its stresses, is a preview to the stresses I’ll be experiencing when I go back to Oregon for my next school term. I’d better get used to it.

I can barely remember as far back as the day we left for the second travel week–Nov. 8–but I’ll try to recall as much as I can.

Dohány Street Synagogue Budapest Hungary

Our first stop was Budapest, which proved to be a lot like I pictured it to be: a slightly more Eastern version of Prague. In fact, it was even geographically similar: a river, the Danube, ran through the center and on one side, on a hill, was a castle and the old town (Buda) and on the other side was the sleeker, newer town (Pest) with a Jewish quarter. The difference in the Jewish quarter: there were more small synagogues scattered over the district in Prague, and here, the focal point is one synagogue in particular, which happens to be the largest one in Europe. We inadvertently signed up for a tour, but were glad we did when we learned the Gestapo set up a communication station right in the pews of the synagogue, as if in an effort to crush the spirit of the Jews as much as possible. Monuments like these are just impressive, gilded empty shells unless one knows the incredible and terrible history behind them.

We wandered around the streets of Pest for a little while before we crossed the Danube via the Chain Bridge to get to Old Town. We took a tram up the hill to the castle, which reminded me of riding up the Shadowbrook tram after an atmospheric dinner, and we were slightly disappointed upon arrival: the castle wasn’t really set up to display rooms as they were in royalty’s heyday. Instead, each segment of the castle was a different modern art museum or renovated concert hall or something else that involved completely gutting all the rooms to give the building another purpose. We thought it was odd, but we saw some beautiful streets ahead of us, so we walked away from the castle to explore the rest of the old town.

Fisherman's Bastion at night Budapest Hungary Pest at night Budapest Hungary
After grabbing a coffee around 4, it was already getting dark by the time we ran into St. Matthias Church, classic gothic but for its Eastern tile-patterned roof. Even more impressive was the nearby Fisherman’s Bastion, a balustrade that somewhat resembled a sandcastle and began to light up just as we arrived. Not only was the structure magnificent in the evening glow, but so was the view of Pest from up high on the bastion, especially as other structures–the bridge, parliament, huge hotels along the water’s edge–began to light up too.

I’ll talk more about my other visits during the travel week–Vienna, Prague and a spontaneous day trip to Bratislava–when I’m back in control of the work situation. Before then, you can read the update to my class blog on one particular morning in Prague.

Photo by Natasha Loresch

Travel Week 1, Part 3: Brussels

…but first, a disclaimer: I was only in Brussels for about 14 hours, and six of those were allotted for sleeping. My camera was filled to capacity and out of batteries, so I took no pictures. Therefore, my memory of Brussels is fuzzy at best.

Brussels is not a touristy city, but we made it our mission to be as touristy as possible when we arrived: we vowed that at the very least we would have Belgian chocolate and a huge Belgian waffle. When we got to the heart of the city, we couldn’t turn a corner without encountering at least one of those things, so our mission was easily fulfilled. One block off Grande Place, the main square in the center of town, was a waffle stand where we immediately descended and took in the sugary, chocolatey, creamy smell of pure bad calories and fat. Yum. I ordered a chocolate-drizzled waffle and got more sugar than I bargained for (though I wasn’t complaining): in the very center of the waffle had been cooked in a spoonful of nothing but granulated white sugar. I see a cavity in my future.

And even more dental problems were to come, I knew, when I realized there were more chocolate shops than restaurants in Brussels. Even those who skip dessert every night and get their sugar fix from half a grapefruit can’t resisit the call of the Belgian chocolate truffle, or bar, or stick, or easter bunny. There are literally at least two little shops eagerly handing out free samples on the front stoop on every block of the historical center, and they’re molded in the cutest of shapes that make them hard not to accept.

But when I wasn’t tasting chocolate, I was taking in the buildings whose rounded tops couldn’t have been seen in any country south of Luxembourg. Grande Place was truly grand with its huge square and stately buildings whose gold leaf details shone in the late afternoon light and almost looked like they were on fire. Buildings I saw walking down the narrow streets reminded me of pictures I had seen of Copenhagen and Amsterdam, that quirky fairytalelike style of architecture that you’d expect to see in an illustrated Hansel and Gretel book.

Just when we thought we couldn’t get more touristy, we could. We visited Atomium, a model of an iron molecule blown up to 165 times its real size, a relic from the 1958 World’s Fair. Then we went next door to Mini Europe, possibly the silliest attraction I’ve ever visited in Europe thus far. It’s a Disneyland of models of famous structures from all over Europe shrunk down to 1/25 their real size, which actually gave interesting perspective to famous monuments that I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. For example, I didn’t know Big Ben was so infintesimal in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, and how unassuming Mt. Vesuvius is in comparison with other famous mountains. However, I cop to having the most fun not thinking about proportions but playing around with funny juxtapositions like these:

Mini Europe Brussels Belgium

At night, we returned to the center of the town and grabbed a variety of foods–sushi, gyros, fair food–and sat on a fountain in the middle of a small plaza. Jaqui and I spent the better part of an hour staring at people’s boots as they walked by, comparing the merits of each type of boot depending on its material, heel height and style. Emily and Barry finally tired of our nonsense, so we moved on to a famous bar where 2,000 varieties of beer were on offer. We perused the fruit beer menu, where every flavor from banana to coconut was on offer. We opted for the raspberry, but left after one drink because everyone else in the bar was far louder and more drunk than us.

And that, in a nutshell, is my short but pleasant experience in Brussels. After a short night of sleep in a dodgy motel above an Indian restaurant, I skipped out of the city via tram, then metro, then train to the airport to fly to Dublin.

Read next: Travel Week 1, Part 4: Dublin

Climbing Verona’s Scalone San Pietro

Photo by Jill KimballWe were hopelessly obvious tourists, my mother and I. We sported unintentionally matching black fleece jackets, bags decidedly not made of leather, and confused expressions as we stopped at every corner to consult a city map.

But I was sure the Italians who walked past us and made a concerted effort to ignore our Americanness must understand our befuddlement. Their hometown of Verona, they must know, was a distracting place. For every sight we intended to visit, there was another equally interesting sight not marked on our maps that we stumbled upon and consequently forgot where we’d been headed in the first place.

This time, we were on our way to the Roman theater across the river from Verona’s historical center. The city dropped us off two blocks from the ruins along a busy traffic artery. Which direction should we go? We pulled out the map once more. Then it happened again. Verona’s distracting nature reared its too-beautiful head in the form of a narrow column of stone steps lined with sherbet ice cream apartment buildings. The engraved stone street sign on the wall, which read “Scalone San Pietro,” begged us to climb the stairs to the top, where we knew the hill palace of Castel San Pietro stood.

Balcony on the Scalone San Pietro, Verona, Veneto, Italy. Photo by Jill Kimball

With thoughts of Roman ruins gone from our minds, we climbed the stairs. It might have been the red of the first apartment building on my left, a color that reminded me of the Early Girl tomatoes that spilled over the sides of the planter box in the backyard one summer, that pulled me in. Or it could have been the quaintness of the basket-adorned bikes strategically locked against the ground-floor windows covered by iron bars. The paint on Number 7’s facade was a splotchy salmon shade, the kind of color foreigners try to duplicate with sponges when they want the Tuscan look but that can only truly be achieved by the erosions of time. A grape vine snaked its way in and out of the iron-bar balcony, and I wondered why there weren’t crowds of people gathered here, because surely this was the real balcony on which Juliet called for her Romeo. As far as I was concerned, this house, with its gently creeping greenery framing the wooden doorway, was the realCapulet family home.

In two more flights of steps, an iron gate stood open and a sign vaguely mentioned restoration. We curiously walked through and found ourselves in what looked like the Irish countryside. A deep thicket of grass stretched out to the base of a brick wall at the edge of the hill. Crudely hewn prisms of stone, placed all around the grass, served as benches. No one else was there, nor had anyone left evidence of having visited recently, adding to the park’s austerity. Yet somehow the blank expanse of grass and stone was inviting, and I felt an urge to sit down with some panini and wine and gaze out at the mist. For even on this gray day, the city’s entire expanse was visible from here. Past the River Adige, red spires and domes stuck out of the tile-cielinged maze and mopeds the size of ants scooted along the bridges. On a hill opposite the park, on the outskirts of the city, sat a massive Palladian-style columned creation above dots of houses.

View from the Parco Scalone Castel San Pietro, Verona, Veneto, Italy. Photo by Jill Kimball

Why was no one here, I thought? Could there be a better view of Verona anywhere else in the city? Shouldn’t Rick Steves let people know about this?

Perhaps, for all our fashion faux pas and touristy tendencies, my mother and I had the capacity to be trendsetters.

Notre Dame, Ile de la Cite, Paris, France

Travel Week 1, Part 2: Paris

Ah, Paris je t’aime! Les boulangeries! La tour Eiffel! La Louve! Sainte-Chappelle et Notre Dame et …eh, je ne pas parle Francais…

Miraculously, I actually picked up enough French to get by without even glancing at a guidebook before I got on the plane. And even more miraculously, while people looked at my other traveling companions and immediately began speaking English, they looked at me and babbled strings of French in my face.

Versailles, Paris, France
Should I have taken this as a compliment? Is it cooler for people to think you’re French than for them to think you’re American? Before I got to Paris, I would have said “no”. I once despised the French language, French people and the country of France itself…for no apparent reason. Maybe my unreasonable hatred for all things French was the reason why Paris ended up being my favorite stop during the travel week–because I had low expectations that were dashed in an instant.

Eiffel Tower, Paris
On the plane from Barcelona to the City of Love, I pictured sidewalks lined with grime, scowling men with hanging jowls and huge noses, rude women turning up their equally large noses at anyone who even smells remotely American. Such are the negative stereotypes associated with Paris. As it turned out, my first day there convinced me the positive Parisian stereotypes were far more accurate. For instance, picture a parade of glamorous people in leather boots and designer togs walking down romantic, cobblestoned roads with hot, fragrant baguettes in their hands. Sound too good to be true? It isn’t. I saw it with my own eyes. (OK, some of them still have large noses, but hey, so do I.)

And best of all, we stayed in the Latin Quarter, a part of the city devoid of tourists and a million times cheaper areas perennially swarmed with visitors. The day we got there we grabbed lunch at a legitimate sit-down restaurant with fabric tablecloths–a great feat when you’re a student crunched for money–and ate three courses of food for 10 euros. That’s the cost of a cocktail in most of the city.

I could expound on all the sights I saw–Sainte-Chapelle, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, etc–but I’d rather focus on the two sights I found most impressive: Notre Dame and Versailles.

Notre Dame, Ile de la Cite, Paris, France
The home of the mythical bell-ringing hunchback was one of the first touristy places we visited in Paris. After our comparatively cheap lunch, we headed over to Sainte-Chapelle (whose enormous stained-glass windows deserve a shout-out, at the very least), then set out to find Notre Dame under grey skies. We knew it wasn’t more than two blocks from the Chapel, but we didn’t know which direction to walk. We started to wander, and then, as if by magic, we turned a corner and there it was. And then, more magic: the clouds directly above the church dispersed and cast a dramatic afternoon shadow on the ground. I wondered whether the heavens had conspired to allow us to see Notre Dame at its best just as we were arriving.

Even better, when we went inside, an organ-and-choir concert spontaneously began and we sat watching for what must have been at least half an hour. It was the most relaxing part of the entire trip, and frankly, my feet welcomed the break.

Apollo Fountain Versailles France
The next day, we hopped a train to Versailles early in the morning to get in line before the hordes arrived. Unfortunately for us, the train took an hour longer than we thought it would and the inside of Versailles didn’t open until noon that day. We had two hours to wander around. Luckily, the gardens behind the palace were so expansive that we actually could have been there longer than two hours without getting bored. The landscape was extraordinary–maniacally manicured in some places and, further back, rugged and wild. Fountains and Renaissance Roman statues abounded.

Poseidon fountain, Versailles, France

The palace itself was impressive but was marred by a modern art exhibit scattered around its rooms. In the middle of Louis XIV’s chambers you’d see a giant metal sculpture designed to look like a mylar balloon animal or a ceramic cast of Michael Jackson with a monkey. Even when I tried thinking about the deeper meaning this exhibit might be communicating, my mind came up blank.

Jeff Koons balloon sculpture in the Hall of Mirrors Versailles France
Though Versailles and Notre Dame are what I normally tell people are my highlights of Paris, the real highlight is slightly more complicated than this four-word answer. My favorite part of Paris was simply being in Paris, walking down any street at all, preferably one with very few people, and soaking up the Frenchness of it all. It really does feel like the romantic city everyone claims it is. If I marry rich, I might return one day with my significant other and experience the city the way it was meant to be experienced.

Arc de Triomphe, Paris

Read next: Travel Week 1, Part 3: Brussels

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain

Travel Week 1, Part 1: Barcelona

I’ve caught up on classes sufficiently enough to take a deep breath and recall the whirlwind adventure that was my travel week. Luckily, I was taking notes all the time while traveling to help me write blogs for class, so even though everything went so quickly and was over so fast, I can still remember what happened.

Roller coaster near the beach, Barcelona, Spain

We started in Barcelona, on Saturday, at two in the morning. Our plane from Venice, which was scheduled to leave at 9:30 p.m. on Friday, was severely delayed and when we finally landed in Barcelona, the metro system we’d been counting on catching to the city center and our hostel was no longer running. Once we figured out the confusing bus system (which we found was just as confusing in every other city we visited and therefore made a point to use the underground metro whenever possible), we got off at a stop about a mile away from our hostel and spent the next hour looking for it. The hostel turned out to be on a street off one of the main tourist drags, La Rambla, and stank of urine from the night’s debaucheries once we arrived. It was seemingly a shady place, but luckily we found our hostel was not–it was clean and efficient.

We quite reluctantly woke up early the next morning to see the sights, first heading to Park Guell. You’ve likely already read about my time there. I found it interesting, but I later realized that our group missed most of the park–the pretty part, ironically. We saw nothing people think of when they picture Park Guell–no mosaics, no Gaudi. Nevertheless, the view of the city couldn’t have been better from the top, and the musicians were entertaining.

Next, we made our way down the huge traffic thoroughfare Diagonal toward Sagrada Familia and, on our way, stumbled upon a Gaudi apartment building, a giant owl-shaped billboard, and a corner apartment building with turrets and spires like that of a Disney castle. We also saw a beautifully painted chapel designed by one of Gaudi’s teachers–one who was, clearly, more of a conventional mind than Gaudi himself. For there is no weirder sight than Sagrada Familia, the absurdly modern yet Gothic Gaudi-designed church standing unfinished in the middle of the city. Each side is different: one looks like the entrance to some modern by-the-thousands Protestant temple; another looks like a spoof of Notre Dame with its gargoyles of 30 different species springing out all over the place; a third side has no theme as of yet and is covered in scaffolding; the fourth and probably most famous side looks like it would earn a Best in Show award in the most prestigious sand castle contest in the world.

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain
I unfortunately forgot my camera on this glorious day of sightseeing, but I luckily remembered to bring it the next morning when we took a bike tour of the city. We saw Sagrada Familia again on this tour, but everything else was new–the park in the center of the city, the zoo, the beach, the palace that once housed the court of Ferdinand and Isabella, and what would have been the most beautiful Gothic church to behold were the entire front not covered in scaffolding.

Monument for Christopher Columbus, Barcelona, Spain
Surprise, surprise–nights in Barcelona are far more lively than days. I have a theory that all the locals sleep away hangovers when the sun is up and wake up at dusk to party all night, and given the prevalent smell of urine all over the city, I’m sure that’s true to some degree. My group stayed away from the party scene, however, and instead opted to get up early and take in the sights. When we did stay out, we spent our nights enjoying a dish of paella and some sangria or getting some treats at the local ice cream place. One night, we tried to see a light and fountain show in front of a government building, but we must not have read our guidebooks very thoroughly, because nothing happened after we sat in front of the fountain for a good 20 minutes.

Old Town, Barcelona, Spain
Barcelona wasn’t my favorite stop during the travel week, but it was an interesting cultural experience. I was expecting the overall mood to be similar to that of Italy, given that the two countries share a carelessness for time and multitasking, preferring to languish in one activity at a time and stay out late. But I found Spain to be even more carefree than Italy, and it made me realize I could never fit in there. I’ve been too Americanized to believe relaxation is always better than stress.

Read Next: Travel Week 1, Part 2: Paris

Photo credit: https://www.lifeinitaly.com/tourism/veneto/asolo

In the kitchen with Saverio

Jill Kimball

The recipe seems straightforward: dough, tomato sauce, mozzarella, whatever else one desires. Stretch out the dough, pile it all on, stick it in the oven. Simple, right?

Not according to Gemmato Saverio, the owner of Pizzeria Cornaro in upscale Asolo. And he’s the ultimate authority: he’s from Southern Italy, the home of the pizza. Creating a decked-out flatbread that deserves the name “pizza” is an art form, like professional Riverdance or singing a Rossini aria. Making a real pizza, Saverio-style, requires an up-to-date weather forecast, a brick oven and toned wrist muscles.

I had only one of these things at my disposal—the brick oven—for my brief foray into the pizza-making world on this warm night in mid-October in Saverio’s cramped downstairs kitchen, but the chef didn’t seem to mind. He had the weather forecast at the ready, and he’d already made a dozen little mounds of dough that corresponded perfectly with the temperature outside. Our travel writing class, the professors and their families all awaited the opportunity to impress Saverio with our cooking skills.

“The main ingredients are the dough and the water, because the amounts change depending on the weather,” Marta translated to us Americans as Saverio spoke lightning-fast Italian. “If it’s cold, use more dough and hot water; if it’s hot, use less dough and cold water.”So it’s not just an art, I thought; it’s also a science. And as I held the little 200-gram ball of grain-flecked white dough in my hand, I understood why. Because Saverio had combined just the right amount of water with flour and yeast and salt, it was soft to the touch, yet so elastic that only an Exacto Knife could break through. Yikes. I wondered how long it would take to digest when it came out of the oven and into my mouth.

I was slightly intimidated when I saw Saverio flatten the pizza dough against the marble kitchen countertop. His hands moved at top speed, so fast that you could actually hear them swooshing in the air in time with the gentle swish-swish of the dough turning clockwise against the marble. Flattening “takes only 10 to 12 seconds per pizza,” he told us.

But it took me at least five minutes, what with all the giggling and the preventing the dough from sliding to the floor and the clumsy flattening of the uneven sections. Saverio shouted out one-word Italian phrases at random, apparently assuming we would understand and improve our technique if we listened. “Aspetta…più veloce…bravissima!” I frowned, but said “grazie (thank you)” and hoped it was the correct reply.In several metal compartments above the counter are all the pizza toppings a girl could want: marinara, mozzarella, tomato, onion, mushroom, artichoke and zucchini. I threw them all on, taking care to skimp on the mozzarella after Saverio tells us that “the pizza doesn’t cook right if there’s too much cheese.” But then he sees how little I’ve spread on the pizza and asks, “Un po’ più? (A little more?)” I nod, and he scoops up twice the cheese pieces I’d put on the pizza in the first place. In Italy, “a little” means “a lot”.

Saverio shoos us away from his kitchen when it’s time to shovel the pizzas into the oven, and he brandishes a terrifying six-foot-long metal wand to carefully deposit the pies deep within the bowels of the brick oven, where there’s a large, ash-laden fire waiting to warm them.

When I sit down at an upstairs table to enjoy the result of my hard work exactly seven minutes later, I marvel not at the art and science of pizza making, but with the unusually close contact an Italian chef has with the food when creating the perfect pizza. Usually there are knives, rolling pins or electric mixers between a cook and his food; with pizza, there is no barrier. The whole process, then, is less mechanical and more personal. But when Saverio smooshes his hands into the dough, when he pulls at it on the countertop, when he digs into all his bowls and metal compartments for the toppings, describing the science of proportion and the art of combinations, he neglects to mention the most important ingredient in his pizzas: love.

In Barcelona, shabby is chic

Barcelona, home of Antoni Gaudi. Flagship of modern architecture. City by the beach. All of this, technically, is true, but it omits the many pieces of grit and grime that define the distinct personality of this Catalan city, pieces that were immediately evident in one short walk to Park Güell from the nearest underground metro station.

Even in this part of the city, where millions of foreign travelers tread every year, Barcelona doesn’t try to clean up its shabby exterior to attract outsiders. Broken windows have been boarded up but show no sign of plans for further repair; they’re already covered with years of graffiti, styled curse words in Catalan and Spanish in brilliant reds and greens. The cobblestoned sidewalks are worn with age and dangerously uneven; some sections have been carelessly filled in with misshapen chunks of concrete. Though the roads were still wet from nighttime street cleaners, back alleys and street corners still stank of urine. Apparently, Barcelona doesn’t care. It likes itself the way it is, and it wouldn’t mind being an unknown European city nobody bothered to visit. So why do people keep coming?

Source

We started the climb to the top of the hill where Park Güell sits, overlooking the city. As if hearing our audible panting, escalators appeared in the middle of the hilly street to whisk us up. We glided past a scarf-laden woman who couldn’t be any younger than 85 making her way down the hill via the stairs. With each step she winced, paused one or two seconds, then grabbed onto the rail with both hands and continued her descent. Why weren’t there escalators for the ride down, I wondered?

When we finally reached the top, I could see nothing but metal stairs and what looked like several piles of packed dirt, which I quickly realized was the foundation for the park’s dirt pathways above me. At the top of the stairs, paths led in several different directions, all promising sweeping views of the city below. We chose a route sparsely landscaped with tear-shaped green cactus plants. Their threatening thorns were ripped off in places, and the green surfaces were mutilated with crude etchings and Sharpie markings of initials and declarations in Catalan, Spanish, French, Basque, and languages I didn’t even recognize.

Several musicians had taken up residence along the spiral dirt path to the top of the park. A twentysomething dark-haired man with a goatee and a serene expression furrowed his brow as he concentrated his energy on the marimba on his lap, tapping up, down, back and forth on sections of the bowl-shaped metal instrument to produce a gong-like contemplative melody. Nearer the top, a stringy, leather-skinned man with a scraggly gray beard and several teeth missing attempted a rendition of “Moon River”, but more spit and Spanish curse words came out of the trumpet bell than did musical notes.

As I tiptoed warily up narrow, rough-hewn stone steps to the circular top of Park Güell without the aide of a railing, I knew the view would stun me. Before I turned around to look, I stood facing the other way, staring at the mutilated cacti and the bearded trumpeter and thinking the view couldn’t give me a better glimpse of Barcelona than did my trip to the top.