Saturday, April 14, 2018

Time flies when you have no seasons


The island of Moloka'i, where we visited in March
It's been six months since I last wrote a blog post. We have now lived in Honolulu for eight months, but I have to say, it doesn't feel all that long. The funny thing about Hawaii is that the seasons give you little indication of the passage of time. It was not uncommon for me to think this year, “What a lovely summer day!” and then realize it was February. It's disconcerting. Only the greener color of Diamond Head Crater hints at the presence of winter. Trees seem to flower year round and mid-winter beach trips are the norm, so it's easy to forget what time of year it is. Although the months have slipped by without me hardly noticing, when I reflect on how much my daughter has developed over the last eight months, I realize just how much time has actually passed.

We moved to Honolulu right before Maëlys turned one. She hadn't started walking yet—she was still doing her funny one-legged crawl. She didn't understand most of the words we said to her. I was feeling guilty for not throwing her a first birthday party, but we had no furniture in our apartment and few friends to celebrate with. She didn't mind—she enjoyed opening presents from her relatives, and then lost interest and moved on to something else. She was changing rapidly, but still firmly in the baby category.

Maëlys at 20 months
Now Maëlys is four months shy of being a two-year-old. We're on the verge of starting toilet training with her, she's playing imaginatively with her stuffed animals, she goes to a toddler gym class and can climb, jump, and slide with ease. She can only say a few recognizable words, but she understands and responds appropriately to complex sentences. She teases people, laughs at jokes, and demands back rubs for herself and her toys. Our baby is a baby no more.

In our eight months here, France has also quickly faded into the background. Now, a dream-like fuzziness blurs the edges of my memories of Paris. My French accent sounds atrocious. I have not kept up my French skills as I had wanted to, unfortunately, and it's surprising how quickly my vocabulary has dwindled, only to be replaced by long Hawaiian words that I frequently mix up: Kapahulu, Kaka'ako, Kalawao, Kapiolani. I still keep in touch with a few friends from France, and we send occasional Maëlys photos to our sweet former landlady. But for the most part, our lives have become firmly entrenched in Hawaii and France is now just an anecdote that makes me sound cooler than I really am.

Still, every time I watch a movie set in Paris, my heart skips at the familiarity of the simple things: the blue and green street signs on the corners of buildings, the bright neon vests of the sanitation workers, the sound of the doors-closing alert on the métro. It feels as if I'm still there and need only open a window for the smell of cigarette smoke to waft upwards, for the blaring of car horns and sirens to punctuate the usual low rumble of noise. I miss it. Something which was so frightening and unfamiliar to me for so many months now feels like home. Never mind that in Hawaii I can go to the beach any time I want. Never mind that I can see tons of constellations from my balcony, not just an occasional star or satellite. Never mind that I can breathe clean air and feel safe in my neighborhood. I miss the character of Paris. I miss the feeling of power that comes from crossing a busy street with a throng of other pedestrians. I miss addressing people as monsieur or madame and knowing that I'll hear “Merci, au revoir” when I leave a store.

I'm certain that when I look back on my life, our time in Paris will be two of the best years I ever had. Perhaps two of the hardest as well, but certainly two of the best. That's not to diminish the wonderful new lives we're building for ourselves in Hawaii, of course. I'm constantly in awe of our surroundings--Rory and I get to live in a gorgeous place that most people only dream of visiting, and we both get the chance to work and do what we love while raising an incredible daughter together. Hawaii is full of aloha.

But there's something special about Paris. A certain je ne sais quoi...

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Shifting Perspectives: Transportation in France and America

America is a car-centered society. We bought a car within a week of moving to Honolulu because we realized how necessary it would be to get around. In our two years of living in Paris, on the other hand, we took less than a dozen car rides, usually in taxis. Very few of the people we knew there owned a car, most preferring simply to walk and take public transit. Parisian public transportation may be grimy and congested at times, but tickets are cheap, service is punctual, and stations are everywhere. With the high cost of fuel and the absurdly expensive and difficult process of acquiring a French driver's license, for many people, public transit makes much more sense than car ownership.

Furthermore, Paris engenders a culture of walking. Everyone walks to the shops, to their dentist appointments, to pick up their children from school. Most neighborhoods have several grocery stores within a ten minute walk—I can think of at least eight near our old apartment. I mentioned in a previous post the three separate free medical clinics for mothers and children in walking distance of our home. I even knew women in Paris who walked home from the hospital after giving birth. With almost every amenity one needs so conveniently located, walking is often the logical choice. It became such a regular part of my daily routine that I thought nothing of spending a few hours on my feet each day, both for getting from place to place but also for enjoyment, exercise, and relaxation.
Maëlys certainly enjoys walking in Hawaii.
So I find it continually surprising how few people I see walking in Honolulu. Here, despite the year-round nice weather, it seems that most people only walk if they have to. For many people, stores, restaurants, medical facilities, and other necessities are too far away to walk to or are inaccessible by public transport. There are often no sidewalks on residential streets, confirming the dominance of vehicles over pedestrians. And while Honolulu has an excellent bus system that covers the whole island, I would bet that a majority of residents have never ridden the bus or have used it only a few times in a given year. Sadly, I must include myself in that category, as I have not yet tried out the bus system (though Rory and Maëlys have made one bus trip so far and it is on my list of things to do).

The funny thing is, it only took two years of living in France to completely change my perspective on the dominance of cars. Before moving to France, I viewed my car as more than just a way to get around town; it was my own private refuge. I enjoyed being in the car, listening to the radio. And if I had to walk for more than five minutes to get somewhere, I would usually just hop in the car instead. I don't think I was particularly lazy, nor was I unconcerned with the environmental impact of driving. But my perception of what was an acceptable walking distance was skewed. I had no sense of how far away places were except in terms of driving time, so walking typically felt like an unnecessary and inefficient use of my time.

After living in Paris, I now much prefer to walk rather than drive. The fact that a place is far enough away that I must drive to get there is now a deterrent for me going there. But alas, my options here are limited when it comes to stores, restaurants, medical facilities, and schools that are within walking distance of home, so I feel myself being pulled back into the habit of driving that I so easily gave up in Paris. Honolulu does have buses and a new bike sharing program, but service is relatively limited, and the convenience factor is far less than simply jumping in a car. So for now, to combat the influences of America's ever-present car culture, I'm trying to patronize the few stores that are located near our home (walking there, of course), take daily walks around our neighborhood, and avoid unnecessary trips in the car. And one of these days, I'll have to try out the bus.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Iceland ahoy!

After I woke up this morning, September the third, my Google Calendar app reminded me of my flight to Reykjavik in a few hours. Boston to Reykjavik, it says, 1pm, don't be late!

To explain this state of affairs, I have to tell you the story of our leaving Paris. Let's start in, oh, March or so, when I'd accepted the job in Hawai'i and as we were making plans.

The goal: Get from Paris to Honolulu.

This presents a challenge, because this journey takes at least 24 hours. The journey with a baby would be particularly difficult. Plus, once we get to Hawai'i, the time difference is 12 hours - as big of a time difference as is possible. It'd be 8am, it'd feel like 8pm. At 4am, it'd feel like 4pm. Not an easy adjustment for adults, let alone babies.

However, it also presents opportunities. I checked a map, and apparently right between France and Hawai'i is a large continent known as North America. We have a lot of dear friends in Ohio (plus a storage unit with things from our old house that we didn't take with us to Paris), and family in Oregon.

So we decide to hop. Go to Ohio first (only a 6 hour time difference), spend 10 days there, see friends, pack up our storage unit and have it shipped to Hawai'i. Then onward to Oregon (a 3 hour time difference), spend two weeks with family. Finally make the last leg over to Hawai'i. Simple, right?

Yes and no. This plan has us getting to the US on June 30, and slowly travelling west until we get to Hawai'i on July 26. Here's the problem: my visa is only valid from July the 22nd. How can I get into the US on June the 30th?

Well, the first part of our trip is just tourism, I consider. I won't be working or earning any money - just seeing friends and family. So I could enter the US as a tourist, under the visa waiver program called ESTA. I enter on ESTA, and then change my status to my work visa. Simple, right?

Yes and no! You can't change status from an ESTA to a work visa. It's not allowed. You have to leave the US and then re-enter on the work visa. This sorry state of affairs then motivates a solo trip from Oregon up to Vancouver, Canada, to allow me to hop out and back into the USA. I book some train tickets and add it to our itinerary. A complex plan, but everything should work out.

We began our preparations in earnest. We sold most of our Paris possessions. We mailed a few boxes of books and things to await our arrival in Hawai'i. And the rest we packed. We ended up with four large suitcases, one smaller roller bag, one laptop bag, two backpacks, and a cello. And of course, a small baby.

We had emptied and cleaned our flat, our landlady had deemed it vraiment impeccable, très propre ("truly impeccable, very clean"), and with tears in our eyes we left for our airport hotel, where we were to spend the night before flying out the next morning. It was at this point we learned of a small flaw in our plan: we didn't have enough hands.

That is, there were more suitcases than we could easily move. With a luggage cart, it's possible, but with just the two of us, it's not straightforward. Even though our hotel is basically right beside the airport, we realize that we need to book a taxi to ensure that we can get to it effectively. I speak to the agent at the front desk and get a taxi booked, after I make sure he understands that we have a lot of luggage.

(It is here, at the hotel, I discover the value of speaking English and pretending not to speak French. The staff are more revealing when they turn to their colleagues and address them in French. But I'm listening...)

In the morning, we awake and await our taxi. It arrives, but it's plainly too small. They clearly didn't get the memo about our luggage. The driver calls in for another taxi to come, and we are resigned to waiting some more.

I'm a fairly anxious traveller, I'm not sure why, but these events send me spiralling into worry. We've barely begun our trip and there's a delay! What if they don't have a taxi big enough? What if the taxi arrives late and we miss our flight? How will we manage?

Luckily the taxi soon arrives. It's driven by a middle aged Japanese immigrant, who regaled our ears with easy-listening guitar covers of classic rock songs at high volume. He was really keen on it.

At the airport, we went to check our luggage. We had booked and paid for the extra luggage in advance, but I was expecting to have to pay 200€ for Talia's cello, which is technically oversize.

After weighing everything, they tell us that some of our bags are overweight and that we have to speak to another person to pay the fee and get the tags. I head over to the other person while Talia waits with Maëlys.

"Okay sir, for all of this, you must pay 750€."

My eyes boggle.

"No, there must be some mistake. See, here, I have already paid for these bags. I am only paying for an overweight fee for one of the bags." I brandish my receipt from when I booked the bags. (If there's one thing I've learned from living in France, it's that paper documentation is king.)

"Let me see. Actually, we can distribute the weight of the bags across all of them, so while this one bag is overweight, the total weight of everything is under the limit. So there's no fee. Let me print your passes now."

However, this was followed by brow-furrowing and talking to colleagues. The wait was long, and I was getting worried again. We'd arrived at the airport a little later than I'd wanted (because of the taxi) and now we're being delayed again. What if security takes forever too, and we miss the flight?

Eventually the airline people come to a consensus and tell me that although I'd paid for the luggage on the second leg of our flight (Frankfurt to Pittsburgh), the first leg (Paris to Frankfurt) was not covered. This is apparently because these legs are operated by Condor and Lufthansa respectively.

Never mind the fact that they're both part of the same parent company. Never mind the fact that when I paid for the luggage, I spoke to operators at both Condor and Lufthansa who told me that the payment covered both flights. Never mind that. Right now, they wanted 150€.

At this point, I pay. I reckon I could have stayed and argued my case, but to be frank I was happy to just get the luggage onto the plane and be able to get going. My anxiety was getting the better of me.

And, remember I expected a 200€ charge for the cello? They never mentioned it! So really, this was like gaining 50€. That's what I told myself, at least.

Security was fine, the Lufthansa flight was great. The flight attendant gave Maëlys a little toy to entertain her on the flight, which we got to keep. Everything was looking up!

Now for the Condor flight. Condor is a low-cost airline, and we got some great rates with them. So great that booking three seats (i.e. a seat for Maëlys, which is a game-changer, let me tell you) was actually cheaper than just two on some other airlines. However, there are restrictions, and their policy on hand luggage is relatively strict. I had read flyer reports where they actually weighed people's hand luggage to ensure it's below their maximum weight. This worried me, as we had a lot of stuff.

When we go to board, the boarding agent sees that our passes haven't been double-checked, and send us over to another agent. Here we go, I think, they're going to weigh our bags. No such thing happens. Instead, they check our passports.

"Two Americans and one British person. I see. Do you have travel authorization to go to the USA?" she asks.

"Yes, I have an ESTA", I say, referring to the visa-waiver program.

"And do you have onward travel outside of the USA?"

She asks this because if an airline brings someone to a country, and they are denied entry, the airline is liable for the cost of taking them back to where they came from. Airlines are really tough these days on anything that looks like you might be in violation of the rules. The ESTA, as a short-term thing, requires that you have evidence of onward travel to leave the country.

"Yes, to Canada." I show her the document. "And see here, I also have a work visa, so I'll re-enter the US as a worker."

"Hm. No, Canada is not good enough. You have to leave the entire continent."

For various reasons, going to Canada or Mexico (or various Caribbean countries) doesn't count for leaving the country. This means that, say, someone in the US on a student visa can go to Toronto for the weekend and not have to go through complex immigration procedures upon their return. Paperwork is minimized, student gets to go to Toronto, everyone is happy.

Except that this rule also doesn't make sense, because you have left the country. You can't legislate that away.

I argue my case, that I have a work visa and that I'll be re-entering the US. She stands her ground.

"I need to see onward travel out of the US. Here is a list of countries which don't count." It's a long list, with lots of Caribbean nations, plus Mexico and Canada.

"What do you want me to do? Just get out my laptop and buy a plane ticket right now?"

"Yes."

Great. So I do that. Due to a lack of foresight, my laptop was not charged, so I needed to find an outlet. The first one I found was not in a location with a wifi signal. The second one worked. Meanwhile, our flight is boarding and I am freaking out.

I do a quick search for flights from US east coast cities - Boston, Newark, JFK - to major European hubs - Paris, Frankfurt, London. I select a date in the near future which is within the 90 days I can be in the US on ESTA. I find a cheap flight with Wow Air for about 160€. It goes to Paris via Reykjavik. Since I'm in Germany, my computer has defaulted to the German webpage. I click through and order my ticket, hoping that my understanding of German was good enough. I get a confirmation page.

I run back to the agent and show her the flight. She glances at it, nods, and waves us through onto the plane.

And that is the story of why I was meant to fly to Reykjavik today.

Of course, the US immigration official didn't care about whether I had onward travel. He didn't even ask how long I was staying. When you are white and travel with two white Americans, one of whom is a baby, they don't check you very thoroughly.

I later cancelled the flight, as I had no intention of taking it, and was reimbursed the 35€ or so that they charged in taxes and fees.

In hindsight, I could have handled it better. I could have just bought tickets to Reykjavik without onward travel to Paris, that would have been cheaper. I also learned that US law entitles you to a full refund within 24 hours of buying a flight. (A rare case where US law is more consumer-friendly than EU law!) Since I bought my ticket through the German site, I wasn't eligible for this, but I would have been had I used the US site.

All this to jump through the hoops of getting to the US and dealing with our complicated itinerary and complex immigration laws. Our other travels within the US (and to Canada) were not without incident, but not quite as eventful or as stress-inducing as this first one. Maybe one day I'll make it to Iceland for real.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Aloha!

It's been a little over a week since we arrived in Hawaii, a very full week of moving into an apartment, buying an electric car, and spending hundreds of dollars on a car seat, stroller, high chair, fans, household goods, and groceries. Our internet was just set up today and our shipment of all our earthly possessions, including our new IKEA-bought furniture, should arrive within two weeks. For now, we're managing with borrowed air mattresses, TV tray tables, folding chairs, and kitchenware. Our “couch” is a lovely spot on the floor. It's not the epitome of comfort, but it works. After traveling and living at other people's houses for a month, it's at least nice to have our own place.

Our new apartment complex. Look at those mountains!
And besides, we're still marveling at how big our apartment is. Two whole bedrooms and bathrooms! A full-size refrigerator! A real oven and a stove with four burners! Four closets and miles of shelf space! Perhaps this place would feel small by American standards, but having come from Paris, where we had a 375 square foot (35 sq m) one bedroom apartment, this place seems huge to us. What a luxury.

A magnificent old tree
Furthermore, every window in our apartment has an incredible view. We live in a valley that's nestled between breathtakingly wild and imposing mountains with brilliantly green tropical plants covering the hillsides. There are beautiful palm trees outside our door. In the Manoa valley, the sun shines brightly every day, with brief intervals of “pineapple rain”— a fine mist that sprinkles down even when there are no clouds overhead. It's currently the height of summer, so it's very warm and quite humid, with unfortunately no air conditioning in the apartment, but a perpetual strong breeze flows through the valley and alleviates a bit of the heat. When we first drove through Manoa, heading deeper into the valley, I kept saying, “Wow! Those mountains are incredible! Look at the clouds—they're amazing! What a fantastic tree that is!” And every time I step outside, I still continue to marvel at the awesome natural beauty of this island. It's a privilege to live in the shadow of these mountains.

Although we haven't had too much time to explore yet, we did at least manage to get to the beach this week. It was the baby's first experience with sand, and she enjoyed letting it sift through her fingers and toes. We then waded out into the pleasantly warm water and saw schools of small shiny fish darting back and forth. The beach wasn't overly crowded. There were a few kids swimming and several people standing and balancing on surf boards, propelling themselves with a paddle. Para-sailing was happening in the distance. It was like a photo from a travel magazine, advertising an island paradise.

We have to keep reminding ourselves that we live here. Walking along a picturesque beach, driving up a mountain into the jungle, seeing colorful and unfamiliar birds at our feet; it all feels very fantastical and unreal. This is where people honeymoon or go for a getaway—we couldn't possibly live here, could we? You might think that having been in Paris for two years, we would be used to the idea of living in an amazing tourist destination. But Hawaii is completely different. In Paris, humans have bent nature to their will. Trees and shrubs are manicured to perfection. Architecture displays the marvels of human capabilities. The public transit system is a feat of engineering. It's a very peopled city, Paris. But in Hawaii, I have the distinct feeling that nature is merely allowing us to stay here for awhile. Humans and their work are not the main attraction, nor are we really in control of our surroundings, despite our best efforts. So it is with a wholly different feeling of awe and humility that I will explore our new island home. It may only be about forty-five miles to the other side of the island, but there's a lifetime's worth of new experiences waiting for us here.







Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Carcassonne

In our last post, Talia described our recent trip to Barcelona. It ends with us boarding a train bound for Carcassonne, a town in the southeast of France. (It's roughly halfway between Toulouse and Montpellier, if you know where they are. If not, just imagine a line due south from Paris but stop about 65km from the Spansh border. Or just look it up on a map.) What adventures would await us there?

Something Talia didn't mention about Barcelona is how cheap everything was! It's a major city, but the prices in supermarkets and restaurants compared very favourably to Paris. I suppose the real lesson from this is that it is expensive in Paris, and we've just got used to it...

Anyway, the train ride to Carcassonne was lovely. It was just as the sun was setting, and we had great views of the Pyrenées and the Mediterranean. It was around Maëlys's bedtime, so she was a little grumpy, but we were all still able to enjoy most of the trip.
Water, hills, as viewed from the train from Barcelona.
The only thing that marked our entering France was that the automated announcements switched from Spanish, French, and English to just French. This was strangely comforting, in a way. While Talia is pretty competent in Spanish, I am very weak, and being in Barcelona - while enjoyable - it was very clear that I was in a foreign country.

By contrast, coming to Carcassonne, a place we've never been before, was very much like "coming home". The train station was basically like every other provincial French train station. We made our way to our accommodation (an AirBnB), and spoke only French with the host. We knew all the quirks of the French apartment and the French appliances. That it was all so familiar was surprising, as to a large degree France is still a foreign country to us. But it helped us to realize how much of a home it's become.

The next morning was Sunday, and I ventured out to one of the supermarkets to pick up supplies. (Being "at home" means realizing that not many supermarkets will be open on Sunday, and knowing that those which are are probably only open for the morning.) The town was dead quiet. It was a real contrast from Barcelona, full of people and wide thoroughfares with cars and mopeds. Here, I wandered down some cobbled streets, passing only a couple of people. The other people in the supermarket were tourists too.

One of the main entrances to the walled city.
Carcassonne is most famous for its medieval city. This dates back to Roman times, with fortifications being added over the centuries, to defend against threats from outside (those barbaric Spaniards!) and inside (those dangerous commoners!). After falling into some disrepair, a lot of it was rebuilt in the 1800s in an attempt to restore it to its former glory. As it turns out, a lot of the "restorations" were actually just people imagining what they thought a medieval castle should look like, rather than historically accurate rebuilding, but that seems to be part of the appeal. I'll let the pictures speak for themselves.

Another entrance!
A view over the rooftops. Yes, those are houses - people actually live here.
A view from the ramparts down to the town and countryside below.
A view of the southern end of the city.
As you can probably tell from the pictures, we had cracking weather. It was about 25C (77F) and sunny, with clear skies. Great weather for a holiday!
A window in the Basilica of Saint Nazaire, inside the old city.
You may also be familiar with Carcassonne as the name of a board game. The game, inspired by the real city, involves building cities and roads between them in rural medieval France. We saw it for sale in one of the tourist shops, which I thought was quite appropriate.

The aptly-named "old bridge" over the river Aude.
Naturally, each region of France has its own culinary delicacies. Carcassonne is famous for cassoulet, which is a type of stew consisting of white beans, pork sausage, and duck meat, all cooked in lard for hours. Talia had some for lunch, and didn't need any more food for the day.
When in Rome...
After our trip to the old city, we meandered our way back to our accommodation, which was in the newer part of town. Because there isn't really too much to do in Carcassonne, there was none of the usual "tourist-pressure" I feel of having to go and see everything and maximize the amount of experiences enjoyed. Instead, it was extremely pleasant to have a leisurely time. The next day, we enjoyed a relaxed morning before taking a little boat trip along the canal. In the early evening, we took a local train to neighbouring Narbonne, before boarding the high-speed train bound for Paris. Again, the train ride was excellent. For the first portion, the track mostly hugs the Mediterranean coast, providing excellent views. Then, turning left, it's northward to Paris, through the French countryside. We got home at about 11pm; a sleeping baby and tired parents.

Carcassonne was a lovely break. Of course, it's definitely a tourist town, but that doesn't really detract from the beauty of it. (And we live in Paris anyway, so being around tourists is just part of life...) If we had the time, it would have been great to rent a car and just explore the region, stay for a week or so. The pace of holidaying in rural places is quite different from that of Barcelona, and I'm glad that we managed to fit both of them into this trip. I'm also glad that we did it in this order - the quiet timidity of Carcassonne and the comforting familiarity of France was an excellent sequel to Barcelona. The other way round wouldn't have paced itself quite as well. Roll on our next holiday adventure!

Sunday, May 7, 2017

¡Barcelona!

A colorful market in Barcelona
When I first learned we were moving to France, I was both excited and a little disappointed. Disappointed because throughout high school and college, I spent a considerable amount of time learning Spanish, and had always wanted the chance to try out my language skills in a Spanish-speaking country. I thought Spanish would be a much more useful language to know than French, what with the number of Spanish-speakers in the US and the proximity to Mexico and Latin America.

Imagine my surprise, then, to find out that I was moving to France. I had to shove my hard-earned knowledge of Spanish to the back of my brain and start cramming French in there instead. I enjoyed the challenge of teaching myself French and have done reasonably well at learning the language. But I still harbor an appreciation for Spanish and Latin cultures and that dream of communicating in Spanish. Thus, the close proximity of France to Spain was something I wanted to capitalize on while we were in Europe.
Amazingly beautiful gelato

It took us nearly two years of living in France, but I finally realized my goal of seeing Spain. Last month we took a short trip to Barcelona and had two-and-a-half days to see the sights. Here's what we found.

Barcelona is full of life. Compared to Paris, it felt sunny and open and friendly. On our first full day there, we did a walking tour loosely based on the one in the back of the novel The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. One of my favorite books, The Shadow of the Wind is a page-turner of a gothic novel set in Barcelona in 1945. Zafón sweeps you up into a twisting story of shadowy characters and intricate mysteries, while expertly painting the scene of a dark and dismal post-war Barcelona. I was keen to see some of the places that figured so prominently in the story, so we took a stroll down the Ramblas, a long pedestrianized street that takes you through the heart of Barcelona's gothic quarter. We saw an epic outdoor market with amazing foods, then joined the sea of tourists that made its way past the flower vendors, souvenir shops, theaters, restaurants, and living statues, and ultimately emerged at the marina in front of a massive statue of Christopher Columbus. In addition to the Ramblas, we saw a wide variety of architecture, including some fantastical buildings created by Antoni Gaudí in the late 19th century, as well as the outside of La Sagrada Família, the enormous modern basilica designed by Gaudí that has had construction ongoing since 1882. Rounding out the day was a trip to Jansana, a lovely gluten free bakery.

Going incognito and keeping the sun off
We did a lot of walking that first day, and in our vacations pre-baby, we would have felt obliged to go out again in the evening to cram in as much sight-seeing and experiencing as possible. But now with an 8-month-old who goes to bed around 7:30 pm, we had a perfect excuse to have a quiet evening in our AirBnB apartment, cooking ourselves a simple dinner and having hot chocolate on the patio. It was a relaxing end to an enjoyable day. Despite my initial worries about vacationing with a baby, it all worked out splendidly. Maëlys seemed to enjoy the new sights and sounds and she managed to sleep fairly well in an unfamiliar environment. Plus, Spanish people seem to love talking to, smiling at, and touching babies, so she made us quite popular with the locals.

I should note, however, that on the speaking Spanish with locals front, I failed miserably. First of all, Barcelona is part of Catalonia, so they speak both Catalan and Spanish there, and Catalan sounds rather like a mixture of French and Spanish, which confused me. Secondly, my brain is now wired such that when I hear a foreign language, I automatically respond in French, regardless of the language I hear. I kept saying “oui” instead of “si” and “merci” instead of “gracias”. So when trying to order in Spanish at restaurants, I would stare blankly at the server while my brain cycled through the English and French words before coming up with a French pronunciation for the Spanish word. It was frustrating but amusing.
Casa Batlló, designed by Gaudí

GF cake at Pasticelía
On our final day in Barcelona, we first got lunch at another excellent gluten free bakery, called Pasticelía. This time, after again being struck dumb at the sight of the waitress and having to order in English, I mentally rehearsed a couple of Spanish sentences explaining that our sojourn in Paris had left me struggling to speak Spanish. She chuckled and told me (in Spanish!) that she didn't know any French, so she appreciated the effort. It was a small victory.

Sagrada Família basilica
Afterwards, we took the subway, a funicular, and a cable car (excellent views of Barcelona) up the hill to the Montjuïc Castle. Montjuïc was a 17th-18th century military fortress that was the site of a number of battles and symbolized Spain's defeat of Catalonia in 1714. It served as a prison and a house of torture for three hundred years, and is mentioned in The Shadow of the Wind as the grim place where one of the characters was tortured. There is a small historical exhibit inside the fortress, but we mainly just walked around the grounds and on the ramparts. The castle's unpleasant past is not really on display too much, but a somber air pervades what's left of the fortress. At the end of our visit we walked down the steep hill through well-tended gardens and back to the funicular. In the evening we hurriedly made our way to the train station and caught a two-hour train to Carcassonne, a medieval town in the south of France.


I would love to spend more time in Spain. Barcelona was a very colorful and inviting place and with two-and-a-half days we barely scratched the surface. But at least we made it there and at least I was able to use a little of my mostly-dormant Spanish skills. The next part of our vacation took us “back home” to France, and was a great contrast to the bustle of Barcelona. Rory will tell you about that adventure in our next post. Stay tuned.

Statue (should be) entitled, Naked woman pondering ice cream cone.