Thursday, April 29, 2010

Move Abroad, Get Creative

If you move to a foreign country, will you become more creative? A study last year in the Economist seemed to support this.  Meanwhile, when I think of all the great artists ranging from painters to writers to poets, most had spent some time away from their home lands. Still, all of this is anecdotal in nature, lacking anything concrete specifics, so is it true or a myth that living abroad inspires creativity?

Speaking from my personal experience, I do feel more creative since moving to Spain.  Part of the reason, I think, is the need to communicate in a foreign language. Searching for the right word, trying to find the correct way to ask for something forces my brain to be active even when it's something simple like buying milk. Of course, sometimes, even today, I can't always come up with the right word or the correct tense, which makes me look for non verbal ways to communicate: miming, sketching, a combination of the two with a few made-up words thrown in. The end result is: I usually get what I want, utilizing parts of my brain that wouldn't been used otherwise, making even the most mundane of actions stimulating.

But more than the language, I'd say the increased creativity has more to do with the freedom of thought and openness that comes with moving to a foreign land.  Basic assumptions about life are challenged by new experiences.  I've learned that there is often no right or wrong way to do things - only different. A walk in the park triggers a whole new thought process when I compare my new life to the one I left. While without the comfortable surroundings of my past, I'm forced to get out and experience life, rather than settle into a daily routine of letting it pass me by as I watch T.V. or daydream.  So by the end of even the most unadventurous day, my mind is full of sights, sounds and smells that it wouldn't have been otherwise, which in turn spurs my creativity inspiring me to write.

So if you're feeling bored, stagnated and  uncreative at home, sell your possessions, buy a ticket for a place you've always wanted to go and set a goal to stay for one year.  Perhaps, you won't stay forever, but even if that's the case, you'll return a different, more creative person with enough material to paint that picture, sing that song or write that book which you've always had in you.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


I'm not sure if that's a word, but Barcelona is full of them - little squares hidden amid the alleys and buildings of the city's older districts. Often lined with bars and restaurants, each one offers something distinct, whether it be a lively atmosphere or a feeling of being transported in time, making them the perfect place to meet friends for drinks and tapas now that spring is here. The problem is, there are so many of these squares littered throughout the city, that it's impossible to name them all but here are a few of my favorites.

Plaça de Sant Pere. Located in the upper El Born, where Carrer de Sant Pere Més Alt and Carrer de Sant Pere Mitja meet, it's sided by a few bars, a La Caixa and a small medieval church, which apparently doesn't exist on any map.  Probably the least crowded of the ones on the list, I'll never forget sitting outside listening to the music of a string quartet coming from inside the centuries old stone walls of the church while tucking into some patatas bravas at a terrace outside.

Plaça del Sortidor in Poble Sec offers a mix of bars and restaurants amid the chaos that is Spanish streets. Sitting at one of the tables that lines the inside perimeter of the square, you can see kids kicking a football around, sometimes chased by a small dog. A honk of a horn and you'll watch as a delivery truck squeezes through the narrow street separating the tables from the bars, producing a shout from the kid behind on the scooter to hurry up. Then, like everyone else who has been observing, you'll return to the conversation you were having with friends about what to do that night as someone in an overlooking apartment hammers away to Queen playing on the stereo.

Plaça del Sol speaks to Barcelona's Bohemian side. Surrounded by bars and restaurants, it's in the heart of Gracia, which had been its own village for much of its history and still maintains a bit of an independence streak. One of the few squares that's popular throughout the year, the crowd, like the neighborhood itself, tends to veer to the more artistic and relaxed compared to the elegance of L'Eixample district that rests below.

Plaça del Rei. Tucked behind the main Cathedral in el Barrio Gotico is a square that can either be bustling with a concert or as quiet as it was centuries ago. Unlike most found throughout the city, it has only one bar, L'Antiquari, which is more like a stone tavern with a basement. Sitting outside at its terrace, looking at the engravings on the stone walls, it's difficult not to be impressed by the sense of history that surrounds you.

Plaça de Vicenç Martorell. Just off Carrer Tallers is a small square that surprisingly also has some greenery in the form of a patch of grass and a playground. Perhaps that's why under the arcade are the tables to some of Barcelona's better fruit, vegetable and sandwich bars.  A great place when you need a break from the crowds of Las Ramblas just two blocks away.

Like I said, Barcelona is full of these little squares or placetes. It's one of the reasons, I think, it's such a fun city to get lost in, so feel free to add to the list and see how many the really are.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Barcelona Football Club

La Liga is winding down so there are only a few more chances to see Barcelona football club until September. This Wednesday they host Inter Milan and face the difficult task of overcoming a 3-1 defeat in Italy. After that, they have Tenerife visiting on May 6th and Valladolid on May 16th. Their lead on Real Madrid is only one point, so each match is critical if Barça wants to retain the title.

There are still tickets available to catch the team live and plenty of hotels near Camp Nou. The stadium itself is an impressive site so before the match check to see if there are any tours available to get an insider's look.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Happy Sant Jordi

Today is one of my favorite days in Barcelona, la Diada de Sant Jordi, or Saint George's day. Honoring the patron saint of the Catalunya who is famous for slaying the dragon, it's celebrated with the simple gift exchange of a rose for her and a book from him.

Surprisingly, it's not a public holiday, but if you're out and about it seems like it is based on the crowds strolling the streets and looking at the flower and book stands.  And what is truly amazing is that it can rain the day before and it can rain the day after, but no one I know remembers it raining on Sant Jordi. 

So if you're in town, make sure to take in the sights and sounds of one of the more special days here. If you're not, why not buy a rose or a book for a friend to celebrate anyway.  Here is an interpretation of the legend behind the celebration. Enjoy.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Barcelona Sights - La Sagrada Familia

No building has come to define Barcelona like La Sagrada Familia. Designed by the city's most famous architect, Antoni Gaudí, it combines neo-Gothic and modernist styles to create a church unlike any I've seen.

Yet, surprisingly, for all of it's acclaim, the church hasn't been without controversy. George Orwell in his book "Homage to Catalonia" said, "I think the Anarchists showed bad taste in not blowing it up when they had the chance," labeling it "one of the most hideous buildings in the world." More recently, Josep Maria Subirachs's minimalist interpretation of the passion façade brought complaints that it didn't adhere to what was left of Gaudí's original designs, most of which were destroyed by the aforementioned anarchists during the Civil War.

Beauty or monstrosity? I personally think the former and never tire of getting the chance to walk by, look up and marvel for a second while meeting a friend or running errands. So if you're visiting, there are some great hotels close to the Sagrada Familia if you want to stay near by and stroll the tree lined Avenguda de Gaudí, which links the church and the famous Hospital del Sant Pau.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Cross Cultural Dating and Relationships

Debating the differences between men and women has been around since the bible it seems. A quick search on Amazon will produce a list of books explaining what makes the sexes different and why. But what happens when there's not just a difference in gender but also in culture? Is it easier, harder to date and maintain a relationship?

Now, I must confess I'm no expert on women. Even during my swinging single days I wasn't much of a Casanova and I'm far from the idyllic husband, so I'll avoid any dating and relationship advice. But I was single long enough in Spain to notice some differences when it came to the European and Spanish women compared to their counterparts in the states.

First, however, a little disclaimer. Life in Los Angeles is not an accurate representation of the U.S as a whole. The city is infamous for being a particularly soulless, superficial and harsh place thanks to the allure of Hollywood. Every day beautiful people arrive from all over the world with one goal in mind: to be rich and famous, and as a result, the town is full of narcissistic personality types with pretty faces. Add in the culture of sex, drugs, rock 'n roll, and the porn industry in the San Fernando Valley, and I think you get the picture of what it'd be like to be single there - fun for a bit, but emotionally damaging after a while.

Maybe coming from L.A. is why, what surprised me most at first, wasn't a defining trait or physical characteristic, but how few women had plastic surgery in Barcelona. Sure, there was the occasional girl with a nose job in a bar and there was Belen Esteban and her like on telebasura, but nothing like what I'd seen walking around Venice beach or lining up outside a club on Sunset Boulevard. There seemed to be a more natural beauty to European women and an approachability if that makes sense.

But the differences were more than skin deep. Rarely did the initial banter revolve around work or open with the question, "What do you do?" The topics of conversation tended instead to be about travels, musical tastes, life in Barcelona, languages. Then again, the whole concept of work is much different in Spain, I found. Perhaps it's the high unemployment that sees kids living with their parents until the thirties, but in general having a job and your own room is good enough; you don't also have to do something and live somewhere that impresses people.

Of course, the idea of dating is a particularly American thing to do, I've been told, which might explain another aspect of life in Barcelona that surprised me my first year. Many locals my age were with their high school or college sweetheart, some with kids. I hadn't known anyone in L.A. like that. It was more Hollywood than Hollywood, where most my friends and I had the philosophy not until we were at least thirty would we even think of settling down. But, luckily for me not all Spanish women married their first love, and after a series of random events I met my future wife at the ripe old age of twenty-nine.

Relationships are, I think, incredibly complex things, which like dark matter, I only vaguely understand.  I will say, though, being with a person from a foreign country definitely adds an element of unpredictability to them. First, there's the question of which language to communicate in. When we met I spoke no Spanish while she spoke English like an Essex girl. We lived in Spain, so the decision was Spanish. My wife, being the native, had the upper hand as far as command and linguistic dexterity. I, however, always had the ready excuse of, "I didn't understand," which was used frequently, especially during the first months.  This required a patience at which I still marvel.

But even when we reached somewhat equality with the language, the way it's spoken can bring about all types of problems. My wife, like many Spaniards I've found, likes to explain everything, at times to the minutest detail, before beginning. I, on the other hand, tend to subscribe to the American belief of keeping it brief, answering questions as they pop up but first let's get started.  This can still sometimes be a source of consternation, but that isn't always the case. At first her Spanish directness offended my polite sensibilities, but now she's the one reminding me to say please and thank you.

Then there's the question of her fiery Latin temper and my disposition mellowed by too much sun and Hollywood in my twenties. So like any couple, we squabble from time to time. How much is due to personality differences and how much is cultural, I don't know. I have, however, discovered a side benefit to being admonished in a language that isn't mine: the intended impact of the words is dulled by the time my brain translates them and registers an emotional response, while at the same time, it's also a great way to learn some Spanish expressions like me cago en la leche.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Has It Been A Year Already?

Well, actually a little bit more and it's incredible how fast the time has gone. I can still recall sitting down in my small office, deciding to write a blog for the first time because I thought it'd help get the book I was writing published. Before I'd even typed a word, I was surprised at how much easier and cheaper it was to run a website than it had been in the mid-nineties. Back then there was the hundred dollar domain registration, the cost of design and hosting. Now, it's ten bucks a year for a domain and that's it. Thanks, Mr. Google, even if you know more about me than I do.

I remember having the feeling of writing for an audience of one those first few weeks, then I got a comment here and there, sometimes two. Sometimes it was the same person, other times new visitors. This is the beauty of blogging, I think. It's getting the chance to meet people from so many places, from so many backgrounds. Ninety-nine percent I'll probably never meet in person, yet in some way, I feel I know them better than my upstairs neighbor. And it's thanks to these fellow bloggers and readers that I know more about Spain, Europe and Barcelona too.

When I look at the comments, the post on Catalunya or Catalonia received the highest number, followed by my tongue in cheek rant requesting Spaniards to stop using "punky" for punk music, although most of them were a back and forth between Tom at the Badrash and I, so the numbers are obviously skewed. After these, the topics related to nationalism and the Spanish economy garnered quite a reaction, while the comments to the post on eating and drinking in Spain taught me exercising doesn't burn calories, but changes the metabolism. Meanwhile, one of the very first posts I wrote has recently been nominated for an award, so click here and vote, please.

So what does year two hold? Hopefully, I'll continue to meet new people and learn about new places. I also want to write more about what makes Barcelona, "the great enchantress," as Robert Hughes called her and less about nationalism and the economy because they're a bit tiring and depressing for me. I'm not promising, though. But first, I want to thank everybody for reading. Have a great summer!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Staying in Barcelona - Hotels

Like any city, Barcelona offers a variety of places for people coming for a short visit. For those who have been here before or are traveling as a group, holiday apartments tend to the popular way to go, but there are also plenty of hotels and hostels for first timers, couples or backpackers.

Probably the most famous is the Hotel Arts, which together with the Torre Mapfre, comprises Barcelona's version of the twin towers, but by the beach. The price for an average room is more like a month's rent, and I have to admit even if I had the money, I wouldn't stay there. It's nice and all, but it strikes me as a place for aristocratic families. Of the high end hotels, Omm located on Passeig de Gracia is popular with the younger European crowd.  In addition to these, there are also the Palace located in Les Corts a few blocks from Plaças Urquinaona, Hotel Claris on Pau Claris near Passeig de Gracia and Hotel Miramar on Tibidabo.

Barcelona budget accommodations are plentiful and there are many moderately priced hotels located throughout the city.  So many in fact, it's difficult to think of one that stands out. After price, the next important consideration I think is location. Personally, I'd avoid any of the hotels on Las Ramblas or Plaça Catalunya because of the nonstop noise and crowds. If you're looking to stay in the city center, any of the numerous ones along Via Laietana, which separates El Gotico and El Borne, would be a better option in my opinion. Again, I'd recommend asking for a room off the street. Diagonal Mar is a relatively new neighborhood on Barcelona's northern beaches with numerous hotels including the Hilton. While not far in terms of distance, it might feel remote in the winter months but less so in summer.

Finally, for those traveling alone or on a tighter budget, I'd recommend staying at a hostel. It's a great way to meet fellow travelers with whom you can enjoy Barcelona's attractions and turn the town upside down. Nowadays, hostels offer a variety of sleeping options from shared accommodations to individual rooms. At least Hello BCN hostel does.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Holland and Spain

Had a nice trip to Holland, the land of tulips, clogs and windmills. One of the many things I find interesting about the country is its historical connection to Spain and the fact it had been a Spanish colony about five hundred years ago, which based on European standards isn't very long.  I guess that's why naughty Dutch children are still threatened to be sent to Madrid at Christmas.

Anyway, perhaps this connection is the reason I've always found the Dutch the most Latin of Northern European people. They work but relax; they'll stop at traffic lights, but cross on red if there are no cars. Service is not a high priority but efficiency is. It also explains, I think, the glutteral aspect of their language and in particular the letter "g" compared to German and Flemish. But it's just a personal theory so if anyone knows the true reason, feel free to let me know.

Back to posting, but with the change of weather will see how regularly! Here some pics from Alkmaar.