A Lack of Words

<p style="margin-left: .5in;"><span style="color: black;">My name is Alexander Johnson, and I am incredibly excited about spending the summer in Barcelona studying Spanish language and culture.  There, I hope to improve my proficiency in Spanish while meeting new people, seeing the astounding architecture of the city, trying new foods, and taking unique classes.  </span></p> <p style="margin-left: .5in;"></p> <p style="margin-left: .5in;">Alexander has been funded by an Undergraduate Language Grant by the Office of Undergraduate Research.</p>

Food Time

It´s my last day in Barcelona, and that can only mean one thing:  Food Time!  That special time when, before leaving a foreign country, you go to binge eat enough of your favorite region exclusive cuisine to hold yourself over until next time.  My five must-eat specials from Barcelona are:

Patatas Bravas

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Move over French fries!  When it comes to fried potato snacks, Spain wins the game with these starchy gold nuggets of flavor.  There are several variations of this iconic dish that are served throughout Spain, but the real deal comes from Bar Tomas in the Sarriá neighborhood.  This lively, old fashioned tavern fries slices of earthy, hearty potatoes and balances their taste with sea salt.  The hot, soft spud chunks are then drenched in a generous amount of garlicky mayonnaise sauce whose strong essence adds some well placed pungency to the loaded dish.   Patatas Bravas are a necessity for any first time travelers to Spain.

Jamón Ibérico & Jamón Serrano

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The ham in Spain is simply amazing, and has been for centuries.  Free-range, grass-fed pigs from southern Spain are raised naturally to have incredibly high quality.  The meat is dried for months and then cured with the finest spices of the Iberian Peninsula.  The techniques used date back to the Roman Empire and have perfected over several generations.  While I wouldn’t say that any food from Barcelona is especially spicy or zesty, I do think that this pig meat packs a real punch.  

Xocolata

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“But I thought every country had chocolate?”  Well, go home and do your research.  There´s plain old chocolate and then there´s the amazingly rich Xocolata that only Cataluña produces.  The cows here are free range and grass fed, giving full flavored, locally produced milk that makes the chocolate in Barcelona unmatched in quality.  The chocolate can be eaten plain, used as a dip for churros, or, at the Museu de la Xocolate, made into an elaborate statue.

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You already know that I have enough in my suitcase to last until my next trip.

Fideuà

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This seafood dish really shows why the small, family owned fishing neighborhoods of Barcelona have been able to hold their own in the struggle for land against large hotel and tourism companies.  The delicious regional take on paella (that substitutes the rice for small bits of noodles) features freshly caught prawn, calamari, and mussels whose pleasantly firm texture and sweetly salty taste easily make the hardworking fisherman just as invaluable to the city as its booming hospitality industry.  If you eat seafood in an authentic restaurant in Costal Barcelona, you´ll know that the fish were caught earlier that day and handled with the utmost respect in preparation.  In Fideuá, these fish pair wonderfully with the robust and filling noodle base.

Cereal

Throwback to my earlier blog entry!  Go read it!

Orxata

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The horchata of Cataluña is commonly made from ground tiger nuts and has a flavor whose strength lives up to that wildcat name.  This chalky, smooth drink has a fiercely sweet flavor reminiscent of a cross between coconuts and adzuki beans.  Even if you´re no stranger to the rice-water variant, this one is worth its own try.

Pintxos & Tapas

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Tapas are a satisfying experience for anyone visiting Barcelona. They cover a variety of food choices including ham croquettes, mini sandwiches, calamari, and olives, and they´re usually served as sides to drinks at bars. Those who are looking for more substantial meal should go to a Basque style restaurant where larger helpings of tapas, called pinchos, are served like Hors d’oeuvres or sushi platters. My favorite has been the tortilla española, an omelet made with potatoes whose light, spongy texture and hearty flavor complement the flavors of the other tapas well. Also, it´s great to have an egg dish every once in a while considering that Spaniards don´t eat eggs for breakfast often (Seriously, go read the cereal post if you haven´t already).

Fast Food

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While going out and trying new foods is great, it´s nice to give your pallet a break every now and again with the familiar flavors of home. I’ve seen Starbucks, McDonalds, Burger Kings, Dunkin Donuts, and Kentucky Fried Chicken all within walking distance of the Plaza de Cataluña, and they all seem to have one thing in common: The European branches are better than the American ones. I´ll miss being able to walk into an upscale McDonalds and being able to order a burger on freshly baked artisan break with fries that aren’t overly greasy.

This is the part where I´ve made myself really hungry and will proceed to go buy all of these foods one last time… for now.

The Church on the Mountain

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                I´m a little disappointed by the church on the mountain.  The Temple Expiatori del Sagrat Cor itself is a beautiful architectural masterpiece, but it ended up falling short of my expectations, or rather, I set my expectations too high.  The church sits at the peak of Mount Tibidabo, watching over all of Barcelona like a sentry.  In turn, I´ve looked up to the church for the last four weeks, admiring its image and using it like the North Star to figure out in which direction our host´s house lies after my phone inevitably dies from a long day of taking pictures of the city.  In my mind, it was a far-off, unmovable symbol of beauty and adventure, as magnificent and unreachable as a rainbow. 

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              Actually going there, however, shattered that image.  The church´s beauty is by all means on par with that of nature, but it is just a tangible and imperfect building nonetheless.  Faraway places can seem more interesting in one´s imagination.  People often associate their hopes and dreams with places to which they haven´t yet been and tasks that they haven´t yet completed.  So, actually getting there may not be the culmination of success and life ambitions that one has always dreamed about, but it can be an excellent starting point.  It´s nearing the end of our study abroad program, and my respect and awe for the city of Barcelona have never been greater.  I came here with expectations of eating tapas, taking siestas, going to fiestas, and experiencing all of the other stereotypical customs of northern Spain.  Some of those expectations were shattered after arriving and living here, but I now have very real images of incredible architecture, uniquely delicious food, and wonderful people that will serve as inspirations for all of my future endeavors. 

From the top of Mount Tibidabo, one can look south to see all of Barcelona stretched out before him.  The green hills seamlessly fall into skyscrapers which surrender to the expansiveness of the Mediterranean Sea.  It´s hard to believe that the enormous city in which all of the class excursions, all the times I´d gotten hopelessly lost in the city, all of the trips to the beach, and all of our study abroad adventures took place could be captured in one small picture.    On the other side of the mountain is an experience for another time.  One can look out for miles on end to see the Catalan Coastal Range fade into the flat planes of the rest of Spain and France.  

 

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End of Class

Now that the IES Spanish class is over, I don’t think I’ll be waking up early again for the rest of my study abroad trip.  I’m almost sad about it, since there are quite a few sights in Barcelona that are exclusive to early risers, but my circadian rhythm simply won’t allow me to get out of bed before eleven unless my GPA is at stake.  I’ll miss walking to class in the morning, though:  I’ll miss seeing squadrons of suit-wearing businessmen blaze past me on their motorcycles whole commuting to work.  I’ll miss seeing the sun in the east cast a flower-shaped projectection of the old church’s stain glass façade onto the Rambla de Cataluña.  I’ll miss being the first one to smell the sweet scent of freshly baked coca de crema or to taste the salt in the air as the truck’s return to the restaurants with newly caught fish.  I’ll miss accidently passing the avenue that I’m supposed to right on because I got too caught up in trying to trying to figure out the meanings Catalan words like “forn,” “caixa,” “vuit,” and “rebaixes” that appear in all of store fronts.  I’ll miss walking into the IES building and getting off on the wrong floor because I keep forgetting that the entresuelo is technically not the same as the first floor.

I’ll miss going to class, too.  Laura greeted us every day with a warm smile, neatly sorting the day’s class handouts.  She taught us everything from colloquial Spanish idioms to writing formal letters in Spanish, and then she taught us more.  I’ll miss trying to keep up with the heritage speakers during class discussions.  I couldn’t form sentences or conjugate verbs as fast as they could, but I learned a lot from listening to them and even managed to convince them in Spanish that a mirror would be more useful that a book of matches if we were to be stranded on a deserted island.  I’ll miss the class excursions to the different barrios of Barcelona.  A history lesson is more poignant when it’s taught next to an ancient roman aqueduct and a culture lesson is more fun when the corresponding homework involves looking going to a storehouse for parade costumes and a garden for orphaned cats.  A Spanish class is more gratifying when, every day, you can go home and practice the grammar you just learned with your host mom.  I’ll miss those moments most.

Cereal Culture

I think that the biggest culture shock that I’ve received in Barcelona so far came while I was walking through aisle four of a local grocery store. You see, in college, I’ve grown accustomed to taking an almost daily cereal break between classes. Just because 3:00pm is too late for lunch and too early for dinner doesn’t mean that I won’t go to the dining hall and destress with a bowl of Life cereal while contemplating how important it is that I show up to my next class. Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of Life cereal; I feel that Life would be a lot better if it were richer and had a more full flavor, but it’s really started to grow on me. So, recently I started to miss the Life that I had gotten so used to enjoying back home and went to the local super store chain, El Corte Inglés, to try to pick up a box. However, when I arrived, I was profoundly disappointed to discover that they had no Life.
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The diversity in the cereal selection in Spain seems lacking at best. Since Spaniards don’t typically eat pancakes or eggs for breakfast, I figured that they would have a larger market for different types of cereal to keep their more limited breakfast options from getting stale, but this was not the case. Most of the cereals available in the grocery store are just minor variations of corn flakes and Rice Krispies. For example, there are standard corn flakes, there are chocolate corn flakes, there are corn flakes with bits of fruit, and there are chocolate corn flakes with bits of fruit. I didn’t see any fun, rainbow dyed cereals, anything cereals containing marshmallows, or anything even remotely resembling a Cheerio.
At first, I was pretty disturbed by the overwhelming homogeny of the colors and shapes of the cereal population in Spain. I found it strange, since the other sections of the grocery store were filled to the brim with amazing selections. As far as I could tell, Spain has astoundingly large assortments of fruit, an incredible bounty of seafood, an uncountable number of wines and cheeses, and every kind of cracker imaginable. The cereal section, however, offered much less variety.
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Really, this variety pack only contains two types of corn flakes and two types of puffed chocolate rice.

I got curious and asked a few natives what they thought of the cereal lack of diversity in Spain. Some of them said that they had never really noticed before, since they rarely eat breakfast. Others said that they didn’t see any problems with it. They told me that when paired with a croissant or an English muffin, a Spanish breakfast really comes together to offer a satisfying flavor. While I don’t disagree with this claim, I would personally rather sick with my Life than adjust to this aspect of Spanish culture.

Fountains

We have a midterm tomorrow, so I’ve spent a lot of this weekend studying Spanish grammar.  It’s made me think that describing the recent past in any romantic language could become exceedingly difficult.  Without enough distance from a past event, it’s hard to have enough perspective to choose the verb form that best conveys the meaning.  One might not always know the answers to the key questions used to pick a verb form:  Is the event still ongoing or is it over completely?  How does it affect the present and future?  Is this a fact or is it just a hypothesis?

For example, if I want to write about the water fountains in Barcelona,

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there are multiple options:

 

Nosotros ________________ de las fuentes públicas en Barcelona.

  1. a. Bebemos
  2. b. Hemos bebido
  3. c. Bebíamos

 

  1. a. We drank from the public fountains in Barcelona.

 

This structure implies that this action is completely in the past and is not ongoing.  Since the water was warm and didn’t taste particularly clean, it certainly won’t be.  I am, however, impressed by the sheer number of public drinking fountains in Barcelona.  I’ve seen at least one on every major street and at every plaza to which I’ve been.  For some reason, I’ve really start to appreciate them since the recent trip I took to Monte Carlo to visit a friend.  To the best of my knowledge, the country of Monaco is devoid of public facilities such as drinking fountains, bathrooms, and libraries as sort of a nationwide deterrent to keeping less than affluent visitors who can’t afford the expensive hotel rooms from overstaying their welcome.  The people of Barcelona, in contrast, receive foreigners very welcomingly.  They will give you directions if you ask them and many speak English.  In addition, the city is laid out such that most popular areas have public restrooms, a tourism information desk, and, again, a public drinking fountain.

 

  1. a. We have drunk from the public fountains in Barcelona.

This structure puts more emphasis in having gained the experience than having completed the action.  The experience itself may be more important in this case, since the public fountain, La Font de Cantaletes, is a notable historical sight in Barcelona.  The FCBarcelona football team used to meet fans there to celebrate after winning games, and fans still gather there after big matches.  It’s said that if one drinks the water from that fountain, he will inevitably return to Barcelona one day.  Many of the fountains located around the city are replicas of that fountain which itself is a replica of an older one.

 

  1. c. We drank from the public fountains in Barcelona.

This sentence is similar that of a, but this one does not imply that the action has stopped.  Using the imperfect implies that we may still be going to drink from the public fountains of the city.  Also, I haven’t been able to get a consensus on whether or not the water from those fountains is actually safe to drink.  It seems to be a highly contested issue among the citizens to whom I’ve talked with about it.

This form does have one more use.  It’s equivalent to the conditional:

Si bebieras la agua de las fuentes públicas, sin duda volverías (o volvía) a Barcelona.

I don’t know which if these is most accurate, so needless to say, I’ll need to review the differences more for my midterm.

Focus

In the one week that I’ve been in Barcelona, I’ve already managed to get lost several times.  It always goes the same way:  I search for the directions to a popular tourist site on google maps and start walking in that direction.

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Then in the distance, I spot an architectural masterpiece casually blending in with the surrounding buildings.

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Is that a church or a government building?  I should at least get close enough to read the name so that I can ask my host about it later.  Well, since I’m already this close, I might as well go have a look inside.

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Okay, that was fun, but I guess I’ll be going back to my original destination now.  Was I walking on this street or that one?  Then in the distance, I spot another strange building.

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I should go check it out.

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It’s a dichromatic pillar of windows and scaffolding penetrating the ground.  Cool, that was really interesting, but I guess I’ll be back on my way n… Is that a pool?  I’ll go have a look.

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Okay, now I’ll definitely go back to the main road.  I look around.  I don’t recognize any of the streets in the area.  There is a large public park where people are setting off fire crackers to celebrate the start of the summer, though.  I’ll go have a look.

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By this point, I’ll have no idea how to get back to where I had originally planned to go or even how to get back to my host’s apartment.  The maps of the bus routes posted around the city are written in Catalán and my phone doesn’t get internet access here, so they’re not much help.  Luckily, the people of the city are incredibly helpful.  They’ll listen empathetically to my broken Castilian when I ask for directions and point me towards the Avenida Diagonal, the long road that runs through Barcelona, bisecting it into a lower and an upper triangle.  If I just follow it, I’ll be able to get back to my host’s… is that a Dunkin’ Donuts?

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On two such occasions, I gave up trying to navigate and called a taxi to take me back.  Another time, I happened to run into some other students from the same study abroad program and rode the metro back with them.  Most recently, I did manage to find my way back alone, albeit I ended up arriving half an hour late to dinner.  At the very least, I think that I’ve gotten quite a few opportunities to practice my Spanish in asking passersby for help.

That Look

People keep giving me that look when I tell them that I’m going to Barcelona for six weeks to take a class in Spanish conversation.  It’s that look of skepticism and confusion, sometimes even with a little bit of disgust mixed in, that people show when they see or hear something completely unexpected.  You see, I’m extremely introverted.  I often ignore people or pretend that I’m too busy to talk in order to avoid having conversations.  Even when I’m pressed into speaking with someone, I’ll keep my sentences brief and simple to avoid showing him the awkwardness of my sparsely-used spoken English.  So, you can imagine the shock visible on my acquaintances faces when I tell them that, for half of the summer, I’ll be graded on oral proficiency in a language that I haven’t even mastered.  Their brows furrow and their eyes tighten, as though they’re attempting to peer into my brain and search for a logical reason for why I would choose to spend my time and money on a study abroad program whose structure is inherently disadvantageous to someone with my personality.  They give me that look (I tried to imitate it below) because they think that I’ll be too reticent to better my speaking in Spain.

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I don’t really mind that look, though.  People gave me that look when, during my senior year in high school, I told them that I would be studying engineering despite being much more proficient in Spanish than in Calculus or Physics.  People gave me that look when, during my freshman year of college, I told them that I would be pursuing minors in Spanish and Japanese despite having no experience in the latter and an already full course load in engineering.  Now, when I see that look, I just see an opportunity to exceed people’s expectations and grow as a person.  I’m really looking forward to blowing people away with my spoken Spanish upon coming back.

As for the reason for why I would choose a program like this, I think that it’s because I’m an introvert.  I’m really jealous of people who have a way with words and people who can easily speak eloquently and freely.  Maybe being unable to do so has given me a better appreciation for the art of conversation and an exaggerated desire to learn it.  So, the number one thing I hope to gain from being abroad is the ability to talk to people a little more easily, even if it’s only in Spanish.  I leave in two days, and I haven’t started packing, so I should also learn to be more proactive.  One goal at a time, I guess.