Sunday, May 31, 2009

roland garros by k

don't worry, i don't have any photos of tennis players being bludgeoned with rackets or gored by tennis balls. just a tale of a trip to paris to attend one of the four major tennis tournaments in the world.

to hear barak describe it, i am a major tennis fan. before going to paris, i would have described myself as a minor tennis fan. after seeing the true fans, i would describe myself as a minor minor minor fan.

i grew up playing tennis until i hit the teenage years when i switched to team sports like soccer and softball (much to my parents' chagrin!). both of my parents played tennis their whole lives, and yes, i do sometimes enjoy watching a major tournament on television. i watched bjorn borg, chris everet, john mc enroe, steffi graf and more in their heydey. i still know more or less who is at the top, and i've always said that if i could go to one of the grand slam tournaments, i would probably choose the french open.

a few weeks after my birthday, barak announced that he had bought me a ticket to the french open, or roland garros for those in the know, for my birthday. i wasn't sure i would be able to go because i knew the dates were close to when i would start to teach a survival spanish class to foreign law students here. once i found out that my class started the day after my ticket for the french open, i was still on the fence about whether i wanted to go alone to paris. but barak encouraged me to go for it, and in the end i went.

i arrived in paris on monday afternoon after a three hour flight delay. it was boiling hot in paris and i was starving. i went to a sidewalk cafe in st germain and had a big salad and a glass of wine, and watched people go by. from there i walked to the small hotel a friend had recommended. i checked in and brought my few things up to my room. very very strange to be alone in a hotel room. can't remember the last time that happened. it was nice, but also kind of lonely. wait, actually it was great being in the hotel room alone, but it would have been more fun to have someone to walk around with and have dinner with.

i headed out again and walked and walked for quite a while. i decided i wasn't going to venture out to dinner alone, so i went to a supermarket and got some yogurt and juice and headed back to the hotel around 8. i didn't have a spoon, so eating my yogurt dinner was less than graceful and i'm sure would have made any self-respecting french citizen shudder in horror, but they didn't have to watch me!

i took a shower and then climbed in bed with a french novel translated into english. it's called "the elegance of the hedgehog" and was apparently a huge hit in france a few years ago. i read for a while and then fell asleep.

i woke to the sounds of paris getting going, but dozed until nearly 9. it was nice to be able to do that. the forecast had been for rain all day on tuesday, but it didn't look so bad when i looked out the window. it was a lot cooler, but it wasn't raining or dark in that "it's definitely going to rain" way. i was hopeful about seeing some tennis!

i checked out of the hotel. my room was prepaid, but i had to pay the local tax. one euro! not sure what the point of that was or whether it was local paris tax or a local district tax or what, but i thought it was kind of funny to pay one euro.

i went down the street and sat outside at a local bistro and had the petit dejeuner creme, orange juice, tartine (baguette with butter) and a croissant. lots of white flour and butter, but it was good!

the day before i had figured out where i needed to catch the metro to head out to roland garros, so i headed that way. the first match of the day was at 11 and it was about 10:15 by now. i figured food at the tournament would be outrageous, so i went to a supermarket to pick up a few snacks for myself. and that's when i saw it...lots of big stalks of perfect rhubarb! my mom and karen keep telling me about all the great rhubarb tarts they're making this spring and i have yet to see it in spain, so against my better judgment, i bought a big fat bunch of rhubarb to bring home! that and some crackers, a couple pink lady apples and little bag of pistachios. i couldn't squeeze the rhubarb all the way in my backpack and got many strange looks on the metro at the reddish stalks poking out of my bag.

i had checked a map and was pretty sure i would be able to find roland garros when i got off the metro. but there was no need for worry. by the time i got to the station, the train was full of people going to the tournament, so i just had to follow the sea of spectators out of the metro and down the road. i was surprised by the sheer quantity of people.

i waited in the e-ticket line...the longest one. i felt a few drops of rain, but the sky still looked pretty open. i used the time in line to reshuffle things in my backpack and after a while i managed to get the rhubarb all the way in and zip my backpack closed! after about half an hour i made it to the front, showed my passport and got my official ticket. then i had to open my backpack for someone to search it and again i got a funny look when the rhubarb jumped out. i just smiled and moved on.

i slowly made my way to court was super crowded in "the village." i found stairway 9 and went up and showed my ticket. i could hear the players hitting the ball and the referee giving the score. it was strange to realize that i was really at the french open. i had to wait a few minutes for a game to finish before i could go in and sit down. 40-15...almost there. and then it started pouring! not just raining, but pouring! and spectators started streaming out of the stadium. so close...

i spent the next hour and a half wondering what to do. roland garros is really not set up for rain, unless of course you are a v.i.p. at first i thought i'd go to one of the shops they have set up there, but of course everyone else had the same idea so it was a total zoo and virtually impossible to get to the front door. people were lined up under any open eave they could find. suddenly there were lots of roland garros umbrellas everywhere. fortunately, i had an umbrella, so when i wasn't wandering around, i mostly stood under a tree under my umbrella. the tree broke the rain umbrella did the rest.

this would have all been fine and pleasant if i could have sat down and sipped a cafe au lait, but standing under an umbrella alone for a long time gets very old. every time the sky lightened a little bit, the rain came back. i decided that if it didn't clear up by 1:00, i would leave. it was frustrating to have gotten so close, but i figured it would at least be a good story. yes, i went to the french open. didn't see any tennis, but i was there!

finally, as i was psyching myself up to leave, the rain stopped. i found my seat and watched the grounds people get the court ready for play. more and more people came into the stadium and cheered for the workers. then the ball boys and girls game out, then the referee and finally the players. i had heard of one of them, del potro. later i read he's from argentina and is ranked number 5 at the tournament. didn't know his opponent. there were germans to my right, dutch (or maybe belgians) behind me, french to my left, british in front of me. this really is an international event. i was surprised how many people from all over were there. and those, i think, are the real fans. not all of them. some are probably casual observers, like me, but some seemed hard core.

finally, the match resumed. it was fun to see the play from so close, but i have to admit that it all seemed very slow too. maybe this was because i was cold, maybe it was because i didn't have anyone to whisper with, but i think it also may be that i'm used to watching tennis on tivo. skipping all the changeovers, even speeding up the action between points. not possible when you're there!

when the rain started about 40 minutes later, i left. my fingers were numb and i decided i couldn't bear to wait around the rest of the afternoon. so my rhubarb and i headed back to the metro and went back to st germaine, where i found a movie theater i had seen the day before. what i really needed was food and sitting and being warm. so i ate and then went to a movie. it was perfect.

when the movie was over, there was some blue sky. but still i knew i had made the right decision to leave roland garros. and i was happy i wouldn't be taking off in a rain storm. it was time to get on the train and head to the airport. there was another slightly complicated train situation. had to take one train to the gare du nord, but when i looked for the other it said it was leaving from another track because of who knows what "social action". i did not want a repeat from my last trip with arel when we missed our flight, but in the end i figured it out, got to the right place and made it to the airport. and then i found out my 9:25 p.m. flight was delayed...i could only laugh. it was not the trip of my dreams, but it was what it was and i made it back in one piece...that's what's important.

on a sad note, my cousin in munich died yesterday. the disease progressed much faster than expected. she was 48.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

picking up the pace - by b

visiting IESE
Originally uploaded by bkassar
i have been increasing the pace of my networking. i'm enjoying it. this is from the other day ... walking around one of the business schools here (IESE). on tuesday i go to london for a series of meetings.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Tossa - by b

A couple of weekends ago Dorian, Kristin and I went with Kristin's friend Anna Sola to Tossa de Mar. Tossa is about an hour north of Barcelona. Anna's family has a little place there in the old town. She has nine brothers and sisters and a mother... and they share access to it.  Here are some photos. None of Arelli.. he was at his friend's birthday party ... actually not that far away from where were.

underbull - by b

A long time ago... several summers... I went off alone to a bullfight in a town we were visiting for summer. Arel knew I was going and was incredibly upset. I was curious and oddly compelled to go. I didn't like it that much and I stayed only to see the first bull killed (though lately I have been having the desire to go again... maybe I will). 

Anyway... what got me most about the fight I saw was just how unfair a fight it was. It was not strong bull against strong man. It was strong man against once-strong bull subdued, hurt and disoriented by several rounds of men on horses with lances. The bull is always the underdog. And the bull almost always dies.

Very very very occasionally it goes the way you don't expect. And maybe that's why people watch this sport (kind of like watching NASCAR for the crashes that are the exception... but the very dramatic and emotional/adrenaline exception).

I don't follow bullfighting... but I couldn't not see this photo when I was looking at a local newspaper website on Wednesday. This is 30-year old bullfighter Israel Lancho. He was carried to the bullring surgery and is now in critical condition in a Madrid hospital. He is expected to survive... the horn just missed his heart. I don't know what happened to the bull. 

the party continues by k

i still need to write about my quick trip to paris and the french open, but first i just had to write about the post victory barca celebration yesterday. i'm teaching a "survival spanish" class to foreign law students here for the next three weeks and last night there was a gathering at a bar near the port. as i left there, i came face to face with thousands upon thousands (official estimates of 750K to 1 million) barca fans lining the streets for the official arrival of the team back to barcelona.

as i was about to go down to the metro, the crowd got even louder and there it was, the open bus with the team. i had to stop and watch for a few minutes, and i couldn't stop from smiling. so much happiness around me. kind of crazy, i know. in fact, totally ludicrous, but a happy occasion. as the bus passed, people starting running to follow it. hilarious. not so hilarious when i went down to the metro with part of the crowd, all sweaty and chanting at the top of their lungs.

i wondered whether they would come out for something more serious...a protest, say. and i have to say, yes, they do come out for that stuff too. barcelona had one of the biggest anti-iraq war marches in the world. probably not the exact same crowd, but a lot of overlap. more overlap than i think there would be in the u.s. (my eurovision again fooling me? i don't think so!)

anyway, lots and lots of people are happy here. in a good mood for a change, and that is nice.

off to class.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

big night for barcelona by k

it's 11:07 and the air is full of honking horns, shrieks and firecrackers. barcelona just won (well, half an hour ago) the champions league...a huge deal here. arel went to a friend's house to watch the game, and most likely ended up in the pool when the game was over. he and his friends all said they would jump in the pool if barcelona won. i just hope he gets to sleep before 2 in the morning! it's a school night after all.

after my last post about soccer and how i said it was kind of cool how the whole city came alive, my sister, karen, accused me of being a euro-snob. she pointed out how the superbowl arouses similar enthusiasm, it's just that i'm not into that kind of football. i guess there's some truth to it, but i still think it feels different here. maybe i am simply blinded by my eurovision...i'm willing to consider that.

now i'd love to go to sleep if these people could all just quiet down!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

futbol fever by k

last night barcelona's soccer team was playing in the semifinals of the champion's league tournament...a very big deal in europe. arel was at a friend's house watching the game. barak was on a work call and dorian and i were hanging out. i thought about watching part of it, but you have to have special paid channels, which we don't. so, i decided to follow the game casually online....i'd glance every now and then to see what was happening.

chelsea (british team, for non-futbol people out there) scored early. at half-time it was still 1-0. in the second half one of barcelona's players got a red card and was ejected from the game, meaning barcelona was playing with fewer men. i was trying to get dorian to sleep and the game was nearing the 90th minute...i figured it was the end of barca's run. and then i heard shouting all around me...upstairs, outside, horns, but on my computer it still said 1-0. by this point barak was done with his call, but he didn't hear the sudden uproar because he was brushing his teeth. i was confused....had they scored or not? and then barcelona's 0 started to flash in red on my screen and turned to a 1. the score was now 1-1 and the game was almost over. when the referee blew the final whistle, barcelona erupted again. i read this morning that approximately 100,000 people gathered on the ramblas to celebrate. even though it was a tie, barcelona will go on to the finals of tournament in rome at the end of may.

why am i writing this? i think because it was a moment of realization...all of barcelona (of course not ALL, but you know what i mean) was watching together and then celebrating together. it was cool to be sitting on my bed, looking out over the whole city and then hear this collective expression of joy.

right now i'm curious how arel feels (he spent the night at a friend's). his favorite team is still bayern munich and he's still mad that barcelona beat bayern in the quarterfinals of this tournament, but i'm hoping he's happy to enjoy the celebration.

dorian was rooting for chelsea because it's closer to san francisco, where he wants to go NOW!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

wild flowers and asparagus by k

i remember some time in february, i think, writing a blog post about the first signs of spring. the buds, the little flowers popping up. i was so happy to see them. it makes me laugh now because that was nothing! the whole of tibidabo is now bursting with wildflowers and new ones keep popping up. recently a whole group of lilac-colored icelandic poppies (one of my absolute favorite flowers) came up at the base of the path near school....they are spectacular!

we have also in the past couple of months seen people "off-roading" it to pick wild asparagus up on the mountain. i finally asked someone yesterday how to find it. he showed me how, but said the season is almost over. maybe i'll try to find it next year when it's more plentiful again. but there is still some out there.

today on my way home after dropping arel and dorian, i saw a very funny thing. at the top of the hill above school, just where the path starts and the icelandic poppies are growing, there was a truck pumping water or cleaning something or other. i saw that and then noticed a couple figures in blue overalls (the ubiquitous spanish work uniform) walking around on the hillside amongst the trees and bushes. i thought, what could they possibly be doing down there while the truck is pumping away, and then i noticed one of them with a fistful of asparagus!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Sant Jordi- by b

Sant Jordi (Saint George for you Brit-o-philes) is an important holiday in Catalunia... it celebrates the defeat of an evil dragon by Jordi--- and of course the saving of a damsel in distress. It happened a couple of weeks ago (the holiday, not the mythical defeat of the actual dragon). Guys give women roses and women give men books. A bit sexist, no? Anyway... there is also singing and dancing and food. Here is Arel's class dancing at the Sant Jordi event at school. I don't really get the camera settled until about 30 seconds in (sorry). Plus, finding Arel is a bit like finding Waldo. His back is to the camera. But I like this little clip regardless. The dance (it's about courtship) is cute -- and innocent somehow. This innocence is one of the things I like about being here.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

nos quedamos by k

to some of you this is not news. to others it is. we're staying another year! there, i said it. it's real. it has been real for a few weeks, but this makes it really real.

we're just not quite ready to go back yet. it would be easier in so many ways, but since we've taken the leap, it feels right to soak it in for a little while longer. even though i think we had a relatively easy transition in our move here, it is still only in the past couple months that we have been feeling more at home, more connected and more able to enjoy things in a real way. going back now would mean leaving that all behind. it would be like spending the day cooking a really great meal and then leaving after eating only the appetizers! i want the main course and dessert too!

we will still go back to san francisco this summer (and san diego)...mid-july to the end of august! of course, that may make coming back here harder since we'll be reminded of what's great about home...more than anything, the people! i'll admit, i'm also looking forward to the food. for the most part we've made our peace with the food situation here, but i still really miss the variety and quality from home. ah, for a mission burrito, fish tacos in san diego, ceviche from limon, thai food at regent thai on church street, curry at pomelo, sandwiches at hazel's, mu shu at eric's...the list goes on and on and now my mouth is watering!

the list of people we want to see this summer is even longer...i hope lots of you will be around for hanging out!

Getaway Car - by b

In a couple of hours I will head down to Hertz and return our little Peugeot. It's been ok to have it over the week... it made a few things marginally easier, emphasis on marginally. But it was great! to have it to go away for one night this weekend.

There was no school on Friday for May Day. A serious holiday here. So we had a plan to head somewhere over Friday night. A couple of people had suggested the delta of the Ebre river about two hours south of Barcelona ... on the coast.

On Thursday forecasters were calling for a gloomy day. Rain. On top of economic gloom. May Day might be called "mayday! mayday!" here.... times are bad for many workers.... Spain has the highest unemployment rate in the EU... and twice that of the US. These numbers are falling off "good" times spurred by wild real estate growth. And, according to this article in the Christian Science Monitor, the country is not yet taking hard steps to restructure its economy for other industries and jobs --- with perhaps a few more meaningful calories.

I was feeling it too. Even though my business is not focused on Spain all the news does kind of seep into my bones sometimes. And last week was one of those times. So far we've actually, surprisingly somehow, seen significant growth at work. But I'm always paranoid and scared. So i've been trying to turn that paranoia to good... and have embarked on a big business development push to try ride some of the momentum we do have right now and get stronger...

All of which is stressful and tiring and kind of psychologically nonstop

It was definitely time for a getaway for me. And to leave the computer behind in Barcelona.

And the sun came out. Which helped a lot too.

We tossed some basics into the back of the car and were off. The car is a little nostalgic for me since the car my dad had when I was growing up was a Peugeot. The logo, a lion, brings back a lot of memories for me.

In fact... this is the car my dad had in South Africa.. a white 404.

photo by Walter Watzpatzkowski

Here's our (for a week.. in fact for one hour now.. I really have to take it down the hill) smaller, more modern version. The 207. It's smaller than the vegetation in the delta.

The delta is where the river Ebre meets the sea. It is, Kristin told us, the second largest wetland in Europe. I really liked driving through it. It's flat and filled with rice paddies. Driving was tricky as roads were narrow, changed suddenly, and were surrounded by water. It was a bit of a lunar landscape.

Here are some more pictures:

The boys running around in a rice paddy

navigators socks

Sand crust contest... who can get the biggest piece

We went to sleep pretty early in the hotel... and then I woke up pretty early to read

Everyone else got up late.. like at 10:00. We ate a tasty breakfast in the hotel and then off...

The boat that will take us across the Ebre

On the boat... called the Transbordador

Bike riding

Mas bike riding


Orange peeling

And then homeward bound. But not before finding a 10-year-old girl who was lost after becoming separated from her group on their bikeride. We stuck with her until her dad showed up. We drove directly from where we were to the highway (autopista) and didn't have to cross the river on a boat again. We could cross via bridge. It was an easy and pleasant ride home. A great couple days away.