Hivern à Barcelona

It’s the heart of winter in Barcelona.

People walk the streets with a sort of cold, brisk pace layered in sweaters, jackets, and scarves. There are no leaves on many of the trees, and the only flowers left are the hardier ones planted by the city that can survive the lower temperatures. Oranges line some of the streets by Port Vell (the old port). Coffee shops are full of people ordering carajillos (espresso with cognac), and meals consist of the more comforting items of the Catalan menu. Escudella (stew), canalones, soup, or calçots with romesco sauce. Everyone has the same dry cough and has become more discouraged to go out to the bars or clubs favoring to stay inside, relax, and stay warm.

I’ve had my heat on for a week straight at all times that I’m home. My blankets have become less about comfort and more about necessity. I even went out and bought some teas today to warm up after classes.

This morning I braved the cold and the wind to walk to the Museu d’Història de Catalunya and spent several hours in the heated facility exploring the 4 floors of exhibits. The most interesting exhibit was a temporary photography exhibit that displayed photos from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s by famous Catalan excursionists from their many travels around the world. (Some of the photos can be viewed here but the information is in Catalan).

After a few hours in the museum, I challenged the weather even further and sat on the beach and read for a while. It was nice to have the beach to myself and have the background of the waves while I read. I noticed that far away you could see the snow covering the top of the Pyrenees and thought of the mountains back home, shivered, and looked back at the sun and the Mediterranean. I didn’t stay long because of the wind blowing the sand everywhere. Even as I type this I am still scratching sand from my hair.

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Here’s a close up on the mountain with snow:

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You may think that I am being sarcastic, or even mocking you all especially considering the temperatures you are enduring today. But I assure you that the low last night was 2 degrees, and even with the sun today we only managed to reach 12 degrees. No, I am not mocking you; I am empathizing with you.

Oh, and here’s another way to know it’s winter: Bunyols

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Welcome Back Gift

The two weeks before Winter break I spent studying International Business Law for at least 6 hours a day. I knew that to pass the exam I would have a slim chance. I talked to my advisor and she said that once I get a certain number of credits, I could start working ahead by taking some of next years’ classes this year. If I were to fail International Business Law, not only would I not be able to work ahead, but also I would have to repeat the class next year. So I studied, I made vocabulary lists, I reread; I ate, slept, and breathed International Business Law (in Spanish).

Exams here are a much bigger deal than they are at most American universities. The exams usually count for at least 50% of your grade. The entire class takes the exam at the same time in the auditorium, spaced every other seat and in alphabetical order. We can’t have backpacks, cell phones, any electronic devices, books, nothing but pens and ourselves.

I was the first in the class to finish. When I handed in the test my professor asked me if it went okay even without the Spanish-English dictionary he said that I could bring. I answered I hope so, and left as quick as I could to calm down with the usual coffee and chocolate croissant while I waited for my friends to finish. It felt as though it went well. I knew I hadn’t excelled, but I was confident that I had at least passed.

The rest of my exams went well, and even felt easy. I celebrated my last night in Barcelona and headed home to be with family for the holidays. Grades were to be posted on the 21st of December (with the time change I would get to see them on the 20th). I waited a couple days out of nervousness. To pass I needed a 5. It was all I hoped for, a 5. This was not a class for me to go for the best grade in the class, if I barely passed I would be extremely proud for successfully completing not only a complicated law class, but one taught in another language.

I got a 4.3.

Within a few minutes of seeing my grade I was already in the car on the way to Staples to buy a notebook to start studying again. I had saved a study guide on Google and so I spent many hours during break reviewing so that I would be ready for the make-up exam. Luckily, we are given one extra chance.

I got back to Barcelona on Sunday afternoon, and in class on Monday my friends asked me how my break was. I answered that although it was great to see my family and friends back home, it was a shame to have to study. They couldn’t believe that I had actually failed. So one of my friends took out her computer to have a look. She told me that it’s possible to fail the exam (but no lower than a 4) and still pass the class if the overall grade averages out to be a 5 or higher. The page loaded and there it was:

A 5.1: Aprovat (Passed).

I studied for nothing during break. I reviewed for hours while I could have spent more time with family, friends, or resting. But to not have to take the exam I thought I would, is worth the lost time. Welcome back to Barcelona.

Vanilla Saffron Cookies

I generally have a get together with a small group of friends at my apartment once a week. I invite them over for dinner, for a movie, to just hang out, or in the case of this week, for dessert.

I finally bought some of the kitchen supplies I needed to start baking and I wanted to celebrate. I have been here for over two months talking about my job in the bakery back home I wanted to prove to them what I was saying. I wanted to demonstrate that I wasn’t just all talk.

I looked through my recipes, both in books and online, for something simple, but delicious. I didn’t have much time to bake, and I don’t have many supplies. I found a recipe for Vanilla Peanut Butter Chip Cookies and switched around the ingredients based on what I like and what is actually available here.

As you all know from my last post, it seems to be difficult to find what you need if you have a specific idea.  If I were to try to find peanut butter chips, it would probably be fastest to just book a flight home, go to Shaw’s, and bring them back here. And even if I just needed peanut butter, it might take a few hours of searching and a full pocket of coins.

Another recipe that interested me was one for Vanilla Saffron Snickerdoodles. I knew I wanted vanilla and saffron, as that combination intrigued me, but I didn’t want to loose the chips. There’s something satisfying about having chips in a cookie. So I went for a more neutral white chocolate chip.

I was hoping to post photos, but the cookies did not last long enough to get out my camera. So here is my successful recipe for:

Vanilla Saffron Cookies with White Chocolate Chips

Adapted slightly from Averie Cooks

Makes about 2 dozen small-to-medium sized cookies (I made 22 cookies)

1/2 cup Crisco (or vegetable shortening) – I used butter (shortening makes the cookies puff up more, butter makes it richer)

1/2 cup white sugar

1/4 cup light brown sugar, packed

1 large egg

1 tablespoon water

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/8 teaspoon ground saffron threads

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 cup white chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 375F and line two cookie sheets with Silpat liners, parchment paper, or spray with cooking spray. In a large mixing bowl, beat together Crisco (or butter) , sugars, egg, water, and vanilla, until batter is creamy. Add the saffron, salt, baking soda, flour and mix until just combined. Fold in white chocolate chips by hand. Cover and refrigerate dough for 30 minutes. Do not skip chilling the dough if you want puffy cookies because cold dough results in puffier cookies.

Using a cookie scoop, form 1 inch balls (or roll balls by hand) and place on prepared cookie sheets, allowing for adequate spacing (these cookies do not spread much, but like all cookies, they spread some; and the colder the dough, the less they will spread). Bake for 8-10 minutes or until barely brown. Remove cookies from oven when they look slightly under-baked and allow cookies to cool and firm up on cookie sheets for at least 5 minutes before moving to cooling racks. Store cookies in an airtight container on the countertop or freeze for up to 3 months.

Prague in Listopad (November, or literally, falling leaves)

A few weeks ago I encountered culture shock. It hasn’t really cooled down in Barcelona too much, but I was craving fall flavors just the same. I decided to make a butternut squash and sage risotto for me and some friends for a small dinner party, but was overwhelmed with the project of grocery shopping. I went to the Santa Caterina market in my neighborhood which is famous for its fresh produce and I found that it had closed early and would not reopen in the afternoon. I then decided that I could find most of the ingredients at one of the large supermarkets, but found that it too was closed for the siesta. More frustrated, I went to another store and they did not have the Arborio rice I needed, butternut squash, nor sage. I settled on rosemary, pumpkin, and I used the Spanish rice that I already had at home. By the time I got home, I was so frustrated with the market schedule, the custom of having a siesta, not being able to find ingredients that I know are in season, and just speaking Spanish in general. I was upset for a few days, and only spoke English to my friends. I missed home, I missed Whole Foods, and I missed the ease of communicating in English.

It was not until I got to Prague that I was seriously homesick. The plane landed on a runway in a large field outside of the city that was lined with trees with the same New England fall foliage. When I got off the plane and was waiting for the bus I was forced to bundle up from the cold, and it hit me that I was not home for my favorite season in Maine. I craved more than ever the fall comfort food that I usually enjoyed at home.

My friend warned me that neither Prague nor the rest of the Czech Republic was well known for its food, and I expected mediocre meals for my few days there. What I encountered was an entire food culture based on the foods and flavors that I consider to be fall and winter comfort foods back home. I had beef stew (or goulash) served in a rye bread bowl, fried pork (pork schnitzel) with creamy mashed potatoes, and cream soups. Most of my meals were some kind of rich, slow cooked meat served with gravy, bread, and potatoes. For dessert there was Old Fashioned Bohemian Honey Cake which tasted like a large, soft graham cracker with cream. I had a latte that was flavored with cinnamon and nutmeg. At one restaurant, even the water was flavored by placing a cinnamon stick in the pitcher. It was so comforting to walk through the cold city with the smell of wet, fallen leaves, cinnamon, and pastries or bread being baked. Prague brought me home for a few days.

As much as it reminded me of home, the city was very different from any other city I have been to. When you stand in Old Town Square you can simultaneously gaze at a towering Gothic cathedral, a baroque/rococo building, a baroque statue, Neo-classical buildings, and a clock tower from the 15th century. Unlike most cities, there is no city grid, and to get from place to place it is necessary to ride one of the red and cream colored trams that wind through the middle of most of the city streets that are home to famed cafés and pub-breweries.

I went to a few cafés every day and sipped coffee in a traditional art nouveau “Dum” or palace, an antique café hidden from the main streets, a traditional French bake-shop, a modern photography exhibit and café, and the famous Café Louvre where I tried venison for the first time. It was served in gravy with fresh figs and a bread dumpling. I tried 11 different beers in one day (don’t worry, I shared an 8 beer sampler) ranging from coffee, to banana, sour cherry, blueberry, to the weirdest (and surprisingly amazing considering it was green) nettle beer. I tried traditional Pilsner, dark beers, amber beers, and my favorite which was an unfiltered wheat lager brewed by Staropramen. I was in café and pub-fare heaven.

I loved my time in Prague, and while it somewhat cured my homesickness, by the time I woke up on my last day there, it had caused me real sickness. Staying out in the cold for 3 days from morning until late at night caught me, and forced me to think about what I had to look forward to back in Barcelona despite the much needed break. I smartly gave myself a full day back in Barcelona before classes started again, and I slept and rested all day knowing that here, although I didn’t have my favorite season, it was still 70 degrees out and mostly sunny.

Off to Prague

This summer working at the bakery, I met someone who very quickly became a good friend. We have the same interests: food, travel, and music, and happened to both be leaving for Europe right around the same time. She was headed to Prague to spend a semester learning about the music culture there and I, obviously was heading back to Barcelona. We agreed that it would be necessary to visit each other and explore each city.

I am leaving the cold, wet weather of late fall in Barcelona for the colder weather in Prague. You may say that I didn’t plan the trip very well, but I like to think it’s open ended. I bought the tickets just a couple weeks ago, I booked my hotel late last night, I have no idea what I’m going to do while I’m there, furthermore, I’ve never heard a word of Czech. I don’t even have a map.

What I do know is that for me, travelling is more about discovering serendipitously. Or in less elegant terms, getting lost. Prague is one of the few cities in Europe that was spared during the world wars, and I am excited to get a glimpse of the architecture, winding streets, and its culture. Other than going to visit my friend, I am going to get lost, to wander, and to warm up in a café, to drink the beer, and to taste the food. The most exciting part about travelling for me, is wondering what I might encounter.