Sunday, February 7, 2016

Barcelona: 5 Things to Do



Every popular European city has dozens of top 10 lists online, and much of them repeat the same famous landmarks and things-to-do. This list will repeat the big ones too because, well, they’re big for a reason. The only difference with my recommendations is that there’s always a tip to get a little bit off the well-beaten paths. Why? Super touristy is just not my style, nor is wasting money in des pièges à touristes.

Las Ramblas: This is on the top of many to-do lists because it’s a bustling, famous pedestrian street. In the summer it’s packed. Some search for the bars that Hemingway allegedly hung out at, but are now so overpriced that Ernest would surely run the other direction. In terms of shops, bars, and restaurants, Las Ramblas is a tourist trap. So check it out to buy T-shirts or people watch, then get off this crowded street. The side streets and markets just off Las Ramblas are much more interesting. To the west, Barri Gotic’s narrow alleys have the character and old world charm that you’re looking for. It’ll be easy to get lost on these medieval side streets, which will lead you—like the infamous Spaniard, Columbus—to some great ‘finds’! Some of my favorite Barri Gotic spots: La Palma Bar, the Picasso Museum, and Harlem Jazz Club for live music.

Plaza Real: Again, this place is no secret, but it doesn’t have the tourist trap feel if you go to the right spot. This old square is a good place to escape the hustle of Ramblas, sit down and get a drink. There are some great eating options as well. Les Quince Nits has an international menu, good food, reasonable prices and its outdoor seats are perfectly situated to soak in the 19th century square. If you’re feeling more like tapas fusion, stylish retro décor, and some transgender flare, hit up Ocaña—situated in the opposite corner of the plaza. If you’re lucky, a street performer will be playing tunes by the fountain—center stage. Side note: in Plaza Real there’s a 'hidden' bar in the northwest corner. It’s called Pipa Club, but there’s no sign. Just go to the unmarked door and ring the bell. Someone will probably let you in.

El Museo Nacional del Arte Catalunya: Walk toward Parc de Montjuic from the Plaza Espanya metro stop and you’ll be struck by the majesty of El Museo Nacional peering down on you. I happened to come across this palace on a jog and was immediately inspired—Rocky Balboa style! I ran up the hundreds of steps and beyond, making it to the 1992 Olympic Village where you can grab a view of southwestern Barcelona and the coastline. The views from this hill are great. I admit, I didn’t even go inside the museum, but the panorama is well worth the hike up there.



La Sagrada Familia: I’d been to Gaudi’s famous church 15 years ago and remembered its iconic east-facing façade. That’s all I remember because I didn’t pay—and probably couldn’t afford—to go inside. Last week I finally paid the 18 Euro to actually go in and, Jesus Christ, was it worth it! The grand architecture and style are mind-boggling. How awesome is La Sagrada Familia? For the first time in my adult life, a church made me consider re-embracing my long-dormant Catholicism. That’s powerful. In short, stand in line and pay $20 to go inside—vale la pena.




Park Güell: For another of Gaudi’s unique creations, I have the opposite advice: Do not buy a ticket. Situated in the cool neighborhood of Gracia, Park Guell is worth the visit but I was disappointed that they now charge to enter the most attractive, mosaic-rich part of the park. Not too long ago, I remember walking right in and sharing a bottle of wine on the serpentine benches overlooking the city. Now you have to wait in line, buy a ticket, and enter in 30 minute shifts to access this area. Thankfully, there are two sections of the park and one is still free. I recommend taking your wine up there, sitting down and soaking in essentially the same view—gratis.  

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Star Wars- The Force Awakens: Parallels and the Real "Bad Guys"






All over the world, hundreds of millions stayed up till early morning on a Thursday to see this film. I just happened to watch it in Sofia, Bulgaria. I found it doubly interesting to see a highly anticipated Star Wars movie in a foreign country. Why? The first Star Wars came out in 1977, during the Cold War, which surely had some impact on its plot line, characterizations, symbols and motifs. Now it’s 2015. Not only do meanings change depending on context and, thus, the audience reaction varies, but it reveals how influential Hollywood movies are as disseminators of culture, politics, and pervasive thought on a global scale.  Ultimately, watching Star Wars in an international setting brought up some questions that might not pop up on American soil. (Spoiler Alert: If you do not want to know what happens in The Force Awakens and/or are sensitive to American political criticism, do not read any further). Here goes nothing:

 1. If art imitates life, then who represents the power of the First Order/Empire in real life? Though the First Order--when stormtroopers are assembled in rows-- clearly resembles Hitler's Nazi Germany, the contemporary parallels might be more disturbing. Certainly there are only a few countries that have the military might to raze rebel enclaves with superior air assaults and firepower like the First Order does in the The Force Awakens. Tops on that list of drone attackers and air strikers in the real world: The United States of America. 

2.     Finn, the rogue storm trooper, defects from the First Order/Empire/Dark Side and joins the resistance. He is viewed as a traitor by the storm trooping “bad guys” but a hero to the “good guys”—the resistance. Finn gives them valuable inside information. Can anyone say Edward Snowden? Perspective is everything.

3.     The First Order has the most powerful weapon of mass destruction in the galaxy. It can destroy whole planets and they actually use it. The only analog in the real world is nuclear weaponry. The United States has the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons, has tested them the most frequently, and is the only country to ever use one on another nation (Japan)...yet claims that other countries (some who don't even possess nuclear weapons) pose the biggest nuclear threats to the world. Hmmm.

4.     Princess Leia has gone from royalty to general in command. She has been in power for a while, aged fairly gracefully, but her voice is not pleasant to listen to anymore. She is a strong leader, but lacks personality. She had a man, the slick Han Solo, who most likely cheated on her and left her planet in shame. Parallel: Hillary Clinton.

5.     Kylo Ren—the son who was the next in line to inherit power in the galaxy but is haunted by his father’s legacy and ultimately fails. As a result, the almighty First Order was attacked at its core. Need I say… George W. Bush? Of course, G-dub didn’t murder his father. Both are alive and well, though the son did tend more to the Dark Side. And who knows how Jeb will fit into this. 

6.     Which leads us to Chewbacca… No big political statement here. It just seems that the Wookie had more confirmed kills in the Force Awakens than in all other episodes combined. His weapon is highlighted as an awe-inspiring machine (--a subtle nod to gun nuts, perhaps?). Especially notable was his Rambo-esque rampage in the moments after Han Solo’s death. Thus, Chewie is the new Rambo.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Best Kurt Vonnegut Quotes (from 'Letters', 2013)



I’ve been a Kurt Vonnegut fan since I read Mother Night twenty years ago. So when I came across his published Letters (2013) in a Moscow bookstore, I bought it without thinking twice. I’m glad I did. This collection of a half-century of his correspondence is better than any biography because it’s more authentic—giving us snapshots of the author’s issues over the decades and the humor he used to cope with them. After journeying through the mind of a great American writer, there isn’t much I can say about him that will be worth a damn. Better to simply share some of my favorite Vonnegut quotes from Letters—his wise, funny words on writing, teaching, caring, and dealing with this absurd thing we call life.



“If something nice doesn’t happen, then something terrible will happen. I’ll have to get a job.”  -1953

“She (his sister) is damn well fed up with the character building aspects of disappointment. Me too.” -1956

“Jack Teagarden, the guy everybody agrees was the greatest living trombone player by far, died broke about a week ago. He didn’t take dope. He wasn’t a drunk. He just didn’t get paid much for being the greatest living trombone player.”  -1964

“I’m glad to be back in the Corn Belt again. Word of honor: I like it. Word of honor: it’s good looking as anything.” -1965

“Nelson gave me a big red sticker (that) said “STOP THE WAR IN VIETNAM.” I stuck it on my car, but the car was wet, and the sticker blew off before I was half way home, and I’m just as glad. My gladness doesn’t have anything to do with how I feel about Vietnam. It has to do with how I feel about stickers.” – 1965

 “Sometimes the classes go good, sometimes they go lousy. That’s show business.”
-1965, on teaching

“I wish my students could write…simply and clearly, and keep a story moving as well…. I am going to take them on walks and make them look at people.”

“Be yourself. Be unique. Be a good editor. The Universe needs more good editors, God knows.” -1966

“After June 24, I’ll be freelancing again—probably forever…” -1967

“I will have to come up there in the next couple of weeks to put the finishing touches on the mother-fucking income taxes. Amazing amounts of cash will wing their way from us to the Pentagon. Too bad.”  -1971

“If I were younger, I think I might try to become a European.”

“When things go well for days on end, it is a hilarious accident.”

“…the hell with the college boards. Educate yourself instead. Get a collection of the short stories of Chekov and read every one.”

“I know it is the place of a man to do brilliant things with money, but this manhood thing has me completely worn out. I just want to be a writer.” -1972

“Thinking about money games now will simply fuck you up. Concentrate on creative games. That’s your job.”

“It is true that some of my characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life.”  -1973

“Word of honor: I do not lust after the money or the fame. As some old man in Plato’s dialogues said about not feeling the sex urge anymore: I feel as though I were at last allowed to dismount from a wild horse.” -1974

“I don’t blame you for not wanting to teach anymore. It’s a damaging, pooping thing to do.”

“I have no hope of explaining to your satisfaction why I said what I said. I was using a form of humor called irony, saying one thing while clearly meaning another.”

“The secret of good writing is caring.” -1975

“The difficulty is not in writing but in writing well.” -1979

“It isn’t my duty to take part in promotional schemes.” -1981

“Our president supposes that his brain is producing his opinions. His brain in fact is soaked in a culture, and has never bothered to examine its ingredients.” -1987

 “Only you could project the charismatic, absolutely beautiful, one-hundred percent American, deep-seated insanity which afflicts this man (character Dwayne Hoover, Breakfast of Champions).”  -1988, to Jack Nicholson


“I have seven children, four of them adopted… They would have heard the word ‘fuck’ by the time they were six, whether they had me for a father or not.”

“Nature can be surprisingly merciful. It has always been the case with me that when my life is a mess I can find some relief by writing.”  -1992

“I feel good about it (this book). It’s called Timequake. Like this country, it should be completely finished in another year.” 

What made being alive almost worthwhile for me was all the saints I met almost anywhere, people who were behaving decently in an indecent society.” -1993

“Robert McNamara has now made clear, that war (Vietnam) was loony tunes.” -1995

 “I say go for truths, very personal ones, not likely to be learned from TV sets. We need to know what those are.” -1996, on writing

“A writer is first and foremost a teacher.” -1997

“And how should we behave during this apocalypse? We should be unusually kind to one another, certainly. But we should also stop being so serious. Jokes help a lot. And get a dog, if you don’t already have one… I’m out of here.” -2007


all quotes from Kurt Vonnegut, Letters (2013), Vintage Books, London