A Travellerspoint blog

La Merce

This past weekend, Barcelona hosted its biggest festival of the year, called La Merce! There were a bazzillion events around town all weekend and although I tried my best to get to all of them, I was unable. I did see some pretty incredible things, though, so hang on! (Also! I can't upload all of my photos here, so please check out Flickr for a more complete set!)

Friday night was the opening ceremony for the festival, which is held in tribute to the patron saint of the city, Our Lady of Mercy. I met up with a guy from work (from the Netherlands) and we watched a procession of cultural floats and groups enter Plaza de Sant Jaume, in the center of the city.

Annnd now, I interrupt this account of events with a news bulletin: There is much strife in the world right now. Obviously. But remember how I explained that a few weeks ago there was a demonstration in which a million and a half people took to the streets to assert Catalonia's claim for independence from Spain? Well things have continued to be interesting here as the 'regional leader' of Catalonia is putting continued pressure on the government in Madrid to dole out more respect (tax-money wise, of course) to the area (which has, by far and away, the biggest economy; and the most debt of all the regions in Spain). While not openly vying for state independence, the Catalonian government wants at least greater autonomy from the central government. Now, the PM of Spain is currently at the UN summit with all of the worldly leaders, but the consensus here is that he won't respond even after he gets back, since Catalonia is one of the only regions in Spain that is fiscally viable. It is going to make for an incredibly interesting couple of weeks. Now, At the same time, the metro and bus union here is Barcelona cannot seem to get along with the government either, and there have been two strikes in the last two weeks. Unfortunately, and the reason that I have explained this now, is that these issues trickled over into the weekend in the form of a very noisy and disruptive demonstration beneath the balcony of the residence of the Catalonian regional leader, which overlooks Plaza Sant Jaume. Large banners, explaining (in Catalan, so my translation is poor) the unions' grievances, had been hung in front of a large tv screen set to proclaim the start of the festival, and as the leader himself came out to the balcony he was greeted with boos, whistles and many an obscene hand gesture.

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Once they had their fill, though, festivities commenced, which included authentic catalonian music and dance, along with the procession of los gegantes (the giants), dracs (dragons, more on these later), and castellers. The giants, as you can see from the picture here are huge mannequins, made to look like various important figures in Catalonian history. After the procession and revelry, my friend and I walked in the other direction from my house, into the barrio 'el Borne'. One of the ritzier neighborhoods in Barcelona, el Borne is home to many Catalonian restaurants, so we found ourselves sharing an inexpensive, and tasty, bottle of red wine over a dinner of Fideua- a dish similar to paella, with noodles and shellfish cooked in a delicious sauce and served right in the hot skillet. We topped it off with a local dessert called Crema Catalana, similar to Creme Brulee, and I had to be rolled from the restaurant.

Afterward, we walked toward one of the main festival centers, called Parc Ciutadella. Here they had four stages set up for different acts, including one specifically for kids (you wouldn't believe how late kids stay up here: it is not uncommon to see them walking around with their parents at midnight or one in the morning). One of the other stages had an act with about five performers which combined serious pyrotechnics with dance. It was pretty incredible to watch, as the twirled each other around while pouring lamps of burning oil, and breathed fire and all sorts of insanity. This is my first fire experience of the weekend, and left my clothes noticeably less burnt than the next...

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I finally finished off my night (from 12 to 4 am) by joining other work friends at a different venue, further away from home, called El Forum. This is a concert-specific venue with acres of concrete and built so that multiple concerts can be held at the same time with minimal disruption between them. I saw two bands, one from Catalonia, of which I understood none, and the other from Madrid, so I understood little (music is really hard to understand for me still). It is easy to enjoy music for the music, though, and I had a great time meeting new people and hanging out with friends. And then I slept.

Saturday afternoon (I didn't make it up to see the morning), I went to play more voley playa before wandering through the old part of the city once more to see a parade with all of the dracs and gegantes this time. Finally I retired early so be ready for a full day Sunday.

I think that Sunday was the best day I have spent here. Around noon I walked again to the Plaza de Sant Jaume to see the biggest group of Castellers in the city, called Le Falcons. They did things on a much larger scale that the castellers from Poble Sec that I showed you earlier. One thing that I noticed was how happy they were after each successful attempt. I'm not sure how often something like that falls, but based on the way they celebrated after successes, it must not be too rare! Immediately following the castellers I walked to Parc de la ciutadella for more performances. I saw a couple of acrobats before the sun and humidity caught me and I needed a nap. I lay down in the grass for about a half an hour before being rudely awakened by a snuffling dog, haha. I was really startled, and they owner was really sorry, but I was unable to doze off again. Around 4 I saw a group of jugglers perform their act, which consisted entirely of juggling apples. It was a 45 minute show with an interesting story line and some very intricate juggling. Very well done!

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At this point I had met back up with my Dutch friend, and we headed back toward the center of the city for the most anticipated event of the weekend, called the Correfoc, or fire run in Catalan. Hey kids, remember how we were never allowed to even buy fireworks, let alone shoot them at each other? This event allows the kid in every one of us to run free as groups from each barrio in the city created a Drac and accompanied it through the streets, holding pitchforks and lances with spinning fireworks attached to the tips, all to the thunderous beat of drums. The key here as a spectator and participant (you are both if you are either) is to cover all exposed skin with cotton clothing- of course I was in a t-shirt and shorts. They actually do two events: a kids one at 7 and the adults run at 8:15. After watching the kids one from the street, Maarten and I decided we had better find a bit more shelter to watch the adults, else risk being crispy by the end. We ended up finding a ledge cut into a building about 8 feet above the street opened up after the kids correfoc, so we scrambled up and got ready for mayhem. And mayhem it was. The dragon gate at the end of the street exploded with real fireworks and spouts of flame as the first runners streamed through, and the throng of picture-takers scrambled to get out of the way. For around an hour we dodged embers flying everywhere around us, before our eardrums had had enough and we scrambled away. For this event in particular, pictures speak louder than works, so check out the photos on Flickr. It was unbelievable. I escaped with only a small hole in my pants and two in my polyester knapsack.

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After that excitement, we grabbed cheap tapas at a local pub and headed back to Parc Ciutadella for nighttime amusement. The act I really wanted to see was the juggler's nighttime show, but we got there early and saw something equally cool- a duo of robots with suits that lit up in harmony with the music and the story/dance they were telling. Pictures of this were disappointingly sub-par, but it was hilarious and well done. The juggler's show was great, though and featured lit-up balls and clubs changing with the music and flow of the performance. Outstanding.

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Afterward, Maarten and I walked back into the city once more to meet up with another work friend, and we saw a concert in Plaza Reial. I found myself crawling into bed at 4 am once more!

Whew so Monday, there was still one more thing on my to-do list: the circus at Castell de Montjuic. I climbed the mountain once more to find myself among tons of children and young parents ready for a circus (by the way, every year Barcelona makes a connection with a different city around the world, and the majority of the performances here are by groups from that partner city. This year was Montreal! I didn't recognize any of the acts, but that was interesting!). The circus was great, if a little short. One thing I have never seen before involved a flexible beam that two of the performers held on their shoulders. Another performer could get on and they spent a few minutes with aerial acrobatics which were mind-blowing.

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After the circus, I spent a few minutes admiring the outstanding views before returning home to organize photos and relax. Quite the busy weekend! It was tough going to work on Monday, to be sure.

So here are some more general thoughts I've had about BCN!

Spanish speakers have a really hard time pronouncing Doug, but can figure out Douglas just fine. I think that Doug is too close to 'Dog' for them to differentiate, so I have begun just introducing myself as Douglas. I was considering just going by Jose or Juan for a while... and then looked at the color of my skin.

Grocery stores charge 5 cents for plastic bags, and then make you bag your groceries yourself! That's a great idea! It gives an incentive to bringing your own bag, plus you buy less (and eat less) since it's embarrassing to spend ten minutes at the regsiter bagging your potato chips! I also love that if I am in the city and hungry, there are fruit stands every single block. A peach for 14 cents is the perfect remedy for a grumbly stomach.

I am still not close to being conversational in Spanish. My roommates are better at English like me, so I have a hard time forcing myself to speak Spanish with them. I'll get after it, though. My best opportunities are at work, where there are actually a few people who are weak at English. They like to work at it, but Spanish is actually better for those conversations. I can understand almost everything that is said to me, though, so I'm really excited!

WOW! Thanks for staying with me in the long post! Hope everything is great with you!

Hasta Luego!

Posted by dclift 19:42 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

Free things to do in Barcelona:

Since I have no money

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Before everyone freaks out, it isn't that I have no money. I have all of 35 euros. No but really, I will live- I had mentioned last post that my brilliant plan for bringing money here wasn't working work out, so I am waiting now for a wire from the US into my new bank account so that I can explore the parts of the city that cost money! It should be here by Friday (fingers crossed), so I can attend some of the festivities this weekend. These past few days I have been looking for fun (and free) things to do, and it just so happens that the group I was playing volleyball with on Saturday is there a lot. So I ended up playing volleyball with them Sunday afternoon and then again under the lights on the beach last night. This was one of the best experiences I have had here so far. The weather was perfect for playing (I didn't need to worry about sun-screen) and we had a blast. One interesting thing to note-- We were set up just across the boardwalk from two of the most posh clubs in Barcelona, so while other people were all dressed up, lounging in couches, sipping on colorful drinks and being serenaded by a saxophone, my cohorts and I were 20 feet away; in bathing suits and hooting and hollering and rolling around in the sand. I think we had the better time, truth be told!

Work continues to be fascinating and fun, I started doing real experiments on Monday. My supervisor is helping me learn the ropes while we fabricate some simple structures. The lab is such a huge place here that I can't hope to learn everything in the first go around, but everyone is extremely helpful and it is quite challenging and enjoyable. So far we have made precursor solutions for three different glass compounds, so I think that tomorrow we may actually finish up the fabrication and look at the results. Cool stuff. I hope to bring my camera in and take some pictures at some point, so that I can show everyone what I'm talking about.

This weekend is the biggest festival weekend of the year in Barcelona. The festival is called 'La Merce' and features performers from all over the world, fireworks, light shows and all sorts of revelry. After I write this post I am going to look around their website and see what things I want to check out. Hopefully it will produce some great photos!

Oh hey, so for those of you who don't know, my cousin Jackson and his fabulous girlfriend Amanda have just begun their own international adventure as English teachers in Beijing, China. They also have a blog, which you can find at speakingmainedarin.wordpress.com-- his adventures, completely different from mine, will be fascinating too, so check their blog out!

Finally, this morning it rained for the first time since I've been here. I have tagged the post sunny, though, since by 4 pm there wasn't a cloud in the sky. Needless to say I don't think this will help alleviate the drought. I couldn't believe, though, when I walked into the lab all of the grumbling I heard about the weather. These people are spoiled! And I look forward to being just as bad!

Hope everyone is well back stateside, hasta luego!!

Posted by dclift 09:52 Archived in Spain Comments (1)

Becoming legal

is tougher than just turning 18

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Now that I have a home, I need to extend my visa to include the entire time that I will be here. The visa I have now is provisional and only covers me for 90 days until I can apply for a number and a TIE- tarjeta de identificacion extranjero- Foreigner's identification card. So on Thursday of last week I went to the local 'citizen's office' and submitted a form filled out by my roommate (the one who is on the lease). At which point I was given my empadronamiento (took me three full days to figure out how to pronounce that, let alone memorize it), which is a letter from the government verifying that I am a resident of the barrio of Poble Sec, Barcelona. With this document in hand I went to the central police station on Friday with another form to try to get my TIE. The office states that their hours are from 9-2, so I got there at 12:30 thinking that I would be fine. The policeman out front told me firmly that no, in fact, if I am not there by 11 they will not process my request. As the conversation was in Spanish, I didn't ask why. Gah. So I will be getting there early tomorrow morning to try to beat the rush so that I can get to work at a reasonable time.

Work! I started work on Thursday- forgot that I actually came here to do research, huh? Me too- reading papers about the topic on Thursday was a bit of a headache as my brain switched back into scholastic mode. This switch is made even tougher by the fact that the lab has huge bay windows, which look out over a turf soccer field. And I can see the roof of Camp Nou (FC Barcelona's stadium) from my chair. Makes day-dreaming pretty easy! But really, I am gonna get lots of science done!

This is what I know so far: The group that I am in is working on this novel biomaterial which they hope to use as a bone substitute. The biggest hurdle to clear in this process is not getting the material to resorb (dissolve) back into the body in a uniform fashion- that has been shown possible many times- it is instead to ensure that the new bone that grows around the material has blood vessels in it. Without blood vessels, bone is essentially worthless: no nutrients, no oxygen=> no growth => no stability. So think about this new material as a stiff sponge. One of the most important factors to sufficient angiogenesis (growth of blood vessels) is the size of the pores in the sponge. Different starting chemistries and fabrication techniques will yield different size holes, specifically on the scale of nano (10^-9) to micro (10^-6) sized. My job will be to investigate these differences in starting chemistries and fabrication techniques and quantify the resulting scaffolds. As yet, I don't know many more specifics. I have about ten papers to read before I begin doing any real experiments, and I will know more by the end of next week.

The housing situation is great, I really like my roommates. I will take some pictures of the flat and upload them to flickr at some point today, so keep an eye out. Unfortunately, the way that I thought to bring money to Spain is not going to work as smoothly as I had thought. I can't open a bank account until I have my TIE anyway, but once I have that account I will have to wait a few days to get money transferred from the US. That means that I am still running on the cash I had transferred when I came over, which is dwindling quickly!!! So I have been on the lookout for inexpensive things to do this weekend. Yesterday I went for a run up Montjuic , but this time to the other side of the mountain, which is home to the Olympic stadium and several venues of the 1992 summer games that were held here. How impressive. I didn't take my camera with me, but I will take it up there at some point. In the afternoon I adventured to the beach in search of a volleyball game to join. After overcoming my timidness, I joined a game with two girls (Polish and Czech) and another guy (Barcelonin). We played in Spanish, so it made for quite the international experience. It was a blast! I may go back today to play some more!

Todo para ahora, hasta luego!!

Voley Playa!

Voley Playa!

Posted by dclift 11:24 Archived in Spain Tagged beaches Comments (1)

Photos from yesterday

Apparently they decided I wasn't dangerous

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For those of you who tried to see the blog yesterday, I understand that since I am a new blog here I got audited and the blog was blocked. Looks like we're set now, though, so here are a couple of pictures that I took yesterday. Remember to check out www.flickr.com/photos/douglasclift for lots more!! (So apparently travellerspoint doesn't like rotated photos, and my best ones were rotated of course. So come over to flickr for more!!)

180 degree pan from the ramparts of Castell de Montjuic

180 degree pan from the ramparts of Castell de Montjuic

Posted by dclift 10:20 Archived in Spain Tagged landscapes Comments (1)

I have a home!!

And other interesting occurances

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Hi again, everyone!

For those people who have found my blog by accident, thanks for coming!! Check out my first post for a synopsis of what I'm doing in Barcelona. This is geared mostly toward family and friend-type readership, but if you have any questions about Barcelona, feel free to leave a comment or send me an e-mail and I'll do my best to help you out!!

I am writing this update from my very own desk in my very own room! After being frustrated the majority of last week, I visited three places on Sunday and got three offers! How strange. In another interesting twist, the place I ended up choosing is not a result of any internet searching that I was doing. Instead, I just mentioned in passing to the guy working at the hostel that I was looking for a place, and he goes 'oh, well there is a room open in my flat, we haven't been looking for someone, but you're welcome to live there if you want!' So I went to visit-- it is in a barrio called Poble Sec (meaning Dry Town in Catalan, apparently because they didn't install the first water fountain until 1854- I need to verify that one though). It is not one of the places I had been looking, but in talking more to people, it comes extremely highly recommended. So I moved in last night! It is a fifteen minute walk to the beach, ten minutes to the port, I walked up to the Montjuic Castle this morning, and my commute to work will be 20 minutes, tops. Perfect!

My roommates are Tiago, who is Portuguese, and Matteo, from Italy. So there's the potential to walk out of here with five languages! I need a lot more work on my Spanish, of course, first. Tiago is 22 and works crazy 8:30 pm - 8:30 am shifts at the hostel to pay for classes in photographic journalism, while Matteo is older and works in accounting at a Beyer Pharmaceutical office just outside the city. Both seem to be awesome people, and I'm looking forward to getting to know them!

Here's some Catalan culture for you. Each year Catalunya celebrates their 'independence' on the 11th of September. Tiago was griping about this to me last night, though, since theres nothing independent about Catalunya, haha- it is firmly a state in Spain. However, I get the feeling that Spaniards are willing to do anything for a day off, so it amounts to a big party. There are some people who are slightly more involved, and so there are Catalunyan flags springing up all over the city. The state of Catalunya has a red and yellow striped flag, while the independence flag (not recognized by the main government), has a blue triangle on the left with a star in it. I've seen both all over the place today.

So since nothing official is open today for the holiday, I mentioned that I climbed up to the Castell de Montjuic. I didn't take a map, but knew that there was a castle up there somewhere, so I just took off from my house. It took about 45 minutes of gorgeous gardens and vistas before I reached the castle, which is stunning (I already hate tourists). Despite a rather hazy day in the city, the views from Montjuic are superb. I don't actually know very much history about the castle, as this was a serious impromptu visit, but I'm sure I'll be there again so I'll keep you posted.

On the way back down, I ran into a huge crowd in the square at the base of my street. I had heard something about 'Castellers' before, but didn't expect to see them at this festival. So when I saw tiny girls climbing around a huge human tower, to say I was amazed would be an understatement. I stayed to watch for 20 minutes as they did three different towers, all equally high and scary, and all successful.

Hey, I made a flickr account! I will upload a lot of the photos I have taken to it in a minute, so check it out!! http://www.flickr.com/photos/douglasclift
I will post a few select ones here, but that's the place to go to see a bunch.

Thanks again for stopping by! I miss everyone lots!!!

Hasta Luego!

Posted by dclift 12:44 Archived in Spain Tagged landscapes buildings children Comments (1)

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