Golf Carts in the Galilee.

There are few things more fabulous than a ROAD TRIP. Doesn’t even matter where you are going, getting there is half the fun. Engine hum, good music, crunchy snacks, pleasurable company and sun-warmed beer (not for the driver, of course) alternate with comfortable silence; dreamless dozing.

Israeli road trips are exciting because they are so convenient. The country is so small, drive two and a half hours and you’ve reached the end of it. A day trip. And so when Lianne called and offered me a spot in the car I said yes, and to hell with the classes I’d miss that day. We were going to the Galilee to see migrating birds.

Migratory birds are a big deal in Israel. Because it is situated at the crossroads of three continents, over 500 million birds are estimated to fly over Israel twice a year in the course of their migrations. A few million of those take a moment to rest and refuel in the Holy Land before continuing on their journey. This was going to be An Experience; class would be a Waste Of Time.

Arriving at HaHula park, we were faced with three options: Ride a bike through the 10 km of paths (favored by young, energetic couples with children or old, energetic couples with stamina), take a park tour on a kind of bleacher contraption on wheels pulled by a tractor (favored by the  sociable elderly) or rent a golf cart (favored by the anti-social elderly). Because we were lazy twenty-somethings in the prime of life, we opted for a golf cart.  We filled out a form and got our keys, no I.D. or proof of driving ability (or sobriety, for that matter) required. Entering the parking lot we were faced with a sea of white golf-cart drones.

How could we find our ride? It turned out to be easy, as we had received the only fire-engine red golf cart in the entire park. Number  Easy 69.

We called her The Red Mamba.

The next four hours were spent driving The Red Mamba at full speed (about 6 mph), overtaking small kids on bicycles and elderly walkers and other “athletic” people too stupid to rent a golf cart. Golf carting is so liberating because it is like driving without consequences; In other words, you have to try  really  hard to be injured or cause injury on a golf cart. Even one as badass as Red Mamba.

The birds were beautiful. We saw many kinds, but mainly we saw cranes. Thousands of them in the wetlands; Foraging, croaking, flapping, with more and more gliding in from above. It was a golden, sun-drenched day, the brown mountains of the galilee shading the green, green grass that cushioned our shadows. To the chorus of the avian cacophony and the Red Mamba’s whine, we sang loud songs and pretended to chase  slow-moving bicyclists while belting out  the theme music from Mission: Impossible. Late afternoon and the park closed. We said good bye to the birds, and more regretfully, to Red Mamba; the glory of the day still flowing through our veins, the ride home dark and peaceful.

A man had a serious telescope set up in this look-out hut. He let us look through it at the cranes a couple hundred feet away. He also let me take a photo of the cranes through the telescope, the only close-up bird record of the whole day.

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Explaining Thanksgiving.

” It’s not Thanksgiving unless you eat the leftovers for breakfast.”

I really dig Thanksgiving. Maybe it’s the lack of religious iconography, or the day off you get from school (in the U.S., that is) But I think it has to do with the whole premise. Lets get together, eat a lot of really filling food, and then collapse in a companionable food coma amongst friends and family.

This is assuming that you don’t have to explain the historical background behind the holiday. A hopeless endeavor. It just makes you and America look bad. An example:“…So the settlers had no food and were starving because they couldn’t get their shit together and the Indians basically saved their asses by showing them how to eat corn. They celebrated this gesture of goodwill with a meal offering thanks. What? Oh yeah, then the settlers kind of killed a lot of Indians and now Indians live on reservations. But we still celebrate Thanksgiving…..”)

This holiday is easy to share with non-Americans (or NonAms). Many of them have been to a number of Thanksgiving feasts before, hosted by various expats around the world. I enjoy cooking the meal, and accepting with humility the compliments afterward (scratch that. Those complements make me feel like The Greatest Chef In The World. Self-esteem goes up through the roof.)Sitting around an international Thanksgiving table, there are always inevitable questions.

Q: What is the difference between Turkey and Chicken?  

Chicken and turkey have nothing in common except mutual birdhood. Maybe they look like large/small versions of eachother when decapitated and de-feathered, but that is no way to compare them.  Next.

Q:Why must Americans have a holiday which celebrates gluttony over a dinner of carbs, then finishes it off with three kinds of pie? Do you really need three kinds of pie?

Yes, we do need to finish with three kinds of pie because America is the land of plenty and that is how we roll. Next.

Q: [With wonder] What is this dish of bread chunks and fruit that tastes like meat?

That, my Viennese friend, is stuffing. In my experience, stuffing is a surprisingly unknown dish outside the U.S.A. Many NonAms have never tried anything like this strange mixture of stale bread, cranberries, apples and turkey juice. They don’t understand it, but they love it anyway.

And that’s what Thanksgiving is all about.

Tapas, Jamón and Seafood, Oh My!

I am still trying to sort through my experiences in Barcelona; getting acclimated to a normal routine has been interrupted by a frantic wave of cooking in preparation for Thanksgiving later this evening ( which will be another post). This morning I ate the last of my Jamón Ibérico and anchovies, brought over from Barcelona and jealously guarded all week.

Can you be homesick for a place you’ve been in only five days?

Barcelona food is fresh and unashamed. Sure, most things are fried, but whether it is a calamari ring or a ham croquette it is made with love and respect and your stomach (like a dog) senses this and accepts it with open arms. How else to explain my lack of indigestion despite five days of non-stop scarfing down ham, croquettes, anchovies, and more ham?

In order to bring some order to the cornucopia I have divided the offerings into three categories: The Temple of Jamón, Fish So Good It’s Not Fishy and Rainbow Eats.

The Temple of Jamón:

Spain takes its ham seriously. Ibérican ham comes from Ibérico pigs. These pigs are treated like royalty. The most sought after kinds eat only acorns. Imagine how good you’d taste if all you ate was acorns.

Jamón and the penguin from Madagascar. My life is complete.

 Fish So Good It’s Not Fishy:

No big spiel. The seafood is so fresh and affordable it makes you wonder why you had seafood anywhere else in life. The end.

Even clams deserve decorative flowers.

This is what an entire dried squid looks like.

No, this is not an impressionistic masterpiece. It’s a dish from Els Quatre Gats consisting of grilled squid, Iberico ham chips and some kind of brown sauce. It was beautiful.

Rainbow Eats:

So much of the food in Barcelona just looked so darn good. The effect of a rainbow was especially felt in La Boqueria market, where I felt a little like Alice in Wonderland peering through the looking glass into a world of wonders. Food wonders.

"It's a sponge, it's a bathmat, it's a deflated brain-no! IT'S TRIPE." I wanted to try some but I think that is more of a Madrid thing.

The cherries and tomatoes could have been interchangeable. I’ve never seen that kind of red, unless you count a firetruck.

Some juvenile butcher thought it would be funny to put these cow figurines in this intimate position. He was right; it is funny.

Another Day, Another Protest.

I am no stranger to protests. Last summer I visited the  Tent City that sprung up on Israel’s Rothschild boulevard. This past September I worked a few blocks from the burgeoning Occupy Wall Street movement in Zuccotti Park. My friends held signs in Times Square.

I don’t know what was going on in Barcelona (I think it had something to do with taxes), and I didn’t try too hard to find out. Maybe that’s bad, but whatever. I was there to eat ham and see Gaudi, not fight the system. But there were protests Every. Day.

Morning, noon or night. It would start with a cluster of police vehicles. Then a street would be closed. Then assorted loudspeaker mumbles and sign waving. Sometimes there was a siren. Then everyone would go home. All in all, the protesters and police seemed to have a mutual understanding; You let us wave our signs and do some chanting, and we will march down the street in an orderly fashion and leave. From what I understand, these peaceful protests were part of a larger series of protests this past year, some of which were more violent.

But for the time I was there, eating crepes and watching the gaily-jacketed group march past, I experienced the kind of pleasure  reminiscent of Disney Land parades.

March on, Protesters. March on.

About the flags; They are the colors of the Catalan flag and they are everywhere. Barcelona, though part of Spain, is part of what is considered an “autonomous community” of Catalonia, with it’s own distinct culture, heritage and language. Catalans have a strong national identity, and they aren’t afraid to show it.

Monument To Catalan Freedom Fighters.

Best Wind Vane Ever.

Sawdust on the Floor, Water in My Wine.

“Barcelona is so Medieval.”

  Being a tourist in the rain offers a unique opportunity to see how a city works in times of stress. Things are messier, wetter, brusque-er. Chances are everyone who is not a tourist is staying home, as you would if it was raining cats and dogs in your hometown.

On the Metro in Barcelona  I overheard a tourist say to her companion (in a contrived, world-weary tone) “Honestly, all European towns look the same.” This is like saying all neighborhoods in NYC look the same because hey, they all got streetlights, right? Silly tourist.

Barcelona, like all cities, has those little quirks that separate it from the rest. One of the first things I noticed was that almost every apartment window has an outdoor awning/curtain thing. To guard against the rain? The Catalan sun? the effect to me was that of a million mini shop windows in a riot of color.

The Awnings of Barcelona:

But awnings are not Medieval.

Sawdust is.

Finding shelter from the rain in a pastry shop,  I notice a powdery brown material on the floor rapidly turning to mud-slush under my feet.

“What am I stepping in?” I ask Maya.

“Sawdust. To soak up the rain.” she answers.

Really, Barcelona? Your number one rain-soaker is the material that for centuries was used to soak up blood in operating rooms? The sawdust isn’t only indoors, but sprinkled liberally on the streets, where it doesn’t so much soak up the rain as turn into a pulpy paste and make the bottom of your shoes look like a stableboy’s.  This sawdust puzzles me. Isn’t it grosser and harder to clean up a brown wet mess then to swipe off clean water with a squeegee? Barcelona was really tidy otherwise so I guess they have some sort of system in place.

Another habit that struck me as medieval, but quaint is the Barcelona habit of ordering a bottle of wine and a bottle of sparkling water and then watering the wine with the sparkling water to create sparkling wine. Nothing wrong with that, but in every book I’ve read set in a Medieval-ish time there is some line like “….and they supped on bread and cheese and watered wine…”  As far as I know, In the Middle Ages when water wasn’t safe to drink, the beverage of choice for children and adults was watered wine or beer; watered to prevent everyone from being falling-down drunk all day.

So anyway, because it’s not the Middle Ages, it was cool to see people doing that.

Rainy Day Impressions:

Sitting in the rain.

There’s a bird on your helmet.

Rainy Pow-wow.

When The Weatherman Lies.

This morning, the 5 day forecast of my trip to Barcelona looked like this:

But the Weatherman lied.

The 5 day forecast for my trip to Barcelona now looks like this:

This rain is no friendly drizzle, either. It’s RAIN. Torrential RAIN. This rain is annoying. It is wet. It cramps our style. It is destructive. My shoes were supple, watertight vessels when I boarded the plane in Tel Aviv. One day in the Barcelona rain and they look like this:

So tomorrow Maya and I are buying rain shoes. Other than the extreme pruning my feet recieved today, Barcelona is amazing. We did indeed have anchovies for our first meal, as well as our second. Tomorrow, hopefully dry -footed, will bring even more wonders.

Anchovies YumYum.

Spare a Euro?

In a few hours I will take off from Ben-Gurion airport in Israel to El Prat de Llobregat Aeropuerto in Barcelona, Spain. Waiting for me in a restaurant close to the Metro (so I won’t get lost) will be my dear friend Maya. Maya and I will sit down and proceed to eat my first meal in Barcelona, which will hopefully include anchovies.

I’ve realized that November is not the ideal time to go almost anywhere. Last November, in Paris, it was rainy and cold every day-though this was a plus of sorts because there were fewer tourists. Maya told me the weather in Barcelona is relatively pleasant; between 60° to 70° degrees fahrenheit (15°-21° C for the rest of the world).

This is the forecast in Barcelona for the next 5 days:

Not bad. Along with packing, I also exchanged my dollars for euros today. A depressing task. Here are the “have fun in Barcelona dollars” I toiled for all summer to earn:

Baller.

 And here are the “maybe not as much fun as I had thought euros”:

It’s Monopoly Money!

Whats up with the different size bills? Euros don’t even look like real money. They look like toy money. Especially the 5€.