Thursday, October 9, 2014

A magical place and a special day

Today I'd like to share a magical place with you guys called  Pudding Cafe in l'eixample dreta. I discovered this place by accident a year ago after visiting the LAIE bookstore which is directly across the street. Through the window, I caught a glimpse of a crazy white and red striped ceiling and was immediately intrigued by the circus-like décor. When you step inside, you feel at once as though you've entered into Alice's Wonderland with the enormous mushrooms that make you feel dwarfed in comparison. There are comfy chairs and enormous tables, cozy sofas in the corners for secret chats with friends, books piled high on every surface and all the drinks are served in dainty, flowery, cups.


 

Last week, in order to celebrate my birthday, I invited my friends here for cake and tea--my two passions in life! I picked this place for a few reasons 1) the lovely decor 2) it was big enough to fit everyone (that makes it sound like I have a lot of friends, but there were only like 9 people there) 3) the food is delicious and 4) it's a perfect spot for kids. Below is a picture I took of some of my birthday cakes. My idea was that since the portion sizes are enormous, we would order a few different things and share. It was like tapas but with cake, which is even better! We took dainty bites and savored them like sommeliers carefully trying to detect subtle flavors. Then, we voted on our favorites. I have a spot in my heart for carrot cake but the cheesecake got the most votes. (P.S. I have an inner girly girl that doesn't like pink, princesses, unicorns or anything sparkly but cannot get enough of adorable, whimsical, heart shaped plates. That girl's weird). 


As I mentioned, Pudding is a wonderful place for toddlers and little kids. There are plenty of children's books, board games, crayons and paper, some Legos,and other random things lying around to keep the little ones busy while the parents enjoy themselves. Roman probably had as much fun as I did, but that might have been partly because his galpal Amelia showed up.


Just look at these cuties! But don't be fooled by their innocent expressions--these two are doubtlessly up to some shenanigans.


This place is a wonderful little gem in the middle of the city--only blocks away from touristy Plaça Catalunya and yet very few tourists will ever find this place. Even Barcelona natives that I invited had never been here. It's a great place to come and indulge your sweet tooth (dessert makes up 90% of their menu) and chill out with your friends. If you're ever in town, I invite you to visit what has become one of my favorite places in the city.


(Photos: top two from Charhadas, third photo from Milanesa)

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Mind of a Chef



So here's a confession: I watch too much TV. Whenever I'm home alone and need some background noise, I switch on the TV. Whenever I have a block of time where I can potentially pick up a book, I pick up the remote instead. I actually confessed to my sister a few weeks ago that I fear that I'm in danger of becoming an illiterate. I haven't read a book from cover to cover since this year began. And this from someone who used to read a book a month! (By the way I do read a fair bit just not books. I read mostly news articles, op-eds, and blogs. The books I do read, thanks to my son, mostly tend to be about a hippo who has no friends or about a bunch of escaped zoo animals that sneak into the zookeeper's house but, improbably enough, not for the purpose of eating him).

The thing is that when you have a part time job and a two year old, you just don't have that much time or energy to read. When I do have a few hours of free time, normally during that blissful block between when the little one goes down for the night and I pass out on the couch with my glasses on, I prefer to watch something light and short on TV. It's relaxing to sit and let your mind just go blank and also to share that experience with someone else. After all, reading is not exactly a social activity or something you can share with someone unless you're reading aloud or your partner is reading the same book as you and you discuss it with each other afterwards. So, instead, the Professor and I bond by watching TV.

BUT first we have to decide what to watch which gets a little tricky. First of all, it has to be relatively short. Long gone are the days when we can devote 2 solid hours to a movie without falling asleep in the middle of it. Nowadays, we need something that's 30-45 minutes long (and no commercials please!). I also don't want to watch something dark, depressing or deep just before bed so nothing with zombies, serial killers, or zombie serial killers. Then, of course, we have to both be equally interested in whatever we're watching. Tricky indeed.

Recently, we've discovered a show that meets all of our criteria, so I thought I'd share it with you guys. The Professor and I share a love of cooking and learning about food and we're equally fond of chef Anthony Bourdain. I've read one of his books and the Professor and I have seen every episode of No Reservations and his newer show, Parts Unknown. A few weeks ago, I discovered that one of his new endeavors is a show on PBS which features different chefs from around the world and tries to learn a bit about what inspires them and how they come up with new dishes. The show is called, 'The Mind of a Chef' and it's available on Netflix. We've found it both educational and entertaining. The best thing about the show is that it inspires you to get creative and daring in the kitchen which is great if you've been in a cooking rut like I have.

So check it out if you like and then come back and let me know what you thought of it. And if you have a recommendation for something we should add to our Netflix queue, please share!

P.S. I also really enjoyed reading this recent interview with Anthony Bourdain. I'd love to be his dining companion one day!

(Photos of Momofuku, restaurant of chef David Chang who is featured in Season 1)

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Spanish Day Care, Part II: School Lunches


Last week, I wrote about our experience with the public day care system in Barcelona but I left out a description of the school lunches as the post was getting a tad long. I decided it might be better to devote a separate post to them since after all, the lunches are my favorite thing about Roman's school. So here we are- part two of our experience with Spanish day care, the lunch edition!

One thing I found pleasantly surprising is that in school, little Spanish children eat just as Spanish adults do. If you've ever been in Spain, you'll perhaps have noticed that during lunch time, all restaurants have a fixed menu of the day including a vegetable starter, a protein such as chicken or fish, a piece of bread, and a light dessert. Normally a glass of wine or cup of coffee is included in the price. In guarderia, the little ones are served in this same fashion with a first and second course accompanied by bread and dessert to follow. This is pretty different from how I used to feed Roman lunch before he started school. His lunch used to be a simple affair of tuna sandwiches or toast with pesto and hard boiled egg followed by a fruit. At the time, I suppose I was following the American dining ritual of light lunches and more substantial dinners. However, in Spain, it's the opposite--you eat a heavy lunch and a light, quick dinner and this is a habit that is formed, apparently, in infancy.

At Roman's school, lunch is served around noon and at that time, all play stops and the kids put their bibs on, sit down at the table with their classmates and wait for the lunch trolley. I have to admit that I laughed the first time I saw the lunch being wheeled in by the lunch ladies. The trolley itself is really just a metal shelf on wheels but the dishes on the trolley are all covered with these domed, metal dish covers and something about the whole thing reminded me of room service for the honeymoon suite or something. So elegant for little babes! The lunch ladies themselves, I have to mention, are all kind and jovial women who are always greeted with delight by the children. Also, for some reason that I can't quite explain, it matters to me that all the lunch ladies know my son's name--I think it makes me feel that mealtime is personal and even familial.

Not only do the children eat how adults eat, but they also eat what adults eat. There are no hamburgers, fishsticks, or pizzas served in school. Nothing is processed and all the food is cooked on site in the school's kitchen. Above is a picture of the menu from Roman's school. It's in Catalan, so perhaps only a few of you readers can read it, but I will translate some of the weeks' menu for the rest of you. On Monday (dilluns in Catalan) in Week 1 (1a setmana), the children eat rice in a broth with carrot and zucchini as their starter, then a simple omelet, a salad and a seasonal fruit. On Tuesday (dimarts) of the same week, they eat a puree of vegetables, a beef stew, salad, and seasonal fruit. On Wednesday (dimecres), spaghetti with mushrooms, grilled fish, bread and fruit for dessert. If you notice from the menu in the column titled 'Berenars', the children also get a snack (normally served around 3pm after nap time) which is normally yogurt, more fruit, or a cookie. On Thursdays for snack time, the kids eat coca which is a typical Catalan sweet bread with sugar sprinkled on top.

This is a pretty amazing menu, isn't it? It's certainly a far cry from the sloppy joes and pizza with creamed sweet corn that I remember from my youth! I can't tell you how much I appreciate that my son gets to eat so well in school. For one thing, it has exposed him to foods I probably wouldn't have made for him, some of them because they're traditional Spanish and Catalan foods that I'm not familiar with and some of them because they never occurred to me. For instance, I never would have thought of serving a baby a salad with olives in it, yet this is a meal that Roman is served a few times a week (although he normally gives the olives a curious lick and then puts them aside). Another reason why I'm grateful for these quality lunches is because some of the nutrition burden is removed from my shoulders. When Roman eats at school, because the meals are all so well rounded from a nutritional standpoint, I don't have to stress about dinner so much. If I make a simple pasta or a vegetable soup for dinner, I don't worry that there's not enough protein or iron or fiber or whatever in what I made. I know that he consumed these things already during lunch.  The one thing I always try to do is to coordinate what I make with the school menu. So if he ate lentils for lunch, I'm not going to make lentils for dinner. It takes a bit of planning, but it's such a help to only have to worry about two meals a day rather than three.

I don't think many Spanish people are aware of how special the public daycare system is here or how refreshing it is for Americans to see kids eating 'non-kid' foods for lunch. I don't think they know that in the U.S., if you want your kid to eat well, you can't rely on the meals provided by the school which tend to be lacking in quality and diversity. In the U.S., it normally falls to the parents to provide a quality lunch from home and they also have to figure out dinner later.  If parents had less to do, providing three nutritionally adequate meals a day for their kids would be no problem, but unfortunately, that's not the case anywhere in the world. We feel tremendously thankful that there is a system here in Spain that places a high value on a healthy diet for our littlest ones.

So that's part two of our Spanish day care experience. What do you guys think? Is your child in daycare somewhere? What's it like?

P.S. If you missed Part I, you can find it here

Monday, September 15, 2014

Spanish Day Care, Part I


I've been wanting to write about our experience with Spanish day care since Roman began last September but I feared the post would be too long (I have too many opinions on the subject apparently!) and also because I had no image to go along with the post since Roman's school is strictly, but understandably, no photos. But now that he's been there a year--today was his first day back after a two month vacation--I've decided to just get on with it. Prepare yourselves for a long read. :)

Before I get into talking about our experience, I should probably provide a little info on the day care system here. First, there are both private and public day cares or guarderias as they're called in Spanish. The public day cares are subsidized by the government and have a very good reputation. Because of this, the spots are limited and highly coveted and entrance is not guaranteed. Private day cares tend to be more expensive and they can vary widely in quality. But the private ones can be attractive options for parents who work a lot since the schools stay open later, they don't have as many public holidays where the school is closed, and the summer and winter breaks are not as long. We also know people who decide to put their child in private day care because they want their child to be spoken to in English rather than in Catalan which is what children would learn in a public guarderia. You may also go the private route if your child doesn't get a spot in a public school or you missed the enrollment period.

On the other hand, public day care is very attractive to many parents not only because it's very good but also because it's cheaper. I have to mention that Spanish day care isn't even as cheap as public day cares in other parts of Europe BUT while it isn't cheap, it is affordable. Our son attends a public school and we pay something like 300 euro a month, (almost $400) for full time care with meals included. This is nothing compared to what friends of mine back in the States pay. We have friends in Miami who pay $1000 a month for one child and the parents have to provide the meals.

The affordability of Roman's school is amazing obviously, but we're not just happy with his school because of how affordable it is. We also love it because it has exceeded our expectations in so many ways. The teachers are excellent, the meals are prepared on site and are served in courses (I will devote a separate post to the food since this post is already getting too long) and the kids are exposed to all sorts of things that they might not be at home including music,dance, and art. There's no TV watching, no computer time, no screens at all. It's just semi-structured play interspersed with mealtimes and naps.

We especially appreciate the emphasis on doing things independently and picking up after themselves. There is a Montessori aspect in the layout of the classrooms and the required things the little ones have to bring with them to school. In the classrooms there are little chairs and tables, tiny sinks and potties, and each toddler has a designated spot where they hang their washcloths, jackets and schoolbag. Schoolbags must be of the drawstring variety so that the little one can open and close it himself which he wouldn't be able to do with a zippered bag. The school requires the littles to wear bibs with elastic bands rather than bibs with snaps so that the children can pull the bib on and off by themselves at mealtime. They are also expected to put their empty plate on the lunch cart when they're done eating and then wash their hands and mouths at the sink.

From our perspective, day care has been a wonderful experience for both us and for Roman. His school is a safe place for him to run and climb and explore and make a mess which he can't do in our home (or he can but with less abandon). Also he learns from the other kids and imitates them. Sometimes this is bad (like when he learned to hit) and sometimes it's good (like when he learned how to feed himself). For our part, we've been impressed by how much he's grown up and how much of this is due to school. We have a tendency to do everything for Roman because it's easier, faster and cleaner. But in school, because he's taught to do things by himself, we are learning to back off and watch him tackle things on his own. The schedule is fairly structured in Roman's school; the kids play outside in the patio in the mornings, then they come inside to play some more, then they wash up for lunch, eat, wash up again, nap, have a snack and then play until the parents come to pick them up. It's actually been a big help for us to copy the routine he has in school (lunch, then nap, then snack) because we think Roman is more at ease when he knows exactly what to expect and that the routine is the same everywhere.

When Roman first began school, it was pretty hard for me to be apart from him for hours a day especially because he spent the whole first year of his life at home with me. I felt like I should be with him and that he would be happier at home with me. I wasn't working that much at the time and I felt guilty that I had time to take care of my kid, I was just opting not to. I didn't realize how burned out you can get taking care of a baby 24 hours a day every day. It doesn't leave time for work, exercise or hobbies. Also, I didn't consider that while Roman would have a rough period adjusting to being in someone else's care, he would indeed adjust. He now enjoys his school so much that he never wants to leave and sometimes I have to drag him out. He's had so many great experiences at his school--he saw his first puppet show, had his first painting, dance and music class, and made a lot of friends. Even though I miss him when he's in school, I think it's been important that he spends time away from us so that he learns not to take us for granted and for us, the same applies. I've found that we all appreciate each other much more when we're not together all the time and we have time to miss each other.

Finally, I've noticed that since Roman began at his school, the Professor and I feel much more integrated into society than before. We meet up with his classmates and their parents at the local park, we learn about Catalan traditions and holidays and we discover the ways that parenting is similar in the U.S. and the ways it's different. In summary, it's been a learning experience for all of us, but one that we're very happy to have had.


I leave you with a shot I surreptitiously took in his school of Roman in the birthday crown that he and his classmates decorated. He looks a bit pouty here because he doesn't like wearing things on his head, but he actually had a really good day that day. I'm sure he won't remember it in a few years, but this was a place where he was happy.

P.S. Stay tuned next week for Part II about the school lunches.
  

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Surviving the summer in the city (sans A/C)


When we first moved here a few years ago and began our apartment hunt, it never occurred to us to ask the agent showing us our apartment whether it had air conditioning or not.  This was for several reasons, 1) it was around 35 degrees Fahrenheit outside so A/C was the last thing on our minds 2) we had no idea how hot and humid Barcelona gets in the summer and 3) the Professor and I are from Miami where air conditioning is as prolific as palm trees and flip flops. 

Fast forward three summers and here we are, sitting around the house in our unmentionables with a fan on high pointed right at us. And I'm telling you, it's still not enough. The Professor and I have practically turned complaining about the heat into a hobby--we do it all the time! ¨Ugh, my shirt is sticking to my back¨, ¨My hair is so frizzy!¨ ¨Is that the highest the fan goes?¨ 

You might think our behavior and complaining is a little extravagant since Barcelona is hardly any hotter than Miami. It's just that as native Miamians, we've never been exposed to the heat before. This sounds so strange to people from here and probably it will to you too. People here are always amused and bewildered by our whining, ¨But isn't Miami hot year round?¨ they ask.  Yes, it is. And that's why every single place you go has central air conditioning and it's on all the time. Also we don't have to walk anywhere in Miami. We go from our air conditioned house, to our air conditioned car, to our air conditioned destination. As a matter of fact, in the summer months, when it's especially hot and humid outside, many places turn the air conditioning so low you need to bring a sweater with you. So even though the Professor and I have been living in a tropically hot place almost our whole lives, we have been accustomed to living in Scandinavian temperatures. 

That's why we were thrown for a loop when we discovered that in Spain, it's not that common to have air conditioning and what's more, people don't really mind. It's been explained to us that most apartments are too old to have central air-conditioning and since it only gets hot for three months of the year (during one of which everyone's gone for vacation anyway), it's not really that necessary. Also, it's expensive. I remember a few years ago when we stayed at a hotel in Valencia, the hotel management informed me that they don't turn on the air conditioning in the rooms until July. When I complained that it was already tremendously hot even in late April, they advised me to open the windows. 

We've also discovered that apart from these practical considerations, there's another, unspoken reason why people don't have A/C: they're suspicious of it. Many Spaniards, indeed many Europeans we've encountered, think that A/C is bad for you; it'll make you sick. I remember that when Roman was born, smack in the middle of a scorching hot summer, anytime we went to a restaurant they would seat us as far from the air conditioning as possible, fearing that the cold air would be too much for a wee baby. But since then, we've also seen adults, who assuredly have heartier immune systems, trying to avoid sitting or standing in front of any cold air source. 

But there's something else too. People here accept the heat, sometimes even embrace it, because it's fleeting. In a few months, the leaves will turn brown and the temperatures will dip down. In Miami, we don't embrace the heat because we always have it. We take it for granted. We live in the summer exactly as we do in the winter--wearing socks, sleeping under blankets and with the A/C blasting. It's not only wasteful from a conservation standpoint, it's also a rejection of nature. As my friend said, ¨It's summer. It's supposed to be hot.¨

Since I've realized this (and it took me some time to accept it), I've made more of an effort to enjoy the season while it's still here. We eat lots of cold salads for lunch, keep our windows open all day trying to tempt in a breeze, and make daily trips to the ice cream vendor on our street. We also try to spend as much time outside as we can where it's actually cooler than upstairs in our apartment. But we still bought a portable air conditioning unit. It's big and bulky and only cools the area immediately around it, but we love it dearly. 


(Photo: The Sartorialist

Thursday, September 4, 2014

A Barcelona home with 'federal' style

This place is pretty dreamy, right? But what's 'federal' about it? Well if you live in Barcelona, you've probably been to or at least heard of Federal Café, a great spot to meet friends for brunch while enjoying a relaxed and stylish ambience. Apparently the owners of this establishment, Australian expats, have carried that same ambience over into their home in the Barrio Gótico region of Barcelona.

Here are some more pictures:




It is very rare that I see a place where I feel that I could live happily without changing a single detail, but this is one of those instances. I love the way the living room flows seamlessly into the patio as though it were all one space and the way the woven baskets add some texture to the dining room. Unique and pretty. The owners could even put some flowers in those during the springtime and I think it'd look even better.  

What do you guys think? If you'd like to see more pictures, visit Nuevo Estilo where this house was featured. 

P.S. If you're new in town and looking for a good interior design magazine, I'd recommend Nuevo Estilo. It doesn't compare with Living Etc (in my opinion, nothing does) but it always features homes with great modern style. Plus! They have a mini version of the magazine which is less than 2 Euro in case you're just looking for a quick jolt of inspiration. 

(Photos: Nuevo Estilo)

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Scenes from the Festa Major de Sants

It's widely acknowledged here in Barcelona that the summer festival in Gracia that I wrote about last time, is the one for the big crowds and the tourists. But the summer festival that's for the locals is the one in my own neighborhood of Sants. When we moved to this neighborhood, we had no idea that it had a certain reputation and we knew nothing of its history. We later learned that this was a former industrial hub in the city and that families who live here have lived here for generations meaning that there's a strong community spirit here. Today, our neighborhood has also gotten a reputation for being home to many young hippies, plenty hipsters (artisanal beers at Homo Sibaris anyone?) and fervent political activists (yep, this was the neighborhood where the rioting took place a few months ago over the demolition of an occupied city building). All of this is very interesting to know of course (or it is for me anyway), but let's move on to the festival and the street decorations, shall we?

Here are some scenes from the Fiesta de Sants:

First up, a medieval themed street in Carrer Alcolea de d'alt complete with swords and shields, darts, and a castle. These made up flags with dragons made me feel like I was in Game of Thrones or something. 

A tribute to Barcelona's beloved architect, Antoni Gaudí, with a mini version of Parc Guëll on Carrer Vallespir.  You can't see it very well, but that's actually water coming out of the iguana's mouth. Clever, eh?

I told you our neighborhood was political. So why not a satirically themed Communist North Korea street on Carrer Alcolea baix? It was funny and mildly disturbing at the same time. 

More from the communist street. There was a tank, this fighter plane, a checkpoint and fake propaganda pinned up here and there 

In our day and age, the designers of the themed streets fully expect people to post to social networking sites so they created a 'selfie' backdrop here. I hate that that word's been adopted into the Spanish language. The English one too actually. 

Carrer Roses was decorated with a comic book theme. Specifically, the long running Spanish comic 13, Rue del Percebe. It was so well done! I instantly went home and looked this comic up because, not being from here originally, I'd never heard of it. Here's a close up of one  of the boxes:

 I loved finding the mini details like the picture hung on the wall, the sconce, and the flowers on the balcony. 

There's so much more to the festivities than the street decorations. There are concerts, dancing, water balloon fights, paint fights, puppet shows, face painting, balloon animals, and more. It's a lively but noisy time to be in the city. Sometimes the festivities go on until the wee hours and the Professor and I complain to each other about the noise of the crowds and the loud, dated music (the YMCA AGAIN?! What year is this?!) But really it's a lot of fun. 
 
 And it's also a great opportunity to buy yummy fried foods and food on a stick. 

And dance around with your squealing, happy baby to disco music under strings of lights.

So that's what we've been up to lately. Here's what we did last week in case you missed it.