Monday, March 30, 2009

Insane or absolute genius?

It's safe to say that Gaudi is one of, if not 'the', most famous architect in Barcelona. His unconventional style is world renowned, and his buildings are absolutely amazing. There's no way you can truly experience the essence of Barcelona (no matter how much paella or how many tapas you eat) without visiting at least one or two of Gaudi's famous pieces of art.

So, while there, I dedicated an entire day just to him. I started my morning by taking a tour of La Pedrera, which is an apartment complex. The outside, although unique, did not grab at my attention. I actually found it rather bland, for lack of a better word. However the building reminded me of the geode rocks which look ordinary on the outside, but are filled with colorful crystals on the inside. There wasn't a crack or corner of the building that wasn't bursting with color. The roof top was like a giant playground, and the apartment opened for the tour was not only beautiful but filled with natural light in every single room. In a perfect world, I'll be rich enough to live in one. But until then I'll continue to dream...

That afternoon the 5 of us went to Park Guell, created by Gaudi. If you are 'fortunate enough' to make a wrong turn like we were, you can hike up a mini mountain (with the aid of occasional outdoor escalators), and then walk down to the park. Otherwise you can take the short route and lose out on added anticipation you receive when you're huffing and puffing up the hill. The park was another ingenious creation. The curves and colors amazed me. Granted it's not as large as I had imagined it would be, but then again, it's no ordinary park either... meaning you're still filled with about an hour's worth of exploring and picture taking.

That evening we ended the tour by visiting what may be his most famous work of art... which is still a work in progress. La Sagrada Familia is a structure which is hard to describe in words, and pictures don't give it justice. On the one hand you're left feeling that the building is way too cluttered and too much for your senses to absorb. On the other hand, though, you stand in awe as you try to see every inch of detail on the cathedral facade. Every nook and cranny on the building houses a statue depicting of the life of Christ. Hours could pass and you would still feel like you haven't seen everything Gaudi was trying to represent, along with what the current builders are trying to complete for him. It truly is a magnificent building.

So, in response to the question given by Goudi's city contractor of whether he was insane or an absolute genius, I'll take a venture and say he was probably a little bit of both.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Fast as lightning

You're told to watch out for pick-pockets in Barcelona, but I never realized the frequency at which they attack. They're a constant annoyance that strikes fast, like a swarm of mosquitoes in a swampy area. In a weeks time we had three close encounters and knew of one girl who's wallet was stolen. It may not be normal, the extent at which we came across the pick-pockets, but I'm sure if you watch your surroundings while in the city... especially the metro... you'll have at least one experience.

In order to recount our experiences, I'll give you a storyboard layout.

Main characters/heroes/victims:

Other victims:
Unsuspecting German man
Clueless young 20-something American girls

3 middle aged men
2 gypsy women
1 (maybe drunk) middle aged man

Barcelona metro
Madrid metro

Episode 1:
Tim and Jed walked onto the Barcelona metro first, followed by Scott who was surrounded by 3 middle aged men. The 3 men were creating a bit of commotion, and slowing down to a point that made it nearly impossible for Jonathan and me to get onto the metro before the doors closed. We shoved our way on, though, and as the two of us were talking I noticed one of the 3 men in front of us reaching for Scott's pocket. I immediately swat at the man's hand and exclaim: "Don't pick pocket him!" Scott turned around and checked his pocket. The man I hit turned towards me and asked repeatedly, "WHAT, WHAT??"... apparently trying to sound innocent. Jonathan stared at them stone faced. Tim and Jed then moved closer towards me, so I maneuvered my way around the middle aged men to stand by them until the next stop when the 3 men rushed off the metro.

Episode 2:
Tim and I had gone to Madrid on Thursday. At one point during our many metro excursions, there were two gypsy women who entered the same time we did. One of the ladies placed her foot in the door to keep it open. Tim instinctively put his hand in his front pocket where his wallet was located, and as he did so, he felt the hand of someone else trying to shove her way into his pocket as well. She immediately backed off, but that gave him enough of a clue to look around and found another gypsy girl reaching for the pocket of an unsuspecting German man. Tim grabbed the girls arm and shoved her away. Trying to seem innocent she asked, "what, what??," and then ran off the metro with her companion who was keeping the door open.

Episode 3:
Saturday night Jed and I were in the metro station and he noticed a (maybe drunk) middle aged man who's back was turned away from the metro and towards the waiting passengers on the platform. So when the metro arrived, Jed kept his eye on the (maybe drunk) middle aged man. We got on, and both saw the middle aged man reaching for the purse of a clueless young 20-something American girl. Jed ran over and stopped the guy in time and the clueless girl zipped up her purse and went on chatting with her friends. Jed stayed nearby the girls and pick pocket until the next stop when the (maybe drunk) middle aged pick pocketing man immediately left. We ended up getting off at the same stop as the clueless young 20-something American girls and chatted with them as we walked to the next tram. The girl who's wallet was nearly stolen stopped me in my tracks when she said (like it was no big deal) "Oh yeah, my wallet's almost been stolen twice already." And that is the point in which I dubbed her "incredulously clueless."

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Pleasant Surprise

I never had a desire to go to Barcelona... or anywhere in Spain for that matter. I'm not quite sure of the reason, other than the fact that I've had my fair share of Latino experiences and had a tainted view of the culture because of it. (Sorry to those who say that Spaniards are not Latino, but many from Central/South America can trace their roots back to Spain, so I'm sticking to my opinion that Spaniards are Latino too).

A few months ago my friend Tim invited me to go to Barcelona with him and a few friends. I felt it would probably be the only time I'd go... because I wouldn't have taken the initiative on my own, which is why I told him to count me in. As the months went by, I got quite excited. Not for the fact that I'd be going to Barcelona, but for the fact that I'd have a week of vacation in the sun and warmth. I was waiting for any welcomed change that would take me away from the rainy, cloudy, sunless days of Amsterdam.
Even when one person after another told me how great Barcelona is, how beautiful is, and how much I'll love it, I still wasn't sold. It wasn't until I arrived two Saturdays ago, and ventured out around the city with two new friends, that my heart melted and I fell in love with one of the most beautiful cities I have seen so far.
Besides the fact that the weather was perfect, I could understand most of the words that people were saying (unless they were speaking in Catalan), and the food was delicious... not one of those things grabbed at me like the architecture did. Not only the Gaudi work, but every architect commissioned to build in Barcelona had to be absolutely brilliant in order to design such masterpieces for people to live and work in.
And I'm even sure I would have been carried away in the beauty of Barcelona if I had gone down with high expectations, instead of none at all. That's how great the city is.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

One year anniversary

That's right, as of last Friday March 6th, I've been here for a year. How the time has flown! It had a shaky beginning and a few rocky times in the middle as well, but has definitely made my top 10 list of all time favorites.

Now I'm off to Spain to celebrate.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Road Rules 103: Fietsers

Unless you're planning on stealing a bike, you're more likely than not going to get a few basic tips at the rental shop. And you won't need to do a maintenance check on the light and bell to make sure both work since the rental store should do that on a regular basis. That said, let's review the basics and expound on a few other unwritten/unmentioned rules and tips.

Rule #1 - Get used to the bell. You may be lucky and won't use it, but those chances are slim. Give a few trial rings, maybe have a race with your friend to see who has the fastest bell ringing reflexes. Trust me, it will come in handy.

Rule #2 - Even though the rental shop has checked the light, you may also want to do so yourself. If you ride in the dark without a light, you WILL get a ticket.

Rule #3- You must always be on the lookout of pedestrians and other bikers. Be a defensive driver!

Rule #4- Here in Holland, we drive on the right side of the road, not the wrong... I mean- left side. Granted, there are situations where you will have to. For example, in construction areas (which Amsterdam has quite a few of) you may have to drive on the opposite side of the road. However, whether you're biking on the left side in a construction area or for another specific purpose, make sure you stay on the right side of the bike path.

Rule #5- Independent of which side of the road you're riding, DO NOT HOG THE BIKE PATH. Stay on the right side of the path unless passing. If you and a biking buddy are riding together, keep your ears open for the friendly ringing bell of a biker behind you who wants to pass, and then move over.

Rule #6- Upon entering another street, you may see a row of triangles across your path (see picture below). If the triangles are pointing towards you, you must yield to oncoming traffic.

Rule #7- Every time you enter a round-about you will have to yield (since the triangles will be facing you). Once in the round about, do not stop. However, make your intentions known by the handy-dandy arm signals you've been taught as a young child so that the cars will be forewarned. But, be cautious and aware of your surroundings the entire time. Some cars may not see you.
---------- ---------- -----------
Tip #1- In construction areas you may have to ride dangerously close to tram tracks. Stay as far away from them as possible. The tires of a bike are a perfect fit, and if you do happen to slide into one, you will flip. (That I know from experience). Keep your wheels perpendicular to the tracks when you go over them.

Tip #2- Be careful riding close to the curb. The likelihood of the pedals slamming onto the curb and your inevitable contact with the pavement will increase ten fold. (This I do not know from experience, thankfully).

Tip #3- Always be on the lookout for people on bikes such as the ones pictured below. Individuals on rental bikes usually don't know where they're going -- which is why the two bikers in the picture are riding on the wrong side of the road.
Tip #4 - Beware: the bike paths aren't for pedal bikes alone. Handicap cars (pictured below), and motorized bikes with blue license plates(also pictured below), are allowed on the bike paths. Even though they are not allowed to go more than 30 kph, they are ruthless.
Tip #5- Although you will see bikers holding an umbrella in the rain, DO NOT attempt it. Umbrella holding is only for experienced Dutch cyclists. If you do try your luck with it, don't say I didn't warn you. Best idea would be to buy a poncho -- you may look like a dork, but you'll stay pretty dry.

Tip #6- Make mental notes on these three courses - or even better, make a print out of each and keep it on hand while wandering the streets of Amsterdam. If you do you'll have a safe and happy trip, and won't be cursed by any of the locals.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Road Rules 102: "Mom watch out for the bike!"

If I got Euro for every time I heard someone warn their travel buddy to move out of the way of an oncoming bike...

With the knowledge you've gained of the basic road layout, we can now move on and discuss how you can put that knowledge into practice while in Amsterdam. In most other cities, if you want to cross the street, you mindlessly walk over to the curb and THEN look both ways. That is not the case here, oh no. Not unless you like having 1.5 inch tire marks across your face.

Who remembers what is between the sidewalk and the road here? .....Any takers? I'll give you a hint: "hundreds of bikers whizzing by". Yes, that means there's a bike path between the sidewalk and road. But not to fear, between the road and the bike path (if the bike path not on the street) is a curb wide enough for someone to stand while waiting for traffic to subside. This also means if you have finished crossing the street, you MUST pause on the curb and look both ways to make sure there are no bikes coming. If you don't... well, you've taken your life into your own hands.

Before we proceed, let me explain one thing. Pedestrians NEVER have the right away. I appologize to those who may take offense, or feel that it's against everything they've been taught, since they've grown up in a location that stops for the common "by foot" traveler. But this city likes to be different and keep you on your toes (no pun intended). If smoking weed and prostitution are legal here, why not be liberal on the road as well and let bikers be the ones who are yielded for? And thus it is.

Keep the following things in mind:
  • Even though bike paths are smooth and pretty looking, they are NOT there for you to walk on.
  • If you do not see a bike path next to what you think must be the sidewalk, and there is no bike path on the road, beware. Chances are, you are walking on the bike path, and the sidewalk is actually on the other side of the street.
  • Keep your ears open for bikers ringing their bells and act accordingly. They usually don't ring the bell 'just because they like the sound'.
  • Always, ALWAYS look both ways when going across the street and across the bike paths. Remember there are bike paths on either side of the street.
Road Rules Quiz:

  1. I can walk blindly from the sidewalk to the street before looking both ways.

  2. True

  3. As a pedestrian, I do not have the right away.

  4. True

  5. It is not OK for me to stand on a bike path to look at my map.

  6. True

  7. If there doesn't appear to be a bike path, I should just assume I am walking on the sidewalk.

  8. True

  9. If I hear the ringing of a bell, I should jump off the bike path as QUICKLY as possible.

  10. True

  11. If I see someone get run over by a bike, I'll tell them: "You should have taken Claire's class".

  12. True

Monday, March 2, 2009

Road Rules 101 - the lay of the land

The most important thing to know when visiting Amsterdam is where you should and BETTER NOT step. As simple as this lesson may seem, basic awareness of the street layout can save you from a "mile a minute" heart beat after a close call... or worse.

There are a number of vehicles of all shapes and sizes that maneuver around Amsterdam. To accommodate them all, the Dutch government has come up with a few different lanes. Let's think of them as layers:
A - the pedestrian layer: sidewalk
B - the biker's layer: the bike path
C - the motorized vehicle layer: road
D - the tram layer: tram tracks

If you had a bird's eye view, you'd see the street below as follows:
A, B, C, D, C, B, A.

As you look at the below picture, you can see each layer.

What many tourists forget is the crucial 2nd layer - the bike path, since it it is quite uncommon in other cities around the world. DON'T FORGET THE BIKE PATH.
Find the layers in the following pictures:
*please note, some bike paths are on the road, and others are on the sidewalk.