This Just In: Barcelona

I recently spent a week in Barcelona. It was my first time in Spain.

During the commute "home" from work to my small rented flat one afternoon, I stopped at a local market to buy a bag of cherries and a large bottle of water. I smiled at strangers along the way to try my best to make up for my linguistic shortcomings. Upon arrival at the apartment, I settled into a chair on the tiny balcony to eat cherries and watch life unfold around and beneath me.

One of many moments I'll treasure from this adventure. Here are a few others!



What I Know

Two years ago, I rode in a minivan along the narrow streets of a Brazilian favela (shantytown) en route to a community center. Upon arrival, I learned about how adolescents were learning skills - boxing, juggling, and aerial arts among them - to stay off the streets and, hopefully, out of gangs. I saw artistry, grace, and a passion to learn and create beauty.

Around the same time, I listened to a Serbian woman describe how she and her fellow Romani (gypsies) were slowly and methodically working to break down prejudice. As a woman and a gypsy, she knew that she faced double the challenges. And that it wasn't going to come easily. But she'd seen moments of success, of traction. And so she and her fellow advocates were going to continue to break down the stigmas, moment by moment.

Eighteen months ago, on the island of Java, three generations of a Muslim family welcomed me into their home for dinner. The meal was sensational, and our hosts sweet, welcoming, and funny. My group asked about daily life in Yogyakarta. Family members had questions about the United States. One of the grandsons discussed his dreams of becoming a pastry chef. As we walked about their neighborhood, one of the women took my hand and squeezed it. I squeezed back.

A year ago, I made my first introductory strolls along the streets of Paris. Life unfolded all around me: Couples walked with their arms around each other's waists, friends exchanged kisses on the cheek as they sank into outdoor seats at neighborhood cafés. Six months after gunmen tried to cripple the Parisian lifestyle, that legendary joie de vivre was on full display.

About eight months ago, I marveled at the confluence of cultures, languages, scents, and sounds that make up everyday London life. History and innovation came together all around me - in the food, the architecture, and the philosophy. And while I was delighting in how exciting it all felt, I loved most the fact that the vibe was straightforward. Of course London was an ever-developing tapestry of experiences. It was and would always continue to develop, adapt, and grow even richer.

What I know of the world is that there is good. Amazing people looking to connect and learn about themselves and about others. And no matter what happens, and no matter who tries to instill fear and a thirst for isolation, we should get out there and experience it. Build relationships, not walls. Create connections rather than discord. Travel instead of hide. Feel, not fear.

Five Flavors Worth the Flight

Over catch-up drinks a few weeks ago, a friend and I were discussing her upcoming trip to the Czech Republic, a country that ranks high on my list of places to which I'd like to return. I thought it worth mentioning to her a particularly notable local dish – so that she could either seek it out or make sure to avoid it entirely, depending on her travel objectives.

“It’s beef served with a creamy gravy and dumplings, which is pretty familiar, right? But then you have the condiments. There’s cranberry sauce and … whipped cream.”

The puzzlement on her face perfectly matched the expression my travel companion had in Prague, as the dish – known as svíčkováwas set down in front of her.

For the record, the dish wasn’t terrible – unfamiliar to my American palate, for sure, but certainly worth trying – but it wasn’t one that would rank among my top travel picks. But the conversation did get me thinking: What are the dishes that I’ve loved most during my international travels? After some time to contemplate, I’ve compiled them below, as well as information about how you can experience them for yourself should you be giving your passport a workout.

Honorable Mention:
Grand Marnier Soufflé
Chez Dumonet Josephine, Paris, France

I relished every single morsel and moment of our dinner at Chez Dumonet, from the warm and welcoming service to the last sugar crystals of this incredible soufflé.

Number 5:
Beef Rendang
Jakarta, Indonesia

I’ve never felt quite so out of my element as when Matt and I arrived in Jakarta. After nearly 27 hours of travel, I didn’t know what day it was. What time it was. Where within Indonesia’s massive capital city I actually was. But I did know that I was excited to explore and sample the local cuisine. Rice. Sambal. Fruit. Yes to all of it, please.

The only reason rendang is at the lowest spot in this list is because I only experienced a small bite of it while in Indonesia itself. Our tour group popped into a small Indonesian restaurant – the kind with the white bowls and servers of deliciousness stacked in the front window to entice passersby – and were given a brief chance to sample the goods. Rich, smoky, spicy, and decadent, the flavors unleashed a slow burn in my mouth that left me wanting to come back for more and introduced me to the incredible food I would experience for the next two weeks.

While I can’t recall the name of the specific restaurant we popped into, I can tell you that those in the Boston area should keep an eye out for what Kaki Lima is up to. This incredible team is in the midst of a six-month residency at Wink & Nod, and up until recently, the menu included rendang. We've been twice already since they kicked off the residency in March. I'd love to see rendang back on the menu, but everything they create takes me back to Java and Bali.

Indonesian food should be a bigger deal in the U.S. than it is. Don’t waste time. Get a taste of it now.

Number 4:
Soft Pretzel
Salzburg, Austria

I’m a pretty equal opportunity bread lover. Rolls, baguettes, croissants … whatever it is, I’m on board. Warm it up and I’m done for. But I’ve always had a particular soft spot for the large soft pretzel. I keep mine simple – big grains of salt, please – and love to save the twist in the middle for the very end.

I happened across the motherload of soft pretzels while exploring an outdoor market in Salzburg. And while there were many covered in cheese, dusted with poppy seeds, and other pretty adornments available, I went for the classic.

I took a bite and then went back to buy another one for later, when I’d returned to my Danube river ship. Hearty without being dense. A good crust to bite into, but soft and satisfying inside. Big flakes of salt that melted on the tongue.

These pretzels are the reasons I’ve stopped buying pretzels at sporting events. They can’t even compare.

Number 3:
Shopska Salad
Arbanasi, Bulgaria

By the time I sat down to try one of Bulgaria’s most-celebrated national dishes, I was convinced that it had been over-hyped. For at least two days, I’d been hearing about it. Shopska salad this, shopska salad that.

Fast-forward to my return from Eastern Europe, when all I could do was talk about shopska salad.

This seemingly simple combination of four ingredients – roasted red pepper, tomato, cucumber, and sirine cheese – is a near-perfect marriage of flavors. The brightness of the sirine (the Bulgarian version of feta) enhances the sweetness of the red pepper, which plays nicely off the tomato, which makes the cucumber pop … if I was limited to eating only one kind of salad for the rest of my life, this would be it.

Number 2:
French Onion Soup
Le Comptoir de la Gastronomie, Paris, France

During a return visit to Paris in December, I embarked on a one-woman quest to find the city’s best onion soup. And while this required me to sample bowl after bowl after bowl of delicious soup – the struggle was real – I persevered until I found it.

We’d planned an indulgent dinner (ok, fine, one more indulgent dinner) for our final night in the city. While I’d thought that the meal was intended to celebrate another wonderful visit to our favorite city, it turned into something else: Since Matt had proposed earlier in the day, it became our engagement celebration dinner.

Perhaps my mood – giddy doesn’t even begin to describe – influenced my dining experience a little, but our evening at Le Comptoir de la Gastronomie would have been magical even without that element coming into play. Nestled in the 1st arrondissement, the small space embraces its cozy quarters with gusto, with accents of red velvet, a quirky assortment of non-matching chandeliers, and shelves that encourage a visitor to look up and around.

The restaurant is known for some of its more decadent main courses, and Matt still raves about the foie gras ravioli served in a truffle cream sauce. But I continue to lust after the onion soup. The broth was light, but packed with an incredible depth of flavor that I hadn’t quite found anywhere else. The cheese was just the right kind of salty and inviting, and the crouton had a bit of sweetness to it that kept me going back in for more.

Other takes on the soup that I’d experienced – in Paris and back home – were all delicious, but also super rich and filling. This was perfect: flavorful, exciting, and a wonderful introduction to the meal to come. And it left me wanting so much more.

Number 1:
Strawberry Juice
Bali, Indonesia

The best thing I’ve ever tasted during international travel is a tall glass of strawberry juice that I drank during a lunch on the Indonesian island of Bali.

My tour group had just finished visiting Ulun Danu Bratan temple and stopped by a nearby restaurant. I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to order strawberry juice had our guide not recommended it – the man had good taste and had yet to steer me wrong. When the thick juice arrived in a large glass and straw, evoking thoughts of a ‘50s diner-style strawberry milkshake, I couldn’t help but smile.

Then I sipped. Total gamechanger. It was sweet, but accompanied by this incredible punch of tartness that woke up my entire mouth. I could feel and taste the pulpy bits of the fruit – hear it even, as it made its way up the straw. The simplest possible thing – a glass of juice made from a fruit I’d eaten every year for my entire life – was making me think of strawberries in an entirely new way. Familiar yet fresh. Exciting yet comfortable. I had consumed a third of the glass within two sips and couldn’t get enough.

I feel better about the world knowing that Balinese strawberry juice exists. And yet there is a little part of me that despairs that there are 10,045 miles standing between me and the single best thing I’ve ever tasted while abroad.

Yes, I mapped it. It was that good.

A Barefoot Moment on Abbey Road

The Beatles and photographer Ian Macmillan had about ten minutes to shoot the cover of Abbey Road on August 8, 1969.

As the story goes, Macmillan stood on a ladder as the four musicians walked back and forth along the crosswalk. A police officer blocked traffic. Because the street surface was hot in early August, Paul alternated between wearing sandals and walking barefoot.

They managed to get the perfect shot: mid-stride, full of style, and incredibly relaxed.

My group of four—my father, uncle, aunt, and me—had about 30 seconds to recreate the cover of Abbey Road on October 11, 2016.

No stepladder. We handed our camera to a lovely guy in his mid-twenties, who stood on the studio side of the street; we followed up by photographing him doing the same thing with his girlfriend.

No police officer. It’s a busy intersection, and occasionally taxi drivers would honk at pedestrians. (How a driver could not anticipate Abbey Road traffic escapes me.)

Because Paul went barefoot, I went barefoot. The street surface is chilly in October.

Somehow, we managed to get as close to the perfect shot as we could: all four of us in the frame, full of excitement, and incredibly optimistic that we weren’t about to be run over.

End result? Brilliant.


The puppet master

It was clear from the onset that he was born to tell stories. Each of his movements was deliberate. Every expression had purpose. His entire approach commanded attention and I was determined to ingrain to memory (and memory card) as much of the experience as possible.

We met the puppet master at his home, located a short drive outside of Ubud, Bali. It didn't feel like too many visitors from out of town - who seemed to largely consist of yoga enthusiasts, Elizabeth Gilbert devotees, and/or Australians on holiday - made their way out to this particular area. As he approached our group of 15 American travelers, and he took time to look each of us in the eye as part of his greeting, I realized that missing the chance to meet this man was their loss.

At 74, the puppet master had been devoted to wayang - shadow puppetry - for more than 52 years. After more than a half century of study and focus, the puppets he crafted and showcased were clearly still objects of incredible enthusiasm. After a short tour of his property, he led us to a table where family members were working on new pieces: punching careful and intricate holes through the leather and painting facial features on each puppet.

Through a translator, members of our group asked a few questions about the process, wayang performances, and his family. While I'd been quietly observing and photographing him, I had to add my own question to the mix.

"Which character is your favorite?"

As the translator relayed the question, the puppet master's face lit up. He held up one particular piece and spoke warmly. A particular servant, he said, was his favorite. Fun and funny, the puppet master enjoyed bringing him to life very much. Based on his reaction, it felt like it wasn't the type of question he was often asked, and we exchanged a smile as I thanked him.

Shortly thereafter, I watched him bring the puppets to life. Sitting cross-legged on a short stage, his son playing traditional gamelan instruments behind him, the puppet master gave us a quick taste of the wayang experience. He deftly jumped from one voice to another, held up to four puppets at a time, and wove together a story that I was able to understand despite the language barrier. And despite the fact that he'd surely told this story thousands of times over the decades, his face was full of so much joy and enthusiasm. He reveled in each exchange between characters. He laughed and shouted and scowled as needed. He seemed completely engrossed with the world he was creating and sharing with us.

Something else struck me, too, perhaps this struck me because I was in his presence on my birthday, and I had age on my mind. He looked so incredibly young. Back straight. Eyes sharp. Body responsive and quick.

Art clearly defied age. And this man was a wonder - an incredible birthday gift.

At the foot of Canal Street

With September comes an urge to head south and soak up some more of New Orleans - and I suspect that this will become an annual tradition, given the way the city captivated me at this time last year, despite the odds stacked against it, thanks to the Garden State Effect.

Despite fear of dating myself,  here's the breakdown: In the movie Garden State, Natalie Portman's character tells Zach Braff's that listening to the Shins is going to change his life. Upon doing so, she made it impossible for me to give the band a fair shake. It was immediately over-hyped. As a result, when I listened to the band (both in the movie and live), I thought they were perfectly good ... pleasant enough in that melancholy sort of way ... but my life continued on without some great cosmic shift. Whereas other bands that could be considered members of a similar sonic family tree (Rilo Kiley, Belle & Sebastian, etc) completely shook me to my core. Why? I wasn't waiting to be completely blown away.

I've encountered similar situations in travel. As I was preparing for my first trip to Europe, friends and acquaintances told me that I was going to be blown away by Vienna. The Austrian capital was going to provide a game-changing travel experience. By the time I got there, I was so ready to be that dazzled that the bar was set far too high. Vienna was lovely. I had a fine time there, delighted in the coffeehouse culture, and appreciated my introduction to delicious Sturm wine. But when I came home from the trip, was I raving about Vienna? No. I was thrilled by Prague and Budapest, the cities that had been underpromised ... and yet had overdelivered in the most sensational way.

So when the time came to visit New Orleans, years after I'd fallen under its spell reading Anne Rice novels, I was nervous. I'd grown up wanting to visit New Orleans. I'd spent so much time daydreaming about what it would be like. New Orleans existed on a very short list, "Cities I've Wanted to Experience For Most of My Life." How could the New Orleans of my imagination actually live up to reality? Was this to be my Vienna of the Gulf Coast?

Thank you, New Orleans, for delivering. My partner and I ate po-boys prepared in the back room of an Irish bar, discussed the second-line culture at the tiny (yet mind-blowing) Backstreet Cultural Museum, and gazed upon Fats Domino's white Steinway. And by balancing time in the French Quarter and venturing beyond, we felt comfortable exploring and getting more of a sense of the local New Orleans experience. In fact, two of my favorite experiences were more off the beaten path: stepping around the tree in the middle of Cafe Degas, and dancing like mad as Rebirth Brass Band performed its Tuesday-night residency at the Maple Leaf Bar.

We were discussing a return trip during the second day of our first visit. It was that good. 

It's not to be this September - we're about to extend a wedding-related visit to Las Vegas for a few extra days, and otherwise preparing for our October journey to Indonesia. But we're planning, New Orleans. Since we were last with you, we've been dancing to your music, cooking your cuisine, and sipping your cocktails. And I'm freely and enthusiastically imagining the wonders that await in the near future.

We'll see you there real soon.

A valuable pro tip

Back in May, I watched a small group of Brazilian youths demonstrate the boxing skills they had been developing at Grupo Cultural Arte Consciente, an incredible organization rooted in one of Salvador's favelas (shantytown communities).

As part of this special program, Arts Consciente's boxers had selected this discipline from several offered to them - the others being circus arts, percussion, and drumming. And over the course of about an hour, I'd been introduced to the results of all these youngsters' efforts. But given that I was about a week and a half away from dedicating four months to boxing (a sport I knew very little about), I found myself focusing my attention on the boxing group.

After about an hour, an opportunity for questions and answers arose, and I eagerly raised my hand right away.

"Hi, my name is Vickie, and I have a question for the boxers," I said with a smile. "I'm about to learn how to box when I get back to the United States. What tips do the boxing students have for me? What should I make sure to remember as I learn?"

My trip leader translated my inquiry into Portuguese, and I saw several inquisitive faces turn to me in surprise, including my favorite of the group - the lone young girl learning to box. She and I exchanged smiles as a young teenage boy, the seemingly group-appointed leader of the crew, thought for a moment and then answered.

I eagerly awaited the translation as my trip leader chuckled.

"He says that there are several things you should remember," he began. "First, always pay attention to the basics and remain disciplined. The basics are important. Second, always listen to your instructor, because your teachers will help you succeed."

The trip leader grinned. "And finally, just remember: It's really not that hard. You're going to do just fine."

I had no way of knowing at the time just how valuable this advice would be. Over the course of four months, I've reminded myself of each. ... and especially that last bit.

Relax. It's all good. You're going to do just fine.

Obgrigado, young man. Obrigado, indeed.

Quick Hit: Brazil

It's early morning in a misty Rio de Janeiro when you wake early to the sound of the waves rolling into Copacabana Beach. Despite the urge to sleep in, or at least let this oceanic soundtrack lull you back into light dozing, you rise and don your workout gear. There's a long to-do list for the day - from greeting Christ the Redeemer to filling a memory card with photos - and you want to start it all off right.

Tiptoeing out of your hotel room to keep from waking your roommate, you make your way down to the hotel lobby, join your partners in crime, and set off for a light run along the beach. Mosaic paths lead the way as you travel along fellow morning runners (a group with which you'll only align yourself rarely), past massive sandcastles, and along the stretches of beachfront properly that drew Hollywood legends to South America.

This is your first full day in Brazil. And while you know that wonders await, you have no idea precisely how magical an experience you have in store.

Quick Hit: The Black Sea

The Black Sea stretched out behind me as I turned to smile at the camera, trying my best to keep from squinting too much in the bright early-summer sunshine. I had one shot at getting this photograph right, and I wanted it to be a shot I could show off.

"Can you see everything properly?" I asked as one of my fellow travelers focused his camera. I wanted to make sure he could see my grin, the seascape, and the scarf I was proudly hoisting above my head. My hope was that he could easily see the "LFC BOSTON" displayed there.

My goal was to share the image with my friends and fellow Liverpool Football Club supporters once I got back home. It's a common practice for fellow supporters to celebrate the club whenever they travel - to distances near and far. I'd seen scarves hoisted in Las Vegas, at the football club's stadium in Liverpool, and destinations around the world. I hadn't seen any of the Boston supporters showing off their loyalty in Romania, and this was my chance to get the club on the map.

"Looks good!" I grinned, the photo was snapped, and I put my sunglasses back on, thinking that we were good to go. That's about when one of the other travelers asked, "What is LFC Boston?"

I grinned. "It's the local supporters club for my favorite English Premiere League football team."

My photographer looked up. "Wait. WHAT? Oh my goodness, I can't believe I didn't even put two and two together." His British-accented voice rose in excitement. "THAT'S MY CLUB!"

Before I knew it, he had handed his camera to his wife and strode down to me. "I need a picture of this! This is fantastic!" And as we posted against an incredible Eastern European backdrop, I flipped the scarf and we held it proudly.

To be a Liverpool supporter - or to know the club at all - is to know that the club is incredibly connected to the song "You'll Never Walk Alone." It's the anthem, the heartbeat, the song sung in times of joy and despair alike. It's a reminder that no matter what, you're part of something bigger than any one of us, and there's a comfort in that.

Along the shores of the Black Sea, I was given a perfect reminder. No matter where you are, you'll never walk alone.

See more photos of my travels to Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania.