A Whole Bunch of Gaudí

This post is a dumping ground for some of the photos of Gaudí’s architecture that have been accumulating on my memory card (gigabytes of them—there’s no shortage of Gaudí to see here). I originally intended these to be separate posts, but given how long even this consolidated version took me (I visited Park Güell my first weekend in Barcelona), it would have been Christmas by the time I managed to finish four separate posts (plus, I’ve forgotten half of what I originally intended to say anyway).

Park Güell

Before I left, one of my friends told me that if Dr. Seuss designed a park in real life, Park Güell would be it. Originally intended as a housing estate for the wealthy sponsored by Eusebi Güell, it eventually became a municipal park when it failed to attract tenants. These days it has no problem attracting visitors, so just weeks before my visit the city began charging for entrance and limiting the number of admissions per hour to the central part of the park (the “monumental zone”). (So, it’s a good idea to buy tickets online the night before so you know you’ll be able to get in—plus, you get to skip the line.) From the park’s high point, you have a pretty spectacular view of the city.

Casa Batlló

In the center of Barcelona, Casa Batlló remained the private residence of the Batlló family until the mid-1950′s. Like Park Güell, it exudes a distaste for straight lines as well as a subtle nature motif. I paid an extra euro or two for the audio guide, which was well worth it. Throughout all the trivia, it repeatedly emphasized that every bit of the house was not only designed to be visually striking, but also remarkably functional.

Palau Güell

Next on the Gaudí tour: another famous house, Palau Güell (home to the very same Güell who financed much of Gaudí’s work, including the park that also bears his name). Compared to Casa Batlló, Palau Güell is less whimsical and if not a tad forbidding. Though still ornate, it’s not as gaudy—the colors are muted and you can find straight lines without looking so hard. (Side note: I checked Merriam-Webster as I was writing this post, and the word “gaudy” does not come from Gaudí; it was in use long before he was born.)

La Sagrada Família

Gaudí’s best-known work, the Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família, is actually just over half complete: construction began in 1882 and, according to Wikipedia, is scheduled to finish in 2026. I learned too late that, like Park Güell, you can buy tickets online in advance and skip the line. (Fortunately, they’re used to crowds and I only twenty or so minutes in line.) For a couple extra euros, you can go up one of the towers (which I did). You take an elevator up, enjoy the view, and then spend the next twenty minutes walking down a really narrow spiral staircase (it’s not actually that far, but there are little balconies you can stop at on the way down to see the view from different sides of the tower).

Settled in in Spain

That still sounds strange to me. This is the first time I’ve had the chance to “settle in” in a foreign country and part of me still feels like this is just a vacation about to end any moment now. But no, (*pinch*), three months to go. And, let me tell you, it’s pretty incredible having the time to leisurely sightsee. Each weekend, when I need a break from working, I can just hop on the subway and go see a famous landmark. Posts about these places are coming soon, but here you’ll only find boring day-to-day details.

Before starting at Telefónica, I had to play the paperwork game, which cost me a solid day. It went like this: (1) get an empadronamiento (a document asserting I live in Spain), (2) use the empadronamiento to get a NIE (a foreigner identification number), (3) use the NIE to get a Spanish social security number, and finally (4) use the social security number to get a bank account. Thankfully, María, an intern from Telefónica’s HR team, accompanied me, so I wasn’t on my own. This proved useful, since the slightly grumpy man at the office for the empadronamiento wasn’t pleased that I’d only brought the addendum adding me to my roommate’s lease rather than the lease itself. María was persistent, though, and five minutes later we walked out, empadronamiento in hand. The next snag we hit was at the NIE office. As instructed, I’d brought two original ID photos with me, but it turns out Spain’s official ID photo size and the U.S.’s passport photo size are not the same. (I know—what a difficult thing to agree on, right?) Luckily there was an ID photo booth (like those ones at the mall middle schoolers pile in with their friends to take strips of goofy pictures) just down the block; five euros and eight head shots later and we were back. Everything seemed in order this time until the woman helping us frowned at her computer. “Hmm.” “Is there a problem?” “No…” But it wasn’t a convincing ‘no’ and her excusing herself to fetch her supervisor convinced us even less. Another chorus of “hmm”‘s all around, followed by, “Can we see your passport again?” “Sure.” “Ah, that explains it! You already have a NIE!” “What?” “You already have a NIE!” “…?” “It looks like they gave you one along with your visa. You’re all set!” This was as much of a surprise to María as it was to me, but a surprise NIE is better than no NIE, so we didn’t complain as we set off toward the social security office, the two of us plus eight unused Spanish-ID-sized head shots.

The last two stops, social security and bank account, were uneventful, and so, paperwork behind me, I was able to get to work the following day. Telefónica is a relaxed fifteen minute walk from my apartment. It’s a straight shot down this friendly, tree-lined boulevard:

My walk to Telefónica each morning.

The building itself catches the eye—set just a few hundred yards from the coast, the twenty-three story tower is a tall white metal + glass wedge:

The research team sits on the fifteenth floor, giving us an unobstructed view of Barcelona on one side and the Mediterranean on the other, which thoroughly beats my office’s less-than-breathtaking view of the drama building’s parking lot back at CMU. Fifteen floors is enough for me to break my usual no-elevators policy (adopted as a child out of fear I’d get trapped and observed today because stairs are good for you). The elevators are smart, too: there’s a bank of five of them, and rather than calling them with the usual “I want to go [up/down],” the number pad is outside the elevator; when you call the elevator, you tell it “I want to go to floor X.” This lets the controller plan things out in advance; you type in your destination floor, it plans the best “route” for each elevator, and tells you, “OK, take elevator B.” And once you get in, you don’t wait an eternity for the thing to start moving—once it senses you’re through the doors, they close almost immediately.

The researchers are really friendly. The bulk of them go out to lunch together every day, though I don’t always join them partially because it tends to be a slow process, partially because eating out every day is expensive (Telefónica gives full-time employees booklets of meal vouchers, so it doesn’t matter to them), and partially because they don’t eat until 1:30 or 2. The guys who sit near me like to poke fun at my eating schedule; on the days I do join them, they say, “You haven’t eaten yet? Wow, you must be starving!” On days I don’t, it’s, “Oh, right, you ate at 10AM, didn’t you?”

I was aware of the schedule discrepancy going in, but I hadn’t given any thought to needing to learn a new set of national holidays. There have been three so far: the Friday and Monday surrounding easter plus Labor Day on May 1. I’ve largely been relying on people at the office saying, “Oh, by the way, tomorrow is a holiday; the office will be closed.” I also learned a new term: “bridge day.” Since labor day fell on a Thursday, most people took a vacation day on Friday (the bridge day) to make a four day weekend. I prefer the U.S.’s always-on-a-Monday Labor Day; if you want to take Friday or Tuesday off to make a four day weekend you can, but, if not, you still get a three day weekend without the awkward bridge day. Holidays aside, I’m also learning to check business hours any time I try to go anywhere. So far I’ve learned that banks close at 2PM and grocery stores (well, probably all stores) are closed on Sundays. It’s not a terrible inconvenience (I do need to remind myself each Saturday to make sure I have enough food to last the weekend), but America’s 24/7 availability is one small thing I’ll appreciate when I come back.

Something I’m not looking forward to giving up is my Internet connection. The listing for the apartment I’m sharing mentioned a “fast Internet connection,” but I wasn’t expecting this:

Pretty impressive, though to be perfectly honest, a bit unnecessary. My connection back in Pittsburgh is a fifteenth the speed and it’s never felt constraining.

Finally, another big step in the settling-in process: (1) I got my debit card and (2) Telefónica gave me my first paycheck. I can finally buy things without paying foreign transaction fees! Okay, fine, debit cards are boring—here’s a better one: I was walking home one day and someone stopped me to ask for directions…and I was able to answer! If that doesn’t mean I’ve settled in, I don’t know what does.

Hello, Barcelona

Goodbye everyone! I’m settled in in Barcelona and I’m not coming back.

I mean, who would have thought running in circles around an artificial reservoir wouldn’t measure up to running along Mediterranean shore? There’s a wide path hugging the coast, sandwiched between the beach on one side and a string of outdoor cafés/restaurants on the other, that’s always packed (but not uncomfortably so) with runners, bikers, skaters, roller-bladers, dog walkers, and the occasional scuba diver. The police also drive their cars up and down the walkway, chatting with people sitting at the cafés. The first time I saw one, I thought they was carting away a criminal until I realized the guy in the back was actually a third cop—I guess he drew the short straw that morning. Here’s the route I’ve been using so far:

 

One thing I enjoy about visiting foreign countries is how little differences can make typically mundane things (at least temporarily) interesting. Case in point: grocery shopping. First, the balance of products is different. What is there more of? Fresh bread and pastries (seriously, don’t go shopping hungry). Whole fish (I wouldn’t even know where to begin cleaning/preparing these). Iberian ham (which hangs behind the meat counter as entire legs, hoof and all). Olive oil (one side of an entire aisle). What is there less of? Peanut butter (in a store bigger than any grocery store I’ve seen before, they have only two brands, neither of which look very good). Baby carrots (here “less of” really means “none of”—if you want carrots, you have to peel and cut them yourself). Hummus (where’s my giant tub of Sabra??). Greek yogurt (hasn’t caught on here yet, I guess). Next, here you weigh and tag your produce before you check out—I learned this the hard way when the cashier sent me sprinting back through the store to weigh my bananas. Finally, something we could stand to adopt in the U.S.: you’re charged for every bag you use at checkout. Funny how suddenly it’s not so hard to remember to bring your own bags…

While we’re at it, let’s play the “less of, more of” game outside the context of grocery stores, too. More of: coffee shops (but not like Starbucks—these are smaller, offering just enough room for you to go in, order your coffee, and then sit down outside. And the drinks themselves aren’t so large you need to worry about small children falling in and drowning.). Small, dedicated bakeries and produce shops. Smokers. Voltage (I fried a power strip that evidently wasn’t rated for 220V—at least I had the sense to test it by itself before I plugged my things into it. For the record, I was aware of the voltage difference and had checked the power supplies on all my electronics to make sure they could handle 220V, I just didn’t think to check the power strip.). Less of: microwaves (wait, you mean I have to cook my leftovers again? Screw it, they’re fine cold.). Dryers (but everyone here has a balcony, and it’s been consistently sunny, so hanging your clothes outside is pretty easy). Smartphones (in use on the street, at least—yeah, people actually watch where they’re going). Free water (I only recall seeing one drinking fountain in the past week, and if you ask for water at a restaurant, it’ll cost you). Netflix (at least Spotify still works here).

I have yet to completely adjust to the Spanish schedule. Everything here is later: the workday starts around 10AM, lunch happens anywhere between 1PM and 3PM, and dinner isn’t until 9PM or 10PM (I usually give in around 7 or 8). Interestingly, it turns out there may be a good reason for this: geographically, Spain is in the wrong time zone. In 1940, Franco dialed clocks an hour forward so Spain would share a time zone with Germany. So, as far as the sun is concerned, the workday runs 9AM – 5/6PM and lunch starts at noon. (In 2013, the idea of switching back to the “correct” time zone was floated, but the government has yet to decide.)

Finally, I’ll end with two things: first, an apology for the absence of pictures in this post; they’re coming soon, I promise. (In the meantime, you can check Flickr for a small selection of shots I haven’t had the chance to write about yet.) Second, a tip: you may be aware that Google lets you call U.S. phone numbers for free from their GChat service; what you might not realize (I didn’t) is that this service is free even if you yourself are not in the U.S. Super handy!

My Friend, The Bacon Fairy

I didn’t go home for Thanksgiving this year due in part to its proximity to Christmas, in part to the price of a plane ticket, and in part to my reluctance to sacrifice two days of a relatively short break to air travel rather than relaxation. Fortunately, enough of my friends did likewise, so this didn’t mean I was in danger of spending the holiday alone, wishing I had company to be thankful for. What this did mean, however, is that we couldn’t depend on our families to prepare the usual feast — if we wanted to gorge on a deliciously traditional Thanksgiving dinner, we’d have to make it ourselves.

It was eventually determined that I would be in charge of stuffing, mashed potatoes, and the pumpkin pie. I decided to challenge myself to make the pie completely from scratch (crust and filling — no canned pumpkin purée for this guy!). Actually, I was in charge of the pie last year too and tried making the crust from scratch then as well, but it turned out hard and crispy, not soft and flaky. No matter, last year was the practice run: this year I would make the best pie crust ever.

I wasn’t sure how long it would take me to cook everything Thanksgiving morning, so I set about preparing the pumpkin purée and the dough for the crust the night before. I began by promptly slicing open my thumb. After bringing the dough together in the food processor, I turned it out onto the counter so I could shape it into a disc for refrigeration, but some of it was stubbornly sticking to the blades. Instead of thinking, “Gosh, those blades that just pulverized those frozen cubes of butter must be sharp, maybe it’s not worth getting every last bit,” I went after it. Even given my decision to get all the dough, I could have used a spoon or a knife or a toothpick or really anything in my kitchen other than my bare hands, but no. There’s no time for rational thought when you’re making the best pie crust ever. Thankfully, I wasn’t holding the blade unit (it’s removable) over the rest of the dough when the inevitable happened, so the blood ruined only the scraps I was trying to rescue rather than the whole batch.

Though the dough emerged unscathed, I now had the misfortune of being stuck with a band-aid wrapped around the tip of my thumb if I wanted to keep it that way (the darn thing would just not stop bleeding!). In case you haven’t had the pleasure, let me assure you that cooking with a bandaged digit is a nuisance. Cooking, more than most activities, sees you repeatedly dirtying and washing your hands and each washing loosens the grip of the band-aid, which I had to keep replacing for fear of losing it in whatever I was mixing — my friends would never have forgiven me had they found a band-aid in their food. (In case you’ve ever wondered how professionals deal with this, a friend who’s father is a chef once explained to me that he always had a supply of these on hand.)

Aside from my minor medical mishap, the rest of my preparations proceeded uneventfully. The pie filling turned out to be a breeze — seriously, forget about the canned stuff. I followed Melissa Clark’s advice and used butternut squash and nobody, including myself, could tell the difference. The mashed potatoes were exceedingly typical and not worth mentioning and the stuffing was good if a little dry; I decided I would make this too from scratch and wound up adding too little broth in an effort to avoid a soggy mess (speaking of which, I took a leaf out of Alton Brown’s book and used challah bread, which is egg based and so apparently withstands water’s campaign for sogginess better than other breads).

I arrived at my friends’ apartment, arms laden with dishes swathed in bath towels to keep the heat in, at the same as another friend who was joining us for dinner. As we rode the elevator to the top floor, he described to me his appetizer (“devils on horseback”): dates stuffed with blue cheese wrapped in bacon (because what isn’t better wrapped in bacon?). They were best fresh, he said, so the plan was to assemble them here while the turkey finished cooking. As I unwrapped and made room for my food in the kitchen, I heard him explaining his devilish dish to my friends in the next room, asking if it was alright if he left the leftover bacon here (“yes, of course”), at which point I swear I heard him say something to the effect of, “I’m the bacon fairy, you see.” I poked my head through the doorway to verify what I’d just heard, and, though it turned out my ears had deceived me, I was so amused by what, for a gay Texan, is an eerily apt description, that I honestly can’t recall what it was he actually said.

When the bird was ready, we wondered to whom the task of carving it should fall, as none of us had done it before. For some reason, everyone pointed at me. “I bet the Iowan is a natural at slicing up animals,” said the bacon fairy. And so the job was mine. At someone’s suggestion, I googled ‘How to carve a turkey’ and found a moderately helpful video from a chef at Whole Foods, the highlight of which was not any particularly sage advice about turkey carving but rather his urging to do the deed not at the table but “in private” in the kitchen. He made it look so easy, but I still managed to screw up step one. He said to start by removing the legs, so I grabbed hold of one and started hacking away, only to have the bone slide right out of the meat, which was still firmly attached to the bird. I gave up on doing a presentable job and after a good ten minutes of fumbling with a knife and fork, I had liberated enough meat for the meal.

We ate, played games, ate more, played more games, and congratulated ourselves on putting together such a delicious and massive Thanksgiving meal — surely this must be the final test of adulthood. Everything was amazing (if you doused the stuffing with enough gravy, anyway). The highlight for me was the pie; it turned out fantastic, both crust and filling (and blood-free to boot). If I hadn’t believed it before, now I was sure from scratch is the way to go. Here’s hoping I can repeat the feat next year.

I didn’t get home until shortly after midnight, at which point I just couldn’t bring myself to deal the mound of dishes in my sink, so I decided to break the rule I’ve been imposing on myself since summer about never going to bed with dirty dishes in the sink. Prior to my new self-mandate, I’d found myself in a nasty pattern: after dinner, not feeling particularly inclined to suds up, I would convince myself I was too busy to wash the three pots/pans/utensils I’d used to make my meal. The next night, three new dishes joined the first batch, and if I hadn’t had time to wash three the night before then I certainly didn’t have time to wash six now. And so a little village of cookware would accumulate on my counter: pans with bits of dried egg or vegetables, pots holding an inch of water, spoons sporting a coating of marinara sauce, and maybe a cutting board only partially visible beneath a scattering of breadcrumbs and dried broccoli florets. Even running out of clean dishes wasn’t sufficient motivation — “I only heated pasta sauce in this pot, surely it isn’t really dirty; what’s the harm in using it once more?”. I carried on this way, washing dishes on a weekly basis, until I came home one day to the smell of what could only have been the rotting carcass of a small rodent or bird. A quick tour of my apartment, led by my nose, uncovered the culprit: a pot, sitting on my stove beneath a second, larger pot, half-full of water of water I’d used to steam broccoli two days earlier. I still cannot believe how bad (and strongly) it smelled. Sufficiently disgusted at long last, I washed everything then and there and, determined never to let this happen again and thankful no one had been with me to smell my apartment that day, my rule was born. But today was a special occasion, and I reasoned that I wouldn’t fall off the horse if I left my sink full just this once. Ridding my counter of the dried remnants of the best pie crust ever could wait until morning.

Only Half Crazy

I took a break last weekend from finals-studying and paper-writing to introduce my feet to 13.1 miles of downtown Pittsburgh. There’s actually a fairly avid group of runners in the CS department here and I had contemplated doing the full race with them, but decided I wasn’t sure if I could commit to the training schedule. (Ever since running the Des Moines marathon two and half years ago, my feelings have managed to morph from, “There is no way I’m ever putting myself through this again,” to, “Well, we’ll see,” to, “Yeah, that’d be fun!” Rosy retrospection at its finest, I guess.) But when some friends declared they planned to run the half marathon and suggested I join, I happily agreed.

Training for half of a marathon is not nearly so grueling as training for all of one — missing a long run or two might affect my time, but not my ability to finish in the first place. My biggest worry at the time was that race day might be unbearably hot; I’d enjoyed absolutely perfect running weather in Des Moines two years prior and I wasn’t confident my luck would hold out for a second go-round. Thankfully, I worried needlessly — the weather was perfect again. In fact, as I groggily rolled out of bed at 5:15AM (I hadn’t seen those numbers on a clock for quite some time, and hopefully won’t see them again anytime soon), Siri told me the current temperature was a crisp 55°. Not wanting to lose too much body heat before the race, I dusted off an old trick I learned from my instructor back at UIowa (running in Des Moines was the culmination of a marathon training class) and cut holes in a garbage bag to wear to the starting line. (It blocks the wind, but you can ditch it when the race starts without actually losing a real shirt.) I had seen plenty of people doing the same back in Des Moines, so I didn’t think this would look strange … until, upon arriving downtown, I scanned the crowd and couldn’t spot a single garbage bag save my own reflection in the window of a bank. (I eventually spotted two others while standing in line at the port-a-potties and felt a little better.)

I don’t remember how many fellow runners joined me in DM, but the turnout in Pittsburgh felt much larger. 30,000 runners crowded onto the course that morning, which meant two things. First, I didn’t cross the starting line until thirteen minutes after the official start (it’s okay, though; your finish time is determined by a chip attached to your bib, which registers when you actually cross the starting and finish lines). Second, I spent the first two or three miles weaving through the throng of runners, trying to pass the slow ones. While slightly annoying, this had the benefit of preventing me from giving in to the adrenaline and running too hard at the beginning.

The run was was actually really enjoyable. For those who aren’t experts in western Pennsylvania’s geography (gosh, what’s wrong with you!?), Pittsburgh sits at the intersection of three rivers. Downtown is riddled with bridges, five of which the half marathon course traversed, making for some pretty spectacular scenery. (The bridges proved to be the preferred spots for spectators, especially those sporting cameras hoping for a cool shot of their friends.) I took a fairly easy pace for the first half of the race (partially because, as I mentioned, I had no choice), but as the crowd thinned I pushed harder. My expectations weren’t high — my goal was just to come in under two hours, or, as a stretch goal, 1:45. I was both surprised and pleased, then, with my 1:42 finish. (If you’re curious, you can see my run as tracked by my iPhone here.) Here’s me post-race (along with my medal declaring me a “Runner of Steel”):

Me after the Pittsburgh half marathon.

I’m beginning to learn a universal truth about marathons: they attract crazy people. Like, really crazy people. In Des Moines, I found myself at one point running alongside someone running his 106th marathon (including, if I recall correctly, at least one in each state) and not long after that I met a man who had run a different marathon the day before. This year in Pittsburgh, although I never saw him, was a man running the entire 26.2 miles blindfolded to raise money for a charity that had helped his daughter, who was born blind. And he wasn’t the only runner whose insanity supported a good cause — another marathoner spent 48 straight hours leading up to the marathon running on a treadmill. If running half a marathon qualifies me as half crazy, these guys are off the charts.

Aside from being reassured that there are, in fact, plenty of people who are more nuts than you are, one of the most enjoyable parts of the race is reading the witty signs some of the spectators wave above their heads to encourage the runners. I wish I could remember more, but here’s a small sampling:

“At least you’re beating everyone behind you!”

“Run! There are zombies chasing you!”

“Worst Parade Ever”

“Because 26.3 would just be crazy.”

Some of the runners joined in the fun themselves with t-shirts proclaiming:

“This seemed like such a good idea six months ago”

“Yet another brilliant idea conceived at happy hour…”

So there you have it: cool weather, tons of people, a decent finish, plenty of crazies, and witty-sign-toting spectators. But I’ve saved the best for last. Once I left the finish chute and scarfed down a banana and a bagel, I needed to find a restroom. I didn’t have to wander far, and then … there they were. Flushable port-a-potties. I work in a building full of some pretty cutting edge technology, but these took the cake. They were clean, they didn’t smell, and they flushed! Why it took so long for someone to make one of these I’ll never know, but regardless, I’m a fan.

So there you really have it: cool weather, tons of people, a decent finish, plenty of crazies, witty-sign-toting spectators, and flushable port-a-potties. It all added up to a really enjoyable morning and, call me half crazy, I’m sure I’ll do it again next year.

Clinging to Summer Part 2: Spain

After having finally adjusted to the new time zone to the point where I could sleep past 5AM, I was up at 4:30 to catch the bus to the airport. I got a bit of a surprise after stumbling through security: I ran into an old friend from elementary school who was flying back to Iowa after a three week stint in Europe ending in Helsinki. At first I wasn’t sure it was him (I saw him from behind), but I called his name and, sure enough, I was right. Small world. Two flights and another layover in Paris (which did nothing to secure L’Aéroport Paris-Charles de Gaulle a spot on my list of halfway-decent airports) later I was in Spain at last.

It turns out my visit to Bilbao accidentally (but happily) coincided with La Semana Grande (“Big Week”), an annual week-long festival attracting more than 100,000 people to the city. I found this out from the helpful man with whom I shared the bus ride from the airport into the city center while his two children fidgeted in the seats in front of us. He told me the festival would be huge and suggested places to go for the highest density of food and activities (and also, though a bit less exciting, which transit pass to buy if I wanted to use it on both the trains and the buses). He didn’t mention, and sadly I never found out until after the fact, that one of the festival’s activities is the annual ugly competition (hey, at least it’s more sensible than eating competitions). When the bus arrived downtown at last and its belly-full of travelers and luggage tumbled out onto the sidewalk by the train station, I thanked him for his advice and set out to find my train (and buy my CrediTrans card).

Once I got off the train and found my hostel (I only took one wrong turn — not bad for someone accustomed to carrying Google Maps in his pocket but suddenly forced to do without) and checked in (lack of sleep must have been catching up to me, as I left my credit card behind after paying, forcing the receptionist to chase me down to return it), I decided I was in desperate need of a shower and then food. Having only eaten a small sandwich at the Paris airport sometime late morning, I was quite hungry despite it being only just after 5PM. Since I was probably the only person in the country who considered 5PM “dinner time,” I couldn’t find a restaurant serving dinner and wound up piecing together a meal out of several delicious tapas.

Tapas

Hunger satiated, I set off to explore Casco Viejo (Bilbao’s medieval neighborhood), camera in hand. Thanks to Semana Grande, there was no shortage of things to see. I enjoyed the antics of various street performers before landing in Plaza Nueva, where I paused to watch some mimes perform. As I stood at the edge of the crowd, I noticed a group of children — who were evidently not interested in mimes — playing soccer (sorry, football) at the other end of the plaza. Hoping none of the parents would be upset by a creepy foreigner photographing their children, I snapped a few shots. Though the parents took no notice, I must have caught the eye of one of the kids, because he struck a pose and asked me to take his picture (“¡Foto, foto!”). I happily obliged. Little did I know, I was setting myself up for a serendipitous encounter two days later: on Sunday, I ran into the boy again in a completely different part of town. He recognized me first and asked me if I was the one who had taken his photo (“¿Estuviste en la Plaza Nueva ayer, no? ¡Sacaste mi foto!”). I showed him the picture, which he said came out well (“¡Sacó bien!”) and he posed for me again, this time with a friend. Then they taught me how to say goodbye in Basque (“Agur”).

Boy in Plaza Nueva Boy and Friend

The next day I fulfilled my duty as a tourist and made the obligatory trip to the Guggenheim Museum’s Bilbao branch (who knew there was more than one?). My timing was perfect, too, as the family in front of me had purchased tickets in advance online but had gotten one too many, which they graciously offered to me. The place was not monstrously large; moving at a leisurely pace, I managed to cover all of the galleries in three or four hours. My favorite by far was a temporary exhibit by British painter David Hockney, who has, as of late, been painting with his iPad (though I really enjoyed his earlier work too). Unfortunately, photography is not permitted inside the museum. Fortunately, the outside is every bit as spectacular as the inside — I’m not sure the architect has ever seen a straight line in his life.

Guggenheim Bilbao Spider

But Hockney’s iPad pieces weren’t the only masterpieces I saw that weekend. My last night in Bilbao I went back to Casco Viejo to revel in the festivities once more and I happened upon a man making fantastically detailed paintings with spray paint. To his left, he had on display two dozen or so finished pieces, which I scanned as I watched him pull out a blank sheet of paper, incredulous that he could really be so precise with spray paint. Watching him work was mesmerizing: he began by spraying large portions of the paper and smudging with his fingers here and there. Then he switched to spraying a bit of paint in a small area and shaping it before it dried with a scrap of newspaper folded to the size of a business card. When it came time for an even finer level of detail, he sprayed his paint onto a scrap of cardboard (sometimes mixing multiple colors), dipped his newspaper “brush” into the resulting puddle, and applied the paint in crisp, controlled strokes. I stayed to watch for at least fifteen minutes and I wasn’t alone — he attracted quite the crowd.

Spray Paint Master Impressive Collection

I finished out my last night in Bilbao (amid more aimless wandering) with an enormous tortilla sandwich. The streets were lined with shops whose windows were piled high with stack after stack of sandwiches — how could I leave without sampling one? (In fact, I’m almost disappointed I left without sampling every variety.)

Sandwiches

In keeping with my pattern for the trip, my flight the next morning left at an unspeakable hour. It’s a good thing it didn’t leave any earlier, though, as I was already on the first bus leaving for the airport. The trip home was a drowsy blur, but I eventually made it back to Pittsburgh, where I promptly slept for a week straight.

TG(IF)

My credit card company must think I’m a drunk.

This year I agreed to take charge of Dec/5, the social organization for grad students in SCS (SCS is the School of Computer Science, in which Computer Science is just one department — yeah, there’s a lot of computer science here). The primary function of Dec/5 is organizing the roughly bi-weekly “TG” (short for “TGIF” — I think the definition of lazy is abbreviating an acronym*). TGs are Friday happy hours for SCS grad students, staff, and faculty, and each one is typically sponsored by a company like Google or Facebook looking to hire interns for the summer or recent PhDs for full-time positions. They come, treat us to free beer, food, and swag, and schmooze with potential new hires.

What this means for me: along with tending to mundane details like coordinating dates and reserving space, I’m trusted with the crucial task of ordering the beer. I have this down to a science (the owner of the beer distributor we use, Diane, knows me now). I call on Wednesday and place the initial order. On Thursday they call me back with our total; if I haven’t hit the limit set by that TG’s sponsor, I add one or two more cases. Then, on Friday, a van pulls up with our beer at 3:30, plus or minus ten minutes. The delivery guys also know me — one of them is actually a computer science student at Pitt, and every time he laments that no one ever buys his department beer. After the handoff, I wheel the beer cart inside and guard it until 4:30 when we actually start setting up. (One time, as I hauled the cart inside, two undergrads passed me. One said, “Whoa, what is all that for??” to which the other replied, dejectedly, “Grad student stuff.”) And that’s how all this winds up on my credit card every two weeks:

Actually, it’s not up to just me to organize all this; Dec/5 has two presidents at any given time, each serving a one year term in order to appease advisors, who tend to become concerned when their students commit to too much “not research.” And terms are staggered by one semester, so we always have one president who knows what the heck is going on and one who’s learning. I suppose that means next semester I’m supposed to know what the heck is going on…

For those who are curious, these might give you a better sense of what a TG actually looks like:

For those who are even more curious, no, I don’t know why we’re called “Dec/5.” I’ve been told we take our name from the first TG ever held, which was on December 5; others claim it has something to do with the fact that there were five departments in SCS when Dec/5 was originally founded. What I do know is that, thanks to that name, we were short one Facebook engineer at our last TG. His supervisor sent an email “Dec/5 TG at CMU on Nov. 16,” but he must have stopped reading after “Dec/5 TG at CMU,” because the date he cleared on his calendar was December 5. Lesson learned.

 

* Side note: I recently learned most acronyms are not actually acronyms, they’re initialisms. If the abbreviation is pronounced as its own word (like “NATO”) it is truly an acronym; otherwise, it’s an initialism. If that didn’t sufficiently blow your mind, check this out.

Clinging to Summer Part 1: Finland

As my classmates began returning to Pittsburgh from their summer internships, I was regaled with stories of their adventures outside Steeler territory. Then they’d ask, “You were here in Pittsburgh for the summer, right?” To this I would nod, but, not to be outdone by their stories of San Francisco, Seattle, Los Alamos, and Bangalore, I would quickly add, “But I did just get back from Finland!” I had just returned from a (free!) trip to Helsinki to present a demo at a conference. (If you’d like a more photographic, in-the-moment account, it is still available here.)

The trip started as too few do: relaxed and over-prepared. Leery of missing my overseas flight, I found myself at my gate two and a half hours early. Fortunately, George, another CMU student who attended the conference with me, was waiting for his flight at the neighboring gate, so I was able to pass at least part of my wait with him. It wasn’t until I boarded my plane that the trip took a turn for the worse — I shuffled down the aisle, maneuvered my poster tube into the overhead bin, and took my seat next to a young couple … and their baby. Now, just because I too was once a screaming, squirming ball of snot does not make me any happier about sitting next to one for a 7+ hour flight. Thankfully, the father (somewhat apologetically) asked if I’d be willing to move to an empty seat so they’d have more room for the baby; he said if I preferred he’d be more than willing to move instead so as not to trouble me. I smiled and assured him I was happy to move (as if I were generously doing so for their sake and not mine). Not only did I escape the the kid, I ended up with an entire half-row of three seats to myself! Best sleep I’ve ever gotten on an airplane.

I made my connection in Paris with no trouble, arrived in Helsinki right on schedule, and found the bus that would take me into the city.  As the bus filled up, a guy about my age took the seat next to me and we introduced ourselves. When he asked where I’d come from, I told him “Pittsburgh.” His response caught me off guard: “Pittsburgh with the ‘h,’ I assume?” Confused, I nodded as he explained that he was from Pittsburg, Kansas. (For the unreasonably curious: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania once flirted with the idea of dropping its ‘h,’ but ultimately decided to keep it.) Before his stop, I learned that he was an exchange student preparing to spend a year in Finland and that he spoke as much Finnish as I did.

Later that night, after finding our hotel and registration packets, George and I explored downtown Helsinki in search of food. As we retraced our steps back to the hotel, he pointed out something he’d noticed earlier: a dining table suspended from a crane in the middle of a plaza. For upwards of €150 per person, a group of 20 or so people, joined by the chef, can dine above the Helsinki skyline. A good deal of the surrounding plaza is roped off, presumably to prevent tragic whoops-I-dropped-my-steak-knife accidents. (Also, I wonder if swaying-in-the-breeze sickness is as big a problem as seasickness.) Though tempted, we resigned ourselves to the fact that the only airborne meals for which CMU was going reimburse us were the ones we had scarfed down in-flight hours earlier.

We continued wandering, discovering that Helsinki is a pretty darn pleasant city. The city center is relatively compact, so it’s easy to explore on foot, and for slightly out-of-the-way places, the public transportation is great. Small parks (or at least big fields) popped up everywhere, always filled with small groups lounging in the grass. Helsinki’s also evidently known for its architecture.

But enough fun: it’s time for the part of my story I call: “How I learned that international shipping is stupidly harder than it should be (or: How I earned a few gray hairs in Finland this summer).” Before leaving Pittsburgh, we shipped ourselves a box of equipment we’d need for the demo (projectors, cables, adapters, etc.). It was scheduled to arrive Monday; our demo was Wednesday. Its continued absence on Tuesday prompted me to check its status online (yes, I should have done this sooner). To my dismay, I was greeted with bold red text proclaiming, “DELAYED: Clearance instructions from the importer are required.” The box was stuck in customs, where it would remain until we paid an outrageous fee to have it released (the idea being to stop the Finnish from evading taxes by buying electronics from U.S. retailers like Amazon — if I hadn’t had other things to worry about, I would have attempted to argue that we were not importing anything permanently; it was all leaving with us in a matter of days!). A frantic flurry of emails and phone calls later, our gear was once again in motion, though FedEx could not commit to a delivery date. The morning of the demo we wrung our hands and wracked our brains for ways to run the demo without it, but the demo gods were feeling generous that day and about two and half hours before the start of the session, the demo coordinator came in grinning and said, “You’ll be happy to know there’s a package with your name on it downstairs.” Wheeeew. (The package got stuck again on the way back to the U.S., this time lacking paperwork declaring that our projectors complied with FCC standards. *Sigh.*)

FedEx-induced panic attack aside, the demo went well, as did George’s talk the following day. Both relieved to be done, we spent our last night in Helsinki roaming the city once more. For dinner we landed at “Colorado Bar and Grill” — I’m used to seeing restaurants serving food from around the world here in the U.S., but for some reason finding an American restaurant in Europe caught me by surprise. The food was delicious, though the portions were mammoth (perhaps in keeping with the American theme?) and neither of us could finish.

 

I’ll wrap up with my three overall impressions of Helsinki: First, we saw quite a lot of the sun; it set around 10PM and rose by 5:30AM. They pay for the extra daylight during the winter, I guess. Second, “bike friendly” barely begins to describe the place. Sidewalks have a designated “walking” and “cycling” sides — woe to the clueless foreigner who walks in the bike lane. And finally, an inordinate percentage of the population has blond hair and blue eyes. It’s remarkable (hence my remark).

All My Bags Are Packed, I’m Ready to Go

Both lies. Unfortunately, that doesn’t change that fact that in three days I will indeed be leaving on a jet plane. On Sunday I fly to Finland to give a demo at a computer networking conference in Helsinki, after which I’ll stop in Bilbao, Spain for a couple days of sightseeing on my own. I’ll be posting short updates and a few photos at the link below (also accessible by clicking “Finland/Spain” in the menu bar above) and writing longer, more detailed posts as I have time.

Trip Log

I’m busy packing, planning, and putting finishing touches on the demo, so I’ll save more words for next week when I have something more interesting to say. In the meantime, for those who are curious about exactly what I’ll be demoing, our project website is here, and here are the posters I put together to accompany the demo:

Project Overview Poster
Demo Walk-Through Poster

Welcome to Gotham

This post is woefully late, but fortunately the recent release of The Dark Knight Rises makes the title relevant again, so here goes. When I moved to Pittsburgh a year ago, it struck me that starting blog would be a good way to keep my friends and family scattered around the world up to date, and yet every time I tried to make it happen the Internet distracted me instead. What finally pushed me to take the plunge was buying my DSLR; Flickr is great, but I wanted a place to share photos along with a bit of explanation from time to time. (So brace yourself for posts from yet another grad-student-who-thinks-he’s-a-photographer — you have been warned.)

But this post isn’t one of them. This is the post I intended to write a year ago as I settled in in Pittsburgh. First things first: I missed my chance to be a movie star. As my parents, sister, and I stood in my new kitchen while my landlord presented me with keys and paperwork, she asked if we had brought a GPS unit with us. Smiling and proud of ourselves for having come prepared to take on a new city, we told her we had. “Well, it won’t do you any good. They’re filming the new Batman movie here, so there are detours everywhere. Plus Pittsburgh has a knack for confusing GPSs to begin with.” If we hadn’t been so exhausted from driving across the eastern half of the country and so busy running around town collecting furnishings for my apartment, it would have been fun to venture downtown to take a look. Ah, well. (Though even if we had, extras had been selected two months prior, so I guess I’m meant to be a grad student and not a movie star after all.)

Perhaps it’s better that I didn’t get around to starting this blog as soon as I had intended; with a year under my belt I can actually tell you something more than, “I’m unpacked! And still lost!” In fact, now I can tell you there are only three things you need to know about Pittsburgh: the buses are never on time, there are three Apple stores here, and Pittsburghers don’t speak real English.

Actually, the buses aren’t really that bad, especially once you learn not to check the schedule since it won’t do you any good anyway. What’s more vexing, or was at first, is knowing when to pay. The first time I rode a bus here, I flashed my ID as I got on. No problem. The second time I did the same. The bus driver didn’t say anything, but I began to notice people pay as they shuffled off the bus, so at my stop I showed my ID again and asked the driver, “Am I supposed to show you this when I get off?” She nodded. So, on my third bus ride, I was determined not to look like an out-of-towner by paying as I boarded…until the bus driver scolded me for not doing doing so. Flustered, I dug my ID out of my pocket. “Wait, so I’m supposed to pay getting on the bus?” “Yes.” Thoroughly confused, I put my ID away and found a seat. After a week or so of confusion, it finally occurred to me to check the city transit website, where I found the following:

Generally, fares are paid as the rider boards when heading inbound (toward Downtown/Oakland), or exits when heading outbound (away from Downtown/Oakland). After 7 p.m., bus riders should pay as they board, regardless of direction.

And it occurred to no one to post this on the buses?

If anything could make me forgive the city for its confusing bus system, it is the fact that it is home to not one, not two, but three Apple stores (compared to one in the entire state of Iowa). And, as luck would have it, one of those three sits directly between me and school. At first I worried that this might prove dangerous for my wallet, but since everything inside is so darn expensive, impulse purchases aren’t really a danger. (Thankfully there are no chocolate shops along my walk to campus.) That doesn’t stop me from dropping in on a regular basis — in fact, when Apple announced its new laptops last month, I checked in so often that some employees began to recognize me and would apologetically break the news, “Nope, none today,” before I could open my mouth.

The last thing you need to know about Pittsburgh is that the locals speak a pseudo-English called “Pittsburghese.” For example, rather than adopting the southern “y’all,” Pittsburghers use the word “yinz” as their second person plural pronoun. They also have a terrible habit of dropping the words “to be” from phrases like “needs to be <verbed>.” Sadly, this is no joke — I’ve heard both of these. (One of my lab mates grew up in Pittsburgh, and when I pointed out a typo during a practice talk, he said, “You’re right, this slide needs fixed.” Your slide isn’t the only thing that needs fixed…) At the beginning of the year, the older students in the department threw a party to welcome the new ones. Upon arriving, each first year had to fill out a brief “get to know me” questionnaire that, among questions asking us which text editor is our favorite (don’t laugh, text editor loyalty sparks heated debate among computer scientists) and which professor would win in a Jell-O wrestling competition, required us to translate the following sentence from Pittsburghese to English:

Yinz jaggerbush pierogies need redd up ‘fore the Stillers game.

This translates roughly to the following, although even the older students have no idea what “jaggerbush” is supposed to mean:

Your ??? pierogies need to be heated up before the Steelers game.

(This example prompts me to clarify my statement from above: unlike “y’all,” “yinz” is fairly versatile and functions as a personal pronoun, possessive pronoun, and, as demonstrated here, a possessive adjective.)

And there you have it: Pittsburgh in a nutshell. Now that I’m caught up from year one, I hope to keep the momentum going, but we’ll see what happens. If I fall behind, you can always prod me with an email saying that the blog needs updated…