Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Christmas With The Yours
& Easter What You Want

This past Christmas Marti & I decided to spend the holiday in Barcelona. Marti had flown to Virginia a week earlier to help celebrate her Dad's birthday, share an early Yule with her folks & convene a Gal Pals Lunch with a few of her DC-area buddies. That left us free to enjoy a Holidaze hang with dear friends in one of our favorite cities.

In the run-up to our BCN trip we took in a terrific Bruce Springsteen concert here in Paris. Marti dug out her vintage 1980-1981 River tour shirt for the occasion. Even with keyboardist Gary Tallent on a leave of absence from the tour (to receive treatment for melanoma) & Patti home in New Jersey ("keeping an eye on three teenagers," according to Bruce), El Bosso & the E Street Band were at the top of their game.

Highlights included the "Radio Nowhere," "No Surrender," "Night" opening sequence, "Gypsy Biker" from the Magic album & the restructured "Reason To Believe." Marti & I slow-danced at the back of the hall to "The River;" I love swaying with my squeeze to the sounds of a great live orchestra. Bruce brought the powerful political stuff: "Last To Die," "Long Walk Home" & "American Land" all stood out. The encore set kicked off with "Girls In Their Summer Clothes," followed by a fat, operatic "Jungleland." The best in years. A balls-out "Born To Run" led to "Dancing In The Dark," featuring our Paris singer-songwriter friend Elliott Murphy sitting in on vocals & guitar.

For the final encore, Bruce called out, "Croyez vous au Pere Noel?" Then he passed out Santa caps to each member of the band. The Boss himself donned a white fur-trimmed red pimp hat & launched into "Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town." Ya gotta believe.

A couple of nights later we hooked up with our favorite chefs, newlyweds Katy Jane & Nico -- along with a third chef pal of theirs & his wife -- for couscous dinner at l'Atlas, on Blvd. Saint-Germain. It was super to see KJ & Nico again. They're moving from Monte Carlo to San Francisco this month.

I ordered a sweetbreads tajine; all the kitchen pros wanted a degustation of my dinner. It was thumbs up all around.

On the night before our departure for Barcelona, Marti & I opened our Christmas gifts from friends & family. Santa Claus be berry berry good to us this year!

On Friday, December 21 Marti & I flew to Barcelona & checked into the Hotel Regente on the Rambla de Catalunya.

Our Four Star accommodations had been arranged by our BCN pal Toni, shown here with his girlfriend Xenia during last summer's visit to Paris. Toni had worked at the Regente until just recently. He's since moved on to another hotel.

We certainly appreciated Toni's efforts on our behalf. Our room featured a large balcony offering panoramic views of this beautiful city. Those are the spires of the Sagrada Familia off in the distance.

In the early evening Marti & I cabbed up to the Barrio Gracia, Barcelona's Bohemian-Hip neighborhood. We were disappointed to discover that the Sant Yago, one of our favorite haunts, had closed & would soon be replaced by a Japanese restaurant. Bummerino.

We walked around, then took a flyer on a Galician resto called El Medulio, which was cluttered with paintings & ceramics by artists of that region, as well as country antiques. It wasn't claustrophobic, however; Marti & I had arrived unfashionably early for dinner. We had a delicious mariscada a la plancha, a mixed grill that included everything from hake (merluza) to razor clams (navajas). Deelish!

After the meal we jumped into a cab to go to a gig by our pals in a rock band.

Sergio, Toni's brother, fronts the Schizophrenic Spacers, who were performing a tribute to The Who that evening.

It was a fun concert. Sergio nailed the Daltry scream in "Won't Get Fooled Again." We were delighted to see Sarai, Sergio's girlfriend, on stage. She's a wonderful singer who participated in the restaurant jam after Marti's BCN birthday party a few years ago.

Sarai's steps.

In da house that evening were Sergio's family & buddies. This is Mama Carmen with Juan "Petty" Carlos, a family friend & Spacers fan.

Brother Toni in a Desigual hoodie.

Papa Antonio with a Christmas ham. We joked that he was disguising an assault rifle. I hummed the "Theme from The Godfather." Antonio is the only guy I'll permit to buy me jewelry! Marti & I love all these folks, most of whom we met ten years ago on our first visits to Barcelona. We hung out for a while after the show. We'd be seeing them again over the next few days.

The next day Marti & I shopped on the magnificent Passeig de Gracia, right around the corner from our hotel & one of the most beautiful thoroughfares in the world. With its striking Modernista architecture, this fabulous street outshines even our own Champs-Elysées.

A lingerie shop near the Passeig de Gracia, just before opening.

Desigual ("Unequal") is one of our preferred destinations in Barcelona. Marti & I shopped for each other & for several friends at this fun, fresh & out-of-the-ordinary boutique. The chain was founded in 1984 by Thomas Meyer, a Swiss fellow who had been working in the Spanish fashion industry selling innovatively designed secondhand clothes. He wanted to develop a light-hearted line of casual wear at affordable prices. Some of the creations are a bit over the top -- even for young folks like Marti & me -- but we always manage to find cool additions to our wardrobe here.

La Rambla at Christmas.

In the evening Marti & I went down to a cocktail bar called Boadas to rendezvous with a few friends.

This joint was da bomb & da biscuit, as Katy Jane always says. Boadas is BCN's oldest cocteleria. It's a genuine old-school bar. Tuxedo-clad waiters pour perfectly mixed drinks. Miguel Boadas, a Catalan brought up in Cuba, learned his trade at Hemingway's Havana hangout, the Floridita Bar. In 1933 he recreated that authentic ambience in this tiny space located on a corner off La Rambla. For many years his daughter Maria Dolores & son José have run the place. Among those who have bellied up to this bar are George Orwell & Joan Miró, the Catalan painter & sculptor. The latter's drawings still adorn the walls.

The celebrities we were meeting that night were Rachel Arieff, Barcelona's leading stand-up comic & Anti-Karaoke provocador; her husband Cesar, editor of Popular 1 (a rock magazine to which I occasionally contribute); & Francisco, one of the first Barcelona Boyz we met a decade ago.

Everybody loves Francisco, as Rachel demonstrated. He's funny as hell, bright, chill to be with & a baseball fanatic (a rarity in Europe). What's not to like? The five of us squeezed up to the bar & knocked down a couple of rounds of strong Manhattans, mojitos & whiskies. Rachel ordered us a few canapés. It was a world class hang, laced with laughter & gossip.

On Sunday morning our first destination was one of the world's most opulent concert halls, the splendid Palau de la Música Catalana, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Considered a major Modernista masterpiece, it was built by architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner between 1905 & 1908.

We had attended a concert here on our last visit to Barcelona. The Palau's acoustics are pristine. And it's such a magnificent setting for listening to live music. When I learned about the Sunday morning performance, I got online on my laptop at the Regente & booked us a couple of front box seats in the side balcony.

The Palau has a lovely café/tapas bar, so we arrived early enough to call for our tickets, visit the gift shop & enjoy a breakfast of steaming hot coffee, bocadillos & pastries before the concert.

José Antonio Sainz Alfaro led the Orquestra Simfònica del Vallès in a program of overtures, polkas & waltzes by Debussy, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rossini & Strauss. Familiar fodder to be sure, but Marti & I were happy to observe our longtime tradition of hearing classical music at Christmas. In the second half of the concert, Sainz Alfaro engaged the audience in humorous exchanges: he referred to the Strausses as the "Ramos" family, demonstrated various orchestral effects aided by individual musicians & even showed a young boy in the front how to respond to the movement of his baton. When the kid finally got it right, the conductor pulled a five euro bill from his pocket & handed it to him. The audience roared.

Maestro Sainz Alfaro's festive, easygoing & interactive approach reminded Marti & me of the wonderful Choral Arts Society of Washington Christmas concerts we heard at the Kennedy Center in the 1980s. Norman Scribner, the Choral Arts Society's director, always had a similar twinkle in his eye. For the final encore Sainz Alfaro called a Catalan composer to the stage to lead the orchestra in his own moving Christmas suite, which was based on traditional holiday folk melodies of the region.

The concert ran much longer than we had anticipated. Marti & I were hosting a lunch in Barceloneta at 2 p.m. And we were late. Our taxi sped down to the narrow streets of the seafront barrio.

The first occupants of this neigborhood were fishermen, who settled here during the 18th century. People working in, um, other harbor-related professions quickly followed. Even today the dim back streets retain an old village feel, with laundry hanging from the balconies & old folks sitting outside their front doors.

In recent years, what had degenerated into a dangerous seedy enclave has been reclaimed. Barceloneta now has a cosmopolitan, albeit touristic, side: dozens of chiringuitos (seaside bars), cafés & seafood restaurants dot the oceanfront. Marti loves the fact that in BCN you can take the subway to the beach!

That's if you have time to figure out the subway route. In our case, not only were we behind schedule but we had sent our guests to the wrong place! Who knew there were two Cal Pinxos in Barceloneta? Thank goodness for cellphones. We sorted out the mistake & gathered our krew at the original seaside incarnation of the restaurant. They included Sergio, Carmen, Antonio, Toni (Xenia was in Madrid for Christmas with her family), Francisco & Sarai.

We got the wine & sangria going, then settled down to order tapas & main courses. High priority: navajas a la plancha. The Chinese also do wonders with razor clams. I've gotta learn how to cook these.

Pimientos verdes de Padrón. Watch out for the occasional very hot one -- a stinger of a ringer.

Pescaditos fritos. These little fishies may look like bait, but they're awfully tasty in the fried format.

Piece de resistance: Paella con pescado y marisco.

After lunch we strolled through Barceloneta towards the Port Vell. At a stall in a sidewalk Christmas market Antonio bought a bracelet for Marti & a pendant for me. He's such a sweet guy. We stopped for a while to listen to street musicians playing by the harbor.

Christmastime outdoor café hang: Francisco, Sergio & Toni.

Sarai with Carmen.

A couple of lifelong rockers. (Antonio's favorite band is Lynyrd Skynyrd.) Someone recounted a hilarious story of Antonio's trip to New York to see Alice Cooper at Roseland. His kids abandoned him for a couple of hours as they pressed their way to the front of the crowd. When they returned to retrieve Antonio, they found Papa at the back of the hall in the midst of an animated conversation with a couple of smokin' hot blondes. Antonio doesn't speak much Inglés, but he was smiling & nodding, every once in a while throwing out a "Sí!" I like to think that this is what's meant by the wisdom that comes with age. I have really good English but I too know enough to kick back & let the hot eye candy chatter away!

Christmas Eve. We started our day with a tapas lunch at Ciudad Condal with Rachel & Cesar. They originally turned us on to this outstanding place, which was just a few blocks down the Rambla de Catalunya from our hotel. Rachel noticed that I was only ordering seafood items & asked if I had recently renounced meat. Hardly. Without giving it much forethought I was observing the meatless Christmas Eve tradition of the Greek Orthodox Church. Every December 24th my mom would roll out her famously delicious Shrimp Creole, served atop fluffy white rice.

Having eaten our way through most of the delicious tapas menu, the four of us embarked on a long walk through the Barrio Gothic.

I was searching nearby in El Born for a hip, bohemian arts café call La Rosa del Foc that I'd discovered in 1997. But it was gone.

The Barrio El Born has been undergoing gentrification these days. I can handle progress & change, but you must take care not to destroy the character that makes a neighborhood unique. Too many Starbucks -- or even Desigual stores -- quickly bleed a 'hood of its individuality. Look at the mall hell sprawls in & around America's cities. You're trapped in identical monotonous & soulless concrete bunkers from coast to coast. La Rosa del Foc probably made way for another Japanese restaurant.

We settled into a café near the Parc de la Ciutadella. It was relaxing to simply chill out with good friends on what otherwise would have been a hectic last-minute holiday afternoon. We missed our family Christmases, of course. But this was okay too.

That night Marti & I went to the Christmas services at the Iglesia Ortodoxa de la Theotokos, a few blocks from our hotel.

A team of bishops & priests led multilingual readings of what seemed like all four Gospel accounts of the Nativity. Only once in a while did we hear a smattering of Greek. (Which Marti recognized with a smile.) It was very different from the Christmas Eve observances I'd experienced before. Apparently this is the only place of worship for the Orthodox community in Barcelona & it serves several nationalities. The church is officially under the jurisdiction of the Patriarcate of Serbia.

On Christmas morning I surprised Marti with a trip to the Casa Fuster for breakfast.

Like the Taj Mahal, this elegant edifice on the Passeig de Gracia was built to commemorate one man's love for his wife. A wealthy Mallorcan named Mariano Fuster wanted to honor his new bride, the daughter of a Barcelona nobleman. In 1908 he commissioned Lluís Domènech i Montaner -- the architect of the Palau de la Música Catalana -- to design & construct what, at the time, was the most expensive building in Barcelona.

The Casa Fuster -- now a luxury hotel -- endured several incarnations & was almost torn down in the 1960s. Fortunately, the government interceded & today the property is a protected historical site.

We entered the Café Vienés, Casa Fuster's Modernista street-floor bar. It's hard to believe that this space was once used as a furniture showroom!

The room's undulating banquettes recall Gaudí's serpentine bench in Barcelona's Park Güell. We ordered juice, coffee & croissants, kicked back & basked in warm sunlight streaming through the tall windows. A civilized way to start Christmas Day.

That afternoon Toni collected us & we drove to nearby Viladecans for Christmas lunch at Sarai & Sergio's attractive new apartment.

Sarai is an excellent cook who says she rarely whips up a major feast. Well, she outdid herself on our behalf. Dig it: Pata Negra ham, garlic shrimp, delicious arranged salad, tasty roast chicken with foie gras sauce, flan dessert medley. Can you say . . . delicioso!

Later in the afternoon Carmen & Antonio, who had dined earlier at an uncle's home, arrived & we exchanged Christmas gifts. Marti & I gave Antonio (The Rockin' Papa) a Motorcycle Santa who bops in his seat as the cycle revs up, the headlight shines & plays "Born To Be Wild!"

Antonio loved it. We found the item at a CVS store in Chicago in late October. The Motorcycle Santa was carry-on baggage on flights from Chicago > NYC > Paris, then Paris > Barcelona. This gift was the hit of Barcelona Christmas!

Encarnita, one of Sarai's colleagues in her work with the mentally impaired, also stopped by with her boyfriend. Sarai had shown us charming photos in her digicam of the school's Christmas recital. All the "monsters" (Sarai's term of affection) appeared to be having a blast. Looks like the spirit of the event had rubbed off on Encarnita.

Later Sergio & Sarai gave us a lift back to the hotel. Marti & I would be departing for home the next day. We thanked our BCN homies profusely for hosting us on Christmas. We'd enjoyed a marvelous time with all our Barcelona peeps. I've said it before, but it bears repeating: our BCN friends are truly our second family.

One last nighttime stroll down the Passeig de Gracia. Marti & I chuckled at the fractured Inglés in this slogan on a shop window. We were happy to have spent Christmas 2007 with . . . The Ours.

We arrived home late in the afternoon of the 26th. Our Milan-based pals Pas & Su, shown here in an archive photo, also came to Paris that day. We'd seen them last a year ago in Montreal. Marti & I were looking forward to this reunion.

After a Champagne hang at our place, we all went out to eat at Le Petel. It's our go-to restaurant in the neighborhood. I was coming down with a nasty cold & felt exhausted at dinner. I was so miserable that I couldn't make it past the first course. Thankfully, our longtime pals were gracious enough to excuse me with impunity. I suggested that they share my main course scallops & headed home to bed.

Later in their visit Pas phoned & suggested that we get together for brunch on the morning of New Year's Eve. They were training home to Milan that night. Su & Pas had been gorging on rich French cuisine for a week. No more foie gras! they implored. I had the perfect solution.

We rendezvoused at Breakfast In America, an authentic diner on the Rive Gauche. By this time we all were ready for simple fare like eggs & pancakes. In a diner, no less.

Rue Blomet, 8:30 p.m., December 31.

Marti & I only go out on New Year's Eve if there's live music involved. We were delighted that our bud John Simms was playing a gig with guest Farris Smith Jr., another of our musician friends, at the swanky Hotel Napoleon.

John was in great form that night. He is an amazing singer & guitarist. And we love his repertoire of originals & R&B classics. Farris sitting in was a bonus. Besides being a super bass player, he's an entertainer. The hotel staff, on the other hand, was a disaster; they're apparently unaccustomed to serving New Year's Eve dinner. The waiters screwed up our simple order -- which any bistro in Paris could pull off with aplomb -- nine ways to New Year's. But Marti & I just laughed it off & refused to let their incompetence spoil a special evening.

Farris & Sylvie, his beautiful fiancée.

Mary & John. Mary & I love to trade offensive cynical barbs. And John & I dig talking about vintage soul music. They are two of our favorite Parisian pals.

Goodbye 2007, Hello 2008.

Have a Healthy & Happy New Year, Everybody!

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