relishing in architectural wonders in cordoba, spain + some thoughts on losing faith

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For someone who no longer believes in god, I’ve been spending time in many places of worship. You have to know that for the great portion of my life, I wanted so desperately to believe that a god was real, omnipotent, that I would be among the flock that will inevitable be warmed by his presence in the afterlife. I wanted to be believe in an afterlife, because the idea that our bodies would be cindered and ashed, or withered to bone felt unbearable, lonely. That first punch of air, that great push out in eighty, ninety years time (if we’re one of the lucky ones) becomes a crawl, an acquiesce, a slumbering home to the darkness from which we’d come. And to think that the bookend of this one life is only black felt wrong.

For seventeen years I sold myself on a god even when logic (and my heart) was telling me otherwise. When I think about it now, it makes sense why I cleaved so much to a figure that was a blanket, an embrace, a warmth I desperately needed after losing my mother. Having just graduated college, I was on the precipice of a new life but when I turned around there was no one really behind me. There was only me. So maybe I needed that blanket, that cold comfort that carries you through the night because I wanted to feel loved, protected, and cared for in the larger sense of the word care.

I often think of the body of a house and our world as the country to which it belongs. I spent the greater part of my life rebuilding my house, which had fallen to blight, disrepair, ruined by drink, grief, and fear of being truly vulnerable. I did this privately, slowly, laying down brick by brick, and over time, as I outfitted my house with furniture and shutters, I saw houses sprout up around me. I saw hands waving out of open windows. I felt the tickle and warm embrace of the gardens. Blooms that broke ground and started to grow. I no longer cared about having volume, rather I thought about personal velocity. A party was no longer a failure if sixty people didn’t show up. A short story wasn’t a mess because the “right” people didn’t talk about it. And being with people just to have someone to sleep next to in your bed, no longer sated me. I said to myself that I would rather be alone for the right reasons then with someone for the wrong ones. I became confident, quiet, pensive, and present for myself and relationships with people. I traveled more, read more, became more curious, and started to question everything I thought I knew.

And I started to see the world unravel around me, and the magnitude of hate and inequality, and for me, all signs pointed back to religion–how man had managed to pervert and interpret the teachings of god as justification for segregation (gays are suddenly an other, rather as human beings who deserved to be treated with dignity). How women were second rate because of the fact that they were born women and the word said it so. How simple, fallible creatures think they know the whole of the world, regardless of whether a god has a hand in controlling it. Suddenly, there are groups of people who feel chosen while others are considered other, and death, that once great equalizer, suddenly becomes this frightening place where people are banished to burn and suffer because they chose not to believe.

All of this is a very abbreviated summary of what I’ve been thinking about privately over the past two years. While I believe in a spiritual life, while I can marvel at wonder and man’s propensity to create great art, I no longer believe in a single man (or being) who will usher me into the afterlife.

So you’d think that I wouldn’t spend the great deal of my holiday in churches and mosques, however, as an artist, I was rendered speechless over their magnitude of devotion, and how it can drive greatness in man. Yesterday, someone told me that in Islam man cannot create perfection because the only perfection is god. There is always a flaw in a painting, or a millimeter misstep in a mosaic, and I didn’t interpret this line as something limiting, rather I thought it a celebration of being flawed. We live in a society that has morphed into something strange in its obsession for curation, order and perfection. Everyone is desperate to architect the idea of a perfect life–that image of sunglasses perched on a gleaming silver laptop. The body, and all exteriors, preened to perfection. The bruise of a lip on a coffee cup. How we relentlessly edit, delete, refine, re-edit, publish, course-correct–and I want so much for imperfection, for fuck-ups, for people wearing their flaws on their skin as a badge of honor. I don’t want all this whitewashing because suddenly you become the pure definition of the color white, which is the absolute absence of all color. I rather you be like Anthony Bourdain, flawed, raw, strange, bringing all of his passions into one place and redefining his art by not succumbing to being what a food writer should be.

Today I stood in The Cordoba Cathedral centered in a mosque (Madinat al-Zahra), the creation of which found its origins in a King’s ego, how the reconquesting of the city should reflect the Cross. But in this flaw (and all the ones that have come before), as you see in the pictures, comes great artistic juxtaposition and awe-inspiring beauty.

I don’t believe in perfect. I believe in the remarkable nature of our flaws and people who love and respect beyond borders and books. Visiting places of worship didn’t feel odd as someone who doesn’t believe, rather it gave me faith in man and his ability to perpetually ferret out the light even in the midst of darkness.

I haven’t fully reconciled my feelings toward faith, but I’m open and eager to learn and love.

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the alhambra, granada spain (and tips for getting in!)

Comares Palace, The Alhambra Granada Spain

I’m Type A in so many aspects of my life with the exception of travel and writing. I don’t plan; I don’t have a grand design. Rather, I simply go where the takes me and I play my hand as it lays. Doing so has created such an incredible sense of balance in my life, and has allowed me to artistically and mentally go to places I would never have imagined going. Allowing my novel to unveil itself, in degrees, has allowed me to create a story of which I’m truly proud–using techniques in language and line that have created this sort of nesting doll effect when it comes to my novel. Independently, every layer is wholly satisfying, but when they merge it’s this magical symphony that I’ve composed that sometimes shocks me.

The same goes with travel. I used to plan everything to the letter, and I never fully enjoyed my holidays, or allowed to go off itinerary. Deviations were unacceptable, and I think about how many opportunities or moments I’ve lost simply because I’ve an obsessive need to control.

Over the past few years, I’ve loosely planned my trips (air, hotel or AirBNB, and a short list of places worth seeing/chowing), and my experiences have allowed me to befriend extraordinary people and understand a country in a more fundamental and richer way. So when folks told me that The Alhambra was a must-visit, I only half-listened, told myself that I’ll figure it out when I get there. And then I arrived in Spain and realized that visiting this site is like getting into the Pentagon. I spent hours trawling websites for information and tickets, and I nearly gave up hope until a local travel agency told me to try Ticketmaster, and boom, a tour was booked.

I’m glad I breathed through all of the logistics involved in procuring tickets, waking before daylight and making the trek, because The Alhambra not only gave me trespass to a wealth of information about Islamic architecture and fundamentals of the Koran, but it allowed me to admire a fusion of architecture (Roman: Doric/Ionic/Naves and Islamic: minarets, the impossibility of creating perfection as only Allah is perfect) and a deeper understanding of the origins of many Spanish words are rooted in Arabic. I can’t explain it, but there’s something wholly simplistic (not meant in the pejorative) about Islamic architecture in design, but the layers of meaning are complex, fluid and powerful. In the Palace, a simple line is written over and over on the walls: There is no victor but Allah. The calligraphy is entertwined with images of vegetation (in reverence of a kingdom meant to be Paradise) and geometric shapes, as images are not allowed in Islam.

After four hours wandering the palaces, gardens and medina of this sprawling site, I spent the rest of the day in the city, in the brief rain, and came home to revise two chapters of my novel. Perhaps it’s no surprise that an awakening (and education) in the morning yielded creativity in the evening…

How to Buy Tickets to the Alhambra: You can either plot your trip months in advance by purchasing tickets directly from the Alhambra website, or you can live your life like a person (as my friend Amber has been prone to say) and purchase a terrific tour, complete with an Alhambra guide, on Ticketmaster. If you simply want to roll out of bed and live your life all laissez-faire, very few people know that Ticketmaster has a hidden kiosk (beyond the entrance Pavilion, across from the cafe), where you can purchase same-day tickets, albeit with a few Euros tacked on to the normal 14 EUR price. Or you can wait in the Odyssean line (the queue when I arrived at SEVEN A.M. was monstrous) as tickets are routinely set aside for tourists, students and seniors who aren’t able to pre-order online.

How to Get to the Alhambra: If you love a good walk, the Alhambra is a 35 minute walk for those on the opposite side of town (read: me). It’s a quick, lovely walk from Plaza Nueva (although I’m not sure I’d walk to do it in the dark as you’re winding your way up the hills to the entrance gate, even though Granada is quite safe), or you can get a bus at Calle Pavaneras, which takes you to the Alhambra (bus tickets are 1.2 EUR). If you prefer a taxi, you can phone at 011-1-958280654, but if you don’t speak Spanish, you’d better take one at the roundabout of Avenida Constitución, the one with the Spanish flag. I speak decent Spanish, but combined with the early morning call, the terse, rapid barking from the dispatcher, I’d only advise this option if you actually can carry on a conversation in Spanish. This isn’t a se habla ingles kind of party. Apparently, I did something right since a taxi was outside my door within 10 minutes. And if you’re obviously staying at a hotel, tra la la, your problems are all solved by dialing the concierge.

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Medina, The Alhambra, Granada Spain
Puerta de Siete Suelos, The Alhambra, Granada Spain
The Alhambra, Granada Spain
Palacio de Charles V, The Alhambra, Granada Spain
Palacio de Charles V, The Alhambra, Granada Spain
Palacio de Charles V, The Alhambra, Granada Spain
Facade of the Comares Palace, The Alhambra Granada Spain
Comares Palace, The Alhambra Granada Spain
Comares Palace, The Alhambra Granada Spain
Comares Palace, The Alhambra Granada Spain
Comares Palace, The Alhambra Granada Spain
Comares Palace, The Alhambra Granada Spain
Comares Palace, The Alhambra Granada Spain
Comares Palace, The Alhambra Granada Spain
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when every street is a photograph worth taking: granada, spain

Alcaicería, Granada

There was a moment of anxiety under the bridge of the River Darro. The journey across was precarious as the rapids were fast and furious, and a crowd gathered to watch the journey. Many whispered, Ay pobrecita!, and all the while I was transfixed as if I was in the midst of a night terror. My journey was interrupted, and nothing would be resolved until I knew this little one’s fate.

You should know that we gathered to watch a scraggly cat cross the bed of one side of the river to another. We watched its many attempts to find different rocks as a means to cross, because can you imagine the current carrying the kitty downstream? I mean, I can’t. Don’t ask me to. I would’ve had to fly home to hold Felix for an uncomfortable period of time. That cat eventually did make its way across to then rest on a Panama hat someone must have lost, and all of us who were watching on Plaza Nueva thundered with applause.

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In the midst of this, I was speaking to a group of college kids, in Spanish. Granted, my Spanish was appalling and halting, but when I heard them speak–all rapid flash in their native tongue–words careened back in a way that I can only describe as an assault. Words I could understand in context with other words. I guess this is what makes comprehension and reading easy for me because I become a sleuth in figuring out the meaning of the sentence once I know the verb (my strong suit) and some other words which will help with the pile of nouns of which I don’t know or remember. Or perhaps the easy way of Granada, a city that reminds me Of Biarritz with its lazy cafe culture, minus the sweeping cliffs, barnacles and the ocean. The water is replaced by towering majestic mountains, rendering a certain kind of calm I only thought I could have when being by water.

The Cathedral in Granada
The Cathedral in Granada
Main front gate of The Cathedral, Granada
Plaza directly facing the front part of the Cathedral
Fuente de los Gigantones fountain
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Granada
Parque de las Ciencias de Granada
Cartuja Monastery (outside)
The Cartuja Monastery (inside)
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Granada (loosely translated to “Hill of Strangers” in Arabic) is a small city, easily navigated by foot, and the furthest point clocks in at 34 minutes. Unlike Barcelona, the Arab influence is pronounced here–from the famed Alhambra, a Moorish citadel and palace, to the Andalusian fare and colorful silks and jeweled slippers in the souks, to the Islamic architecture, which oddly (and beautifully) complements many of the Baroque, Gothic, and Roman pieces to the slight shift in how Spanish is spoken (clipped, with the ‘s’ excised)–rendering this city rich in culture and flavor.

Today I took over 200 photos because every street is a photograph waiting to be taken. I didn’t have an itinerary, just a book, a ticket for a hop-on, hop-off tour (since a great deal of sites (and food markets!) are closed on Sundays, and a bottle of water. I wandered through the famed Cathedral, spent a great portion of the day in the two predominant Arab districts, The Bib-Rambla (famed for its gastronomy–I had an unforgettable lunch at Restaurante Campanario Granada–and the Alcaicería market, which occupies a half-dozen small, winding streets and alleyways) and the Albayzín (a UNESCO site) (the ancient part of the city, home to a slew of small shops, tapas bars, artists). From violet perfumes to teas (I’m bringing home SACKS of them) and hand-sketched drinking glasses to iridescent lights, I got deliriously lost weaving in and out of the small streets, which was such a sharp juxtaposition to the ornate churches, cathedrals and monasteries.

Restaurante Campanario Granada
Restaurante Campanario Granada
Restaurante Campanario Granada
Alcaicería, Granada
Alcaicería, Granada
Alcaicería, Granada
Alcaicería, Granada
Incredible teas at Herbolario Esencias de Granada
Incredible teas at Herbolario Esencias de Granada
Alquimia Pervane. I scored a gorgeous violet fragrance
Iglesia de Santa Ana
Puerta de los Tableros, Granada
Casa de las Chirimias, Granada

Later, I walked from the Plaza Nueva (where I encountered the cat in the midst of an intrigue) and climbed the steep hills to the Sacromonte, a district that offers breathtaking views of the Alhambra as well as cave apartments, home to gypsys who started flamenco dancing. The steep, pebbled hills offered quite the workout but also a great deal of quiet and calm after spending a day in markets and immersing in Spanish.

After seven hours, I made my way back to my apartment. But first, I picked up a lemon Fanta (!!!) and noted that the pup game in Granada is pretty strong and the Spanish are incredibly kind, friendly and chill in a way that makes coming home to work on a novel a retreat rather than an escape.

A few bits of touristy bits:
*Tours + Getting Around: I’ve been booking all of my tours via Viator, and I highly recommend the service. They aggregate tours for most European countries, and offer a one-stop shop system, and their app is pretty awesome. However, as I learned today, some tours don’t accept mobile vouchers, which made me fleeing to find an internet cafe quite an adventure. The hop-on, hop-off (red bus) tour was pretty meh, so I’d recommend Feel the City Walking Tours (free!) and The Grayline Tours. Though, most of the city can be viewed by foot with a guidebook, or navigated using their convenient bus system (1.20 Euro/trip).

*Language: I’ve noticed that most people who own businesses speak Spanish, Catalan, French and English. Although most people (except university students) don’t speak English, so when I asked for directions I used Spanish.

*WCs/Bathrooms: Free toilets aren’t abundant, so you normally have to buy a drink to get access to the bathroom code.

*Tapas: The cool thing about Granada is the FREE FOOD. Most bars offer free tapas with drinks (wine, beer, coffee, tea, refrescas, or sodas!) They’ll vary in terms of allowing you to pick your tapas or eating what they serve. The drink + tapas deal is normally 2-3 Euro.

*Museums/Tourist Sites: Most churches and cathedrals are closed on Sundays, as are the food markets (which are only open in the morning, Mercardo San Augustin is the one I plan on hitting this week). The Alhambra is open, most restaurants and smaller attractions are open, and the Cathedral is open at 4pm on Sunday.

*Cost of Goods: WHOA. Compared to Barcelona, Granada is CHEAP. I went to the supermarket yesterday to load up on groceries, and a pile of greens, fruits, gluten-free goods, sundried tomatoes, almond milk, etc, ended up costing me $22. The same sack of food would’ve costed me double in Barcelona, same in New York. Overall, the cost of things here is fairly inexpensive, unless you hit the tourist spots or fancier restaurants.

*New Food Obsession: Tortilla Espanola. As my friend Amber so sagely says, GET INVOLVED.

*Choice Finds: Herbolario Esencias de Granada (for teas), Alquimia Pervane (for extraordiary oils, essences, and fragrances), Antigua Bodega Castañeda (tapas/bar), Exceliente Comida Sin Gluten (great shop with loads of yummy GF foods)

The Climb to Sacramonte. View of the Alhambra, Granada
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The Climb to Sacramonte.
The Climb to Sacramonte. View of the Alhambra, Granada

la boqueria + an ode to food: the thing that nourishes us, binds us, sustains us

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You learn about a country by eating its food. And I’m not talking about the starred Michelin restaurants and hosts who stand for hours on end clutching menus–all in hopes that you’ll be seduced enough by their calls of pasta! pizza! paella! to come through–rather, I’m talking about putting on comfortable shoes and weaving your way through frenetic markets. I’m talking about how to ask for vegetables in grams and kilos as opposed to ounces and pounds. You fall in love with a country when you can see it through the eyes of the people who breathe its air every day, who treasure cuts of meat that make others writhe in disgust. Notice how people talk about their food, how they prepare it and preserve it. Ask them, even if you can never imagine eating lamb testicles or tripe, how they season it (dried or fresh herbs, encrusted in a brick layer of salt?), when they eat it (holiday, family gathering, a quick shoveling between their two jobs) and with which foods they pair it. Suddenly, two people are not one and the other, but they’re two halves of one whole because they’re talking about the thing that sustains them, nourishes them, that thing being food.

Whenever I land in a country, I immediately seek out its markets. I’ll learn simple phrases about the weight and cost of food. I’ll watch locals pick over the produce, the way they organize their bounty, and their gentle, or in some countries, brusque, art of negotiation. In Provence, market proprietors treat their wares as if they were high finery and the negotiations are informed, respectful. In Cambodia, stall owners often sleep under their stalls because the journey home is too exhausting and expensive. In Taichung, buyers bark their orders and negotiate to an extreme, but still there is this informal mutual understanding of respecting pride and face. Watching the art of food commerce and conversation, in this way, I’m the other, an interloper intruding a private space. It’s only when I move past observation and curiosity to participate that I feel as if I’m actually part of the country, its rhythms, ebb and flow. I’ve become part of the exchange that binds people, and I leave a country with a deeper, more meaningful understanding of how people eat, how they live.

I love Spain. I feel very attached to Barcelona. Maybe it’s because Spanish is one of the few languages I understand well and speak decently. Or maybe because their ham is aged for 5 years while prosciutto is aged for 18 months. Or perhaps it’s the fat, violet figs and curved cubes of coconut that issue their siren call, but never have I loved a market as much as La Boqueria. Once a church located outside of the walls of Barcelona, free from the King’s tax and protection, La Boqueria became a humble trading place for the poor, and now it’s the largest open market in Europe. Here you’ll find spices, scores of artisanal and simple sweets, cuts of fish I’ve never seen, and the innards of animals in all their rich, sanguine glory. Maybe I should have visited the Picasso Museum, but instead I keep coming back to the market, the simple symphony of food and the people who adore it, need it.

Today I booked one of the best tours I’ve taken to date, with Food & Wine Tours. The tour was billed as a 3-hour tapas tour, but it was so much more. Our exceptional tour (with the exceedingly knowledgeable and kind, Nico, who made a point to accommodate my gluten & dairy sensitivities) started at the market, but over the course of over four hours, we stumbled upon a wedding, a Ukrainian opera singer, whose voice will make you shudder and weep, and hot chocolate so thick you need a spoon to consume it. We wove in and out of back streets and alleyways from La Rambla to the Gothic Quarter, and ate our weight in tapas and pinchos. Food somehow opened a window for our small group to talk about politics, money, children, our respective homelands, and it allowed us to laugh at the Catalan holiday tradition of caga tiÓ. Have you heard of this? Brief parenthetical. You will appreciate this.

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In Catalan, but not in all of Spain, there is no Santa Claus. However, there is caga tiÓ, a shitting uncle/log. Yes, shit. As the story goes, families wished for fertilizer so that they would have abundant crops. Crops meant money, food, and comfort for the family. So children were taught over time to “beat the shit” out of a log for abundance. Three hundred years ago this would’ve meant fertile land, but now it’s a shitting Shakira, a Hello Kitty that poops pink—now, it’s children surrounding a log with sticks in hopes that beating it will “poop out” sweets, toys and the like. Abundance of a different kind, I guess.

Food opens every door, and I can’t help but think that my tour tonight wasn’t just about tapas, it was a journey through a few streets in Barcelona but in a way that I hadn’t previously experienced. The story started with a meal you held in your hands and morphed into a virgin who survived thirteen martyrs, the precarious Spanish economy (how does cutting education and healthcare in this world of European austerity make any sense?!), and a brief conversation with Nico about how having a seven-month-year-old daughter changed him in ways he never conceived. Food creates a sort of intense intimacy, and when I came back to my apartment and surfed the web to find people cataloging their possessions instead of cultivating new experiences, of feeling their connections, seeing the world, I sometimes feel that I speak a different language with those who live in my own country. Sometimes I feel subsumed by people who so assiduously seek to acquire and consume objects rather than creating, building our own private house, brick by brick.

Isn’t that what we should desire: compulsive curiosity instead of casual complacency and obsessive acquisition? In the past twenty years my travels have brought me to Russia, Thailand, Bali, Spain, Fiji, France, Italy, England, Prague, Cambodia, China, Australia, Mexico, Denmark, Belgium, Korea, Ireland, and India, and I feel richer for it. Even when I feel there is so much more I need to learn. When you cultivate honor and respect for something as fundamental as how someone eats, you see them as human, a deviation from your familiar, but human nonetheless, and that base level of compassion somehow extends itself to the larger divides that previously seemed impenetrable. While I’m not saying that food will solve the world’s problems, undo religious wars and political divides, I am proposing that we find small ways to see the human frailty in others; we cultivate empathy. So while people might shriek over the first picture at the beginning of this post–wild gooseneck barnacles, which are an expensive delicacy in Spain–I was captivated by the risk people take with their lives to farm these particular breed of barnacles, which are not affixed to harbor ships and rocks, instead they’re in roiling surf in certain seas. I also had to smile as I’ve developed a strange obsession to barnacles, an image I’ve been using a lot in my novel to signify unhealthy attachment. So while I may not want to get a sack of these, I can appreciate and respect those who will pay a princely sum to feast on these crustaceans.

Tomorrow I leave Barcelona for Granada, Seville and Cordoba, and I can’t wait to plant my bags and wander through Andalusian markets!

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the salvador dalí theatre museum + dalí’s jewels, figueres, spain

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I might have fallen in love with Salvador Dalí the first time I saw Un Chien Andalou, his masterful short film collaboration with another famous Spanish surrealist, Luis Buñuel. The film opens with a score befitting a circus–very pomp, parade and the like–and then you see a man (Buñuel) casually smoking a cigarette while he sharpens a blade. A woman, practically muted, endures the severing of her eye by this man and this blade and so the film begins. It’s not really a real eye, rather it’s the eye of a calf, no less horrifying, but the optical illusion will become one of Dalí’s many talents.

From sadism, confused priests, the peanut-crunching crowd, rotting donkeys and ants pouring out of a severed hand, the film is less a meditation of the grotesque and more of a celebration of a mind left to its own devices. You imagine the unfathomable and make it come to pass. You imagine a voice smothered rising above the din to a shout to a curdling scream. I remember watching the film while I’d started reading T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” and watching Weimar films. I was young then, 23 or 24, and I felt a strange kinship with these oddballs. Poets talking about people spouting out of the dead land as if they were harvested, and a piano being hoisted up in a living room as if this was the sort of thing that happened.

What I loved about surrealism and the poetry and films of the teens, 20s, was that it challenged our perception of what was normal. We are trained to believe what we see. We’re realists, pragmatists–we look for the plain and simple, yet some of us look beyond what is in front of us and see something altogether different. You see a woman walking down the street and she’s a woman, but I see her as a container, a vessel, a house filled with drawers and windows–some whitewashed shut, others flung open, and so the story begins.

The story always begins when you dare to venture just beyond your reach. Beyond what your mind instinctually tells you what your eye sees.
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barcelona, spain: just when you think you can’t fathom having mas jamon, spain invites you to rise to the challenge

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The first time I flew to Europe my plane ticket cost $250 and was procured through a travel agent. Back then we carried our paper tickets, accordion maps and guidebooks in our hands and changed dollars for pounds. This was 1996, and my friend and I flew across the Atlantic to visit our roommate studying abroad, and my god, British food was terrible and everything was expensive. Little did we know we booked what we thought to be a fancy hotel in a posh neighborhood when really it was a hovel where we paid a pound an hour for heat and a communal bathroom was located on every other floor.

We took an overnight flight and I remember the cab ride to the hotel–how we pressed our faces to the glass just to see everything, and we did the thing we weren’t supposed to do: we dropped our bags and collapsed into a deep, uninterrupted sleep. Come nightfall we woke, ate and drank, and we proceeded to do that for the days that followed; our bodies never really adjusted to London time.

Perhaps this is a long-winded way of saying that after 18 years you would’ve thought I learned something because the first thing I did when I arrived yesterday morning in Spain was SLEEP. I’d sleep for two hours, walk to the supermarket, ramble in Spanish, walk home, eat, sleep, edit my novel (how?) and sleep again. I woke at seven to darkness and I spent thirteen hours combing Barcelona and falling in love with a city that reminds me of Paris, minus the caustic attitude.

If there’s one thing I hate doing is planning an itinerary before I go on holiday. While this may sound odd for someone as Type A and methodical as me, however, vacation is the one time I have when I can play my days as they lay. I can wake to a new city waiting to be discovered and there’s a thrill in that, moving amongst strangers and navigating a language that isn’t your own. Yet, I booked two AirBNBs (one for Barcelona and another for Granada), and I decided the day before I left New York that I would book a couple of excursions and I’m glad I did.

After scanning the web, I came across Julia Tours, a reputable, well-rated tour service that covers the basics and beyond. Today, I took a full-day tour of Barcelona, and I’m presently lying supine on the couch with my feet propped up on cushions they ache so much. But it’s a good ache, and today was a magical day.

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We started out wandering the medieval streets in the Gothic Quarter, where most of the buildings date back from the 15th century, including the Barcelona Cathedral. We headed toward Plaza Sant Jaume to view the political buildings, including the the Palace of Generalitat and the Town Hall. Most of the tour was on foot, and our expert guides were funny, deft, and shared little known facts about the sites we were seeing. We heard a story about a virgin martyr, Eulalia who was left naked in the city square and then the snow fell, miraculously covering her nudity. She was buried in the crypt of the Barcelona Cathedral and 13 geese are kept in the cloisters to honor her sacrifice.

Leave it to me to remember the macabre.

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Back on the bus to take in views of the Mediterranean Sea and the Barcelona Coast on the way to the Olympic Village, home to athletes during the Olympics, and the Port Olympic. Nearby, we took an aerial cable-car and I was in awe of such a beautiful, vibrant, yet oddly serene city. Perhaps it’s the fact that Barcelona is married to so much water. I’ve always been partial to the ocean. Finally, we visited the Spanish Village (Poble Espanyol) to see typical architecture and traditional crafts from different regions of Spain. I managed to sneak in some chorizo, potatoes with aioli, and copious amounts of dark chocolate.

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We broke for lunch, and I need to tell you that I nearly ran down to Las Ramblas–all to see La Boqueria in all its glory. And BELIEVE ME WHEN I SAY THAT THIS OPEN-AIR MARKET DID NOT DISAPPOINT. Yes, I used all caps because The Boqueria deserves nothing less than bold font. It’s a market I’ve never seen. Rows of tapas bars with hundreds of people pulling apart shrimp and oysters with their slicked fingers. Beer spilling, the quick slicing of raw fish, the sizzle and hiss of pork hitting multiple skillets, and throngs of people sipping on psychedelic-hued juices–the cacophony of the music the food made and the people who gathered around it was unlike any I’d ever heard, and I felt dizzy wandering the stalls, sampling scores of ham and ham, and oh by the way, the juiciest figs I’ve ever had. Cut open, they were practically violet.

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Some people travel to see architecture. I travel to fondle fruit. I travel to have six meals a day–just so I don’t miss a taste. I was so delirious I photographed a MUSHROOM. And you guys know how I feel about the WRETCHED MUSHROOM. Of course I didn’t touch it or taste it, but I did admire its composition. I was feeling generous, you see.

Later on, I boarded a bus to survey the façade of La Sagrada Familia (the line to get in was bananas foster, so I plan on returning so my photos don’t honestly do this basilica justice), and continued on to enjoy more of Antoni Gaudi’s masterpieces, including the sculptures, terraces and mosaic-embellished walls at Park Güell. To say I fell in love with the modernist pieces–many of which influenced a young Picasso and many other cubists–would be an understatement. I was particularly drawn to the Gingerbread House (shocker, the macabre fairytale I adored as a child) and how the roof was adorned with inverted coffee cups, symbolic of Gaudi giving up coffee in his 70s.

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After thirteen hours, I hobbled home, fixed a HUGE salad (salads, as we know it, aren’t really big here) and some gluten-free pasta with sausage, sundried tomatoes and fried chickpeas.

Tomorrow I’m off to Dali’s seaside hometown and museum. Bring me all the surrealism.

By the way, I’ve consumed more pork today than I have in the past year, and I’m not tired of it yet.

By the way, way, I’m posting a pile of my photos on Instagram. Follow me!

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you’ll never find me consuming airline food // the contents of my food bag revealed

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Unless TSA agents have confiscated my food bags in some underhanded attempt at mind control, or my bag mysteriously disappears into the abyss that is the seat pocket, I never, ever consume airline food. Packed with sodium and preservatives, airline meals are never a memorable event. Mostly you find yourself playing the role of an investigator, sleuthing through the contents of your tray–all the while wondering if that misshapen blob hidden beneath a layer of opaque sauce is indeed chicken.

Ignore the lies the flight attendants tell you. It’s never chicken.

Many of my friends make poking fun of my food bag a national pastime, however, invariably, they’ll crave a piece of my homemade cookie, beg for a carrot, or express heartbreak over not bringing aboard an almond-crusted chicken of their own. For international flights, I tend to pack a carry-on filled with snacks, a proper meal, fruits and cut vegetables. I also pack a couple of bars for when I’m walking around all day or I’m in a pinch between European meal times. And over the past year, I’ve booked AirBNB apartments so I have the option of either dining out or cooking up a dish with local ingredients from the market.

Today I’m leaving for Spain, and to say that I’m jubilant is an understatement. I AM OVER THE MOON. Two weeks without the company of people is glorious, and I intend to trek to Dali’s house and museum and eat all the gluten and dairy free tapas a woman can endure in one sitting. I’m all packed (one small rolling bag, a purse and one carry-on bag), with the small exception of gathering some fruits (apples, raspberries + blackberries) + cut veg (carrots, edamame) for the flight.

The contents of my food bag are abundant. I tend to overpack because you just never know if your flight might be diverted and you end up having an Odyssean layover in some airport where the main culinary attraction is the rotating hot dog (Exhibit A: Fiji’s airport). I focus on GMO + gluten-free snacks that pack a protein punch, teas, nuts, fruit, vegetables, treats (my lemon poppyseed cookie + some dark chocolate-covered almonds), as well as packing a full meal. Today, I’ve got these DELICIOUS sundried tomato meatballs, which are just as good at room temperature versus heated, and I plan to pick up a plain green salad at JFK. I always check the food options at the terminals in advance of my flight. Most places will sell a simple green salad.

Want to make these meatballs? Super simple. 1 lb ground sirloin | 1/2 cup sundried tomatoes | 2 tbsp parsley | sprigs of rosemary | 1 egg | salt/pepper. Blitz the sundried tomatoes, parsley, rosemary, salt and pepper in a food processor/blender. Add the mixture + egg to the meat, mixing with your hands, gently. Shape into meatballs. Add them to a large oven-proof baking dish. Cover with your favorite tomato sauce and cook at 400F for 25 minutes.

This post was inspired by my friend Hitha, and her enormous propensity to make travel simply luxurious.
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leaning tower of lemon poppyseed cookies (gluten-free)

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Truth be told, I can’t really think of anything else but Spain. Tapas, Dali museums, cathedrals, bike rides and gothic architecture and seaside towns, I’m looking forward to two weeks of unadulterated quiet. I plan to finish the last revisions of my novel, relax, cook up some delicious food in my AirBNBs in Barcelona and Granada, and possibly take a one-day sojourn to who knows where. Part of me wans to return to San Sebastian, another part wants to fly to Toledo–we’ll see what transpires and where the day takes me.

To that end, I’m packing for my trip tonight and since I never, ever eat airline food, I’ve already made delicious chicken and savory meatballs for the ride, and have packed copious amounts of sweets + treats, including these delicious cookies.

I made some modifications to the original recipe because the dry and wet ingredients felt incredibly imbalanced, rendering a too-wet cookie dough. My cookies came out feather-light, slightly sweet and tangy with lemon. Since lemons are on my verboten list, I naturally got a few hives on my arm after chowing on one of these jams. Whatever. These cookies are worth the itch.

INGREDIENTS: Adapted from The Paleo Kitchen
1 1/2 cups ground almond meal/flour
2 tbsp sifted coconut flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
pinch of sea salt
2 large eggs, whisked
1/4 cup organic honey
2 tbsp coconut oil, melted and slightly cooled
1 tsp almond extract
juice of 2 lemons
zest of 1 lemon
1 tsp poppy seeds

DIRECTIONS
Pre-heat the oven to 350F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Combine the almond and coconut flours, baking soda and salt in a large bowl. In a small bowl, whisk the eggs, honey, coconut oil and sugar, almond extract, lemon juice and zest.

Using a spatula, add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and mix well. Fold in the poppyseeds. Using an ice-cream scoop (filling it 1/2 way), drop 9 cookies onto the baking sheet.

Bake for 20 minutes, or until the cookies have slghtly browned. Cool on a rack for 15 minutes before chowing down.

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sage + shallot delicata squash soup with crumbled sausage

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Have you ever walked hobbled out of spin class to then tell your friends that you’re going to order those damn pancakes for brunch because you earned it? Did you ever suit up for a run because how else would you justify that one cookie (or four)? Have you ever “doubled-up” on a workout simply to say, with a straight face, that you can eat anything you want?

Lately it feels as if I’m surrounded by people who exercise as a means to justify a basic human function: eating. Last week I read an article where the women interviewed had no qualms about spending $1400/month on their workouts, burning their way through 2+ hours a day in group fitness classes–all in an effort to keep things in check, micromanage their diet, and when things go asunder, when their precarious plan starts to show signs of disrepair, they race to the altar that is the juice cleanse: a very expensive and sophisticated means for self-denial, punishment, starvation. Because why rely on your organs to perform the function they were designed to? Why suit up for the long game of being present in your food choices, when you can wash your worries away with sugar-packed juices whose costs rival a resplendent home-cooked meal. When given the choice, I’d rather fork over $12 for a 4oz filet I can cook at home than a sugary “green” juice.

When given the choice, I’d rather focus on being healthy, because let’s be honest: the twice-daily workouts, juice cleanses, and meticulous dietary vivisection–these choices are not about health, they’re about vanity. So let’s call a spade a spade, shall we? Let’s just say many care about whether they look good in their jeans or whether they’ll tear out their GI tract in ten years time. Oh, we’ll just deal with that later.

In the film adaptation of Less Than Zero, Andrew McCarthy asks a coked-up Jami Gertz, Are you happy, Blair? You don’t look happy. To which she responds, But do I look good? He says, Always.

As someone who used to run 7 miles a day and subsist on Lean Cuisine and Starbucks, I’ve given a lot of thought into fueling my insides. My food sensitivities, contact dermatitis to god knows what–but we’ll find out when I return from Spain–is a result of a succession of bad choices in response to an insurmountable amount of stress. I replaced my bottles of Sancerre with boxes of penne and thought I was the better for it. It was as if I regarded my body as a house I was desperate to burn to the ground, and now, I’m in the state of repair. I’ve dealt with the insurance claims and adjustors, and I’m rebuilding, brick by brick.

This is all to say that I now think about what I eat before I exercise because I want to make sure I can get through my workout and perform at my best. I don’t create reward systems for food or obsessively count calories (an appalling weight loss story in this month’s Shape magazine had me aghast), rather I think if I do right by my body, if I’m consistent and present in my choices, my body will thank me for it.

I’ll have you know that I came home from a pile of errands later than I thought (1:30), and by the time I sat down for my late lunch of this lovely squash for one soup, I felt so GOOD. The soup has the texture of cashmere, and the apple sage sausage I decided to fry up and crumble into my soup made for an excellent addition.

Life is strangely simple: If you do good, you’ll feel good and look good.

INGREDIENTS: Recipe from The Paleo Kitchen, modified slightly (The recipe says it serves 4. I mean, I guess if you were serving these in ramekins? However, this makes for a delicious full lunch for one, light eat for 2.)
2 delicata squash (3/4 lb or 340g), or you can use any squash, really
2 tbsp coconut oil
2 shallots, chopped
1 tbsp minced garlic
2 cups vegetable broth
2 tbsp fresh sage, roughly chopped
pinch of sea salt + fresh pepper, to taste

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DIRECTIONS
Pre-heat the oven to 400F. Cut the squash in half, lengthwise, and place, face-down in on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake for 25-35 minutes, or until soft. Use a spoon to remove the seeds, discarding them, and then scoop out the flesh into a bowl. Set aside.

Heat the coconut oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the shallots and garlic to cook for 2 minutes, or until the shallots are soft. Add the squash, broth, sage, and salt and pepper and mix to combine.

Either using an immersion blender or a regular blender, blitz until creamy. Garnish with sage leaves, or you can be like me and garnish with a link of apple sage sausage from Flying Pigs Farm. Just sayin’

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my results from my ancestry.com DNA kit are in…and…whoa

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I realize I am the last of my kind. The last Sullivan to carry this name in this life, and over the years I’ve come to terms with this. I’ve no interest in having children–I prefer to fawn over my friend’s progeny–and I’m an only child, with the exception of a teenaged half-sister, and please don’t ask me to talk about it because I won’t, and I can’t imagine I ever will. But this girl doesn’t have my name or my history–we have only our mother in common, a mother whom, in some respects, is a better storyteller than me. Masterful, maybe.

The origins of my real father change depending upon her mood or appetite for melodrama; it was a scalpel she’d deliberately wield, and her words always felt like cuts inside my cheek. Incisions. When we spoke some years ago, the first time in 14 years, and she told me I could her ask her anything, nothing was off-limits, I said plainly, Tell me about my real father. And as I read these test results, I can’t help but laugh over her taste for fiction. I am indeed my mother’s daughter, except the stories I tell find their way into books, not used as ammunition to wound and maim.

So when my friend Amber told me about this DNA test, I was curious. I remember sitting in her kitchen and she talked about how the results confirmed what she already knew–she was a European Jew–but it told her things she didn’t. And all I had to do was spit in a cup, send it to a lab and wait for the email.

I woke today to the email and the results.

My last name is Sullivan, but I’m not even Irish. Not even close. I’m Italian, Greek, Spanish, Finnish (???) and African (specifically, Nigerian). I always knew I wasn’t completely white, I can’t explain it; it’s just something you feel. And while I have no issues with the results (they’re exciting in the sense that I’m this rich melange of beautiful continents), because it quietly confirmed what I already knew, however, part of me is just really angry that my lineage has been hidden from me for 38 years. All this time I’ve been part black, but do I even claim it? Can I? Do I have the right to step into these new shoes? Do I have the right to own blackness? Part me says, yes, of course, of course, this is who you are, but this isn’t what I’ve been for 38 years.

This is all raw and new and confusing, and I think I need to sit with this for a while. Privately. Offline. To see what I can do, what I do feel, what this new truth reveals, alters, creates.

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