Monthly Archives: June 2012

5 Spots Within The Squares

The lawnmower roars next door as a sweet, grassy summer breeze floats through my bedroom. It’s all becoming home, more and more each day, and my daily explorations of the neighborhood and all its surrounding Squares (Porter, Davis, Harvard, Union, Inman) is beginning to pay off.

I wouldn’t exactly call myself a local just yet, but I’m beginning to shed some of my New York skin. For example, I try not to walk around with my usual “don’t fuck with me” face (feel free to ask to see this some day, it’s obviously really intimidating though, so consider yourself warned). I smile at strangers sometimes. I even whisper the words “slow down” to myself when I’m walking (sometimes).

Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Life moves at a very different pace in this town (oops, I mean city – sorry Somerville/Cambridge!) and, even though I’m used to a much faster pace, I think I’m beginning to catch up in this land of less intensity.

By now I’ve discovered some promising little Somerville spots, which I’d like to share with you before the Physics storm hits (yes, this would be “the calm”). Here is a short list of 5  places that have made me smile in one way or another, so far.

Statue in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Union Square Farmers Market – Sure, in NYC I had the (dare I say “real?”) Union Square Farmer’s Market… so I can’t exactly say this is a first. But these farmer’s markets are very different. I always dreamed of living somewhere where I could walk to a farmer’s market every Saturday and stock up on freshly baked breads, excessive amounts of leafy greens, and things I never cook with, such as rhubarb, just because I can. Now, this weekly outing will become a part of my life. Yes, there are great sources of fresh, local produce in NYC. But, for better or worse, my Saturday mornings usually led me to some delicious brunch spot instead. Having a weekly farmer’s market within walking distance is my little country fantasy coming to life! (YES, I know I am not in the “country” — give me a little more credit, people!) The Union Square Farmer’s Market might not be very big (by NYC standards), but I can still buy overpriced bags of spinach, wild flowers, or local strawberries, and end up with way more than I need for the week. Maybe a Saturday morning trip to the farmer’s market will begin to replace my intense Saturday brunch tradition. When in Somerville…

Casa B – The first night I met one of my roommates, she and her Romanian boyfriend took me to Casa B. Casa B is everything I never thought I’d find “just down the street.” This newish, trendy restaurant is an interesting contrast to the somewhat off-beat little neighborhood (Union Square) full of Brazilians and Koreans. But the Latin-flare tapas restaurant quickly won me over when I walked inside; it was a modern and sleek upstairs, with fresh white tables and stylish details, but more sultry and seductive downstairs — although still comfortable enough for a gathering of friends. I was immediately satisfied with its delicious orangey sangria and a summery fava bean spread, which we generously applied to plantain chips and devoured alongside a revolving selection of tapas (the most memorable of which was the tabla de ceviches and a special vegetarian dish full of fresh, local legumes and wasabi-yuca). The place earned bonus points for having kalimotxo — a very common and popular drink in Barcelona, which consists of red wine, Coca Cola, and a splash of grenadine. While the bill added up (as it always does when ordering tapas), I’d come back here the next time I have something to celebrate… Or, just because.

3 Little Figs – One of my favorite treats is an adorable cafe. This little spot is as cute as its name. While I have yet to sample its salads, sandwiches and baked goods (I know, I know… how can I even put it on the list already!?), I did sample its chai — and it passed with flying colors. Not to mention, the staff was friendly, the ambience was happy, sunny, and bright — perfect for hanging out alone or meeting a friend for coffee, and I love that it is small enough that you know you’re somewhere precious, but available enough that I can people-watch out the big glass windows (the very few people who pass by) from a solid high chair, with my chai at my side, and my physics textbook in front of me. An hour of sitting will bring in just enough customers that I am neither distracted, nor bored. And the lighthearted vibe ensures that — even if I’m studying — I’ll be happy.

Bloc 11 – This is “that cafe” that I always want to have nearby — the one with the good coffee, the hipster on his Macbook in the corner (ok, maybe that’s not a requirement), and a mean salad (I already have a favorite — the Wisteria, which consists of hard boiled egg, pear, caramelized onion, dried cranberries and almonds topped with blue cheese and a pomegranate vinaigrette). Bloc 11 is going to be one of my regular spots for studying, or meeting a friend for an iced tea. That, I can promise.

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum – OK fine, this is in Boston not directly in Somerville, but it is going on the list anyway because I can’t NOT mention it. When my roommate described The Gardner Museum, she gave me a good idea of what to expect. It was enough to get me to go, without ever having heard of it (but apparently everyone else has). The second I walked in, it hit every love-of-humanities-and-art chord in my science-filled soul that I didn’t even know I was looking to hit. The museum is absolutely wonderful; the Moorish architecture, the impressive collection of Italian art… It’s truly a remarkable place, and I felt temporarily transported to Venice and Southern Spain while I wandered the many rooms of the palace (yep, I said palace). Built in the home of the New York City-turned Bostonian socialite, Isabella Stewart Gardner, it houses her private collection of art – and a very eclectic one at that. There is plenty more to say about the museum and the art, and probably Isabella, but I’d rather you check it out for yourself. This is going to be the museum I recommend to everyone who visits me in Boston from now on. You might as well put it on your itinerary.

Side view of El Morro, in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

OK, I need to dash out in the sun. Since it feels like Brazil weather out there, here’s a little music to get you in the sweaty, Brazilian summer mood. Eat a mango, play this song, and keep the AC off — we wait all year for this heat, so no complaining! Happy summer, everyone!

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Filed under Boston, Coffee, Life Stuff, School, Travel, Uncategorized

A Spoonful of Beantown

This morning marks my second morning here in Beantown, and I have to say: so far so good! Despite the four flash thunderstorms since I arrived (one so powerful I think it was right above the house!), it’s been a really nice 41 hours. I definitely feel like I’m in another world than I am used to. Waking up at 5am to the loud bird songs and going to sleep to crickets is not exactly the “white noise” I’m used to in Manhattan, but I slept like a little angel these past two nights (until 5am at least) — and I look forward to more of that!

Living in Somerville makes me feel a little like I’m in the suburbs, or at least in some up-and-coming area of Queens. I’m a little farther away from public transportation than I am used to (a 15 minute walk up/downhill), but at least there is public transportation at all. There is a whole network of buses that I’ll eventually have to figure out, but I’ll get to that. Honestly, I like accidental exercise so adding a 15 minute walk uphill everyday makes me happy. I mean, whose ass doesn’t need a hill once in a while?

Rainstorm over Quito. View from my apartment in Quito, Ecuador..

I always seem to end up on the top of a hill when I move. If not on top of an actual hill, then on the top floor of a walk-up apartment. In Quito, which is built into a valley, my street — Guanguiltagua (pronounced “wanwuiltawua” if you want to sound more like a local Quiteno) was two streets down from the outter-most ring of streets. Think of the city as a circular stadium or arena, and my street was the second-to-last row of seats all the way at the top (btw, do you know that the word “arena” comes from the latin word “harena” — “arena” is Spanish for “sand” — which referred to a fine sand that was good at absorbing blood and used to fill the floor of stadiums like the Colosseum in Rome? BOOM. Now you do!). The nice thing about living way up at the top of the city was the incredible view, and getting to watch the daily rain or hail storm approach from the southern end of the city, or watching the sunset over the Andes mountains. It was a stunning, daily show, and I will never forget the beauty that I saw while living high in the mountains of South America. There were so many days when I would just sit in my living room watching the weather pass through the mountains like some sort of constantly changing parade…

But back to Boston. Unlike the hill in Quito, which was a straight-up ascent at 9,400 feet and left many of my visitors huffing and puffing through the thin air, this hill I now live on is short and sweet, but definitely noticeable. I have to say — I didn’t expect Somerville to be as pretty as it is. Sure, it helps that June is a favorable month to live in a quieter area (let’s not talk about Boston winter yet). But really — the houses are adorable; no two are exactly the same, each is a slightly different color, with unique details/accents that are special to a girl who has been surrounded by too many buildings lately. Maybe I’m giving Somerville too much credit, because I’m new and everything is a little exciting and different, but I really am excited to be here and try this whole house-thing out.

Sunset over Quito. View from my apartment in Quito, Ecuador. Real life colors — nothing altered/enhanced.

Yes, I have never lived in an actual house (long-term). I’m not used to having a backyard, and despite the two beautiful days that have gone by, I have yet to do more than stare at the backyard and smile knowing that I have it. But today I hope to actually go out there and enjoy it, maybe for a stretch before/after my run around the neighborhood. Maybe to help my new roommate with the gardening she plans to do this morning…

Butterfly. Dutchess County, NY.

Of course, it has only been one full day here, so this post is just a net to quickly capture that first impression before it escapes. I can’t believe I live here now. I can’t believe that after a thunderstorm, I get to hear frogs croaking, and after a long day, I get to walk through a peaceful neighborhood without getting caught up in the tangled energy of many other people’s rat races. I love NYC, I really do. And yes, I’m a city girl. I like being able to order Tibetan food at 11pm if I wanted, or wander into a gallery because it’s on my way home from the gym. I’m used to being able to grab a bagel at the 24-hr deli downstairs if I need it, and choose any type of food I feel like and have it in my mouth within an hour. But this “almost-that” is worth trying. This slightly calmer environment is worth sampling, before the roughness of NYC and all that comes with it makes me forget the alternatives.

Right now, as I type, bells from a nearby church are playing “Amazing Grace.” An American flag waves next to the house next door. There are Virgin Mary statuettes in front of many of the homes on my street. The next door neighbors sit on the front steps of their house, smoking cigarettes while one guy sips a Red Bull, their Boston accents thick and proud. The birds have calmed down since 5am. The frogs are quiet, for now. And I am sipping my coffee at my new desk, thinking… I like it here.

It’s a start. A good start.

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Filed under Boston, Life Stuff, USA

Danger: Thieves!

Last night I told this story to some friends, so I’ve decided to break away from the “life” posts and re-post an oldie but goodie. It’s about my tug-of-war with a thief in Spain. This answered the age old question: Are you FIGHT or FLIGHT? As future experiences would prove again and again, I continue to be all “fight” and never “flight” — for better or for worse. It’s not necessarily the smart move, but it is the way my body responds to danger. Which do you think you are: Fight or flight? (Originally published by http://glimpse.org/ in 2006.)

After living in Barcelona for four months, I was almost robbed three times. Out of the 40 Americans on my study abroad trip, only about eight of us had avoided the extreme inconvenience of losing money, credit cards and passports in another country. Somehow, I was one of them.

Week after week, I passed grown men and women sobbing on the gritty sidewalks of La Rambla, showing empty wallets and cut purse straps to unsympathetic police officers who silently nodded their heads at yet another hapless victim caught off-guard at the epicenter of Barcelona’s pickpocket scene. These people served as a reminder that I had made it another day without becoming one of them.

View from my apartment in Barcelona, with the Mediterranean Sea and La Sagrada Familia in the distance. Barcelona, Spain.

When I arrived in Barcelona, I was fully aware that the odds were against me if I wanted to get through the semester without being robbed. Unfortunately, the city has a reputation as a breeding ground for petty thieves—artists in their own right—whose clever ruses for robbing tourists would almost demand a certain type of respect if they didn’t evoke so much anguish from their victims.

It is hard to determine exactly why Barcelona has become so infamous for pickpockets. Some Spaniards believe the thieves—many of whom are Northern African immigrants—are attempting to recover lost riches from the English tourists after four centuries of war. With its myriad tourist attractions, Barcelona has no problem attracting a constant, year-round influx of wealthy visitors who wander La Rambla in a haze of naïveté, distracted by the many sites and sounds of the vivacious neighborhood while their bags and wallets bounce temptingly at their sides.

Constant reminders to guard my belongings were sprinkled throughout the city, as well as within the literature provided by my study abroad program. I knew to be careful and to never, under any circumstances, leave my valuables unattended. It was important to remember that the thieves could be anyone: the guy who looks like a bus-boy in your restaurant, the little old lady who asks you to help her cross the street, the friendly young tourist who can’t speak English, or even the little boy who asks you to help find his mother. Thieves in Barcelona have taken their tricks to a level that could almost qualify as performance art. They are so good at what they do that sometimes even the savviest travelers become unknowing victims, unaware they have even been robbed until they try and buy a glass of sangria and find their pant pocket has been cleanly slashed open.

Spray-painted image on a corner in Barcelona, Spain.

My favorite warning was a simple, black, spray-painted image that appeared on the corners of stone walls in the tiny, dark, romantic streets of the Gothic district. In it, a two-dimensional silhouette of a woman throws her arms in the air while a male silhouette runs away with her bag. Underneath the drama of the cartoon-like image are two words of precaution written suggestively in English: “Danger: Thieves.” These two words served as a blatant reminder that tourists like me are easy and attractive targets for the professional Spanish pickpocket.

For several weeks, I saw these signs and found them funny. But the stories about my friends getting robbed kept trickling in until the signs began to take on a more ominous tone. I even began to imagine that I heard a quiet tick-tock sound every time I passed one by. Yet despite my fears that soon I would be the black, spray-painted woman with my hands up in the air, on my last day in Spain, I had yet to be robbed and I thought I was in the clear. It wasn’t until around 11 p.m., approximately six hours before I boarded a plane that would end my four-month Spanish adventure, that the spray-painted man came to life.

Since my flight was leaving early in the morning, I figured I could fit in one last night of partying before my entire Spain experience would be tied up and packaged with a nice little bow to be stored on one of the cluttered shelves in my memory. I met up with a friend of mine, who was visiting from her study abroad program in France. She had some other friends in town, but we decided to meet up for dinner together before joining the rest of the group.

Sidewalk in the Medieval city of Girona, Spain.

As a temporary resident of Barcelona, I had learned by now that Plaza Catalunya, located just at the top of the most popular street in the city, was like a flytrap for robbery victims. Unfortunately, my friend Jessica had naively planned to meet her friends in the center of the circle at 11 p.m. so that we could all go out together from there. As soon as she told me this, I had the feeling that something was going to happen. My gut, my brain and everything I had read told me not to enter the Plaza, but we had to take the risk. Jessica’s friends did not have cell phones and they were in a foreign city without guidance. We had no choice but to find them in the dreaded Plaza Catalunya, and then get on with our night as safely as possible.

After a couple glasses of wine at dinner and the euphoric excitement of meeting up with a friend in a foreign country, a slightly tipsy Jessica and I made our way toward Plaza Catalunya, arms linked and my guard stiffly up. Blue-eyed, blonde-haired Jessica was all smiles, unaware of the potential danger that lay ahead. Without trying to sound too worried, I asked her if she could keep her voice down, knowing that as soon as we were identified as Americans we would be an easy target for thieves.

We approached the Plaza, which is a big circle, and I felt the presence of danger like a cat senses ghosts. As we entered the circular walled-in area, a homeless man interrupted his public urination to stare at us with a threatening smile. My instinct was to turn around and get out of there as quickly as possible, but we had to find Jessica’s friends, if only to warn them to be careful, so we kept walking toward the center.

Sure enough, Jessica’s friends were late. While Jessica talked to me about France and the wonderful places she had visited, I noticed six men sitting on a bench nearby, laughing and staring at us. I wanted to get out of that circle. I wanted to play it smart, like I had all semester, but instead I had to pretend I was in control. Just beyond the walls of the Plaza were hordes of people embarking on the earliest stage of their Saturday nights. Buses were slugging along and music was overflowing from nearby restaurants, where people casually drank beer and smoked cigarettes outside without a care in the world. I wanted to be outside of the Plaza with all of them, laughing, having a beer, safe. But I wasn’t.

“I see them!” yelled Jessica, blonder and with bluer eyes than ever.

My tension began to give way as we were finally allowed to leave the circle and shed ourselves of the giant bull’s eye that seemed to follow us inside the Plaza. As we made our way from the center to the periphery, I felt someone’s glare piercing through me, so I clutched the strap of my bag tightly and picked up the pace. Jessica, still laughing and talking, motioned for her friends to stay where they were. Then, I felt someone getting closer to me from behind my back. The walls to safety were right in front of us, but we were still in Plaza Catalunya, still vulnerable, and someone was following us. We were so close.

My left arm was linked with Jessica’s right arm and my bag was slung over my left shoulder in between us, which I also clutched tightly with my left hand. Suddenly, I felt an aggressive tug that whipped me around with unexpected force. Jessica screamed and jumped to the side. I found myself on the tiled floor of Plaza Catalunya, resting on one knee and one foot, facing a young man who must have been twice as strong as me, but I still had one hand tightly gripped around the strap of my bag. I wasn’t about to let go.

What took place after that initial shock was something I cannot fully explain. The man who had pierced my sense of safety with his eyes from a distance was now standing less than a foot away from me trying to pull my bag out of my hands. He had one hand on each strap of my bag, and I had one hand holding the center of the strap. At that moment, a surge of energy overtook every inch of my body. Much to my surprise, I was not scared at all; I was furious.

I managed to get my other hand around the strap and decided the strap would have to rip from the bag before I let go. I think that is the decision that carried me through the next few seconds. Everything else in the world just dropped out of focus; there was only me and my determination not to let this thief win. As he yanked angrily and fiercely at my bag, I yanked back just as fiercely, just as angrily, while staring him right in the eyes. His look of aggression and intimidation began to fade with each extended second of our tug-o-war until my eyes began to pierce through his confidence.

Me (Tavel) looking for the famous frog on the fascade of the Universidad de Salamanca building. The bag pictured here is the one they tried to steal. Salamanca, Spain.

I don’t know where it came from, but in the loudest voice I could muster, fueled by adrenaline and anger, I yelled, “Get off!” at the man. He gave my bag a couple more yanks, but I yanked back harder, until … he gave up. Before I knew it, the man had let go and was sprinting back into the darkness of Plaza Catalunya, leaving me on the ground with a new hole in my jeans and a couple spots of blood soaking through the knee area. But there in my hand, I had my bag, which somehow—like me—did not break.

When I got up and looked around, I had chills. People were everywhere, buses and taxis and cars were just doing what they always did. Jessica was covering her mouth, looking at me, asking me if I was OK. I think I could have lifted up a bus with the adrenaline still surging through my body. As I walked away, chills still running down my spine, I realized that I was going to beat the odds after all.

This third time someone tried to rob me in Spain was the most aggressive encounter I experienced, but I didn’t throw my hands up in the air like the spray-painted woman who had warned me on random stone walls of the city to beware of thieves. And the thief lurking behind the walls of Plaza Catalunya hadn’t become the spray-painted man running away with my purse.

After the ordeal, I was still in Barcelona, I still had all the valuables I had arrived with, and I had only one more night to complete the experience of living there for a semester. When I looked down at my watch, it was only a few minutes after 11 p.m., but after four months of thinking I had gotten to know Barcelona, those few minutes after 11 p.m. changed everything.

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Filed under Life Stuff, Spain, Travel, Travel Disasters