Composite: Spain, Italy, England

Wow, how long has it been since I’ve updated? A week? Maybe two? I’ve been without internet for a while. A lot has happened since then. It’s actually hard to believe that so much has flashed by in under a month, and as I sit here in Sheffield, England, writing to you, I’m still having a difficult time reconciling that just last week I was in Florence, Italy and the week before that Alicante, Spain. Food for thought.

Leaving Spain every year is met with dread by every member of my family for various reasons: the end of summer, the beginning of school, the nightmare of packing, the sudden lack of sun and available beaches, etc. The list could go on forever. I don’t want to bash the United States, but really, after languishing on a Spanish beach for the better part of two months, California/Arizona just doesn’t measure up. Sorry. I’m sure that my friends who take off to the lake for the summer would have the same opinion. After all, leaving the lake (or beach) means going back to school.

This year, however, the family got a bit of a reprieve before the mad rush for school supplies, talking to teachers, and preparing the classroom. Unlike most trips that end in a flight out of Madrid, we decided to spend our last summer week in Florence, to get the lay of the land as it were. After our week, my parents and brother would travel to Milan for their flight back to San Francisco and I would head out to the East Midlands airport to stay with my aunt and uncle in Birmingham. I think I’ve said all that before?

In any case, getting a peek around Florence before the start of term was a golden opportunity. Granted, Palazzo Rucellai has yet to tell me where exactly it is I’m living or who I’m living with, but the administration staff was kind enough to point out the central locations where the apartments would be situated. Piazza San Marco and near the Duomo. Prime spots, right? Now if they’d just tell me the building… Not knowing aside, my family and I took the time to traipse through the city and, of course, eat our way through some delicious Tuscan food.

Before we get to food, though, I have to mention the Uffizi. The Uffizi is the largest museum in Florence, famous for housing Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” and “La Primavera” among others. It costs a bit of money to get in, and I’d advise buying tickets in advance to escape the massive line that loops the building and the piazza. It might be an extra €4, but it’s definitely worth it, especially since temperatures were soaring to 40˚C the day we went.

Uffizi exterior

Though we all saw the same paintings and sculptures, I’m sure that Dad is the only one who could reliably give any explanations about them. I have no idea how Mom manages to see everything since she’s exiting the room ahead of us when we’re just starting the previous. Moves like lightning that woman. Ian and I were lost causes after a while. After being battered with masterpiece after masterpiece, I regret to say that they eventually blend into one massive blob of ink and oil color. I can say, however, that there were only three Caravaggio’s in the entire museum and I was MOST disappointed. He was my favorite when studying Renaissance Art in high school.

Having taken in a bit of the visible culture, we were all set for some great Italian food. I’m sure everyone automatically thinks pasta and pizza, and I won’t lie, there was a lot of that going around. I think I had at least one pasta dish every day. Mom keeps telling me about the different tastes of the noodles themselves, but honestly I can’t tell. They all taste the same to me. I’m more concerned with the stuff they put on the noodles, be it green, red, white, or all three. Pasta’s just pasta. Of course, I run the risk of being lynched by my Tita Sue for saying that, but don’t worry! I’ll figure out the differences eventually!

Tagliatelle with wild boar meat sauce

I have to extend a big “thank you” to my cousin, Rafael, for telling us about the “Eat Florence” app for iPhone/iPad. That app was a goldmine. An overview for you curious kids out there: Eat Florence provides a list of easy-to-find, cost-ranked restaurants, food stands, kitchen suppliers, and gelatarias all across the city. You can view the inventory of locations by neighborhood, type, and cost, and with location activated on your device, you can calculate how long of a walk you have in order to find someplace to eat. I think we managed to hit about five of the places provided out of nearly thirty. It’s a great jumping off point for people interested in good Tuscan food, but sometimes wandering the streets proves lucky too.

The time finally came, though, that we had to pack off to Milan and Pisa airports respectively. There wasn’t a tearful goodbye, but I wasn’t in the car off to Milan so I can’t speak for my parents or brother. I didn’t cry, though. Sorry Mom. I think it was harder to leave Florence than it was to leave Alicante, despite knowing that I’d come back in just a few weeks (ten days now, but who’s counting?). The city captures you very quickly and I find it’s reluctant to let go. Not that I mind of course, but it’ll be hell trying to go back to States after this year, I think.

Staying in Sheffield was strange when compared to Florence. Everyone speaks English, for one (and isn’t it strange that it’s strange?), and the food doesn’t nearly measure up to Italian standards. It’s also cold. Very cold. Arizona definitely did a number in conditioning me for hot temperatures. That being said, however, Sheffield is a charming little city. The houses are typical English houses, and I had fish and chips the other day wrapped in newspaper, still greasy and hot from the frier. There’s an element of gentility here in England that doesn’t match the flamboyant rush and color of Italy or the leisurely beach life of Spain. I can’t say that I’d live here, but I wouldn’t mind visiting once in a while.

Now I’m in Birmingham with my Uncle Ian, Auntie Ruth, and cousin Stephanie for the remainder of my holiday. It’s been years since I’ve seen them and succinctly: they’re a riot. I don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun being teased for my American-ness. It definitely puts a spin on the idea that my friends think I’m very European and British. Ha. Haha. I’m VERY American, but that’s alright. I might be somewhat Italian by the end of this whole junket.

Tomorrow I’m heading back to Italy for the start of term and orientation. I’m not quite nervous, but sometimes I’ve woken up in the morning and mentally double check the contents of my suitcases. I’ve been lucky to have had help in preparing for this year abroad, but preparations can only get you so far. I’m not concerned about the year at large but the start of it. So long as I hit the ground running, I’ll be fine, I think.

PS: I have three videos for you all, but since I restored my computer, iMovie has been taking a long time to finalize its projects, so those’ll be up within the week. Hopefully.

Interlude: Spain: Barcelona

I’ve been to Barcelona a scant four times and never for a long duration. Mom hates driving the roads there, says they’re too confusing, and we admittedly don’t have any real reason to go other than, “Hey, it’s Barcelona.” That being said two out of the four times we’ve gone has been out of necessity, either as a stopping point in the drive to and from Paris or a rest stop after arriving. However, the other two were for much more exciting reasons, but this requires a bit of background history.

My favorite artist isn’t Beyonce or Sting or Adam Lambert or Lady Gaga (though she’s pretty damn awesome). I’m very into Japanese music, as anyone in my family could tell you, and I absolutely adore one particular man, GACKT. He’s a veteran of the Japanese music scene, having been part of one of the most influential underground bands “Malice Mizer,” and is currently the number one selling male solo artist in Japan. He sure as hell does not look 38, but he celebrated his birthday this past July 4. He looks fantastic for his age and his voice . . . wow.

Last year, GACKT put together a new band called “Yellow Fried Chickenz.” I know, don’t take it too seriously because he certainly doesn’t. At least, not in the way most people would immediately think of. Supposedly the meaning behind such a choice relates to the original Colonel of KFC having dedicated his restaurant chain to a most perfect version of his product. In a sense GACKT pursues the same thing, wanting to provide his fans with a most perfect version of his music. YFC is certainly different from his solo work, more on the heavier rock side of things but no less compelling in its intensity.

In 2010 he launched his first world tour, the first time GACKT had ever performed outside of Japan. I was lucky enough to attend the Barcelona show, one of five locations throughout four countries. His popularity outside of Japan is so much so that the Ticketmaster servers in France, Spain, and England crashed due to traffic, fans desperate to get one of the precious limited tickets to see our man.

The Barcelona live was phenomenal in a cathartic sense. I cried when GACKT came on stage and screamed myself hoarse and had that crazed fan hallucination that he actually looked at me out of everyone else. He certainly makes an impression. I wrote a longer review of this particular concert on my Facebook page, but it’s rather long and I wouldn’t want you to get too bogged down by my fangirlism. Besides, I did go to another concert recently, and yes, I saw GACKT again in Barcelona.

The 2011 performance was better than the 2010 live for specific reasons. In the summer of 2010, GACKT was working on the production of Hollywood movie, Bunraku, a theatre play “Nemuri Kyoshiro” called the Nemuri X Gackt Project, and putting out another single, EVER. Throwing together a European tour is certainly adding more to an already full plate. Not to mention the fact that he doesn’t exactly rest and his blogs detailed his throat bleeding and him passing out on stage. No sleep and very little to eat and lots of stress makes for tired GACKT, though given the circumstances, his performance still blew me away.

Now, the 2011 performance showed a much more rested performer with a few new band members and a support vocalist, Jon. Granted, the beginning was a relief mainly because everyone in line just wanted to get in the damn building. Barcelona saw some pretty bad weather that day, and we fools were stuck outside in the pouring rain and hail for an hour and a half, just to see this concert. It was totally worth it, though.

YFC produced some of its own music alongside GACKT classics like “Vanilla” and “Speed Master.” Their new single, “End of the Day” opened the show, and I definitely enjoyed GACKT’s newest solo release, “Episode.0.” The atmosphere was hot and lively, hardly allowing for a breathe of rest before the next fast-paced song jumped into play. Ian and I screamed ourselves dead, and we were aching the day after from the dancing and head-banging done in the back of the crowd. Shoving our way to the front wasn’t going to happen, but I think we attracted a fair amount of our own attention.

We had a blast and GACKT promised to come back next year since we were so enthusiastic. After the debut of new ballad, “SHOW YOUR HEART,” named after the charity fund established by GACKT for the Japan tsunami victims and the crazed encore song of “UNCONTROL,” we all filed out of the building feeling high on “kiai,” which really has no translation into English. The closest thing I can think of is “spirit love” or “heart strength,” as corny as that sounds, but it really is more something to be felt and experienced rather than explained.

Ian on the way home, sporting YFC merchandise

Interlude: Spain: Villajoyosa

We’re nearing the end of our vacation here in Alicante, and while I’ve chronicled the past few weeks on Facebook through pictures and various status messages, I felt that it would be nice to put a little something of our experiences up here as well, hence Interlude: Spain: Villajoyosa.

I have to say that Spain is my favorite vacation spot, possibly my only vacation spot for more than half my life. I’ve been very lucky. As it were, I know a lot about our little area here in San Juan, Alicante. Of course, the restaurants and beaches are to die for, though I have to admit that the revelation of topless women running about without a care in the world was a bit much the first time I came here at the tender age of nine. Women with their boobs showing? The inhumanity! Oh, the stories I could tell . . . but since my mother reads this blog, I’d better not.

One of our favorite locations is the beach of Villajoiyosa.

Villajoyosa is famous for its brightly colored buildings that line the beach front.

Obviously it’s a very colorful place. The water’s always warm and the restaurants that cater to locals and tourists alike pump out some of the best seafood and traditional Spanish cuisine that I’ve ever tasted. Two such restaurants include Le Cabanon and El Madrid. We’ve been going to Le Cabanon for years and have built up something of a friendship with the French owner, Frank. Considering my dad speaks French fluently (among Spanish, Portuguese, and a smattering of German/Italian/whatever-he-feels-like), Frank likes our family. He’s a genial man, always on the go, but when he stops to chat, he always has some interesting stories to tell us.

That being said, we’re mainly there for the food. Conversation is nice and all, but Frank can cook up a mean menu. Good God, the FOOD. I could eat the same meal there every time and still be impressed. In fact, I often do eat the same meal every time, and I’m often impressed. Pollo asado con salsa curry y patatas fritas. Oh it’s to die for. I’ve taken a leap into other meals, like the homemade lasagna in its terracotta bowl larger than my face and rabbit sautéed in garlic sauce, but I have to say that I always come back to my favorite. My brother Ian never strays from his Pasta Carbonara, but luckily my parents make up for our lack of adventure. Dad’s a fiend. He’ll eat anything that doesn’t drop a guy. And Mom likes her varieties, too. She just doesn’t go for the cricket off the street. (Dad did.)

Le Cabanon caters to locals and tourists but has built up quite a list of regulars for all times of the year. When the summer crowd goes home, the local folk crawl out of the woodwork for their usual glass of Muscatel and some pan y alioli for wasting the afternoon away. The blue-green awnings, while not always keeping out the summer heat, do some good for shielding the sun, casting a pleasant azure glow over the tables, and an army of fans keep guests cool while perusing the menu del dia and menu gourmet. The atmosphere is always lively and welcoming with perky waitresses and excellent service. I’d have to say the most popular choice of drink would be the white sangria, which makes sense because it’s damn good.

Curry Chicken with a side of french fried potatoes and green beans

We just recently started eating at El Madrid. Two years ago, I think. Mom saw the menu up on the wall exclaiming “Bocarrones” (tiny fried fish) and had to have a table. Suffice to say we’ve been back a few times. Just down the street from Le Cabanon, like literally twelve meters away, it’s got a great beach view and offers sumptuous dishes of paella, fresh seafood caught off the rocks, and a wide selection of drinks for all ages. No fans to speak of here, just the salty sea breeze and a few precious umbrellas to hold back the beating sun, but it’s a pleasant place that requires a reservation due to its popularity with everyone around.

Like I said, we started coming here because my mom saw a few tiny fishies being doused in hot oil and batter. Well, she likes them. Mom’s the boss. I have to say, though, that for all I dislike seafood and its trappings, those dishes are really the most interesting to see. Presentation is key, after all, and these Spaniards definitely know how to make fish look appetizing to the cow-munchers. We took visiting friends John and Denise Andico here for lunch, and they went bananas.

All that seafood!!!

El Madrid hits pretty high on my favorite restaurants not for the food (though the food is good) but for the scenery and the variety of people that show up at lunch time. The paellas are made in a tiny room off the restaurant visible from the street, and you always get a whiff of that great cooking when walking past. The constant motion between that room and the tables is a great thing to watch, a reminder to all passersby that food is fresh, hot, and delicious. A perfect view of the beach, fork in hand, wine glass empty and plate scraped clean = Nikki’s ready for siesta time! And let me tell you, after eating as much as I do, a lie-down on the beach is exactly what you need.