Monday, September 30, 2013

Slow Barcelona

Gabriel is a true artist. A Mombasa gin tonic, he muddles cinnamon sticks into the gin for a subtle fragrance and spice, finishing off with an orange zest to bring it to life. By far my favourite place in Barcelona ... yet.



Home? Home is such a fluid notion, this idea that we're modern, mobile people, out to explore the world and shouldn't be rooted to any one place ...
... but a little part of me is still back in Toronto, still with my family and friends, loved ones ...
... and I've learned, more than ever now, that MY notion of home revolves around food - the food of my childhood, the food of my family, the food of my memories and dreams.
So until we're back home again, we remain thankful for the opportunities in front of us here in this spectacular city, this spectacular school. And we make some egg fried rice with a dollop of chili sauce, to keep us warm in the meantime.


seafood a La Boqueria

The Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria is most often thought as a tourist destination, and it is ... but ask the locals, and they'll tell you that La Boqueria is where they do most of their grocery shopping. Walk past the juice vendors and you'll see - once they stop speaking English, you're in the right part of the market.
A few weeks ago, I made a trip out. I desperately wanted shellfish, and to cook a meal that reminded me of home.
So I found 3 varieties of clams, including these stunning berberechos from Galicia.
And ending with gambas rojas. You handle everything the same way - leeks tossed in olive oil, white wine to steam, careful with the sea salt. You simply let each shellfish express what he is. And with a (few) glasses of Penedès rosado, you savour the marriage of flavours that bring that tired adage to life - indeed, what grows together, goes together.


having a drink in Barcelona

I feel, what, dazed? Shell-shocked? Turned inside out? Today was a rough day in class. I knew the learning curve was going to be steep, I knew that not really having an aptitude for mathematics was going to catch up to me ... just didn't expect it to happen on the 4th day of school. They don't mess around here - this isn't undergrad anymore, clearly. A younger, more idiotic me would have just said to hell with it, let's get a drink. But we can't do that now, can we, despite how great this city is for that ...
... whether it's a quick glass of a local Catalonian white with seared Iberian ham and pork ...
... or a glass of a wonderfully simple, fresh, and vibrant rosé from Penedès ...
... this town is full of the pleasures of the vine. And of course, those generous (is that the right way to put it?) pours of gin ...
... to Chinese restaurants that serve animal feed, although TsingTao is always reliable ...
... to the sublime experiences in dark and quiet bars, where all parts of the drink share the stage and come together in a perfect harmony. A city that celebrates and exalts the pleasures of the glass and the table.


Sunday, September 29, 2013

los pimientos de Padròn

A little plate of peppers, grilled quickly in olive oil and liberally seasoned with coarse sea salt. That's all it took to send this wino into hysterics, all red-faced and panting about the find. Coming here, I was looking forward to the clams, the shrimp, the fish, the ham ... all those wonderful things that make this country a gastronomic paradise. But we've all heard of berberechos, gambas, langostines, jamón ibérico ... the excitement is more in the anticipation of actually eating them, rather than the discovery. These though, these were totally unexpected. Innocuous little green peppers, reminding me why, as in wine, the simple, humble things sometimes bring us the greatest pleasure and excitement.

I've had them in restaurants, I've cooked them at the flat, I've pretty much tried to eat my body weight in them. They come from the village of Padròn, in Galicia, and only about 15,000 kilograms are harvested every year from June to September. There's a famous saying - Os pementos de Padrón, uns pican e outros non (Galician for 'Padròn peppers, some are hot and some are not'). Most tend to be sweeter, and depending on your tastes, even the spicy ones aren't that spicy. But they have all that fragrant pepper aroma, that wonderful texture, that indescribably delicious taste that the coarse flakes of salt bring out. The best thing I've found in Barcelona thus far, and that's taking into account wine as well. Well, this and gin tonics.

Friday night, we had a school event. Each team had to dress up according to a theme and do a pubcrawl - 4 bars, each with a different drinking game that we had to complete. Our theme was 'bands you no longer listen to', so we went the obvious route - KISS - facepaint and all. A fun night, and needless to say, things got debauched and out of hand real fast. Real fast. But it was great to bond with the team, relax after a stressful first week of classes. And let's just say that after Friday night, I'm on a new level of familiarity with Avinguda Diagonal ...


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

maintaining some perspective in front of these high and mighty walls

I officially started my MBA studies today ...
... and it was rough.
... I didn't really understand the cases, or even how to adequately prepare for them ...
... and many of the concepts being discussed by the class left my head spinning.
But as these ancient stone walls can attest to, moments of self-doubt and anxiety pass. What makes them mighty and ever-lasting is the maintenance of perspective amidst the maelstrom, sucking in life and limb. I've risked so much to be here, sacrificed and worked hard to earn my place. All our starting points may be different, and they should be - we're all working for different things, different goals, different purposes. The MBA is what you make of it, and while work ethic is an undoubted must, we can't lose sight of why we're here. These high and mighty walls are still standing not because of whim but because of a sense of purpose. I'm being nonsensical now, aren't I. It's been a long day and I thought I'd be able to go to sleep earlier but I'm stuck in the mud in accounting already. May tomorrow be a good day, and may the weekend arrive soon.

Photos: Catedral de la Santa Cruz y Santa Eulalia, Barcelona


Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The first day of school

Here we go. The first day of school tomorrow. Quite possibly the last first day of school I'll ever have again. Will my professors like me? Will I like my classmates? Will I understand the material? Will I make any friends? And what exactly do I wear? Here I am, in a foreign country, don't really speak the language, with all my friends on the other side of the Atlantic. Yet I feel like this is exactly where I need to be. We'll deal with things as they come, we'll do the best with what we have. Let's go get it.


in the streets of Barcelona ...

... we wander and sometimes we stumble onto interesting things.


Monday, September 23, 2013

celebrating La Mercè

Barcelona has stopped in its tracks to celebrate La Mercè. It's been a great experience to see everything, and there are A LOT of things to see. Impossible to catch them all, but we did try, starting with the Castellers. Incredible. The teams compete, piling up one top of the other to 8 stories or so. The person on the very top is always a child in a helmet - bravery like no other, they climb to the top and have to raise their arms to make the tower eligible to compete. Incredible, and well worth the chest-to-back crowds.
Moving out a bit, we got to the cathedral where we caught the traditional Catalan folk dance, La Sardana. Everyone gets in a circle, and as you can see, it's all in the footwork.
And tonight, I caught a surprise performance of the OCB, the Orquestra Simfònica de Barcelona I Nacional de Catalunya. Lots of Strauss being performed, getting the crowd all excited. What a beautiful venue - outdoors in the perfect night weather, against the spectacular backdrop of the Catedral de Barcelona. After all the partying, I needed some culture today, and while I wasn't able to see Pure Views (closed today and tomorrow), this was some well-needed alone time (shared with a crowd of thousands). A very good night. The actual day of La Mercè is tomorrow, ending with a light show and closing ceremonies. I might make it ... I might not. But what an experience.


Sunday, September 22, 2013

the things we choose to see

One of the things everyone's told me about is how interesting Barcelona is to walk around in. And seeing's how wandering is really what I love to do, it's been a fantastic few weeks here. Been really getting to know a few neighbourhoods, particularly El Born and the Gothic Quarter. The middle photos - the carvings on the walls of the building depict a local saint who was beatified in 1806 and ascended to sainthood in 1909.

Which got me thinking.

To the Roman Catholics, becoming a saint is, well, the ultimate affirmation of the strength of your faith? A process that takes not only a lifetime to reach, but a hundred, if not hundreds more years afterwards. By no means do I aspire to anything resembling sainthood, but in the (much) shorter term, how will we look upon our time in this program, and how will we be looked upon? Nineteen months isn't all that long, and after an intense week of orientation, that point has been securely hammered into everyone's mind. Sure, academics is so crucial, but everything from this point forward has to be done with career management in mind. No more fooling around, no more time to let things fall where they may. Everything's for real now, and we're all playing for keeps.

Just one more thought, because it's late, and I want to get up at a reasonable hour tomorrow to get some work done so I can go out. We had a few sessions on leadership during orientation, and one of the discussions revolved around Orpheus, a chamber music orchestra without a conductor. Flipping the classical model on its head, Orpheus operates with equal contribution from all its members about the interpretation and execution of its repertoire. An incredibly fascinating group to examine and discuss. The only problem is that it was being discussed by business school students.

The straight and true - the discussion left me a little weary about what to expect. When you take something so unique as what Orpheus is doing - a pure study of music - and turn it all into business jargon (defining roles, flat structure, accountability), you strip away all purpose, all beauty. What are we talking about then? Sure, Orpheus is a great business case, which is why we're studying it, but shouldn't there be room for the true meaning of why they're doing it? We can't lose sight of the fact that the motivation that's the reason for their success is a true love and talent for music, not some adherence to a leadership model (as successful as it's been for them). Stripping everything down to efficiencies and role-defining kills why we're doing this.

We were told that IESE values a humanist approach to business. In all we do, we have to maintain a humanity. As one of the presenters said, the day it doesn't hurt anymore to fire someone is the day that you've lost your humanity. So I'm determined, as I officially begin my MBA in a few days, to retain a sense of romance and nuance in all that's to come, to not be lost in trying to talk business, but to remain true to what I am and what I love. That's how I want to look back on my time here, and to be looked upon.  


Wednesday, September 18, 2013

a month in Barcelona, a month in paradise?

Paradise? Maybe. Maybe not. It's certainly been interesting though, since arriving in Barcelona exactly a month ago, today. Day 3 of our IESE Orientation, and it's been exhausting. A last morning lecture about leadership, before breaking for lunch and then an afternoon of presentations on career services and career management. I know they're trying to help, trying to give advice, but at some point, we (I) just need to shut it all out and just start going through it myself. All their advice in the world won't help. This is a 2 year program, and we're all mature students. This ain't undergrad no more. And since the ten or so 2nd years I've spoken to have given me ten different opinions about how their first year went, I'm inclined to not listen to another goddamn piece of advice. Let's get on with it.
Orientation notwithstanding ... this is a beautiful town. I know I tend to complain a lot, but I suppose it's just a natural impulse. I'm not actually that miserable. I was miserable in Toronto. And now that I'm here, I'm finally doing things on my own terms, in control of my own life. Finally. I've been given every chance to succeed here. I've got friends that love me and have my back. Friends who've supported throughout the hell that was the application process ... friends that were genuinely proud and happy that I got accepted here. Friends who've taken me out the last few weeks I was in Toronto, who gave me gifts, who wrote me cards, who drove out with me to the airport just for a final hug. I love you guys so much ... you are my motivation. No complaining here. When the shit hits the fan, when the work starts mounting up, when internship applications begin - no complaints. Because this is exactly what I wanted to do, exactly what I needed to do. I won't let you guys down.

- photos taken in El Born, Barcelona


Monday, September 16, 2013

IESE Orientation, Day 1

So today we had our first day of orientation at IESE. A 10 hour day in full business attire, tie pin and all. The walk up was fine, but it was the walk back home in a wool suit, under the Barcelona sun that was the death of me.

A lot of interesting lectures and presentations today given by some very clever, accomplished, aspirational people. Lots of talk about leadership, about change, about upcoming economic trends. But a few things stood out, and they all had to do with our personalities, this ongoing personal development we were all beginning. We were shown a picture for a few seconds, just enough time to get a glimpse. We were told to guess what animal it was. A duck, a rabbit, some shouted. And all I saw was a squirrel. I guess I am a true Canadian. Head shape, correct, the way the thighs curl up, the tail tucked and arched at an angle. Unmistakably a squirrel. And as it turns out, the people who see squirrels are both highly intelligent, as well as highly sexual. Go figure. We did personality tests a while back for a company called Insights, and they sent a presenter over to explain our results. A booklet was printed out, with pages and pages detailing our personalities, our strengths/weaknesses, and how we should interact with our opposites. Eerily accurate. I mean ...

David's view of the world is concrete and specific although he will occasionally be more spontaneous than he appears at first sight.

He is aesthetically appreciative and values quality. He often sees when colours match or blend and may have a highly developed taste for art, music and food.

He is seen by others as intellectually independent. Both for himself and others, fun, relaxation and free time are scheduled and prioritised events. He has a distrust for the ostentatious, the speedy and the fanciful.

David may express affection non-verbally and appreciate others' company on a rather abstract level. He is suspicious of what may be lurking beneath a smile.

Straight truth there. A bit frightening actually, because I have no idea how they derived all this from that survey we took. But at least it's confirmed that yes, I have a clear idea of who I am, what I am. No self-delusion, high self-awareness. That's always a good thing right? We've got a full week planned ... they run a tight ship here. In the meantime, trying to enjoy it all, get back into the mindset of a student again. And one more weekend of carefree bar-hopping. One last weekend.


Sunday, September 15, 2013

experiencing La Diada and joining the cause

This Wednesday, September 11 marked a dark anniversary for all us North Americans, but here in Catalunya, they observe a somewhat sombre event as well. It is La Diada, the National Day of Catalonia, marking the defeat of the Catalan Army to the forces of the Bourbon King, Philip V of Spain on September 11, 1714. We started the day at Arc de Triomf, where a fairground was set up. Lots of tents selling flags, food, and history books. Tame. The evening got a little more interesting, as a human chain was organized stretching 400 km across Catalunya all the way to the French border. At 5:14 pm (17:14), everyone joined hands as we watched on monitors at Plaça de Catalunya. Emotions were running high, with lots of passionate speakers including the lady who organized the human chain (who also promptly broke down after saying good afternoon my Catalans). An incredible sight to witness, and inspiring to see so many people feel so passionately about something that happened 299 years ago. Will definitely be here next here, to see its 300th.

So, IESE orientation begins tomorrow. Not exactly school just yet, but things are starting to get real. And shit will get real real fast. I'm hopeful and excited - it's already been a great experience so far, and yes, everyone's relaxed and having fun now, but that's not why we're all here. I wonder how I'm going to look back on this period of time in a few years. Let's get started.


Saturday, September 14, 2013

alone and wandering

So I've been here a bit. Acclimated, a little? Last night I fell asleep hugging my pillow. A deep-seated complex in there somewhere, something sinister waiting to erupt? Maybe. Maybe not. It's ok to feel lonely in a new place. Even in a place like Barcelona.

I suppose I shouldn't be writing this stuff in public. Where my classmates can all see. But it's here, so if you do read this, all two of you, come say hi. We'll have a drink. Because what else is DF good for but to direct you to a good drink? I'm not the one you network with, there's no point - I have nothing really to offer except which gin to try next. Deep insecurities about if I even belong here, in this school, in this program? Bien sur. I'm not even speaking the right fucking language. I've only been in this country for a little over 3 weeks, so it will take some time. I'm trying. But, if I may, I give a jackshit about how others perceive me. A bad quality to have as an MBA candidate? Sure, but I is what is.

There was a class event tonight. Well, unofficial class event at a bar, before heading to a club. I had a few drinks, talked to some familiar faces, met some new ones. All good. And then we step into what was supposedly a swanky joint here and all I wanted to do was fuck on home, put some bluegrass on, and sing of death and glory. Why is that. Social fatigue after 3 weeks? Yes. But also because try as I might, I can't compromise myself, my true self. I've come to know some of my classmates, and I like a lot of them - a lot of them. But I refuse to believe that clubbing is the only way to be social. Jamais, jamais, jamais. Never will I ever be comfortable in that situation, and I'm too old, too tired to be pressured into it, for the sake of the experience.

I've met so many people in my short time here, more people than I've ever met in my life. A diverse, eclectic group that's already confirmed that coming here was the right decision. Yet why do I feel like I'm drifting towards the same old, same old? I'm having issues with cultural identity. What is it? Am I Chinese? Am I Canadian? I was called a banana last night. Non-maliciously, and she apologized profusely afterwards - probably a bit overboard as well. But it does get one thinking. In a very international setting, we simply are our nationalities. So what about immigrants? We do represent a very unique segment here, hence the confusion. I'm as much a Canadian as a Chinese person. Is it too much to be thought of as both?

The whole point of coming out here was to do something different. Yet routine is so familiar, so comfortable. It's so easy getting back to the same patterns of how I view people, how I interact. A change is definitely what I need, but it seems more and more obvious to me that changing demeanours is just as importantly a conscious decision. It's been tough, and I have to keep reminding myself. I'm a deeply, deeply emotional person, and I'm not always the most polite, the most diplomatic. But I'm honest and I do try to always be true to what I'm feeling. We let things fall as they may. If people like you for you, fantastic. If not, I'm too stubborn to try to change their mind. We are what we are. Why is it that I feel drawn towards certain people, why I feel like I naturally get along? It's a misguided way of approaching this whole thing, I think now. We have to make a distinction. So many people are describing each other as friends. And I can't do that, because I feel like if I do so, I'm insulting my true friends. My true loved ones, the people who unconditionally have my back and best interests at heart. I'm a friendly and open person, but it takes a long, long time before I can trust someone enough to consider them a friend. That's simply how DF is. And if I can't be myself here, then it's not the right place to be. We'll figure out soon enough.

Vale chicos. I'm a little drunk, I'm a little tired, and it's time for bed. Late, and listening to Suzanne Cox sing I am weary is not improving my mood. Good night my friends, and we'll talk tomorrow. Park Guell for me, and as I'm best, I'll be going alone. It's good to be alone. Pillows make great bed-mates - and unlike some women, they're less dangerous too.


Thursday, September 12, 2013

lunch at El Quim de la Boqueria

Everyone talks about how great food in Barcelona is, but like ever urban city, there's also lots of bad food. Paris, Tokyo, New York, Shanghai - you can have transcendant food experiences, but also eat at places where the owners/chefs are clearly bored, uninspired, and otherwise simply untalented. I've experienced a few of those already here, but for one lunch, all those disappointments went away.

The Mercat de la Boqueria. A must-see on every tourists checklist during their Barcelona vacation, but locals come here too. For the seafood, for the produce - and for a quick bite. El Quim de la Boqueria, a busy bar set up right in the middle of the market, where standing to eat is sometimes part of the charm. And we stood. Lunch was stunning. The first time I experienced the magic that is los pimientos de Padrón, peppers from the village of Padrón whose harvest amounts to only about 15,000 kilos a year. Its season is ending fast, and I'm doing my best to consume as much as humanly (and financially) possible. Delicious. Full of that intense, sweet/smoky pepper flavour, while retaining a fabulous texture. Those flakes of salt sprinkled just before serving, the way the pepper's skin blisters but stays a brilliant green - a stunning, stunning find. Other things were ordered and consumed, but I'll never forget my first bite of this treasure.

Things are going to start getting real very fast. So before school begins, I want to remind myself why I'm here, why I made this sacrifice. I want to change my life and become a better person. Not to be a better analyst, or a better financial mind, or a better problem-solver. I want to be a better person. As I was (drunkenly) saying to a few classmates last night, I want to be open, but I can't compromise who I am as a person. I simply cannot. And gin, above all, reveals truth. That is my truth.

One thing at a time. One thing at a time. We're here for a reason and at least for me, I'm determined to simply be myself, drunk and stuffed with shellfish.


Tuesday, September 10, 2013

making it feel like home

You know what's funny about this city? It totally lives up to its reputation as being super relaxed, super slow, super lazy. I got here August 18, and for the rest of the month, the streets were empty. I was thinking how strange it was, to be able to walk around with nary a soul around - we see more people out at night in Toronto. And then September hits, the people get back from vacation, and the city finally begins feeling like a real, working city. Overnight, literally - streets were packed. Just like that. I've been really enjoying cocktails here. Gin tonics every bit as good as advertised. Even these non artisanal bars - the Cafe Zurich - offer their unique twist on it. This particular twist intended to get you head over heels smashed. You think that's the drink? That was a pour of GIN.
We finally had our cleaning lady come in this Monday. Four guys, and although we're all old enough to clean up after ourselves and otherwise not be slobs, things accumulate. Our place looked sparkling after she was done, but there was still something missing ... things that didn't quite make it feel like home. So I went out the morning to IKEA again, to pick up a few final items. Pillows, kitchen utensils, a proper knife ...
And with still no (proper) wine stems in the house, had to make do with this thing as I opened the first bottle bought here. Went out to Vila Viniteca for a look, and left amazed. They do rosados so well in this country, and this one, the 2011 Pardas Sumoll from Penedès was sublime. Richly aromatic, but structured on the palate. Bone dry with very fine tannins. A fresh and truly delicious, complex wine.
But today, after our seminar at school on how to write your CV's (let's not get started), needed to get some fresh air and something to pick me up. Shopping for wine stems! Went out to the city's largest (and best?) shopping mall, L'Illa. Didn't find anything, so walked back to El Corte Inglés, but along the way, saw the display for Zara Home. Very nicely shaped stems at 4.99€ a pop, but wanted to take my chance. Patience is a virtue well rewarded. I found a tiny wine shop called Plaisirs du Vin. And I actually asked to buy their stems. Beautiful Riedels they use for tasting, at a discount. A very happy man. And she poured me a taste of a grenache from Priorat - stunning. Tight and tannic, yet so floral and balanced at 14.5% abv. Lots of exciting and new wines will pass through these stems and I can't wait. 
But tonight, needed to stay home and have rice. Just good, simple jasmine rice, fried with eggs and a splash of soy sauce. Now Barcelona feels like home.