As I have said before, San Francisco is mostly a wonderful place. But now and then you must get away or go nuts. I was approaching near nuts, so decided it was time. In former times I went anywhere: Mexico, India, Nepal, Pakistan ... But I now have a daughter who lives in Spain. So I just drop in on her:
"Hola, hija, what is for dinner?"
But this time I had an additional excuse for dropping in: She had a birthday coming in a week.
"What do you want?" I asked her on the phone.
"Whiskey," came the answer, "and Cuban cigars."
"Hm, hm, hm," I said. "The Whiskey is easy but I'm not so sure about the cigars. I think there is still some kind of embargo. You know, we can't punish those Cubans enough for all the awful things they have done to us ..."
"Like what?" the kid asked.
"Well, I don't know but I'm sure they have done something. Or are planning something. Our president, senor George Bush, would know. He probably has a list."
I heard what sounded like a loud fart on the other end of the phone.
"Now, daughter, that is not respectful. Anyway, I will do my best on the cigars."
After I hung up, I suddenly found myself asking, "My daughter smokes cigars? Hm, her mother never did that. Where could she have acquired such a habit? Anyway, I think she will have to settle for Dominican Republic. They're a good smoke."
Flying may have once been fun but not these days. Not in the Bush era of "security," arriving two hours early, and being herded like cattle through security check points. If you did it every day it might be easier, but if you do it only now and then it can be a real hassle.
I have removed my shoes; I have taken of my jacket; I have placed keys & coins in a basket; I have removed my belt. Still the alarm goes off indicating I'm a terrorist. I'm pulled aside and told to remain in a cordoned off area. Soon a guy with an electronic paddle arrives and starts asking me questions. In the mean time, I have already figured out the problem. I forgot to remove three pens from my shirt pocket. But no going back now. I have been identified as one of the President's enemies.
The man with the paddle also wears blue plastic gloves. Is he planning to do a rectal exam as well? I don't know. But he is polite. There must be some rules these days regarding how to treat airport prisoners of war. He says if I wish we can go to a private space to do the exam. I prefer it to be public so others can see; I think that is safer. He explains that when he touches my body it will only be with the back of his gloved hands. I don't as why.
I spread eagle and he starts running the paddle over my body. With my belt removed and my shirt now untucked my pants are beginning to fall down. All I need is an open bottle to look like a skid-row bum. But it is no big deal, actually. A lot of other nice folks are going through this same shit and it is not particularly embarrassing; it is simply annoying. Fuck that bastard Bush, I'm saying under my breath. Fuck his god-damn war on everything.
The guy with the paddle is finally done. The paddle has remained silent. My pens are now taken over to be xrayed. They soon come back. The xray machine determines they are pens, not bombs. How mundane. Something is what it seems to be and not an instrument of destruction, mass or otherwise. I am allowed to proceed with my three bottles of whiskey and cigars toward the Air France boarding gate. Since there is about 20 minutes to spare before boarding, I stop at Cafe Mondo and get a glass of wine. On an empty stomach, it is very relaxing. I stare out the window at the gray Bay Area weather that seems to have settled in like one other inconvenience.
Some fourteen hours later, following a stop at Charles de Galle airport in Paris with a baffling bus ride (photo above) around the airport to a connecting flight to Barcelona, I arrive; and with minimal hassle I emerge from the customs gate and spot the kid.
I show her the big box from John Walker & Company in San Francisco that I have been lugging around.
"The stuff," I say.
"Whiskey and cigars. But who said you were allowed to smoke cigars?"
She does not answer. My authority is gone. These days I am but a useful tool to obtain things. So be it.
"Let us go and make our visit," I say.
We get a taxi to the train station, check the schedule, and go into a cafeteria. We had plans for a real lunch but the schedule does not allow it. Thus for my first meal in this enchanting land of kings, castles, and culinary treasures I am sampling cafeteria food. Well, we start at the bottom and work our way up. That's life. What surprised me, however, about this cafeteria experience was the variety and freshness of the food. We had stuffed red peppers, a dish made of mashed potatoes and salt cod, salad, and of course lots of good red wine. We awarded it a two-star rating for cafeteria food and headed for the train platform.
Soon we are on the train headed up into the mountains toward Puigcerda. It is a slow ride—all the trains in Spain are slow, my daughter tells me—of about three and a half hours. I think I like slow trains; they make me sleepy. It is dark when we get to Puigcerda. The lit-up tower of the bombed-out church shows in the distance.
I'm here to forget about The City and high rent and incompetent landlords, gypsters, and to forget about That Bastard Bush, the Ruiner of Lives, the Destroyer of People. At least I hope to forget this stuff for awhile.
My daughter thinks I should have a nap before dinner, and I only throw a small fit.
"No nap, no nap," I shout.
"No nap, no dinner. Lie down!"
Actually, the nap was the perfect prelude
to dinner. I woke up groggy, thirsty, and hungry. Wild Turkey
on the rocks put me in the mood.
At el Caliu we have Amanida Catalan and Insalada Catalan (photo below) for appetizers. For segundo platos we have lamb chops and beef with fries and asparagus. For dessert we split Pastis de Pera, iogunt i xocolate. I write all this down but in fact do not remember it well. I suppose it is jet lag. I shoot a few pictures so that I can remember but I do not remember much. My notes are only sketchy.
What I do remember is the small quiet restaurant with just a few diners, the solemn waiter, Lluis, and the slow pace. I remember the calm arrival of each plate, the slowing down of time. By the time we are finishing dessert, all the other diners have gone and Lluis is sitting at one of the tables doing the books. He does not fidget while we drink our coffee, suggesting, perhaps, that it is growing late. He does not prop open the door to freeze us out as is done in some San Francisco restautants.
The next day, Emiliano, my daughter's friend, drives us over to Alp, another town in the Cerdanya valley toward the eastern mountains. It is cold there, with a wind coming down off the mountains. We go into Casino Alp. Emiliano explains that every town has a casino, which is a place for the whole family where you can get beer and wine and sandwiches and where there are usually some amusements for the kids. This casino at Alp does not appear very family-oriented to me with all the guys at the bar drinking and smoking and several yelling and even two exchanging"friendly" punches but it is interesting. We order sandwiches, the typical ones on a medium hard role rubbed with olive oil and tomatoes (photo below). You can see just a little red from the tomatoes and a few seeds on the rolls shiny with oil. For sandwich contents there are two choices: meat or eggs. My initial thought is that this is a pretty crude sandwich; by California standards there ought to be choices of lettuce, sprouts, mayonnaise, mustard, horseradish, cheese ... But this Catalan sandwich does have good distinctive flavor in the mouth; moreover, you know what you are eating.
The building looks ancient. Later in the day I went over to the casino in Puigcerda to check it out. It is in a large beautiful building near the town plaza and it is very clean inside. It is also friendly to all generations: There is a kids room with game machines near the entrance. There is big octagonal lunch-bar counter in the center of the main room, with a beer that is brewed at the casino. There are also two separate rooms, one that looks like it is used for card games by seniors and another room where sports games are projected onto the wall. In Puigcerda the casino seems to have something for everyone.
Emiliano has to work at the family coffee house, the Xocolateria, and later in the evening my daughter and I go over to a tapas place near the one theatre in Puigcerda. At Esperit De Vi we order glasses of good red wine for two or three euros. They have five open bottles that you can pick from. And we order a shrimp dish with oil and garlic and I think the flavor of anchovies. We have a little debate as to whether there is really anchovy in the oil or not. I think so, but you might get that same taste by almost burning the garlic, which they have done for this dish. At B44, a Catalan restaurant in San Francisco, there is a similar sauce used for bread that gets its flavor from anchovies. And we order a kind of potato pie that is extremely tasty. I mean to go back and get more details but when I do they are closed. But this is the type of small place that I love. Good simple food that is inexpensive and tasty. Also the dishes come fast. It reminds me of a good Chinatown restaurant where, once the dishes start to come, they come one after another. At Esprit De Vi You can keep on ordering until you are full and try a couple different types of wine. We mostly talk about food at this place; I don't think we mentioned "that bastard Bush" once, which was refreshing. If we had, I suppose it would have gone along lines like this:
"What a bastard that guy is."
"Yes, what a horrible bastard that guy is."
"Yes, what a complete and total bastard that guy is."
"And an asshole too."
"Yes, an asshole. Of the worst sort."
See, not a very interesting conversation. It was nice to avoid it for awhile. We might also have discussed certain notorious San Francisco landlords, and the conversation would have gone along similar line:
"What a god-damn gypster that guy is."
"Still pounding the shit out of the building?"
"For six months now, every day. People are ready to revolt."
"Fixed the pipes yet?"
"Course not. Waiting for them to burst so the insurance company picks up the bill."
"Sounds like a bastard."
"Who is it?"
"CitiApartments ... with ties to Lembi."
"With ties to Lembi?"
"Yeah. They're an LLC—limited liability corporation—but the bad guy in back of it is Lembi. All the charm of Franco."
"I'm surprised he hasn't bombed Grace Cathedral yet!"
See? Not very interesting stuff. Makes you
lose your appetite. That's why we avoid it.
The next day was the daughter's birthday and we had several treats in store for us. But in the morning, while the daughter was on some kind of chore, I did a little research on my own. On previous trips to Europe I had only seen Jack Daniel's Bourbon Whiskey in the bars. If you wanted Bourbon, you ordered "Jack." If you just ordered Whiskey, you got scotch. I was therefore curious if there were other brands available. To find out, I headed to the bigger of the two liquor stores in Puigcerda. I soon spotted Jack, along with a few of his drinking buddies: Forester, Maker's Mark, and Jim Beam. I saw no Wild Turkey, one of my own favorites. I never travel without it. Later on at Capbrabo, the local "super market," I spotted one other brand: Four Roses. So it looks like I was wrong. There were at least some alternatives to Jack, though I saw few of them in the bars.
Now this is the kind of research I enjoy. The next time I go into a bar in Spain I can ask, "Tiene Four Roses?" Or when I'm in a bar in Paris, "Je voudrais Le Maker's Mark, sil vous plais."
One of the reasons for bringing Bourbon Whiskey to Puigcerda was to bring something different. I wanted to bring something not available there. I had therefore guessed right in my choices of Eagle River, Elijah Craig, and Woodford Reserve, none of which I saw anywhere. These are single-barrel, small-batch Whiskies with 18-year-old Elijah Craig being the senior member.
With my research complete, I met up with my
daughter about noon to walk around town, which does not take long in Puigcerda,
unless you include the lake and feeding the ducks in your walk. We soon
found ourselves at Vin, where wine is available in the barrel.
You can either bring your own bottle and have it filled, or you can have
a glass and drink it there at one of the rickety little tables. Olives
with anchovies are available. It is a popular place, and I was not too
surprised that the owners, an elderly man and his wife, knew my kid. They
were all friendliness when they were introduced to "papa." The
wine was simple and delicious. The olives and anchovies hit the spot. Several
friends came over to the table to wish my daughter
The next big event of the day was to meet Emiliano's sister's family for lunch. We met at Carreta, a clean restaurant of soft light and modern construction. I personally prefer the older places, such as the Pizzeria, which we were unable to get into, but Carreta is still nice. This brings up a topic that I have been pursuing for some time now: "modern" versus "older" construction. You see this all the time in San Francisco. A classic older building versus a new one. Inevitably the older building is better looking with real elements of design to it, while the new one is simply a functional block designed well enough to hold out the rain and strong enough to withstand the wind—but beyond that, no design consideration goes into the new building. I would even go this far:
Any old building in San Francisco is better looking than any new building. Consider the case of the frumpy old building, always for lease, on the corner of Kearny and Sacramento:
Squat, homely, but homey. I would not mind having an office there.
Then take a look at the relatively new Hilton Hotel just down the street, the "pyramid" in the background and shot from Portsmouth Square:
Like that cement monster? Want to spend the night there?
So what is the deal? Doesn't anyone care about aesthetics anymore? Is it all about money and building it fast? Don't people have eyes? And if people spend money on watches and clothes and designer this and designer that, why the hell don't they spend it on buildings?
"You really want to know?" a voice says.
"Yeah, I'm not afraid of the truth."
"Ya can't wear a building, you idiot. Clothes are about fashion. They're about you."
"Yeah, but it reflects on the city or on the owner or on something."
"Not the same. It's an ego thing. The ego of the city is a deflated things these days. The cities lack self esteem. It's like, 'Oh, I'm such an ugly worthless bastard. Maybe I will drown myself in the river today.' Only home owners will sometimes spend on quality design."
"Is that what it all comes down to, Voice?"
"Yeah, sorry to be the one to have to tell you."
Anyway, though Carreta was new on the inside, it still had some class to it. In the US it probably would not. You can see other examples of new construction around Puigcerda that, while not as good as the old, at least show concern for aesthetics.
But back to lunch: I was not as happy with this restaurant as I was with some of the others, such as Caliu, but I did enjoy the Cocas de aceite. This is a flat bread with oil and served as an appetizer. I first tried the simple one, which was just with oil. Then I ordered Cocas de queso de Brie con Jubugo— with brie cheese and a kind of thinly sliced ham (photo below). This was tasty.
For my main course I had a kind of pork sausage with caramelized onions and tomatoes atop a piece of toasted bread. Maybe I do not know pork sausage and caramelized onions & tomatoes—maybe you have to be brought up on them—but it only seemed fair to me. I was expecting something really wonderful and it was not. I will spare you the details of the dessert. I was jealous of my daughter's; she always seem to order the right thing. While my own glob of ice cream on thin slices of pineapple might have been a hit with the "free school lunch" in San Francisco, in the great Cerdanya valley I was not impressed with it. Sorry.
And were there people at the table too? Or just me and my lunch? My daughter likes to remind me that life is more than lunch.
By gosh, there were. Larissa, Emiliano's sister, her husband, Walter, and their three humorous daughters: Barbara, Stefi, and Valentina. Each was a little humorist with a unique smile: Barbara (second from left, bottom, in photo below), the oldest, was a skeptical smile, Stefi an impish one (left), while Valentina, the youngest, was simply all smiles (not in photo). And there was also my daughter's friend Marta (far right below), who had a very fine Nikon camera with all kinds of attachments. I began to wonder how a young woman could afford such fine equipment for shooting the likes of birthday parties and so on, but you know what people are like these days, spending their money foolishly on all kinds of gadgets they don't really need. I think I even teased Marta about it a little. Later in the evening my daughter showed me a book of Marta's professional photography. I'm blown away with it. She is an expert photographer with a gifted eye. I think in the restaurant I must have been jealous because her Nikon was so much better than mine!
Lunch now finished, we waited for evening
and the Big Birthday Dinner.
About 10 PM, Emiliano shows up with the car he has borrowed from his sister's family and we head for the town of Bolvir. Bolvir is a couple of miles from Puigerda through some nice countryside which we had seen the previous day. Soon we pull up at a castle, Torre de Remei. We are met by Emiliano's father and one of the owners, Loles Boix. She escorts us into a small private room off the entrance and offers us pink champagne. She is sexy-looking woman with a low voice that sounds like Lauren Bacal. Smoking a long cigarette, she hands us the menu and asks us what we would like to eat. Here the idea is to order everything in advance, which I'm not quite used to doing. Nevertheless we do it. Emiliano's father is a friend of the owners and hangs around for awhile, then takes off. We are escorted into the main dinning room, which does not make me comfortable.
I'm used to fancy places, or a least some, but this is a whole other level. There are chandeliers, waiters in tuxes, and huge tables. It looks like it is made for heads of state to discuss, who knows, bombing raids, starving the poor into submission, assassinations, trysts ... I feel even less comfortable when I look over the wine list, which is extensive and includes many bottles in the five hundred to a thousand euros range. What about those fine bottles at Espirit de Vi that we were drinking the other day for a few euros a glass? What was wrong with them? I'm beginning to wish I were at Esprit.
There is one other disturbing factor. Our table is so big that we seem to be talking to each to other from a great distance. That does not make for intimacy.
"Daughter, is that really you over there."
"Si, papa, it is I. How be you come rain or snow?"
"Fine in the end, that is to say, finally, but feeling a little sick right now. I just looked at the wine list and may need to call my banker."
Okay, not quite that bad. I look over the wine list again and spot some "cheap" bottles in the 30 to 40 euro range. Feeling like the worst sort of cheapskate, I order one of those. It comes shortly and turns out to be quite drinkable despite the relatively "low" price.
We also start to laugh about the place and move our chairs closer together. In fact, we do this a second time, till at least at our table, there is a bistro feeling about it. Then we get on the wait staff and start drilling them. They now look uncomfortable with us. Then I think everything loosens up and we are all comfortable with each other. The waiters look like they too don't care for all the formality. Severe expressions turn to friendly smiles. Well, sort of:
So what about the food? Is it worth it to spend your entire savings for dinner in a castle in Spain? In this case, yes. (I think I still have some money in the bank and the electricity has not gone off yet.) While dinner was expensive, I can say this: We got what we paid for. It reminds me of a dinner at Fleur de Ly in San Francisco several years ago. While the price at Fleur de Ly was up near a thousand dollars, we were not gypped. We got value for value, and I would maybe even do it again. Here, however, the price was in fact less than at Fleur de Ly, and the food simply astounding. We started with Huevos poche, quail thighs (photo below), and canellones, and went onto beef, lamb, and roasted suckling pig. We also discovered the reason for ordering the whole meal in advance. They need prep time for each dish, including the dessert. This was particularly evident in my daughter's desert, which was some kind of chocolate cones with stewed fruits. The flavor of the freshly stewed fruits told the story. One of the waiters informed us it took 45 minutes to prepare it. Beautiful full flavor is the only way to describe it.
At the end of the meal, Loles' husband, Jose Maria Boix, dropped by the table and discussed the food. I asked about the bread. I usually don't go nuts over bread but appreciate really fresh bread. While there were several different breads on the table, I had stuck to a light French-style bread that was crunchy, tasted fresh out of the oven, and had the beautiful floury taste of a fresh biscuit.
"Two French pasty chefs," was the simple answer.
Now where am I going to ever get bread like that again? I don't think I will. When she is gone she is gone.
"Monsieur, monsieur, I need bread. I'm dying for bread."
"Monsieur, please keep your voice down. There are other customers in this bakery."
"But I miss her."
"Monsieur, we sell bread, not ..."
Then I wake up in a sweat.
Finally we had a tour of the castle. The head concierge, beaming with pride, took us clear to the top, showing us the luxury accommodations. He is like a man who, having been entrusted with a beautiful jewell for safekeeping, begins to take on the radiance of the jewell itself. You rarely find pride like this in the US. Arrogance, yes, pride, no.