Monday, August 16, 2010

15 ideas from Spain

As we return home, here is a list of ideas I jotted down during the past four weeks. While I am the first to admit the list is by no means exhaustive, and I probably have missed some key ideas, here are a few small and big ideas to consider back in Vancouver

kin Parking by the minute: parking garages charge you by the minute, not by the hour or half hour. While perhaps not as profitable for the operators, it is fairer for the users. We should start doing this in Vancouver.

Ci Cigarette Butt Holders: I came across plastic units that fold into a cone and can be inserted in the sand, or just about anywhere, to collect cigarette butts. Surely we can adapt this for Vancouver.

3. Mohito Machines: we saw a counter top mohito machine in the little cafe where we had breakfast. In addition to the automatic coffee machines, this is a very popular item. It would work here!

4. Traffic Boxes: these marked boxes within intersections can NEVER be entered into by an automobile unless the driver is certain he can get out before the light changes, to avoid blocking traffic. Given the number of cars that get stuck in Vancouver intersections, we must start to do this here.

5. Digital Seat Booking in Theatres: perhaps we have this service here, but I haven't seen it. When you book your seat on line, or at the theatre, you can see where the seat is positioned in a three dimensional plan of the theatre, and the view of the stage from the seat.

6. Greater attention to keeping the streets clean. Perhaps there is a greater problem with public urination in Spain, but it's a problem in Vancouver too. Posters announcing fines for public urination and other infractions certainly draw attention to the problem, although I am the first to admit I don't know if they work. (Ed Note: As someone has subsequently noted, given that the sign is in English, perhaps it is intended for visitors, rather than locals!)

7. Decorative Parking Garage Doors: While we generally use standard, open grill metal garage doors in multi-family developments, I noticed a number of more decorative designs in Spain. This one is not particularly good, but it did match other metal design features on the building. The point is, this is a design detail most architects and developers do not usually think about.

8. Traffic Rundabouts: we are starting to install them in Vancouver, but generally only at minor intersections. In Spain, and much of Europe, they are everywhere and definitely help traffic flow. While they take up more space than conventional intersections, we should be looking at installing them around Metro, where space permits.

8 Hors d’oevres in Restaurants: little open face sandwiches held together with toothpicks are a great way to start a meal, or have a snack with drinks. A variety is usually set out on counters, and the price you pay is based on the number of toothpicks on your plate. Surprisingly, few toothpicks end up on the floor!

9. Improved garbage container design: one doesn’t see the ugly dumpsters that proliferate around Vancouver. Instead, there are colour coded garbage containers (with provision for recycling) with foot operated covers. They are much more attractive and sanitary than what we have. Yes, they prevent dumpster diving, but that’s a good thing too. For those concerned that this eliminates revenue opportunities for the homeless, I say let's find them other work opportunities.

10. Bicycle Lane markers: in addition to separated bicycle lanes, in some situations a small raised marker is set into the pavement to help discourage cars from intruding into the bicycle lanes, and prevent cyclists from intruding into the car lanes. Now this is an idea that could work in Vancouver in many situations.

11. Adding floors to existing buildings: rather than demolish older buildings, it is not uncommon to add floors to existing buildings. This is an idea I came across in Shanghai as well. While there are a few instances of adding floors to older buildings in Vancouver, this is an idea worthy of further application. One possibility: using lightweight pre-fabricated modular units hoisted into place.

12. Pedestrian streets: While we are talking about creating more pedestrian streets in Vancouver, throughout Spain they are everywhere, in cities and small towns. We should definitely be doing this in Vancouver and the surrounding municipalities. It is not just a ‘big city’ idea.

13 More Public Art and fountains: there is a much stronger tradition of Public Art throughout Spain, when compared to Vancouver. Yes, we are trying, but there is so much more we could be doing. One idea, adding public art to the much needed traffic roundabouts!

14. Celebrating architecture: when people think of Vancouver, they think of nature...the mountains, the ocean and Stanley Park. We do celebrate the urban design of Granville Island and some of Arthur Erickson’s buildings, but we have a lot more interesting architecture and planning that could be more actively promoted and celebrated. The architecture of Barcelona is one of its attractions; we have the opportunity to do the same thing here.

15. Celebrating life, food and drink: The Spanish economy may be in the tank, but there is no doubt that the more hedonistic, leisurely approach to life with lunch served from 1 to 4 and dinner served from 8 to 12 does has much going for it. While this is in part due to the higher temperatures and sunnier climate, I think we need to reconsider our work/life balance. We should also start drinking more lemon beer!

In In addition to the above, we were constantly suprised by the polite behaviour of motorists in Spain; they rarely drive through an intersection when a pedestrian is waiting to cross the street. We were also suprised by the design of McDonalds restaurants. They are so much more attractive than those in Vancouver.

While these are ideas that we might transfer from Spain, there is much the Spanish can learn from us, especially in terms of grafitti management. But that's another story.

If If you haven't been to Spain, Air Transat now flies non-stop Vancouver-Barcelona and Madrid-Vancouver. Prices start around $800 round trip, including taxes at this time of year. We highly recommend it!

The wines and food and latest beer of Spain

I can't leave Spain without showing just a few food related photos. As I noted in an earlier post, this really is a country for 'foodies' and while we didn't try to eat at any famous restaurants, we didn't need to.

Ham is the national dish, and nearly every bar or restaurant has one or more hams strapped into a cradlelike structure which is called a jamonera. While I have not grown up to be a fancier of ham, it was difficult not to be fascinated by the extensive amount of ham on display and being eaten. On our last night, we came across 'ham paradise', a restaurant that reminded me of some of Montreal's smoked meat delicatessens. I couldn't resist, but am likely off meat for a while!The other national dish is paella, and we tried a few. We never had a great one, but Sally had a good one on the docks of a small town south of Barcelona. There are a number of large chain restaurants serving a variety of paellas...with chicken, with seafood, vegetarian, etc. But the one we are used to, with a bit of everything is not served.We had some amazing experiences with fish. In Begur, we discovered that you didn't buy fish in the fish market during the was usually all gone. You had to be there at 7pm when the crates of fish were delivered. One of our most interesting evenings was standing around with the locals, waiting for the fish to arrive. And when it did, I discovered that the price per pound was often three or four times the price for the same fish in a supermarket. When I discussed this with some merchants, they explained that the supermarket fish was often a couple of days old. I tried to tell them that where I come from, the 'fresh fish' is often a week old!We had wonderful snails and cockles and various types of prawns and langoustines. The crab we had was a bit disappointing, but that's because it wasn't cooked live, like we are used to. But we did find some wonderful 'utensils' for eating crab, lobster and other shellfish that we purchased and brought home. They crack and cut the shell. I'm sure they are available here, but we hadn't seen them before. They were actually made in Spain.

Many popular dishes are made with salted cod. While I passed it up in Newfoundland many times, I tried it here. It was surprisingly mild tasting.When it came to meat we had a variety of experiences. Our first home cooked barbecued steak, which cost 26 euros at the butcher, was so tough we couldn't eat it. Sally eventually turned it into a casserole, but it was still too tough. On the recommendation of our home exchange partners, we tried a restaurant in Begur known for its steak. I ordered the 500 gram special. When asked how I wanted it cooked, medium or well done, I chose medium. I'm glad I didn't ask for medium rare, since my medium steak was 'bleu'. I had to send it back to be cooked some more, it was still bleu. Here's how it looked after being re-cooked!A lot of the beef is really veal. It too can be tasty, but I can't wait for a good steak in Vancouver.

We tried a lot of local dishes: squid in its own ink, clams and mushrooms, partridge and other stews. But we also had some very elegant meals , especially in Barcelona where our best meal featured a degustation menu that included veal sirloin tataki, tandoori and tosu-zu sauce; watermelon , preserved sardines and citronella vinaigrette; green asparagus emulsion, oil ice cream and wild alaska salmon; and sweet foie mi-cuit, with mango, orange sauce and rocket cream. The meal had a lot of 'foam', as my friend Bruce Bentley calls it, but it was definitely a grand experience.The wines are also outstanding, and cheap. In many restaurants, with the fixed menu, you had a choice between a bottle of water, or a bottle of the house wine for the same price. The wine was always better. Our one regret. We didn't take a small guide book, like we once had in Australia. I would recommend this since there is just so much choice, at very affordable prices. Now I have to adjust to paying $45 for a wine that sells for 7 Euros in Spain!Finally, when I wasn't drinking wine, I often had a very popular beer over here....lemon beer. That's right. All of the major companies have bottled their own lemon beer and it's very refreshing and presumably less alcoholic. I predict it will be popular in Canada in a few years.

The Ugly Side of Madrid

We spent three and a half days admiring the wonderful buildings, parks and fountains, and streetscapes in Central Madrid. We also enjoyed the galleries and very interesting restaurants and travelled to some attractive areas outside the city.

But like any large city, Madrid has problems to deal with. One is pickpockets. We experienced this first hand when Sally, who is always very careful to keep her purse close to her body, had her wallet snatched from her purse in the split of a second. Fortunately, an older woman saw it happen and called out. I grabbed the thief as she handed over the wallet, and her accomplice looked on.

As I stood there holding the young girl, Sally urged me to let her go and move on. I was conflicted since I really wanted to find the police, who are generally very visible around the city, and hand her over. But I couldn't see a policeman nearby, and Sally figured that we don't speak the language, we don't want to spend the day in the police station, and she had got her wallet back. So at Sally's very strong urging, I let her go.

Throughout our stay, I was troubled by another serious problem in Madrid. Grafitti. Vandals (I think they are vandals, not artists) have literally taken over the city, including the Gran Via and other exclusive areas. Once you get off the main streets, some areas look like the worst parts of New York a few decades ago. Especially at night when the store shutters have been pulled down and they have been covered with various types of images. Vandals have also scratched the windows of the local trains and in some cases, completely covered over train cars.

For the life of me, I find it hard to understand why a city, with such grand traditions, would allow the grafitti taggers to make so much of their city so ugly. I also cannot understand why major companies allow their businesses to be defaced. But it is apparent that the business community, the public and presumably government officials have completelygiven up. They should be ashamed of themselves for allowing parts of such a beautiful city to be destroyed. In saying this, I appreciate this is not just a problem in Madrid; it's a problem throughout Europe, and it is a sad commentary on the society that this is being allowed to happen.

At the same time, Vancouver is to be congratulated for what it has accomplished in the management of grafitti. Our city really is a world leader. Now we must just deal with chewing gum and cigarette butts, but that's another story!

A Very Sad Painting

When I was in high school, art was my favourite subject. At one point, I wanted to go to the Ontario College of Art, but I went to a high school where people went on to university, not college. So with my mother's encouragement, I enrolled in Architecture at UofT instead. But I have always enjoyed art and visiting art galleries.Madrid is a great city for those with an interest in art. There are many galleries, most notably the Prado and Thysson-Bornemisza. The museum of more contemporary and modern art is less celebrated. The Centro de Arte Reina Sofia has some very impressive works by Dali, Picasso, and Miro. But the gallery itself is not very attractive, nor well laid out. It was not a pleasant experience trying to navigate the spaces.

Nor was it pleasant to come across a painting by Alfonso de Ponce de Leon. A 1936 self-portrait, it showed a person being hit by a car. Sally noted the artist died in the same year that it was painted and we assumed that he had decided to commit suicide by stepping in front of a car.

But I subsequently decided to google the artist, and this is what I found.

An important Spanish artist of the 1930s. Influenced by Surrealism, he developed a more literal, naturalistic approach, with mysterious elements to create a sense of unease. His most famous painting is "Self-Portrait (Accident)" (1936). ... His friends included Luis Buñuel and Federico Garcia Lorca, for whose Barraca Theatre he designed the sets for the plays "La Guarda Cuidadosa" and "El Burlador de Sevilla". Despite these associations his politics veered sharply to the right. In late 1933 he joined the newly-formed fascist Falange and created many propaganda posters and cartoons; this made him a marked man after the Spanish Civil War broke out in July 1936. Two months later Ponce de León, his father and two brothers were taken and shot by Republican extremists, and their bodies left in a ditch outside Madrid.

On a related note, a few more surreal pieces, and a very famous Picasso.