Friday, November 29, 2013

Scenes from the Museo de la Xocolata

Barcelona is the first place in Europe to have seen cocoa beans. Christopher Columbus, having encountered the beans used as currency and as a drink by the Aztecs, brought some beans with him to Spain and presented them to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. The beans didn't make much of an impression. It wasn't until a generation later when a Spanish explorer, conquistador Hernando Cortes, returned to Spain with beans and a means of processing them into a bitter drink that chocolate was embraced by the Spanish nobility.

You can find fancy chocolate shops around Barcelona. During our trip, we made stops at several xocolaterias to pick up bars of chocolate or dip churros into hot cups of chocolate. Our favorite was the fancy Fargas chocolate shop, founded in 1827 and still crafting handmade chocolates.

Kate chose between dark chocolate bars, really dark chocolate bars, and really really dark chocolate bars.
The local chocolate confectioners established the Museo de la Xocolata in the El Born neighborhood. It provides a solid background on the development of chocolate from Aztec times through the modern day, but the real focus of the museum is stolen by all the magnificent chocolate sculptures displayed throughout the building. This museum definitely enthralls the visiting children; it was a highlight of the trip for Jackson. Kate and I thought it was a fun stop for us, too, from the chocolate bar as our admission ticket to the chocolate shop at the exit.

Mixer with rotating wheels of granite that liquefies the chocolate nibs and mixes them with sugar, cocoa butter, spices, and other flavorings.
The chocolate sculptures are generally created by local chocolatiers who use them as displays in the their own shops for holidays such as Easter and Christmas, and then eventually bring them to the museum. Thus, the museum benefits from an ever-changing series of displays.

White chocolate gorilla.
It's a Komodo dragon, we explained to Jack. Here's what he understood: "A dragon!"
La la la-la la la / Sing a happy song / La la la-la la la / Smurf your whole day long. How long is that gonna be stuck in your head today?
Don Quixote tilts at windmills.
Messy chocolate...errr...chocolate Lionel Messi.
Asterix and Obelix.
Nativity Facade of Sagrada Familia.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

"Should Scotland be an independent country?"

Next fall, on 18 September 2014, the people of Scotland will vote in a referendum to answer a yes/no question: "Should Scotland be an independent country?"

Yesterday, the ruling party in Scotland -- the Scottish National Party (SNP) -- put forth a "white paper" advocating for independence and explaining what might happen and what policies they would pursue if Scotland voted to remove itself from the United Kingdom. The SNP is a left-leaning party that has a majority of seats in Scotland's unicameral parliament. It's opposed by both the Tory and Labour parties, as well as the Liberal Democrats and other smaller parties.

Titled "Scotland's Future: Your Guide to an Independent Scotland," the white paper is 670 pages long. You can read it here, if you have a lot of time on your hands. It's not a scholarly analysis of the issues. Rather, the white paper is a campaign document full of pledges to spend more money here, reduce spending there, make life better in these ways, etc. For Americans, it's kind of like reading a Republican or Democratic party convention platform -- hopes and aspirations, but not all of it will, or even can, come to pass. Most of the positions in the white paper will have to be either passed by the Scottish parliament (often referred to as "Holyrood," since the parliament building is adjacent to the Queen's Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh) or, much more precariously, negotiated with and agreed by the United Kingdom.

White paper on independence. (Photo courtesy of the BBC.)
You should keep in mind that the white paper is not what is being voted on by the public. At the polls next September, voters will only answer the yes/no question of whether Scotland should be independent from the United Kingdom. What happens after that is, to some extent, unknown. The SNP has put forward its white paper to reassure and convince a skeptical public that if they vote for independence their lives will not be greatly disrupted and they face a brighter future. The opposition parties, of course, predict dire outcomes.

To me, the most striking thing about the white paper is the SNP's position that it would retain the pound sterling and keep the Bank of England as the "lender of last resort," somewhat akin to the U.S. Federal Reserve. Certainly not joining the Euro. Not creating an independent Scottish currency. Instead, Scottish monetary policy, interest rates, borrowing power, and so on, would be under the strong influence of the rest of the U.K. Of course, keeping this "sterling zone" has advantages such as easy trade with the rest of the U.K. It keeps economic changes to a minimum. It reassures businesses. It makes it easy to continue pensions and other cross-border benefit schemes. I think it's a sensible course to follow, but it also takes away some of the power -- and the very point -- of Scottish independence. Moreover, the decision to allow Scotland to keep the pound sterling and rely on the Bank of England is up to the U.K., not Scotland. My assumption is that the U.K. would allow it, but not without some hemming and hawing, and perhaps some further negotiating concessions.

First Minister Alex Salmond, head of the SNP. The "First Minister" is the "prime minister" of the Scottish Parliament. (Photo courtesy of the BBC.)
I'm also struck by the total value of budgets and budget concerns here. Coming from America, and having worked on Capitol Hill for several years doing defense and foreign affairs work, I'm accustomed to much larger sums of money to be in play. The U.S. total budget for 2013 was approximately $3.8 trillion (though too much of that was deficit spending that adds to the debt). The U.S. defense budget for 2013 was around $682 billion. By comparison, according to the white paper, Scotland's defense budget at the start of its independence would be around around £2.5 billion (approximately $4 billion). In other words, Scotland's entire defense budget would be a rounding error in the U.S. defense budget. That £2.5 billion would support 15,000 troops and 5,000 reserves. 

Furthermore, I'm struck by the assumption that the EU and NATO will have no problem with Scotland breaking away from the U.K., and will simply immediately accept Scotland into the fold as just another country. Now, it's my assumption that both the EU and NATO will accept Scotland. But doing so without making Scotland jump through some hoops runs the risk of inflaming and emboldening separatist movements in other countries, such as Catalonia in Spain, the Flemish in Belgium, or perhaps folks in Northern Ireland again fighting about whether to join the rest of Ireland. The more that the current countries splinter, the more seats will be at the table, and the harder negotiating and operating will become. I'd guess that Scotland's assumption is basically correct, but it won't be perfectly smooth. For example, will the EU let Scotland join as a member but allow it to not join the Euro? The U.K. is a big bargaining partner and can keep itself out of the Euro. Scotland doesn't have that kind of leverage.

The media here focus on a variety of economic concerns, including the currency, but the main headline is the SNP's pledge to provide up to 30 hours of childcare for 38 weeks per year (the same as the school year) for all 3 and 4 year olds, as well as "vulnerable" 2 year olds. By providing more childcare, the SNP says it will get more people to work and therefore incomes will rise and government revenue will grow. Why does Scotland need to be independent for such childcare spending to happen? The Labour party here snipes that the SNP could pass such a law now, but is using this proposal as a carrot (i.e., bribe) for votes. That's true, of course. But it's also just politics.

Here is what the BBC says are the main provisions of the white paper:
  • Thirty hours of childcare per week in term time for all three and four-year-olds, as well as vulnerable two-year-olds.
  • Trident nuclear weapons, currently based on the Clyde, removed within the first parliament.
  • Housing benefit reforms, described by critics as the "bedroom tax", to be abolished, and a halt to the rollout of Universal Credit.
  • It would be in Scotland's interest to keep the pound, while the Bank of England would continue as "lender of last resort".
  • BBC Scotland replaced at the start of 2017 with a new Scottish broadcasting service, continuing a formal relationship with the rest of the BBC.
  • Basic rate tax allowances and tax credits to rise at least in line with inflation.
  • A safe, "triple-locked" pension system.
  • Minimum wage to "rise alongside the cost of living".
The "key extracts" from the white paper can be found here.

Also keep in mind that "independence" means Scotland will become just another of the "commonwealth of nations" with the Queen as its (nominal) head, like Canada and Australia. The United Kingdom will still continue, comprised of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. However, there will be no "Great Britain," since that refers to the island of Britain and is made up of England, Wales, and Scotland.

Current polling about Scottish independence tends to put the "No" vote around 45%-47%, the "Yes" vote around 35%-38%, and the "undecided" vote around 15%. If those numbers remain steady until next September, it doesn't look like independence is likely. Although undecideds in the U.S. tend to break toward the challenger -- which I think is the pro-independence position here -- it would take nearly all of the undecideds to vote "Yes" in order for independence to win. That's unlikely. (Of course, I don't know how undecideds usually end up voting in the U.K. generally or Scotland particularly.)

However, it is significant that independence is not dependent on a majority of the population support, but rather on a majority of those showing up to vote. I haven't seen polling here about the passion of voters on either side, but my sense is that the pro-independence crowd is much more passionate than the keep-the-status-quo crowd. If a lot of "No" voters think their side will easily win and thus they don't need to vote, then the vote tally could be a lot closer than it looks now.

And, of course, we'll also have to see how things progress over the coming year. What gaffes will either side commit? Will there be an upswell of nationalist feeling after Glasgow hosts the Commonwealth Games in late summer? Will there be any major surprises nationally or internationally that shake up the electorate?

Stay tuned...

Monday, November 25, 2013

Wandering in the Barri Gòtic

Just outside the cloister of the Barcelona cathedral is the Monument to the Martyrs of Independence. The five depicted men, waiting for their execution, were garroted (i.e., strangled) because of their resistance against Napoleon's conquering of Spain. The monument's placement here, adjacent to the Catalonian government offices, was deliberate.

Sculpture placed here in 1941, shortly after the communist forces centered in Barcelona fell to Franco's forces in 1939. Franco abolished the Catalan government, suppressed the language and culture, and tried to assimilate -- or Castilianize -- the region into Spain.
A majority of Catalonians favor independence from Spain (and ideally would carve out a part of southern France for their Catalan nation). Referendums for partial or total independence have reached a high of 74% of the population in support. While the rest of Spain somewhat shrugs at these separatist hopes, Catalonia seems genuinely eager to split off and form its own nation within the European Union. Wandering in the Barri Gòtic, you see a lot of Catalan independence flags.

The traditional senyera (i.e., "flag") of four red stripes on a field of gold, derived from the former King of Aragon, is transformed into a separatist flag by imposing L'Estelada Blava (i.e., "blue star"), a lone star signifying independence.
By comparison, Scotland will vote on independence next year in a referendum but polls show less than 50% support. Although a majority of Scots favor some further autonomy -- usually called "devolution" -- they do not (yet?) want full independence from the United Kingdom. It's a political question that I'll be following closely over the next year.

Just down the street from the monument and cloister is a neo-Gothic bridge connecting the Catalan president's official residence with the Catalan government building. Though it looks old, it was built in the 1920s.

Neo-Gothic bridge in the Gothic quarter of the city.
Though very few vehicles drive in these narrow lanes, some of them are designated one-way. They don't display the usual "no entry" signs, but instead have ornate "Entrada" and "Salida" signs.

Entry to a one-way street.
This is the exit for the one-way lane, so don't turn down this street from here.
Down the street in the other direction is the Catalan College of Architects, an ironically ugly building in a city of gorgeous architecture. It gets a bit of attention, though, because of the Picasso frieze that wraps around three sides. This is late Picasso, well outside of his Blue or Rose or Cubist periods. Charitably, it's called "childlike."

If it wasn't Picasso, it would be crap.
The confluence of the government buildings, cathedral, Picasso, and monument brings a steady flow of tourists. So, of course, it's a great place to set up as a street musician. The acoustics are quite good, too. When traveling, we try to stop at a fair number of buskers for a breather and to give Jackson some entertainment during our touristing.

These guys were good.
Though the Barri Gòtic is the medieval heart of the city, there's a sprinkling of sights from other eras, as well. For example, the Viceroy's Palace displays a Renaissance courtyard and a wooden coffered ceiling, and holds King Ferdinand's and Queen Isabella's 1491 contract with Christopher Columbus.

Renaissance courtyard within the Viceroy's Palace.
Coffered ceiling above a staircase.
You can see a church pockmarked from shrapnel during the Spanish civil war:

Church of St. Felip Neri.
You can visit Els Quatre Gats ("The Four Cats"), a hangout of Picasso and the first place where he publicly displayed his art. Established in 1897, the building is a rare piece of Modernista architecture in the Barri Gòtic. The restaurant got its name when the owner told friends he would stay open 24 hours a day, and they said that no one would come and it would be just him and four cats (apparently, Catalan slang for crazy people).

Els Quatre Gats.
The prices for a meal weren't bad, considering its draw as a tourist attraction.
Stonework over the front door.
Or if Roman ruins are your thing -- they're definitely my kinda thing -- you can visit the Barcelona History Museum to see an underground sprawl of ruins. Instead of the usual Roman temple or theater or government building, these ruins are of everyday life in Barcino. You see the remains of a winemaking facility, fish processing plant, sewers, clothes-dyeing plant, and other artisan workshops. It's by no means Pompeii or Ossia Antica, but you do get a glimpse of the average person or artisan from these ruins.

The Roman ruins lie beneath the Royal Palace (left) and 14th century Chapel of St. Agatha (right).
The ruins are from the 1st through 6th centuries AD.
A walkway guides you through the ruins.
Wine was processed and aged in large pottery casks. Honey and sea salt were sometimes added for flavor.
You're not allowed to go down this hallway, which meant, of course, that I really wanted to go down that hallway.
A little bit of the tile floor in this building remains.
Not a lot of art or decoration has survived, but bits and pieces of things have persisted, like part of this fresco.
This bust is from the 2nd century AD.
We were able to see all of the major Barri Gòtic sights within a four or five hour period, including a stop for lunch. Then we pressed on into the other major neighborhood of the old city, called El Born. It was the kind of day that left us tuckered out but satisfied with our touristing prowess.

Lunch with a view of the back side of the cathedral.
Tuckered out for a (too late) nap around 4:00 pm.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Adventures of Jackson & Nicholas

I'm not homesick. I don't feel the urge to return to the States. No itch. No pull.

Sometimes, I get a hankering for Chipotle. I miss the burritos.

Actually, only once a week or so. But I could've eaten one every day. (Photo courtesy of
No regrets so far about living as an expat. Except for moving to a country without Chipotle. (Note to self: if moving to a new home, calculate distance to nearest Chipotle, not to exceed one mile.)

I do, however, miss people. I miss my family. I miss Kate's family. I miss colleagues from work. (Heck, I miss having colleagues.) I miss friends. Everyone feels distant. Even the folks who lived far away and/or I hadn't seen in ages, I now feel that distance more acutely.

So when we got a special book in the mail last weekend from our super awesome friend Kristen, it tugged on our heartstrings. A lot.

Sweet, thoughtful Kristen. We've known her and her husband, Stephen, since Kate started vet school in 2005. They're two of our best friends. So when we had Jack in June 2011, and Kristen had her son Nicholas in October 2011, the boys really had no choice but to be friends.

The book arrived last Saturday, and it has been read multiple times a day. Just this morning, I was asked: "Daddy, you please read my favorite book?"

Book cover. The boys are enjoying a food truck rodeo in downtown Raleigh.
When we got the package, Jackson took a few seconds to process that there was an entire book about him. Oh, and that other kid. It was a little mind-blowing.

Sweet, thoughtful Kristen not only documented her own kid's life, she was the de facto official photographer of our kid, too. Without her, there might be embarrassingly large gaps of time for which we would have had no pictures of Jackson. I teased her about it -- I'm curmudgeonly like that -- but she wisely ignored me.

Our conversation probably went something like this: "Why are the boys posed on the couch?" "Oh, Brian." "I don't understand." "Go away, Brian."
And now sweet, thoughtful Kristen compiled a book of those photos, obviously timed to manipulate us into missing her and Nicholas and Stephen. Well played.

Attending Sam and Trish's wedding.
Hiking in the Appalachians.
Jackson had no trouble identifying the people in the book; not a pause needed to identify Nicholas's grandmother and grandfather. But mostly his commentary is: "That's Nicholas. That's me! That's Nicholas. That's me!"

Even on pages where there isn't any doubt, it's a refrain of: "That's Nicholas. That's me! That's Nicholas. That's me!"
We got Jackson's shirt (reads: "Absolute Zero / -273.15 C / is the Coolest") in honor of moving to Glasgow, home of Lord Kelvin and the Kelvin temperature scale.
Celebrating Jackson's second birthday, just two days before we began our lives as immigrants.
Really, isn't sweet, thoughtful Kristen awesome? I mean, even setting aside that it was obviously just a ploy to get mentioned on this blog*, we've loved the book.

You get precisely one guess as to what Jackson was saying to Kate.
Many thanks to Kristen for her sweetness and thoughtfulness. Do I have a way to reciprocate in kind? No. I'm curmudgeonly, remember?

But I'll think of something.

* Send in your personalized gift now! Almost a guarantee to be featured on this blog! Get your product placed here for viewing by thousands...okay, hundreds...well, dozens...actually, a handful...of people! Heck, it doesn't even have to be personalized!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Barcelona cathedral and its (more interesting) cloister

Our first full day in Barcelona, a Sunday, was the busiest day of our trip. That was by design. Since it was our first day, our energy level was high. We also knew many of the tourist sites in the city center were closed the next day, Monday, so we squeezed in a lot of sightseeing on Sunday to make sure we could see as much as possible. And we wanted to make the beginning of the week busy so later in the week we'd have some free time to wander and relax.

We were up at dawn; having a toddler, that's par for the course. In the early morning, the Barri Gòtic is at its quietest. We strolled to the Gothic cathedral at the heart of the neighborhood. It stands on a spot where two millennia ago the Romans built their temple to Jupiter. Several hundred years later the Christians replaced the temple with a church; then a Romanesque church in the 11th century; and then finally the Gothic cathedral in 1450. When Barcelona got rich again in the 1800s, they made a fancier neo-Gothic facade on the western front and completed the 230-foot central spire in 1913. The spiky towers are a late Gothic "French Flamboyant" (i.e., flaming) style, depicting the towers as flickering with spiritual fire.

Western neo-Gothic facade of the Barcelona Cathedral.
"French Flamboyant" spires of spiritual flames rising toward heaven.
View of the central spire from the cathedral rooftop.
We walked into the nearly empty nave, expecting a quick tour through the cathedral. No such luck. A poorly-attended Sunday service was being held, and we could only look at a fraction of the building. No complaints here -- it is a church, after all -- so we resolved to come back later. Which we did, only to find another service being held in the later morning. So we came back yet again, late afternoon, and I finally had a chance to take a spin through the place.

As cathedrals go, it's kind of a dud. There's nothing inherently bad about the cathedral, but there's also nothing especially interesting to see. The architecture is uninspired. For me, its main architectural point of interest is that it doesn't have flying buttresses outside the walls (imagine Notre Dame in Paris), but instead incorporated those buttresses as part of the interior of the building as the ceiling supports for 28 side chapels. The cathedral's decorations (statuary, stained glass, etc.) are fine -- and especially shiny in some of the gold-covered chapels -- but there's no must-see sight in the building. A crypt houses a tomb to the city's patron saint, St. Eulàlia, who according to tradition was martyred in 304 A.D. at age 13 by the Romans after being subjected to thirteen tortures.

Looking down the nave of the cathedral, the view is partly blocked by the stone choir. The cathedral has an "ambulatory" plan, meaning you can circulate around the sides of the nave and behind the altar to visit the various chapels.
Shiny gold -- did I mention shiny? did I mention gold? -- side chapel.
Sarcophagus of St. Eulàlia within her tomb.
Each keystone of the crossing arches features a different saint.
The altar in the apse.
Tomb of St. Raymond of Penyafort, codifier of canon law in the Decretals of (Pope) Gregory IX, and patron saint of lawyers, especially canon lawyers.
Choir stalls for the high nobility, originally painted in 1518 for a gathering of the knights of the Order of the Golden Fleece to honor King Charles V. [Ed.'s note: For those of you concerned with such things, that's the Spanish order and not the Austrian or Hapsburg order, of course.]
See how the figure of Christ is shifted over a little? According to legend, this crucifix was on a ship during the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, and the body of Christ miraculously shifted to its right to avoid being hit by a cannonball. Jesus -- helluva good dodgeball player.
While we found the cathedral to be dull, the attached cloister was charming. Mostly because of the geese.



In a tradition going back more than 500 years, there are always 13 geese -- in honor of St. Eulàlia's age and her tortures -- within the cloister. The geese enjoy a green and fruited garden ringed by a tall-ceilinged arcade. They have a pond in which to float and an endless supply of humans to observe. The humans like to observe them right back. Especially the little humans.

High-arched arcade creating a square around the geese.
For hundreds of years, the geese functioned as an alarm system to honk at intruders. Nowadays, there are a lot of intruding tourists.
Like this intruder, who could slip through the fence.
Hey, buddy, you got any bread?
Once all of the cathedral's 28 side chapels were filled by various wealthy patrons or guilds, they needed more space for further donors. So the cloister served not as a space for monks to ruminate on the daily teachings, but instead as a place for even more donor chapels. Another 20-30 side chapels ring the cloister. One of these spaces is now a tiny museum of three rooms with some altar pieces. And tucked into a corner of the cloister is a fountain topped by a small statue of St. Jordi (i.e., George) slaying the dragon. St. Jordi is one of Catalonia's patron saints, just as he is of England.

St. Jordi slaying a supine dragon.
Drinking from the fountain.
In our travels, we haven't encountered any other cathedrals with animals kept as pets (or guards). Compared to the generic interior of the cathedral, the cloister is a much more interesting and unique spot for visitors. If you were visiting Barcelona and pressed for time, I'd advise you to skip the cathedral altogether and just visit the cloister.

The calm before the honk.