Madrid Getaway: Part 2-Wedding Fun

Like I mentioned in my previous post, we visited Madrid and loved it. The principal reason behind visiting Madrid was to attend a close friend’s wedding. I’ve written before about how marriages in Spain are declining in popularity. You might want to read that to get some background before proceeding.

From the moment we reached Madrid, we spent quite a few hours shopping. This was because the Honey Bee and I were unsure about what to wear, especially given that this was going to be our first Spanish wedding. After chatting with friends, I had pretty much narrowed down what I would wear- basically a nice suit and a tie. However, for women it is a little more complicated. And because of this, I learned a lot about women’s clothing on this trip.

The Honey Bee spoke to her friends and figured out she’d need to wear a nice dress, with matching shoes (heels for the ceremony, flats for the dancing), a number of accessories, and lots of make-up. Apparently, women go all out at Spanish weddings, spending hours on their hair and make-up, often hiring someone to do it for them. Also, women can’t wear white because to do so would overshadow the bride. Another issue is the length of the dress- long vs. short. Apparently the protocol is long dresses for day weddings and short for evening weddings. However, from what I’ve read it depends heavily on each bride and also the part of the country.

So we spent over 4 hours shopping for a wedding dress and shoes. We tried every store we had heard of, and then some that we hadn’t. These included Primark, H&M, Zara, pretty much all the standard stores. We had a number of false positives- my term for when she thought she found a dress she liked, but then didn’t. After hours and hours of queuing up outside trial rooms we found something that might work.

So, the evening of the wedding, we headed all dressed up to the church. A beautiful edifice with stained glass windows and high arched ceilings. After everyone was done with introductions and chit-chatting and had taken a seat, the music started and the bride entered. She was dressed in a gorgeous long white dress. What followed were a number of beautiful short speeches and prayers by members of the family and the priest. Since it was really hot (around 38º Celsius) everyone was trying to cool themselves with hand fans, which was actually a really pretty sight. You don’t often get to see so many well-dressed people using old-school hand fans.

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After the couple said their vows, they exchanged rings. I was surprised to see that there was no “you may now kiss the bride” nor any applause after the rings were exchanged. I later found out that was more the case with American weddings, which tend to be a little less formal.

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After the ceremony, we all waited for the bride and groom to come down the stairs outside the church. As they did, we showered them with flower petals and cheered. After some small talk, we headed into air-conditioned buses (a welcome respite from the heat) that consequently made their way to the dinner location. It was a beautiful rustic farmhouse with domed brick ceilings and a quaint garden. We hung out in the garden drinking wines, champagnes, ciders, etc. and munching on finger food while the bride and groom mingled with their guests. The wedding also gave me a great opportunity to catch up with some old friends from school and introduce them to the Honey Bee.

Later, we headed in for dinner. The dining room was large and filled with close to 20 circular tables. The bride and groom pre-decide the seating arrangement for all the guests to try and ensure everyone is with their respective group and no one feels left out. We looked up our table number, and took a seat at our table. The bride and groom entered almost dancing to music and took their seats with their families at the presidential table at the head of the room.

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What followed was a wonderfully orchestrated symphony of waiters. 20 waiters, all dressed identically, paraded into the room and took a spot behind each table. Then, they all waited until the waiter serving the presidential table signaled and then proceeded to begin serving their respective tables. The women at each table were served first, then the men. Everything was rehearsed and well-coordinated. The same routine was repeated for every course of the meal.

After a wonderful 3 course dinner and lots of drinks the couple went around the room doing a little dance with the bouquet. As most of us know, as per American tradition the bride throws the bouquet into the air to see who catches it. It is believed that the one who catches it will be the next to get married.  In Spain, the bride delivers the bouquet, but does so in a roundabout fashion dancing and moving from table to table to keep everyone guessing. Finally, over the next few minutes the couple visited each table to talk and have pictures taken with their guests.

At the end of it, we all filed into a smaller room where an open bar prepared everyone to hit the dance floor to the latest Spanish and English hits. Some couples danced fancy, while others like us simply did the best they could and had a great time. At around 2 am, we were all tired and headed back out into the garden. The weather was considerably cooler so it was nice being outdoors.

At 2 am, the first bus arrived to take us back into the city. The second was scheduled for 5 am. Since we were all very tired, it was critical to ensure we were on that first bus or else we might have to spend the rest of the night there. A short sprint later, we and the rest of our group were snuggly in our seats. I, for one, could barely keep my eyes open and feel asleep no sooner than the bus started. Others talked about the evening. 45 minutes later we bid adieu to our friends as we disembarked and headed to our hotel for a good night’s shuteye.

The next day we would head back home and said good-bye to this marvelous city.
Thank you Madrid for such a great time, and Congratulations to our dear friend!

Getting Out of Your Comfort Zone

A couple of weeks ago, we asked some friends out for dinner. After some back and forth as to the date and time, we all finally agreed. I should mention here that these are close friends who we hadn’t seen in a while, so we were really looking forward to catching up with them over a good long meal.

However, as an anti-climax they also mentioned they would invite some additional friends who we might get along with. Initially, it felt like a little bit of a let down because we thought we wouldn’t really be able to catch up with new people around. But the real reason I think, and this is me being completely honest, is that we hadn’t really hung out with people in a large group outside of work in a long time. We had gotten so used to hanging out one-on-one with friends, we weren’t sure if we’d really enjoy it.

Nonetheless, we went into it with a positive attitude, and as you can imagine things turned out pretty well. Everyone was really nice and we got along great. We also ended up making a whole bunch of new friends. We even hung out after dinner chit-chatting and making plans to hang out together again.

So, all in all, I’m really glad we pushed ourselves outside our comfort zone. As for the catching up, well, we have another dinner lined up soon. 🙂

Take-aways from our Moving Experience

We recently moved to a new apartment and are very happy with the new place. I’ve been thinking a lot about what the right way would be to make this post. It’s a long and convoluted story and I wanted to do it without boring the readers, but at the same time not leaving out the juicy bits. I think I finally figured out how.

There is a saying often attributed to Warren Buffer that goes something like this: “It’s good to learn from your mistakes. It’s better to learn from other people’s mistakes.” In that vein, I’ve prepared a short list of takeaways from our moving experience, each accompanied by a short story. That way, you can indulge in a little bit of harmless schadenfreude, while learning something useful that might come in handy in the future.

1. Always overestimate the amount of stuff you think you have.

When we started planning the move, we figured we probably had enough to stuff to fill 10-15 boxes. However, as we made headway, we realized we were waaaay off and the situation turned stressful. There is always stuff you forget to account for, not to mention the whole bunch of little stuff spread around the house that becomes a lot when you put it together.

Take-away: Estimate double. If you don’t, you will end up super-stressed when you find out that after hours of packing, you’ve barely made a dent. On the other hand, if you overestimate, you avoid the feeling of disappointment and futility, and probably feel good once (if) you realize you have lesser stuff than you estimated.

2. Don’t pinch pennies. You’ll regret it later.

To prepare for the move, we took a friend’s recommendation and decided to buy a whole bunch of moving boxes from the local discount store. During the move, those boxes started tearing and falling apart. We ended up having to buy a number of extra boxes from Ikea and spending more than anticipated. Not to mention the constant worry of the cheap boxes tearing open in the middle of the street.

Take-away: Buy your moving boxes at Ikea. They are really good quality, well designed, have a high weight tolerance and are completely worth the couple of extra cents.

3. Murphy was a wise man. Pay him heed: When something can go wrong, it will. 

We had visited the new apartment multiple times before the move. However, we didn’t on the day of the move. Over the course of a couple of hours, we unloaded multiple car trips worth of boxes in the common area of the building. We figured it’d be more efficient to accumulate a whole bunch of stuff there and then move it all up to the apartment together in the elevator.

Turns out, the elevator was out-of-order. Now, we had a whole bunch of stuff just sitting in the common area with nowhere to go. We called the elevator company and they sent a technician. However, since it was the weekend, he was the only guy on call. All in all, we lost a good 8-12 hours between him arriving, figuring out the problem and fixing it.

Take-away: Don’t take anything for granted. Double-check your moving infrastructure before you begin. This includes keys to both apartments, your car, the road (no road closures), elevators, etc.

4. Spend the extra money to make your move less stressful.

The last time we moved, we did it ourselves. But, that was before we amassed so much “stuff.” This time, as the boxes started to accumulate, the trepidation built-up. We realized there was no way to humanly move so many boxes even with multiple trips in our little car.

Thanks to some quick thinking on the Honey Bee’s part, we were able to find and hire some movers. Since it was last-minute and they had other commitments, they couldn’t help us with the entire move, but they helped us with the vast majority of our boxes, especially the heavy stuff.

Take-away: If you have more boxes than your age, hire a mover. Your back will thank you.

5. Label all your boxes

Label all your boxes, tagging them on the top and any 2 opposite facing sides. That way no matter how the boxes are stacked or arranged, you will almost always be able to see the tags and know what is where. It will be especially useful while unpacking.

We did this for most of the boxes, but got a little lazy towards the end. It was the unlabeled boxes that were the hardest to unpack and organize in the new apartment.

Take-away: Don’t get lazy. Tag all your boxes. It will make unpacking and settling-in a whole lot easier.

6. During the move, forget cooking.

We got this part right. Over the 2-3 day moving period, we didn’t even try to cook. We ordered out every time. We were so drained from all the moving, neither of us could muster up the strength to cook, or even wait for the food to be cooked. Not to mention the fact that all the kitchen stuff was spread out across various boxes.

Take-away: Treat yourself to good food after a hard day of moving.

7. After you’re done with the move, get a recovery massage.

I’m glad to say we got this last part right too. After all the trials and tribulations of the move, my back was completely out. I was in so much pain that I couldn’t lift a heavy grocery bag from the floor. After our massages, we emerged from the spa healed and feeling much better, ready to enjoy the new apartment.

Take-away: After a stressful move, treat yourself. You deserve it!

Happy Moving!

 

Taste Memories

Isn’t it amazing how we have memories tied to certain a taste, or smell or song? And isn’t it funny how you don’t realize you had that memory until something triggers it?

Yesterday, after enjoying a nice evening walk the Honey Bee and I were headed home for dinner. We happened to cross a new Mexican restaurant that we’ve been meaning to visit, but never have. On an impulse, we decided to dine there.

I ordered a burrito and on the very first bite, as soon as it hit my tongue, I was immediately transported back some 10 years to when I was a student in the US. The university cafeteria had a burrito that tasted just like it.

The burrito was good, but nothing I’d write home about. However, the memory it triggered made me relish the burrito. With every bite I took, I was re-living my care free university days. I was enjoying it so much that the Honey Bee had to ask me to keep the noises from my foodgasm down. 😛

While writing this post, I did some quick desktop research on the subject and was pleasantly surprised to find research on the subject. Here’s an extract of a summary of one of the findings:

A functional link between the brain region responsible for taste memory and the area responsible for encoding the time and place we experienced the taste had been found. The findings expose the complexity and richness of the simple sensory experiences that are engraved in our brains and that in most cases we aren’t even aware of.

Suffice it to say, I liked the memory it triggered that I was unaware I had and that we will definitely be going back to that restaurant.

My 2 cents on e-book readers

Today, I’d like to take a minute to focus on a much debated topic. No, I’m not talking about Trump, or his immigration policies. Today’s post is about something far more interesting: e-book readers.

Let me get started with a little bit of background. For the first 12-14 years of my life, I hated books with a vengeance and would do what I could to avoid them in my free time. Dad literally had to force me to read. This included resorting to bribery, guilt trips and oftentimes, a good old-fashioned scolding. He made me start with newspapers and then moved me on to books.

Because of all the forcing, I now really enjoy reading (Thanks dad!) and consider it a source of growth and personal development. I consider myself a news junkie (the text kind, not the TV/radio kind). While I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a book-worm, I am certainly never against the idea of plopping myself onto the bean bag and devouring a good book. While I certainly don’t get as much time to read as I used to, I enjoy getting in a few hours of reading during the weekends, and maybe an hour or two during the week.

My first transition away from paper books and to e-books was with an old tablet that I repurposed to use as an e-book reader. While it worked all right, it always did cause some strain to the eyes. I wouldn’t admit it to anyone, but I’d often find myself reading at an angle to avoid the full glare of the tablet from hurting my eyes, especially at night. I had looked into e-readers a number of times in the past, but was never quite convinced that the € 100 or so investment was worth it. The Honey Bee has also tried to convince me on multiple occasions, but her efforts were in vain.

Finally, up about 2 weeks ago, I took the plunge. After looking around for a bit I settled on the Amazon Kindle. Now, there are a number of other pprwt
brands out there that have hardware that is just as good. The most popular one I found was the Kobo. However, I decided to go with Amazon simply for the size of its book store. You see, when you buy an e-book, you are more or less permanently tied to that device maker’s online bookstore. And since Amazon had its beginnings selling books, and is now a global giant, I figured they’d probably have one of the largest collections. Plus, I figure the chances of Amazon going bust in the foreseeable future are significantly lower than those of the other manufacturers.

My first book on the Kindle Paperwhite is a classic: A Random Walk Down Wall Street (Burton Malkiel). I must say, the difference in the reading experience is stark. The technology makes it feel like I’m reading a real book on paper with little to no strain associated with the screen. This is a welcome change that I feel will allow me to read more, especially after days when my eyes are fatigued from staring at a screen at work all day.

To sum up, I’d highly recommend you consider getting an e-reader, especially if you’ve already made the transition to e-books and are reading on a tablet/ phone/ phablet/ computer. My recommendation is the Kindle for the above-mentioned reasons. I chose the Paperwhite ‘coz it’s fairly well priced at c. €120 and offers backlighting which allows me to read in low light conditions or at night.

Happy reading!

The Spanish Christmas Lottery

This year in the midst of the festive holiday season, as we recover from the Christmas feasts and prepare for the New Year celebrations, I thought I’d make use of this downtime to tell you about Spain’s famous Christmas Lottery-El Sorteo Extraordinario de Navidad. Commonly referred to as El Gordo (the fat one, in reference to the first prize) this lottery was started in 1812 and is the world’s second oldest continually running lottery.

In other parts of the world the lottery is often not looked upon as a positive thing, and dismissed as a waste of money. In the US, it is often considered equivalent to a giant gambling operation that is often sold to the public under the guise of charity and helping the children. In India, it is frowned upon and believed to be rife with corruption, often used as a conduit to convert ill-gotten gains into legal winnings. With all this awareness and background, I was understandably hesitant to buy into the Christmas Lottery.

However, over time I have come to learn that the lottery in Spain doesn’t carry the negative stigma it does in the rest of the world. In fact, it brings people closer together. Friends, colleagues and even my boss at work explained to me that the Christmas Lottery has become an inherent part of the Spanish culture and tradition.

Organizations typically pick a number and patrons of that organization are encouraged to buy tickets of that number either from the lottery administration or from that organization. The organization may be your employer, local restaurant, bar, gymnasium, corner grocery store, favorite charity, etc. The idea is that if that number wins, you along with your colleagues at work, or friends at the local bar, or workout buddies at the gym, all win and celebrate together. It’s fairly common during Christmas for friends and families to gift each other lottery tickets with the same number as theirs.

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You might be wondering how everyone can buy a ticket with the same number. Well, the way it works is that tickets have a 5 digit number ranging from 00000 to 99999. For each 5 digit number there are multiple series. However, the series have no direct impact on the winnings. They simply allow for the sale of more than just 100,000 tickets. Typically, a single ticket (decimo) costs € 20. However those who prefer not to spend € 20 on a single ticket, can purchase a number of smaller participations through whatever local organization (bar, employer, restaurant, etc.) they choose. For example, a 25% participation would cost € 5 and entitle you to 25% of any winnings on that ticket.

As measured by the total prize payout, the Spanish Christmas Lottery is considered the biggest lottery worldwide. Without getting into the details, the prize structure of the Christmas lottery makes it easier to win some money compared to most other lotteries, and it is commonly believed that the prizes of the Christmas Lottery are well-distributed all around Spain. For example, chances of winning the largest prize (El Gordo) are 1 in 100,000, that is 0.001%, while chances of winning the top prize of the Euro Millions lottery are 1 in 116,531,800 or 0.0000000086%.

Every year, the lottery is accompanied by an eagerly anticipated heart-warming commercial. This commercial from 2014 perfectly illustrates the concept of a common lottery ticket number at your local bar and gives you a peek into the typical celebrations one sees. The ad shows Manuel who didn’t buy a lottery ticket at his local coffee shop (typically referred to as a bar). As luck would have it, that was the winning number. Heartbroken, he enters the bar amidst the celebrating customers to congratulate his friend Antonio, the bar owner. What happens next literally brought tears to my eyes when I watched this ad for the first time, and still gives me goosebumps every time I watch it.

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The most elaborate part of the lottery is the drawing, which in itself is quite a sight. Since 1812, the Christmas Lottery drawings have been held every year following the exact same procedure. Held every 22nd of December in a grand theater in Madrid, the drawings are made from 2 large spherical cage-like vessels that contain wooden balls with laser inscribed numbers to prevent any discrepancies in weight.

The larger vessel contains 100,000 balls, each with a unique 5-digit number on it, from 00000 to 99999. The smaller vessel contains 1,807 balls, each one with a prize in euros inscribed on it. The actual drawing is carried out by students of the San Ildefonso school (formerly reserved for orphans of public servants), who announce the results proudly and jubilantly in song. Click here to watch a brief video showing the drawing of a winning number.

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The lucky winners are seen and heard all over the TV and radio, with typical images including delighted winners popping open bottles of cava in celebration. The not so lucky participants take consolation in the much used phrase “your good health is the biggest prize”, or some variation thereof.

We love to participate and be part of the excitement of the event. In years when the 22/12 falls on a weekend, we leave the television turned on all day in the background and enjoy the grandeur of the event. On 2 occasions, we won a refund for the ticket price, but never anything more. So like the rest of the population, we continue to religiously participate. However, we try not to spend too much on it. Buying just a single ticket through my employer allows us to participate in the dream of endless possibilities, and enables us to feel the magic of the Spanish Christmas Lottery.

Before I end this post, I’d like to take a second to wish all my readers and their families a very happy holiday season. I hope everyone had a very merry Christmas and has a prosperous and fruitful new year!

The Dying Computer Saga

At the end of the last post, I promised to share the saga of how my laptop was destroyed. So let’s jump right into it:

I had a Lenovo Ideapad that functioned brilliantly. It was a zippy little machine that never failed to perform. However, where it did fail was the hardware. Within the first year and a half of having it, the plastic frame started to break away from the screen & the hinge. While trying to find a fix online, I found this was a common defect with this particular model. As a quick solution, I duct taped them together and that was that.

What happened next isn’t entirely Lenovo’s fault. A couple of months later, I was in a hurry and tripped over the power cord, which happened to be plugged in. The computer flew from the two foot high coffee table and landed with a loud thud on the floor. Apart from having undone my duct tape repairs, the entire left hinge had also separated from the laptop. The prognosis was not good, but it seemed like the laptop would survive, kind-of.

Nonetheless, the machine still continued to work without a fault. Not wanting to throw away a perfectly functioning computer, I continued to use it for another year or so on the one good hinge. A slight inconvenience, but manageable with a little patience. Eventually (and as can be expected), the second hinge also broke. The machine could no longer serve as a laptop because the screen couldn’t support itself without hinges. So I sat it on a table and propped it against a wall. After 3 years, my laptop was now officially a desktop.

One fine day a couple of months later, the screen failed to turn on. To test the machine, I connected it to the television using an HDMI cord and found the machine still worked. It was only the screen that had failed. The CPU (i.e. the heart of the computer) still worked fine. Determined not to throw away a still somewhat functioning computer, I bought an external monitor.

No prizes for guessing what happened next. When I tried to connect the monitor for the img_20161112_202106first time, the entire laptop failed to power on. We tinkered with it and tried all sorts of things but to no avail. As a last resort the Honey Bee recommended we try opening it and taking a look under the hood to see if it was something obvious. After over 4 years, this Lenovo Ideapad was finally declared dead.

The next big task ahead of me was choosing a new laptop. After what probably amounted to days of research, and multiple shortlists, I finally took the plunge and bought a Lenovo Yogapad. The reviews were good, the price was excellent and the laptop was pretty good to look at. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite what I expected and also felt sluggish. Sadly, I returned it. Tired from researching, and almost in despair over my inability to choose a good machine, I was about to give up all hope.

Just then, like a ray of hope from heaven, I saw an advertisement for the revolutionary Chromebook. A few days of research and I was convinced this was the right thing for me. dc11For the unitiated, the Chromebook is a laptop made by the same traditional manufacturers (Dell, Lenovo, Asus, Samsung, etc.), but instead of Windows it uses Google’s Chrome browser as an operating system. Google describes it best… “The Chromebook is a new, faster computer. It starts in seconds, and offers thousands of apps. It has built-in virus protection, and backs up your stuff in the cloud.” I’ve had it for over a week now and couldn’t be happier. If you’re thinking of buying one, I’d highly recommend it. Check back here for a detailed review of my Chromebook in the coming weeks.

(We’re back!) Fun Family Visits

First off, my apologies for the long gap. A lot has happened over the last month, (don’t worry, nothing serious) that has prevented me from dedicating time to one of my favorite hobbies-this blog.

Visits from both sides of the family, took up most of my free time. First, the Honey Bee’s brother visited. He spent about 2 weeks with us, and we had a great time. About a week later, my brother took advantage of Thanksgiving weekend and endured 12+ hours of travel time to pay us a visit. He spent 4 days with us, and the time really flew by. We didn’t really do any sight-seeing, given that he had been to Barcelona before. Besides, the objective of his visit was to be with us and we did just that-tab-bg spend quality family time together. The entire experience was a whirlwind that involved a lot of conversation, eating, movies and board games.

The Honey Bee is really big on board games, and I have grown to like them as well. Some of our all-time favorites include Taboo, Scattegories, Battleship, Scrabble and Jenga (I know it’s not really a board game, but its close enough).

Over the course of these visits, one restaurant we visited multiple times and that I strongly recommend is La Flauta. In fact, it is flauta-collageso popular, they even opened a second location (La Flauta II). I however, recommend visiting the original since it has been renovated. Also personally, I find the service and ambience to be far superior. The fare is authentic Spanish tapas (and some Catalan food as well). The food is rich, but the prices are really affordable. Although a lot of what they specialize in is non-vegetarian, my vegetarian friends will still find plenty of delectable options. They don’t take reservations, so be sure to get there early because if you don’t, you might end up having to wait more than an hour to get a table, like we did.

We also paid a visit to the Fabra Observatory located on a mountaintop near Barcelona. Belonging to Barcelona’s Royal Academy of Arts & Sciences, it is the fabre-collageworld’s 4th oldest functioning observatory (1904) and still tracks asteroids and comets. Even though, it was a somewhat cloudy night we did get to use the impressive primary telescope to view a double star. Referred to as Albireo (Beta Cygni), the pair of stars orbit around each other and fall within the Cygnus (swan) constellation. One of the stars was bright yellow, and the other light blue. It was interesting to note that when we saw Albireo with the naked eye, it appeared to be a single star. Only when viewed through a sufficiently powerful telescope can the 2 stars be differentiated. If you do plan to visit, make sure to book in advance since spots fill up quickly. The viewing schedule depends on the day and the time of the year. Also worth pointing out that it gets pretty darn chilly up there, so make sure you’re really well covered up.

Every time my brother visits, it is like Christmas. He brings us our annual dillstock of American goodies. This time, for the Honey Bee that included Fruit Loops Cereal and Mighty Malts chocolates. For our pet bunny, that included a whole bunch of bunny specific treats & toys. For me, that included a delicious jar of dill pickles, 2 six packs of Berry flavored Propel energy water (both of which I haven’t had in more than 7 years) and my much awaited (drum roll) drumroll drumrolldrumrolldrumrolldrumroll Dell Chromebook.

You see, apart from family visiting the main reason I haven’t blogged in the last month is that my laptop was destroyed. It’s a long and tragic story with a happy ending that I’ll share in the next post, but suffice it to say that for now, Vivemasblog is back in business.

The Barcelona Fire Rescue

Recently, we were in Barcelona for dinner. After dinner, as we were walking around we were suddenly overwhelmed by the sound of sirens and blinded by dozens of flashing lights, as a cavalcade of emergency service vehicles passed us. We soon reached where they had stopped and tried to find out what was going on.

Turns out, there was a large amount of smoke billowing from the entrance to a building and its parking garage. The fire-fighters were efficiently working to connect their hoses to fire2the fire hydrants and the police were scrambling to set the security cordons. We passed some people sitting huddled in blankets, probably having been rescued from the fire. From a safe distance, we watched the fire-fighters rush into the burning building. We just stood there watching these brave men run into the burning building, wearing their heavy fire-retardant clothing and lugging their weighty oxygen cylinders on their backs.

We couldn’t really tell much about what was going on, until suddenly we heard a child’s voice crying out, trying to get everyone’s attention. Observers lining the street heard the cries and started to shout out, getting the attention of the firemen and pointing to the child in the building above. With no hesitation, these men mounted the little basket, and started to extend their ladder all the way to the 5th floor. They also promptly extended the support legs from their truck, to ensure its stability.

This street, like most others in residential Barcelona, is narrow and tree-lined. As a result, the process wasn’t as straightforward as it should have been. Nonetheless, they expertly maneuvered the ladder and basket through the tree line until it reached the 5th floor balcony. Within moments, we saw the fireman climb out of the basket and into the apartment. In a matter of minutes, he helped 2 people into the basket, and the ladder was soon on its way down. Once again, they very adeptly maneuvered the ladder around the tree line, street lights and telecom wires. We couldn’t see who was in the basket until it actually touched down on the street. Turns out, they had just rescued a mother and her probably 7 or 8-year-old boy. The entire scene was very emotionally overwhelming and brought smiles to a lot of faces.

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Rescue images from left to right: 1) Fire truck ladder extending towards the building, 2) Fire truck ladder (with basket now visible) returning to street level with rescuees, and 3) Rescuees being escorted to safety by the fire-fighters

You can’t help but be grateful to these men, risking their lives for little pay, running towards the fire while everyone else runs away from it. The fire-fighters continued to fight the blaze, long after. I was able to click some pictures to share here. Unfortunately, with all the flashing lights it was hard to get clear pictures. Nonetheless, I think they give a fairly good idea about what was going on.

On a related topic, I was actually to run a 10 kilometer race to raise awareness and funding for fire-fighters the next day. The fire-fighters, fully equipped with all their gear, participated as well. Running alongside these heroic men, especially after having seen them in action, inspired me to run faster and push myself harder to reach the finish line.

Surprise Birthday Getaway (Under the Stars)

We recently celebrated a big milestone birthday for the Honey Bee. She has asked me not to mention her actual age, so out of interest for my own well-being I am going to leave that out.

Usually, we spend our birthdays traveling on vacation. However, this year the Honey Bee was fatigued from too many flights and asked that we not fly anywhere (ironic given her name, I know). So, I had to find something within driving distance. She had dropped a few hints over the past few months so I tried to find a hotel that met some of those requirements (more on this later).

Hours of research led me to Hotel Mas Sola, an isolated hotel in the middle of nowhere, with rooms opening on to balconies overlooking a beautiful well-manicured lawn and a pond fully stocked with ducks. This secluded hotel is miles away from the nearest town and is kind of like a little resort, with tennis courts, a number of swimming pools, a gym, a spa, and a whole lot more. The exact hotel and location remained unknown to the birthday girl until we actually got there, making for a pleasant surprise.

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We spent one night at this wonderful property and wasted no time in taking advantage of everything it had to offer. Since we checked in on a Sunday, most people were checking dsc04313out. There couldn’t have been more than 4-5 couples staying the night. We spent quite a few hours sitting out on the patio by the lawn, enjoying ice-cold beers, served in pre-chilled glasses and snacks with the warm sun overhead. We chatted while we watched the ducks waddle along and every so often take a dip in the pond.

We walked around the massive property taking it all in until we got tired and decided to relax at the spa. The hotel boasts a beautiful spa, fully equipped with a heated pool, a jacuzzi, hydro massage beds, a steam room, a sauna, 5 different types of showers and a foot reflexology path. What I really loved about all the aquatic installations was the use of beautifully colored mosaics throughout. Since the hotel was pretty much empty, we had the spa all to ourselves.  We spent an hour detoxing and enjoying the hydro-massages. We wrapped up the spa session by trying out all the different showers. Some were cold water, some were hot, and some alternated between the two. There was a rain shower, a shower with jets that massaged the entire body, a nebulizer shower, and a shower that carried water mixed with herbal oils. Lastly, and this is one that the Honey Bee refused to try, was the cold bucket shower which is exactly what it sounds like. It consists of a bucket of cold water hanging overhead that you tug on with a rope to overturn.

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After our relaxing spa experience, we went back out on to the patio and watched the sun set on a cloudless horizon, while we enjoyed more cold beers. As dusk approached it started to get colder and a little rainy, so we eventually switched to hot coffee. For dinner, we ordered some delicious pizza. Since it was the Honey Bee’s birthday, the hotel gifted us a tasty bottle of wine which we paired with the pizza and devoured.

The Honey Bee has always mentioned her curiosity of and interest in the heavenly bodies. That is one of the reasons why I chose this place. Due to its isolation, there is almost no light or air pollution here, which results in the visibility of a spectacularly starry night. To make things even better, I bought her a telescope which I surprised her with that evening. We awoke at 4 in the morning to the enchanting smell of wet grass, and the full glory of the night sky overhead, something you can never see from the city. You could see the moon, stars, a number of constellations and even Mars with the naked eye. Once we had the telescope all set up, we just couldn’t get enough. The lack of sleep eventually caught up with me, and I went back to bed leaving her to enjoy the night sky with her brand new telescope.

The next morning we woke up fairly late, but made it in time for breakfast. We indulged in a delicious, heavy and filling breakfast, accompanied by some delicious Cava (the local equivalent of champagne). We spent the rest of the morning hanging out around the swimming pool, reading, and enjoying the other facilities the resort had to offer.

As afternoon approached, so did check-out time. And just like that, this little vacation came to an end. We left the hotel with a whole bunch of great memories and a birthday experience that we will never forget.

If anyone is ever in the area, I would strongly recommend paying this great hotel a visit. The facilities were super clean and comfortable and the staff very friendly, ever willing to go over and above to ensure you have a great stay.