February 16, 2014 — Barcelona

I am taking a class to Costa Rica in May.  Because this is my first trip booked through EF College Study Tours, I was invited to attend an orientation tour.  Just my luck the tour was to be given in a beautiful European city: Barcelona.  My original flight out was to be through Newark, NJ, but the storm that hit the east coast that day knocked out all flights.  After a series of changes, I ended up going from St. Louis to Chicago to Frankfurt to Barcelona.  Could have been worse–the guy sitting next to me on the Frankfurt leg was going on to Kiev with no idea they were about to have a revolution.  
The plane circled and came in over the Mediterranean Sea, giving us a lovely view of this coastal city, its beaches and port.  We landed at the time I would normally be going to bed, but instead we went on a walking tour of Barcelona. The time change made it broad daylight.  It was a zombie kind of day; I think I was up about 36 hours.  After a bus ride to the hotel, a few of us went to a nearby cafe for tapas and drinks.  We took the train down to the Plaza Catalunya and walked through the Gothic quarter, seeing a really old church and similar buildings.  This was our first foray down Las Ramblas, a wide street with a huge median for pedestrians and little shops.  It runs all the way down to the waterfront.  We saw some street performers playing the recognizable strains of “Rock Around the Clock.”  
We took another train to La Basilica Sagrada Familia, a huge church designed by famous (and famously bizarre) architect Gaudi.  It has strongly organic and biophilic elements, incorporating fruit, animals and grains into its design.  It is far from finished, but maybe in a dozen years or so will be complete.  On the way to the Mossul restaurant for dinner we stopped at a Gaudi designed house.  I thought the balconies looked like turtle skulls.  Dinner was a hamburger on a hard piece of bread topped with mushrooms.  As we walked back to the train station we passed a fountain illuminated with different colors.

Around Barcelona

La Sagrada Familia

Saturday we took a bus to Park Guell, another Gaudi-designed facility.  It’s actually a failed housing development, but makes a heck of a park.  The tile work, cave-like viaducts with strange pillars and more cool houses make it a kind of fairyland.  It’s one of few green areas in Barcelona, and had a modest bird fauna.  The bus took us up to Mont Juic for a drive-by look at some of the Olympic venues constructed for the 1992 games.  They are still used, for a variety of purposes, and are a great enhancement to the city.  We stopped briefly at a park that had spectacular views of the Mediterranean Sea, shoreline,  and port.  
We went back downtown, where several of us ate lunch at La Boqueria, a big, open-air food market.  I inhaled a fruit cocktail.  While others were munching on their pitas, I wandered the marketplace.  It was a colorful array of fruits, vegetables, cheeses, meats, eggs, and even chocolates.  In its center was a big, circular fish market.  The diversity of fishes was staggering.  I think I could have taught all of my invertebrate zoology lab there, with all the shrimp, lobsters, crabs, squid, mussels, urchins, and more I cannot remember.  This place was a feast for my camera, and the wide-angle lens let me take in an entire store by standing at its corner.  Incidentally, I used nothing but the wide angle lens (Tokina 12-24 mm) on this trip.  I was so fascinated by the market, I was almost late for the bus.  I ran down Las Ramblas and caught it in time.

La Boqueria

The bus took us about 1.5 h to Las Figueres and the Dali Museum.  You can’t really take in an art museum in a couple of hours, but I was duly impressed with the breadth of Dali’s styles.  He thought up some crazy things, which made it quite entertaining.  He also used a lot of insects in his work–there’s my entomological tie-in.  

Dali Museum

Upon our return, about 12 of us went down to a waterfront restaurant to have paella.  I didn’t know what to expect, but when I was told it was a rice and seafood dish, I was in!  We had both the seafood and lobster versions.  It was ssssssssssssssso good.  Nine or ten of us went to see Flamenco after dinner.  I had been really looking forward to this opportunity, as I love dance, percussion, and guitar.  The performance was all acoustic, but they sure could get some volume as the stomped the living hell out of the hardwood stage floor.  I couldn’t understand the words (Spanish sung in this style eludes me), but I could sort of follow the story.  The dancers were very skilled, and there was even one guitar solo performance.  We were allowed to take video and photographs at the end, so I did both.  A couple of the ladies in my group had fallen in love with a young, Spanish dancer, and wanted to take him home.  I said I didn’t think that was allowed.

Flamenco

Sunday morning was time for the orientation portion of our orientation tour.  We received a crash course in E.F.’s practices.  It was enlightening and moderately entertaining.  It was good information and I took lots of notes.  Afterward we had a couple of hours to burn, and my roommate and I walked Las Ramblas looking for souvenirs and gifts.  I bargained hard for the tile plate I bought for Stacey.  I had lunch of a hot dog.  I met with 14 others for the optional bike tour of Barcelona, another event I had been much looking forward to.  Though it was cool, riding through the narrow alleys of the Gothic quarter and along the beach path was glorious.  I kept my camera hanging around my neck and took many shots on the fly.  We stopped at Citadel Park, which had once been occupied by Napoleon’s army (lots of history in Barcelona), and took a group photo.  The beachfront area is all relatively new, attractive developments.  Apparently, a lot of old industrial warehouses were torn down and replaced with the current buildings in anticipation of the Olympics.  These foresightful efforts permanently changed the character of the city, and for the better.
We had a couple of additional hours after the bike ride to hang out.  I walked around the entirety of the Plaza Catalunya, and ran into my roommate, Sam.  I  photographed the fountains at night.  Everyone gathered at a predetermined location and walked to the site of the farewell dinner.  It was a delicious grilled tuna.  Some people went to a bar for one last drink, but I went back to the hotel.  I was tired.
We had to get up early Monday morning to catch the bus to the airport. It was sad to say goodbye to all the friends we had made. We had bonded a lot in a very short time.  It turns out that people interested in study abroad have a lot in common.  Joel and I had been raised on cattle ranches, except on opposite sides of the country.  We have formed a Facebook group to stay in touch.

Last Day

You may click on any slide show to visit the online photo album directly.  Here are the videos.

Lady Flamenco Dancer. This woman had very elegant hand movements.

Longer Flamenco sequence:
Upon my return, I learned that we have a student that wants to go to Barcelona.  I said if she finds five more I’ll surely lead it.  And I’ll be certain to request our Tour Director, Jesus, who was the best.
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February 10, 2014 — The long, cold winter

Although I dodged the polar vortex while bouncing around England, winter has continued holding us in its loving hands (or icy grip).  That’s been great for eagle photography, though it was horrible for Eagle Day in Canton.  Hardly anyone showed up to my talk at the lockhouse, and only the usual suspects showed up for the wine and cheese opening of the photo show.  Some of our people could not even make it to the show to hang their art because the roads were so bad.  

One day I came home from shooting eagles and a hundred starlings were mobbing the cedar tree in my neighbors yard, eating the abundant little blue berries. I rolled down the passenger window and fired away. Some robins were with them, then a small flock of cedar waxwings joined up.  Bonus!  I got some of the best pics I’ve ever taken of lovely cedar waxwings, which for some reason are shy of me.
After finding my 24-105 mm zoom lens a little too tight for the narrow streets of London, I decided to get a wide-angle lens.  I chose a relatively inexpensive Tokina 12-24.  It has been a surprisingly good lens.  I took some shots of buildings around Canton, then lucked into a case of sundogs (little rainbows on either side of the sun).  The last time I shot sundogs I had to take two frames and stitch them together.  Not needed with the wide angle.  It also does very well indoors.  
Big Guy loves the snow, but Stacey and I took advantage of a rare warm (50 F) day to go for a walk.  I harnessed him up and had him pull me around on a skateboard.  Success would have been no broken bones, but we exceeded that.  If I had a better board it would be a lot more fun.  
The cold and snow led to a snow day and a half for me. I took Big Guy down to the levy and we cross-country skied on it.  He didn’t pull me much, but I wasn’t expecting him to.  We started with the wind in our faces, and I thought I wouldn’t last 50 meters.  When we turned west we had the wind at our back, and my numb face began to thaw.  I had equipped his harness with some saddlebags, holding water and treats.  He did appreciate the treats.  Canada geese flew over, honking and heading south to presumably find some open water. The route took us through town.  A guy was digging his Mini Cooper out of a snow drift.  As I skied by with the dog, I asked, “Shall I hook him up?”  We both had icicle-covered beards at the end.  I took a selfie and we look remarkably similar.  
Stacey and I went down to the riverfront one day and some juvenile eagles were eating frozen fish on the shoreline.  This behavior is rare, and I tried to get some shots.  They were kind of skittish, but I did get some as they returned to their fish sticks.  Stacey heard the “scream” of an eagle for the first time, which actually sounds more like a series of chirps.
The sub-zero temperatures and foot of snow have concentrated birds at our feeders as well.  We have seldom had good light, but it’s hard to resist photographing them.  A rare Carolina wren even showed up at the feeder.
I could tell we were going to run out of firewood within the week, so I made a run out to Lowell’s.  The good part was that I didn’t have to cut much wood, as the logs we had cut in previous years were still in pretty good shape, and there was more volume than I thought.  The bad part was that my trailer tires utterly failed, and I ended up moving all the wood into Lowell’s trailer just to get it home.  I have spared you the description of every excruciating thing that went wrong along the way. In any case, Stacey was to be well supplied while I was gone the following weekend.