The Land that Gaudí Built

Park Güell: Have you ever seen a park more whimsical?

Barcelona! Or, as I like to think of it, the land that Gaudí built.

Barcelona was a good place to start my trip, because, if you ask me, going to Europe is like going for a swim in the ocean. You want to ease in slowly and acclimate yourself to the temperature before jumping all the way in.

And, what better place to do that, than in a locale where you actually speak and understand the language? I’m not talking about Catalan, which was fascinating to hear. I’m talking Spanish, of course.

I can’t tell you how helpful it’s been all my life, to know more than one language.  Considering I live in San Diego, and along the US-Mexico border, it’s downright fortuitous that my Venezuelan parents had the foresight to speak to me in their native language. That, plus the fact that I spent some of my youth living in Caracas, sealed the deal, making me, more or less, fluent.

Antoni Gaudí incorporates his love of nature into the design of Park Güell.

Barcelona proved to be an exciting, cosmopolitan city, one that has the most amazing architecture, thanks to the work of Antoni Gaudí, whose name is probably synonymous with the city. We visited some of Gaudí’s most significant works, La Sagrada Familia, Park Güell, and Casa Batlló. I loved them all, but, of the three, my favorite was the park.

Gaudí has a distinct style that is whimsical, colorful and embraces curves all at once. He works with tile in such a bold way that it takes your breath away. His work is a joy to behold. Plus, admission to the park is free and boasts stunning views of the city.

This dragon at the entrance of Park Güell is a popular spot for a photo opp.

Every city I’ve ever visited in Europe has its charm and beauty in terms of its rich art and architecture. But, the structure that nearly made me have a case of the vapors, and brought me to a new height of euphoria, was the Palau de la Música Catalana.

Built in the early 1900’s by architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner, I have never seen a more exquisite and dazzling building, both inside and out. Every corner, every column, every speck of space your eye can rest upon–from floor to ceiling–had something unique and

Casa Batlló, commissioned as a private residence.

mesmerizing to take in. This was a building that captured my heart and soul, as no other building ever has. A celebration of Art Nouveau, it is the only concert facility listed as a World Heritage site.

If you have never seen it firsthand, do not wait a second more. Add it to your bucket list. Better yet, pack your bags and go at once!

Luckily, I brought along my trusty camera,  taking well over 2,000 photos throughout my trip. I wanted to document every nook and cranny of each place we visited. I was on a mission to see it all and capture it all for posterity.  Uploading all these photos was almost the end of my computer.  Choosing which to post here, was almost the end of me.  So, I hope you enjoy my photos, and, if you want to see them all, I’ll be hosting a slideshow at my place every night between now and New Year’s Eve. By then, surely, we will have seen all my photos! And, now, without further adieu, Barcelona!

Gaudí’s La Sagrada Familia, under construction for over a century.

Detail of La Sagrada Familia.

Exterior of Palau de la Música Catalana, a building that is an homage to music and that bursts forth with magnificent splendor.

Check out the stage inside the Palau de la Música Catalana.

A cafe inside the Palau.

The Palau’s skylight.

The staircase in the Palau reminds me of the staircase in the film, “Titanic.” I”m just saying.

Europe’s population is estimated at 731 million, but if you included all the statues you’d probably have to double that figure. Oh, and I just love statues!

And One More…

I was struck by the charm of this statue, and the way it expresses the innocence and serenity of childhood.

A Queens Childhood 101

Now that I have 200 posts under my belt, I thought Id kick off something new. Which is why, today Im debuting an occasional series on a childhood in Queens. Any resemblance to my childhood is strictly more than coincidental.

My mother in front of our home, Feb. 1962.

Then, after you read the first installment, please check out my latest piece for the Huffington Post, because, if you ask me, there’s got to be a better way to elect a POTUS (for those not in the know, that means, President of the United States).

And, I think I’ve found it! You’ll find my essay in the comedy section by clicking here: We Need an Election Dance-off.”

Part 1: The Street Where I Lived

Hands down, the best part about living in Queens was being a kid there. And, yes. I know what you’re thinking. Queens? Why Queens?

I realize it’s not as shi shi as, say, Manhattan’s Upper East Side. But, when you’re a kid who doesn’t know any better, who tends to look on the bright side of just about everything, and who comes from a family that is trying to find its place in a new country, Queens was badass.

First, there’s the neighborhood. We lived in what must have been the toilet bowl of Queens, otherwise known as, Flushing. (Really, what kind of a name is Flushing?) On either side of the street, was a long row of brownstones, that looked like a series of shoe boxes stacked horizontally and then glued together, making us all very close neighbors, indeed. No one had air conditioning, so in the summer, when it was sweltering, sticky hot, and our windows were wide open, if anyone on the block lit a cigarette, we’d all know. It would waft through all our homes. On the flip side, when Mrs. Moskowitz, who lived six doors down, made her famous noodle kugel, I could tell whether she’d added apples to her recipe, just by the scent that made it through my bedroom window. I could even tell when it was out of the oven and ready for eating.

Our three-story, three-bedroom brownstone was second from the end, on the north side of the street. You could tell which one was ours just by looking at all the roses we had in our front yard, along the fence. Pretty miniature roses in white and pink. Caddy-corner from where we lived was an apartment complex with a small playground, to which I could run over and play. It had monkey bars, a see saw, and swings. In fact, that’s where I got the first bump on my head, when I fell off the swing and landed on the hard cement below.

Public transportation, whether the bus or the subway, was spitting distance from our home, as was anything else a kid could need. To get to the A&P supermarket, all I need do was walk two blocks to Main Street and turn right. I loved going there, because when you bought your groceries, they’d give you S&H Green Stamps, which you could exchange for valuable goods, including toys! Once you’d collected enough, that is.

If you crossed the street and headed north on Main Street, you’d hit the bakery, and eventually, the movie theater and the public library, which was in the same building as the Queens Savings Bank. The S&H Green Stamp processing center was also down that way, and the candy store was south, on Union Turnpike. Once, when I was running up the hill toward Union Turnpike, with my brother, Ralphie, I spotted a quarter on the pavement. Do you have any idea how much candy you could get with 25 cents? Well, my brother and I went to town on that quarter, buying a couple of bars of Hershey’s chocolate, a Chunky, and a set of wax bottles filled with brightly-colored, sugary sweet liquids that would leave a film of pink dew on your teeth. Cavity city!

I couldn’t have planned my neighborhood better. Even the Five and Dime was nearby. No one had to drive us anywhere. We had our legs and could run like the wind, as they said in the ads for Ked’s Sneakers. And, as far as I was concerned, some of the other places around the neighborhood, like the hardware store, the deli, the shoe repair shop, and the church, were necessary, but boring. Being a kid meant I didn’t have to give a hoot about those.

My parents came to Queens from Venezuela. They must have taken one look at the elevated trains, the grimy subways, the nonstop traffic on the Triborough Bridge, and decided they wanted in. Which is why, they settled in Queens. There were eight of us living in our brownstone, including my father, who was enrolled in a university in the city. I was glad of this, because it meant he was rarely around. When he was at home, he often had a temper so bad, it scared me. Like Ricky Ricardo, when he’d yell at Lucy in Spanish. That was my father. Only ten times worse, especially when he had his belt in his hand, at the ready. You wouldn’t want to be within a five-mile radius when he brought that out.

There was my mother, who was studying to get her cosmetology license, but soon became the first beauty school dropout I ever knew. Yet, while she was attending, I got all the free haircuts I could want and then some. I was her guinea pig, which explains why my hair was always uneven and short. Oh, and by the way, I hate pixie cuts.

I had four brothers who all slept in the room next to mine, their twin beds lined up in a row, leaving no space for anything else in that room. You’d have to crawl over the beds to get from one end to the other, and anything they owned, including clothing, had to be stored under their beds or in the closet.

Meanwhile, I only had to share my room with Carmen, who had come to live with us before I was born. She was 17 at the time. Carmen would take care of us while my mother traveled to Caracas, and believe me, my mother was gone a lot. So much so, that I took to calling Carmen, “Mommy.” She was pretty and energetic, made a mean melted Velveeta sandwich. Best of all, she’d shoot baskets with my brothers, and play Chutes and Ladders with me.

Yes, Queens was a kids’ paradise. We had the run of the neighborhood, and a bevy of kids around to play. We were young and full of adventure. And for eight years, this was the only home I knew. It didn’t matter that we were the only Latino family in our Jewish neighborhood. This was my block in Queens.

Welcome to my neighborhood! Now, what was your neighborhood like?

This is Chávez Country: The Little Bully That Could

Our trip to Venezuela is winding down. For our last outing, our cousin, Marisol, has planned a day trip to the Hacienda Santa Teresa, where sugar cane is grown and used to make rum. It is in a pueblo called El Consejo, which is a 90-minute drive from Caracas.

I am told that El Consejo is the town in which my grandmother spent her childhood.  Tía Olivia says she visited the town a few years ago and found her mother’s house still standing, which I can believe, as El Consejo seems untouched by time. Row after row of charming little houses festively painted in bright hues of pinks, yellows and blues.

Sugar cane fields at the Hacienda Santa Teresa, which was founded in 1796

The heat is more intense here.  Once we arrive at the Hacienda Santa Teresa, we must wait for our tour time. We visit the gift shop where all kinds of rums are sold—orange-flavored rum, coffee-flavored, clear rum, premium rum, to name a few. For as little as $4.00 (U.S. funds) you can buy a bottle of rum.

Marisol tells me that when Venezuelans make a purchase of any kind—whether it be a loaf of bread or a new TV, they must present their “cédula” (a national photo ID). Even if they are paying in cash, they must show their identification. She is not sure why but assumes it’s just another way the government seeks to control the people, presumably by keeping track of what they are buying and even where they are making their purchases. I use cash to purchase a bottle of rum and the saleswoman asks for my cédula. When I tell her I’m an American and do not have a Venezuelan ID, she asks me for my passport number. I write down a fake number, and she doesn’t notice. The specter of Hugo Chávez hovers over everything.

While waiting for the rum tour to begin, my aunts begin an impromptu dance.

We spend the entire day at the rum hacienda, where there’s much to do—horseback riding, golf, listening to music at the bar, and even paintball. On the tour, we learn that the rum factory was founded more than 200 years ago. The tour lasts hours and multiple trolley rides across the hacienda.  By the time it’s over, we are all a bit exhausted and hot. Thankfully, our tour guides serve us refreshing, tall glasses of Cuba Libres.  We then head back to the city, trailed by a beautiful sunset. All that’s left to do, is pack and prepare for our journey home.

I came to Venezuela with apprehension and am about to leave, grateful for the time I was able to spend with family, yet also with a feeling of dread for their future. The U.S. State Department had unnerved me with its warnings about the country, and I came very close to canceling the trip.  The good times with family, though, were mired by the shadow of Chávez. His plan to transform education in order to raise a nation of socialist children is chilling. Victor says that this may be just the thing that will motivate Venezuelans to fight back.

For now, despite all the new rules and regulations, the essence of the Venezuelan people is still intact.  During my trip, I saw their determination to withstand any challenges or edicts thrown their way. They still go to nightclubs and take their kids to McDonald’s. They still like to shop and go to the beach. And I think of my aunt, Bertina. At the rum hacienda, as we listened to music from an outdoor sound system, she suddenly took Tía Olivia’s hand for an impromptu dance on the sidewalk.  Such genuine moments help to hold at bay the fear of what the future will bring.

But it’s a new year and for Venezuela, the future has arrived. Chávez has his new powers and the country holds its breath and waits. What will he do?  Like a little bully, he has been poking at the U.S., trying to push its buttons. For the most part it hasn’t worked. Largely ignored, he resents this country all the more. And to the American government, Chávez must seem like an annoying gnat. A silly nuisance.

Until now, perhaps. With his new powers, he’s become the little bully that could. So Chávez, take a bow. For you may yet have the last laugh.

This is Chávez Country: Family Reunion

Part Three: As my trip to Venezuela continues, the relatives begin to arrive for the family reunion. Until now, their faces have been frozen in time for me, but looking beyond the wrinkles, the gray hairs, I can see they are as I remember them.  Everyone talks at once. Everyone laughs and hugs each other closely, enjoying this precious time together. We snap photos by generation. There are many new family members I do not know, particularly the spouses and children of my cousins.  One cousin has just become a grandmother. She is the first in our generation to reach that milestone.

In the backyard, we take photos of each generation. This is the generation of my parents, whose absence is felt.

The reunion takes place in my uncle’s house, protected by the surrounding walls and barbed wire. I mill about, reveling in the excitement of being among them, nearly 100 it seems. Though not everyone is here, I’m finally able to show my son, Josh, just how large is our Venezuelan family. He, too, is enjoying himself. Though his Spanish is poor, many of our relatives speak English.  That evening some of the younger cousins take Josh to a nightclub and teach him to dance salsa. It is his first time.

Victor (names have been changed) introduces me to his wife, Elena. We chat and our conversation quickly turns to Hugo Chávez. I have often wondered how my family could stay in Venezuela with a government that is steadily moving toward socialism.  We all know how Chávez is trying to emulate his mentor, Fidel Castro.

“Sponsor your cousin,” Elena pleads.  At first I’m not sure if I’m hearing correctly, but she repeats it and gradually I realize she’s sincere. Until this moment I didn’t think that anyone in our family wanted to leave the country. After all, Venezuela is their home, where they have roots.

I start talking to Claudia and Belinda, Victor’s sisters, and ask them about Chávez.  Belinda is dissatisfied and feels at a loss. She tells me of family who have been kidnapped for ransom, and also carjacked (including her daughter who lost a leg as a result). Claudia is extremely worried.  Her concerns are for her young children. She explains how Chávez recently announced plans for overhauling Venezuela’s school curriculum in order to enhance his socialist ideology.  According to Claudia, Chávez also plans to wipe out from the text books, the last 40 years of Venezuelan history, as it was a period of democracy.  Other changes include the following new subjects:

•       Bolivarian Doctrine (designed to provide students with a Venezuela-centric curriculum, which means that learning about other countries and world history, will take a back seat)

•       Socialism in the 21st Century

•       Military Education

The red-shirted Chávez takes on education in order to better indoctrinate young minds. (Reuters)

Victor’s wife is eager to talk again.  We sit in a quiet corner of the living room. She leans in closer to me and, lowering her voice, tells me that one of my cousins is a “Chávista” (pro-Chávez). I am surprised and ask her who it is.  Raul, she says with assurance.

Raul is a second cousin of mine.  Our mothers were very close–spending time together,  spending time together gossiping and trading stories about their children.  Raul is in the backyard, drinking beer with the others. He joins in the laughter and reminisces about the old days with us.  In so many ways he’s just like us. Only now I see him in a different light.

Just to be sure, I ask Belinda if it’s true about Raul. She explains to me that when things are going your way, you love the government. But the moment things start to turn and they come into your home to ask you questions or take you away, then you see it differently.  Right now, Raul is receiving government contracts and is doing well for himself. That’s how it is right now, she adds ominously.

I start to wonder if one day Raul will be asked to report on any family whom he knows are not Chávistas.  A chill comes over me as I think this, but I know my brothers would say I shouldn’t worry about the what if’s.

Yet, my cousins tell me that Chávez keeps a blacklist of Venezuelans who in 2004 signed a petition to recall him as president. Chávez is already using this list to make life difficult for those who signed. These days, the question du jour is, “Did you sign the petition?” So to me, it’s all a matter of time. If you ask me, it’s a slippery slope, the path to dictatorship.


This is Chávez Country: Path to Tyranny

Part Two: Cousin Marisol (names have been changed) is a freelance journalist who has carefully planned our itinerary, to make the most of our stay in Venezuela. Today, we are going to the Teleférico on the top of Mt. Ávila.  It is one of the highest points in Caracas, overlooking the city which is located in a valley.

The bell captain at our hotel hails us a cab. Like most hotels in the U.S., there are taxis waiting outside for the guests.  These cabs, however, have been carefully preselected by the hotel. They are driven by trustworthy drivers and, for added security, they are unmarked and have tinted windows, which helps to ward off drive-by shootings. The thinking being that if a gunman doesn’t know who is in the car, they will be less likely to open fire.

One of the murals I came across, located by the entrance of the Central University of Venezuela.

As we ride to the Teleférico, I see more signs of  Hugo Chávez’ rule:  billboards and posters that thank him for the changes he has made. Some make the case for socialism by depicting people smiling broadly, walking hand-in-hand. I also see colorful murals lauding Chávez and his policies and  denouncing American Imperialism. As we drive along, I make a game of it by counting the pro-Chávez propoganda, but soon I lose count.  There are just too many.  Some of the slogans I notice include:

Apoya el Gobierno (Support the Government)

Ooo-Ah, Chávez no se vá” (a common chant, indicating that Chávez will not leave office)

“Contra el Imperialismo UNIDAD de Nuestra AMÉRICA” (Against Imperialism, unite for our Latin America)

I wonder how many find this display convincing. How long does it take to become indoctrinated? Just how many have become mesmerized by Chávez’ PR machine? As I ponder this, I can’t help but feel relieved that my parents are no longer around to see what is becoming of their country.

We arrive at our destination. I remember visiting the Teleférico as a child, but in recent years it has gone into disarray.  The government has taken over operations, though the Hotel Humboldt, located on the top of Mt. Ávila, and once one of Venezuela’s crowning achievements, remains closed.  Marisol has pulled a few strings so that today we will get a private tour.

Marisol has brought with her two of my mother’s siblings:  Tío Francisco, Marisol’s father, who is a retired pediatric doctor; and Tía Olivia, who now lives in a home run by nuns.

I remember that Tía Olivia once lived just a few blocks from the Palacio de Miraflores, the home of the Venezuelan President, much like our White House.  I ask her whether Chávez is living there now.

“No.  No one really knows where he lives or where he is on any one day,” she replies matter-of-factly. Marisol adds that this is, presumably, a security measure, and that Chávez lives in constant hiding. Apparently, he is fearful of lurking assassins.

Chavez' military patrols this tourist attraction.

We prepare to board the cable car that takes us to the top of Mt. Ávila. Once there, I notice the soldiers.  I’d already seen a few in Caracas.  But here they appear everywhere, carrying their rifles and wearing their red berets. Red being the color of the Socialist revolution. The soldiers are pacing or standing at attention as lookouts—protecting the Teleférico from what, I don’t know.  All I see are Venezuelan families and a few tourists. It is the soldiers themselves that seem threatening.

After our tour of the Hotel Humboldt, we lunch at one of the restaurants located on the mountain and are seated next to a table of soldiers celebrating a birthday.  As they sing “Cumpleaños Feliz,” many restaurant patrons join in, but, to me, the singing feels forced. Perhaps I’ve seen too many World War II movies, for I am associating this moment with a scene from “Casablanca,” in which German soldiers in Rick’s Café Américain sing their patriotic anthem and French loyalists drown them out by singing La Marseillaise. It is one of the most stirring, powerful moments of the film. Nervously, I consider standing up and singing the Venezuelan national anthem, which I learned as a child: “Gloria al Bravo Pueblo” (Glory to the Brave People). But fear prevents me, as there’s no telling whether the other patrons will join me in drowning out the soldiers. Where is Humphrey Bogart when I need him?

Time has stood still in the lobby of the Hotel Humboldt.

In the evening we go to Tío Francisco’s house. I lived in this neighborhood once, when I was attending private school here.  But now it’s different.  Walls with barbed wire have been built around the community’s periphery. There is a security guard at the entrance and each home has locked gates. The walls around my uncle’s house have broken bottles with jagged edges along the top, making forced entry unlikely. I wonder if I could live like this and accept what has become the new normal. And yet I know the answer. We are human after all, capable of doing anything to survive.

More cousins have joined us. We reminisce about the idyllic days of our youth. The conversation soon turns to politics and I sense that my cousins have resigned themselves to enduring life under Chávez. To them, he is an annoyance. A burr in their shoe. Quietly they pray that the U.S. intervenes and stops him. We change the subject and talk about the upcoming family reunion.

The anticipation of the reunion excites me. Though, these feelings are tempered by what I am beginning to see as Chávez’ path to tyranny. The signs are everywhere and there’s no escaping them.

At the reunion, I will find out more of what my family is feeling. Those that are preparing for uncertain times, and those that fear for their children’s future.  I will also learn that one of my cousins is a “Chavista” (pro-Chávez).