Saturday, August 8, 2009

Bruce Springsteen, Lance Armstrong, and Me

My view of the Tour de France while in Barcelona

I'm so far behind on blogging it's slightly pathetic but I won't let that stop me from trying to catch up. The themes of this entry are fun work trips and sporting events. Let's roll.

Several weeks ago now, KT and I had a big London trip. The primary reason was the World Conference of Science Journalists, an event I had helped plan in a small way--I organized a session called "Advocacy Science Journalism" and participated as a panelist in 3 other sessions. Just a few months ago, the organizing committee was worried the meeting would lose money or even be derailed by swine flu, but following their habit of just making deadlines, tons of journalists registered at the last minute. The meeting was a huge success--we had nearly 1000 people attend, far more than previous world conferences. But before the meeting started, KT and I headed down to London on Sunday for a belated anniversary date: Bruce Springsteen and the Dave Matthews band doing an outdoor concert in Hyde Park. DMB was great as usual and the Boss rocked the park for 3 straight hours, opening with "London Calling", of course. Bruuuuuuce!

While we stayed at a hotel the night of the concert, the rest of the trip was in a swanky house just around the block from the Abbey Studios made famous by the Beatles. We shared the house with my colleagues Rich, his wife and their two boys--who for some reason liked to call me GorillaJohn. Rich lives in China and when the family traveled back after the meeting, Chinese health officials boarded the flight to check for swine flu symptoms--one of Rich's sons had a slight temperature so he was whisked away to a hospital with Rich for further testing. He wasn't infected but not a fun way to end a long trip.

The conference itself was exciting and depressing. Exciting because we saw people who inspired us and technologies that can help us. Depressing because everyone was wondering how to make money reporting news when so much is available for free--there was a lot of grim humor about how many of us would have jobs at the next world conference. Still, we got to party at the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum so one can't complain too much.

That same week on Friday, as Americans everywhere were starting their July 4th weekend early, we finally had a cricket rematch with our rival Nature. You may recall my poor showing in 2007. I didn't fare much better this time, but the team did. We batted first and scored a decent amount until the Yanks came out--I went out to bat and survived for a while, without scoring runs, until Rich was also called into action. He's a baseball player so I warned him to watch his backswing--I didn't want him to knock the wickets off himself. So, on the first pitch/bowl, he did exactly that! Off the field he trudged with a mix of anger and incredulity on his face. I had my own embarrassing moment soon after. In a silly attempt to replicate Babe Ruth's called home run, I pointed my cricket bat out to "center field" and then proceeded to whiff on the ball that slammed into the wickets--OUT! It wouldn't have been so bad if we didn't make a close match of the contest. Nature scored fast when they first batted, but we started getting outs and at the end it became a tense affair--one that would have been helped if Rich or I had scored any runs! In the end sadly, we lost. But we drowned our sorrows with an impromptu beer and grilled burgers at Chez Travis--so it was a nice "july 4th" after all.

The following week I headed off to Barcelona, my first trip to a continental Europe city without KT in a long time. And she's the one who speaks Spanish! Oh well, I love Barcelona--it's so easy to get around by subway or walking, there's a wild mix of old and aggressively modern architecture, there's churros and freshly made potato chips and great pastries, and beaches on the edge of the city. I stayed in an intriguing neighborhood that used to be Barcelona's industrial center--the factories and warehouse are now turned over to TV and movie studios and high-tech telecom and computer companies. So it looks like somewhat like a rundown factory area, but has an unexpected vibrancy and coolness--lots of bars and restaurants that visually compete with the hippest areas London and NewYork.

When I'm on my own at meetings I tend to eat early and just relax in the hotel room after a long day. But Barcelona eats late and well, so I joined the mood. Some websufing suggested a local pizzeria and a restaurant called 22alph@ (amazing "food porn" pictures on their website). I figured I would look at 22alp@ and head for pizza if it was too intimidating. It was. But I went in anyway--and I'm glad I did. Despite it being 8:30pm, the restaurant was empty and stayed that way--which didn't bode well. Nor did my 5 minutes of struggling to figure out a single dish on the menu despite consulting my Spanish language guidebook! The kind waitress eventually pointed out the menu was in Catalan not Spanish! Still, even when I looked at the Spanish menu in the back, most dishes were a mystery.
But I finally worked up the nerve to order and here's what I had (Yes mom, I ate it all): An amuse bouche of gazpacho and some local fish wrapped around an olive, then shredded whitebait fish on fried egg, entree of Iberica pork filet in wine sauce, and a decadent crema Catalana covered with a lemon-flavored foam for dessert. All that for $35! And it was amazing. I can't understand why the place was empty--highly recommended! (I did make it to pizzeria the following night and it was outstanding too).

To justify all the good food, I needed some exercise--so I went to watch the Tour de France. The famous race was coincidentally detouring into Spain and into Barcelona during my meeting and it was going close to the convention center right when there were no talks (honest!). So I dashed out to the road lined with thousands of people and after about 15 minutes of police cars racing past with sirens blaring, a lone cyclist sped by (left pictture), followed 30 seconds later but another small group, and then a bit later, the massive main group (the peleton). All in all, my glimpse of the racers last about 4 minutes--and I didn't spot Lance buried within the peleton. Indeed, watching the replay of the day's race on TV that night was more dramatic as the lead cyclist was caught at the very end and there was an exciting sprint finish. Still, I was able to be part of this year's race. Whew, I'm still tired.--JT

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