Catalonian Traditions, Turkish Snowstorms, and Lebanese Warmth

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Coincidence brought me back to Barcelona around the same time that I had departed last November. I found the city just as I had left it, minus a few notches in temperature but just about the same number of pigeons.

Going somewhere familiar is unlike vacationing in an undiscovered destination. I guiltlessly slept in and spent afternoons in cafes. I finished a book. It was, for once, a break where I disconnected from home and was present in real time. I still worked from my trusty overweight laptop but I was mentally distant enough; my thoughts had room to expand and float above me before they popped in thin air.

Being in Catalonia at the end of the year means you learn about the seasonal traditions. First, there was Tio. Then, on New Year’s Eve, you have to eat 12 green grapes when the clock strikes 12. One grape per chime of the clock, one grape per month of the year. You also have to wear red undies for good luck? Some say they have to be a gift, others say you have to gift them before daybreak. I’m still digging up the origin story on this because I fear it’s the De Beers’ solitaire of undergarments, not that that stopped me. After 2016, I’ll take any source of luck for the calendar ahead.

Tortell de Reis (like our Galette des Rois) appears on January 6th for Three Kings Day. It contains two surprises baked into the pastry: a small king figurine and a bean. The person who gets the slice with the king gets to wear a paper crown and the person who gets the bean has to pay for the cake. They’re also granted good luck if they keep the bean in their wallet all year. I had already paid for the cake AND the bean was in my slice. It’s like it knew.

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Whenever I encounter Arabs abroad, there is an immediate sense of familiarity. You’d think that once you’re out of the country, you’d make it a point to meet people of different backgrounds but I understand why we flock to each other when setting up shop overseas. When I come across a Syrian, Jordanian, Egyptian, and, of course to an even greater degree, Lebanese, I feel an unspoken understanding. As Rankoussi, my glass-blower friend in Rome, said to me with a grin,“you are also from there,” after revealing he was from Damascus.

The unexpected “unlucky” 72-hour layover in the Radisson Blu near Sabiha Airport opened my eyes to a quality of our people that I am reminded of whenever I leave: warmth. 

I left Spain decked out in thermal Nike running gear (that I didn’t run in) and boots (to avoid adding the extra weigh to my suitcase). Thank you red underwear and bean for knowing more than I did. Besides the literal warmth my lucky outfit provided, there was a figurative one that came from being stranded in a Turkish blizzard with 3 Lebanese guys who were also flying back to BEY from sunny Barcelona.

Although I may not ever see my stranded brothers of Istanbul again, I am grateful that I had some company while stuck in a frozen village. Plus, chasing down taxis in a snowstorm would’ve been a nightmare solo. These absurd yet instant friendships where you are trading stories on a hotel couch drinking minibar wine, the kind that may evaporate as soon as you part ways, never to see each other again, was still comforting in a situation where you would normally feel entirely alone. It’s bittersweet how this only happens when we’re away from home. When abroad, I don’t get the same warmth from my fellow Americans in airport terminals or Starbucks lines but, when I’m here in Lebanon, I don’t get it from my fellow Lebanese either. When at home, we don’t mix outside of our known circles.

We have to be removed. We have to be foreigners together against the world to feel like we can do that, to feel like we’re the same.

Interning with Tarek Atrissi | The Art & Science of Arabic in Barcelona

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Courtesy of Death to Stock Photo

It’s been exactly 3 months since I left Barcelona where I spent another 3 months interning for Tarek Atrissi, a Lebanese graphic designer who runs his own design studio out of the Catalonian city after relocating from the colder Hilversum, the Netherlands.

I’ve written a lot about what I did to prepare for this trip and what I learned on a personal level while there but I thought it would be helpful to see what I got out of this trip from a professional standpoint as a designer from and working in the Arab world. The environment of Barcelona seemed like an unconventional backdrop for learning about Arabic type & script but it made one thing more evident: capable designers with a background in Arabic design are needed, regardless of location.

Lesson 1: The Difference between Arabic Typography, Lettering, and Calligraphy

As an introduction, Tarek walked me through a breakdown of different uses of the Arabic language in design. Typography refers to creating typefaces or designing a print layout using Arabic text. Lettering is when Arabic letters or words are built by drawing them out piece by piece. The focus would be on one element as an artistic composition or unit instead of an entire alphabet or page of text. Calligraphy is an old artform that takes years to reach the pro level. If there’s no time to learn the trade, this is usually outsourced if you want it done right.

Lesson 2: Making Arabic Versions of Logos

A skill highly underrated and glossed over when it comes to designing Latin logos is the ability to adapt them to Arabic while retaining their aesthetic and iconic attributes. A visit to Dubai will tell you how poor adaptations of your non-Arabic logo can hurt your brand’s image. It is hard enough to do from the start of a project but even more challenging when it comes after the logo is already in use and plastered all over the world. Icons or graphic elements become gimmicks or are forced into the Arabic script. Creating an Arabic version of a non-Arabic logo takes practice and understanding of both languages; not only how they are similar but how their differences will affect the visual outcome. Arabic differs from a lot of commonly used languages in many ways; two main concerns being that 1) the letters are connected (at times) and don’t align with non-Arabic glyphs because they adhere to different guidelines and have fluctuating proportions and 2) it’s read from right to left.

 

Lesson 3: Looking at Arabic Glyphs like Shapes, not Letters

During my GD undergrad years, a calligrapher who was giving us a workshop had told me that people who don’t know Arabic tend to be less constricted when sketching forms because they look at the letters like shapes. They have no linguistic knowledge of what the aleph is; it’s just a long line. I was reminded of this when drawing up endless versions of Arabic glyphs. When lettering, you have to let go of what you know of the defined structure of each letter – to a certain extent – in order to let your hand freely take over.

Lesson 4: The Importance of Arabic as a Language in Design

Coming from an advertising background, I rarely had the chance to dabble in typographic design, much less anything in Arabic since I worked on international accounts. Working on fonts and logotypes in Arabic made me realize how neglected it is as a skill in our part of the world. Sure, most Arab designers can read and write in Arabic but can they design in it? Do we have the understanding of it as a language to tackle it the way an Arab national should? This should be our added bonus as designers from the region: we should know how to work with our own language with respect – in a way that does it justice as a beautiful form of communication.

Lesson 5: Give More, Keep Less

What was surprising about Tarek was that he was so willing to give and teach. It is rare to find a successful professional who is open to mentoring you as a designer, in skill but also in thought-process. Tarek was never condescending in his approach when it came to finding solutions and he gave me the confidence I lacked when it came to discovering my strengths as a designer. He was leading by example and a true team player. He taught me to be open with what I know and even with what I don’t. And by constantly sharing and exchanging, there was a flow of stories and experience that brought fresh energy to the office each day.

You can learn more, the more you give away.

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A big thanks to Tarek and everyone at TAD.
See you guys soon!

10 Favorite Eats in Barcelona

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Most of these places have been mentioned in the El-Tanein Diet series posts (or posts of their own) but here’s a round up of my 10 favorite places of Barcelona. Every time I would dine somewhere, I would find 12 others I’d add to my google list on the way. My google list would be cafes, restaurants, and museums that I would investigate online later to see if they were worthy of a visit. After all, I had 86 days to take in as much of Barcelona as possible so I needed to be wise and selective. Yes, I take this shit seriously.

These are places I went to more than once, even if just for coffee, and could imagine them becoming my go-to locations if I were a permanent resident of Spain’s Catalonian city by the sea.

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For coffee, cava, and cheese:
El Jardi

Within the courtyard of the old Santa Creu Hospital is this cafe, a quiet spot to enjoy late lunch or a post-meal coffee. It’s behind the famous Boqueria market but still removed enough to be away from the crowded Las Ramblas. It’s an outdoor venue with string lights and simple tables; you’re basically hanging out in a garden with goodies. The hospital, eventually unable to keep up with the growth of the city and medical advances, was converted to libraries including Biblioteca de Catalunya.

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For a salad bar with a side of pie: Faborit

This cafe is located within Casa Amatller, the Cadafalch house attached to Gaudi’s Casa Batllo. With a panini or salad menu, you can get a filling, fresh meal for under 10 Euros and spend your lunch hour sitting in their outdoor terrace. They also sell beautifully packaged chocolate sets if you need some Art Nouveau souvenirs.

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For when you want a quiet dinner with your BFF: Casa Lolea

This is the 3rd time I mention Lolea on the blog because I really loved the restaurant. It’s just warm – that may be the best word for it. Staff is kind, food is good, and you feel at home. Did I mention the sangria bottles? It’s a sangria factory that has 4 special kinds produced and packaged in polka-dotted bottles. Great affordable gifts and/or accents for the home/office.

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For when you need a lunch break near Passeig de Gracia: Toto

Italian brasserie on Valencia. The service isn’t their strongpoint but the food is. Go for lunch to benefit from the menu del dia so you can have a 3-course meal for 16 Euros. The regular menu is pricier (also worth it) but you might as well save some cash so you can enjoy even more culinary experiences. Barcelona is not short on options, you’re just short on time.

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For when you need a break from jamon: Flax & Kale

Flax & Kale, flexitarian resto from Teresa Carles, is a vegetarian/vegan friendly spot 5 minutes away from Plaça Catalunya. The dishes are rich in veggies, grains, and oily fish. It has a juicery and an outdoor terrace on the second floor that opens in the afternoons. Barcelona is rich in cured meats and ham so when you’re looking for more fruit and greens, grab an acai berry bowl.

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For when you can’t get a table at Tickets: Lolita Taperia

I say this because the chef left Lolita (then Inopia) to open Tickets and you can tell when you eat here because the food is almost as good. I’ve been to both and Lolita is to Tickets what Toyota is to Lexus. It’s a casual everyday version of the more expensive sister. It’s not as meticulously prepared and it’s void of the “molecular cuisine” style which is fine because it’s all about taste anyway. And the waitress at the bar looks like Julia Styles and is super helpful.

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For when you need fried goodness: Xurreria Trebol

They’ve got homemade chips and giant churros loaded with flavored cream for 2 Euros each. Need I say more? Avoid the churro stands in the tourist-populated areas and head to this place instead. It’s open 24 hours during the weekend too so you can head there after you’re done partying till dawn and in need of a carbo-load.

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For when you’re not ready for Monday morning just yet:
Café di Marco

This is a small coffee shop on the corner of Arago and d’Enric Granados. There is nothing special about it but I used to stop here for a cappuccino and muffin on my morning walks to the office. The staff is kind and the cafe is filled with people starting their day or reading newspapers. It’s a cozy quaint place you can hide in until you’re ready to face the world.

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For when you want a fun night out with friends: Numeronueve

I think I took every visitor I had to this bar. Off one of the alleys of Passeig de Born, No.9 is a stone-throw away from Santa Maria del Mar. Tapas are great, sangria is even greater, and the staff are friendly. Music is a bonus. It’s not authentically Spanish if you’re looking for that sort of thing. But if you’re looking for good drinks and nibbles in a fun atmosphere, it never let me down.

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For when you want flavor for dinner:
Lascar 74

A “cevicheria” in Poblesec, Lascar 74 is where I had my first encounter with ceviche, a Peruvian seafood dish. Everything we ate was delicious, right down to the cheesecake that I didn’t order but kept eating off of my friend’s plate after I tasted a small bite. Interior is nothing fancy; simple decor for a satisfying dinner with friends. There’s no English menu but the waiters can explain everything for you so no sweat.

Honorable Mentions

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Can Ramonet in Barceloneta for paella

Hotel Barcelo in Raval for Sunday brunch. Open buffet plus a cocktail on the 360 degree view roof for 25 Euros

Mont Bar on Aribau for date night

Chök on Carme for cookies, cake, and cronuts

Brunch & Cake for brunch and cake

10 Money-Saving Tips for Visiting Barcelona

1. Atrapalo

Similar to Groupon, Atrapalo is an online discount service. Along with packages and special offers, it also sells discounted transportation tickets (trains, airlines, cruises). One downside is that it’s in Spanish but you can always have Google Chrome translate the entire page – it’s enough for you to make your discount purchases and save a good 30 Euros (or more) on a train ticket to Madrid.

2. Menu del Dia

Most restaurants around the city have a lunch menu during weekdays which is a 3-4 course meal for 8-15 Euros. Sometimes, tourists are given the regular menu and thus, ripped off by paying the full price a la carte.

3. Nostrum Food Chain

Unless you’re using the Buzzfeed Food newsletter for easy recipes to cook packed lunches at your Airbnb flat (which is also very helpful), Nostrum is an affordable alternative for the office break. All dishes are easily microwavable, healthy, and light. The 10 Euro/month fan club card gives you discounted prices on the various plates too so you can walk out with a bag of sustenance for under 7 Euros.

4. Barcelona Metro Card

A T-10 (10 trips) card at 9.95 Euros for 1 zone was enough to last me 2 weeks at a time because I used my feet to get around the most. The card is multi-person and you can use it on the metro and buses. It may even count as one trip if you use both modes of transport within a certain timeframe. There’s other combinations of this card (more trips, individual user, etc) as well that you can check out here. If you’re only in the city for a few days and need unlimited metro access, one of the Hola cards might be a better option.

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5. Pinxtos on Carrer Blai

Pinxtos are bar food tapas that are priced based on the different toothpicks poking through them. In bars in Born and Passeig de Gracia, each pinxto can be anywhere between 3-6 Euros. However, Carrer Blai is street packed with bars that sell pinxtos for 1-2 Euros each so you can load your plate a few times, have a few cups of cava, and continue bar hopping in the Poblesec area.

6. Free Museum Days or Articket BCN Passport

Like most cities, Barcelona has free museum days (usually the first Sunday of the month or every Sunday afternoon, it varies depending on the museum) and the Articket museum passport option that gives you entrance to 6 main museums for 30 Euros.

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7. Fly-Foot

Fly-Foot is a MENA-centric tour agency that puts together travel packages for attending football games and, for a city that is home of FC Barcelona, they are the kind of service you want to know about. The money they save you on tickets can be used to buy a Neymar Jr jersey to wear to the game. Okay fine, you can wear Suarez too.

Call their Barcelona number [+34 (625) 46-45-32] or email them at barcelona@fly-foot.com

8. Barcelona Expats Facebook Group

This is a pretty active group of expats living in Barcelona. They help share insider tips, contacts for language courses, answer questions if you’re looking for a particular shop or product – it’s a good advice column. If you’re planning on sticking around in BCN for more than a month, join the little community.

9. Barcelona Metropolitan

Subscribe to their newsletter for a weekly email on what’s going on around the city. Besides the typical TimeOut website, they’re a decent resource for events and openings all over town.

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10. Casa Lolea Sangria as Barcelona Souvenirs

And finally, when you’re ready to pack up and head back home, stop by Casa Lolea first for dinner and a couple of bottles of sangria. It’s their specialty, the packaging is beautiful, and the bottles are a steal at 8-10 Euros a piece. Who wouldn’t love a gift like that?

Bonus: If you have to choose between Park Guell and Palau Guell, go for the Palau. Very underrated and less crowded.

Bambi Recommends: Jardins de Laribal

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Forget Park Guell and Parc de la Cuitadella. And while you’re at it, forget Fundacio Joan Miro, which is located at the tip of this green haven in Montjuic. Jardins de Laribal was designed for the 1929 World Fair and was once a part of the private estate of lawyer Josep Laribal. Barcelona’s city council bought the lands upon his death and Jean Claude Nicolas Forestier & Nicolau M. Rubió Tudurí were assigned the task of transforming the gardens into a public domain.

While Park Guell is flooded with tourists, Parc de la Cuitadella full of loud kids and fiesty parrots, and Retiro a 3-hour train ride away, Jardins de Laribal was where I could picture myself wasting a Saturday afternoon reading Cathedral of the Sea with a jamon & brie sandwich packed in my bag. Worst case, you can grab some food from La Font del Gat, a cafe named after the famous cat fountain and located in a building designed by my man, Josep Puig i Cadafalch.

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The green space spans between the Miro museum and the Jardins del Teatre Grec. Forestier linked the gardens with the Greek Theater via staircases and waterfalls, two elements that run throughout the entire area. Small fountains, sculptures, and canopies are scattered along most of the stepped paths. I personally found this to be one of my favorite spots in Barcelona because of its tranquility: you could be alone with your book under the sun while still within walking distance of the central district.

It’s Like I Never Left

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When I had friends visiting from their stints abroad during the summer or Christmas season, I couldn’t help feeling like they were in a state of growth & discovery while Lebanon, and I along with it, was frozen in an endless loop. Now that I’m the one coming back, I see that it wasn’t just an illusion.

I’ve been back for less than a week and it feels like I never left. Granted I’ve only been gone for 3 months and that’s not even long enough to digest a Thanksgiving dinner but not much has shifted. My cats are fatter (and thus, cuter) yet still unfriendly. Even my car’s side mirror is still faulty because it sat in my parking space collecting dust for 87 days. The most that’s changed is that my parents have become Beliebers because my sisters subjected them to so much One Direction in my absence. However, I’m not talking about my personal circle. Lebanon hasn’t moved a millimeter.

Perhaps that’s why those abroad love to come home: there are no surprises. You can lose a job in the middle of a divorce, pay a mortgage, get a 4th degree in Switzerland. But with all of that, when you come back home, you’ll still have unreliable utilities, corrupt politicians, and the best manoushe hot off the forn around the corner. Lebanon, in all her stunted glory, is the constant in their life of uncertainties and responsibilities. It’s comfort in the form of a country.

And what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong is that I’m not visiting. The level of comfort wears off when you’re not just passing through. I would’ve loved to come back to a solved garbage crisis, a president in office, and maybe even a feline who wants to cuddle.

Lebanon is the perfect home base in that you can go live another life elsewhere, return, and still find everything as you left it. There is no FOMO because you can always be there for the next cycle. It’s bittersweet but, isn’t that the case for all things Lebanese?