Monday, June 6, 2011

Birthday Browsing in Barcelona

Normally, my birthdays are spent at home, with a cake fresh out of the oven and perhaps some steaks hot off the grill, but this year--turning 29 for the 8th time--I got to enjoy the annual celebration whilst abroad.

Beth and I had had a couple of days to get our bearings in Barcelona, with Beth dusting off her Spanish and me trying to absorb some of the local Catalan.  We'd walked La Rambla, enjoyed each afternoon and evening sitting out on a patio or courtyard somewhere with a glass of cava, a mug of cervesa, and a fair bit of vina blanca.  We'd learned the shortcut to the Metro from our hotel and could navigate the mass transit system like locals (well, almost).  But like so much else of our trip, I'd decided just to play my birthday by ear, with only a rough idea as to what I wanted to do.

After a nice continental breakfast at the hotel, we set out for a bit of shopping.  Beth wanted to track down some Mothers' Day gifts, and I'd seen a photo of a hat shop in one of the many travel guides we consulted prior to the trip which gave me an idea of how to answer Beth's question: "What do you want for your birthday?"  Yes, Sombrereria Obach is something of a tourist staple, but it's also quaint enough that I just had to stop in and see what new headwear I could find.  I ended up with a floppy cotton hat which I can roll up and stick in my pocket and which is a bit smaller than the fedora I often travel in.  Prices at the shop reflected its location just off the big tourist drag (at €55, it's one of the more expensive hats I own), but hey, it was my birthday after all!

Beth shows off her scarf from Barcelona
After a bit more shopping with stops at a scarf shop--where I exchanged the gift favor and got Beth the fashion accessory that seems a necessity amongst Barcelona natives, namely, a frilly scarf--we hopped a train to nearby Montserrat... a topic for a later blog; all I'll say for now is that Mussolini would be proud of the punctuality of the Spanish train system.

Thanks to Barcelona's latitude--somewhere between NYC and Boston despite having a much more Mediterranean climate--even in early May sunset didn't come until 8:30pm or later, leaving us plenty of time to head out on the town for a birthday dinner after getting back from Montserrat.  (Side note: On the train ride back, we shared seats for part of the trip with a woman traveling with her cat in her lap; I cannot believe how calm and laid-back the kitty was on public transportation!)  Beth had been after me to pick a good place to eat, and I spent most the train ride flipping back and forth through the Barcelona city guides we had on hand to try to narrow down our selection.

Let me stop for a moment and point out that Barcelona is considered one of the world's top gastronomic destinations, with the broader metropolitan region claiming what is rated by many critics to be the planet's number-one eatery (ahead of Keller's "French Laundry" and "Per Se" in the US and several Paris restaurants) in El Bulli.  Unfortunately, with Chef Ferran Adrià deciding to close this July, reservations are completely unavailable at El Bulli--but fear not; there are still plenty of fantastic places to grab a bite in Cataluyna.

I ended up picking a little hole-in-the-wall called "Bar Seco" on the hillside of the El Poble Sec neighborhood leading up Montjuïc based on a description in one of our travel guides--as I wanted something not too loud, not too crowded, not requiring reservations (as it was already after 6:00pm!), and which offered a genuine, local experience.  It's not too far from the nearest Metro (Paral-Lel on the L2 and L3 lines), though I will say the neighborhood was certainly more residential than some of the more urban environs we'd spent the past couple of days getting to know.

Bar Seco, street view
Bar Seco became one of the highlights of our trip!  The self-described alimentació (which Google helpfully translates as meaning "feeding" in Catalan) is indeed something of a hole-in-the-wall, with a small set of bar seating supplemented by perhaps four tables for two and in-season about the same amount of terrace tables outside.  The proprietors are proponents of the "slow food" movement, which is a sort of antithesis of our American notion of McDonald's-style fast food joints: slow food emphasizes local ingredients and flavors.  Bar Seco does that throughout their menu and their (non-dry) bar selections.

For a change from all the Cava and other vina we'd enjoyed on our trip so far, Beth and I opted for local cervezas (beer), with the unappetizingly-named "Glops"--an unfiltered dark ale--as our favorite winning out over a Montserrat brewski.  We went with the recommendation of our server on our choice of tapas, with some absolutely fantastic patatas bravas (I apologize for not recalling the local distinction of same--other than that they were the best we had the entire trip) and vegetarian-friendly sandwich fare for Beth (a bocadillo made with local cheese and fruit, along with the best veggie-burger I've ever eaten).

Though not a full dinner spread, we nonetheless filled our bellies.  For the first year in many, I didn't have a cake fresh from a box (some traditions win out over the fully made-from-scratch cooking that generally goes on at Chateau Papillon), and given our scheduled early morning departure to Andalucía, we didn't try to catch a spot of gelato on our way back to the hotel.  Nonetheless, it had been quite a good birthday indeed.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Weekend DIY at Chateau Papillon: Toilet Replacement

Channel-lock pliers. Bolt cutters. Hacksaw. Brake cleaner. WD-40. 9/16 box end wrench. Chisel. Screwdriver. Socket wrench. Hammer. Putty knife. These are some of the tools needed to remove the old toilet in my bathroom at Chateau Papillon, thanks to the heavily-rusted flange bolts holding it to the floor. After all that, I wonder if a sledgehammer might not have done the job of all of them together and with more satisfying fun to boot.

Replacing a toilet isn't really that hard of a job--I've tackled far more challenging DIY projects at Chateau Papillon in the past.  Still, like so many home improvement jobs, it ended up taking a lot longer than I'd expected; I had figured on about an hour total to remove the old toilet and install the new one, and it took closer to three.

Why the new toilet?  It was an "impulse buy" at Costco, I have to admit.  Beth and I had gone specifically to check out a laundry sink--something I spied at a Costco in Richmond last summer but which until now our local one had never had in stock--and right next to the sink were several high-efficiency, dual-flush toilets for under $90.  That's a pretty good buy; I'd looked at similar units at Lowe's and Home Depot before, typically for upwards of $150 with several brand-name models over $280.  Couple with that the fact we'd just gotten back from Spain, where like so much of Europe the toilets are similar to the one in the store, and we were sold.

Not to mention that my bathroom's old toilet was wearing out--I'd had to replace several parts on it over the past couple of years.  Nor that it was a water-hog, slurping down around 5 gallons per flush.  I don't think it dated back to the original home construction (mid-'60s), but the toilet wasn't much newer than that, either.

First, the old toilet (pictured above) had to come out.  Turn off the water, flush, pour a bucket of hot water through to empty the bowl, and remove.  You'd think that wasn't going to be a very difficult task, but you'd be wrong.  Two flange bolts hold the toilet to the floor, and the problem with older toilets is that the nuts on those bolts are typically rusted solidly in place.  Worse, the flange bolts heads simply fit into a slot on the flange beneath the toilet, so there's very little leverage to be had: the entire bolts will just spin in place.  Enter the list of tools and materials leading off this post...

I tried penetrating oil, WD40, and even brake cleaner (which consists mostly of very light, very volatile hydrocarbon solvents), and though I did thus manage to dislodge quite a bit of rust, that was it.  I had the most success gripping the tops of the bolts with some really big channel-lock pilers and using a box-end wrench to twist the nut in the opposite direction--though this really crushed the threads on the ends of the bolts.  Unfortunately, one bolt was so rusted that the end simply snapped off when torqued--and of course it wasn't the end between the toilet and the floor that broke.

Next came a chisel; I figured if the bolts were that fragile, I might be able to snap them off beneath the nuts.  This meant some rather awkward hammering, as I didn't want to slip and shatter the toilet itself into a million tiny fragments of porcelain.  That didn't get me very far, and next up was a hacksaw.  The problem there was that my toilet was crammed back into a nook, giving me all of a couple of inches of space and a completely useless angle to use the saw.  I gave up on the saw, but perseverance paid off in the end when I managed to get a pair of bolt cutters onto one of the two.  This gave me enough leverage to twist the entire toilet free without further work on the second bolt, as I was able to rotate the toilet around the flange enough that the bolt head aligned with the slot used to originally install it (sort of like the wide part of an old-fashioned keyhole).

A wax gasket serves to seal the bottom of the toilet to the floor flange and sewer pipe, preventing leaks.  The old gasket has to go so that the new one will seal properly.  I discovered in removing the sticky, gunky old mess that whoever had installed the current toilet hadn't taken out the original gasket--there were two, nested sets of rubber seals and wax gaskets!  (You can see one of those in the photo to the left.)  A putty knife, several pairs of gloves, and some rags took care of that phase of prep, all the while with a rag stuffed into the pipe to prevent icky sewer gas from filling the room while I worked.

Notice, too, that the old toilet tank had leaned right against the wall and collected a nice bit of moisture, as well as some mildew where the original wallboard had apparently never been painted at all.  Taking care of that required a scrub brush, some bleach, and a couple of hours of drying time followed by several coats of paint--thankfully, we still had part of a gallon of the "Miami Mist" color on hand.

Everything finally prepped meant it was time at last to install the new toilet.  New flange bolts into the flange: check.  New rubber seal and wax gasket: check.  Remove the rag in the sewer pipe: check.  With Beth's help, I got the new toilet in place, gave it a little twist (to seat the wax gasket properly), and secured it to the floor.  Note that I absolutely slathered the new flange bolts with WD-40, as I expect I'll need to move the toilet at least once when I get around to a total bathroom remodel in a couple of years and retile the floor and walls.  Hook up the water, fill, and flush: nice.  No leaks.

The dual-flush on the new toilet uses only 1 gallon of water for the "light" flush (and though it may be a bit grotesque of me to say so, I do typically follow the Southern California dicta of letting yellow mellow to save water, too) and 1.6 for the "heavy" flush.  While some high-efficiency models are prone to clogs and otherwise problematic, this one seems to work like a charm so far.  (We'll see if the dual-flush mechanism on top of the tank confuses anyone the next time we have guests over...)

The old toilet, thoroughly cleaned, ended up on the cub for Habitat for Humanity to pick up, bound for a new home no doubt.  A little disappointing, I must say, not to take drag it out into the woods for a consultation with a shotgun, but, like the new toilet upgrade, a more environmentally-friendly choice.