Friday, 9 July 2010

Week 44

With the weather being so lovely, we've been spending a lot of time at the beach. Some people are right at home in the sea: they run up and jump in with all the energy of David Hasselhoff and they emerge, unruffled, like models in Dolce & Gabbana perfume adverts. Sadly, I am not one of these people.

My approach is less carefree, more careful. On the rare occasions I do venture for a paddle, it's a right pantomime. I tentatively walk to the water's edge and dip a foot in to determine the temperature. It's invariably too chilly for my liking. I slowly inch myself in by degrees. Once the water has reached the tops of my legs, I stop for a moment. I pretend I'm admiring the views but in reality, I'm having second thoughts. I then scoop up some water, splash it over my arms and shudder. After 10 minutes of this rigmarole, I decide that I'd rather not go for a swim and I return to my towel sheepishly.

"The water looked a bit dirty, I'd rather not swallow it," I offer Will by way of explanation.

I'm marginally better in a swimming pool; at least there's no chance of getting stung by a jellyfish or colliding with a boat. And there are nice steps to get you down into the water. Last Friday morning we went to one of two outdoor swimming pools which were built on Montjuic for the 1992 Olympics. Piscina Municipal de Montjuic is open to the public from the end of June until early September and it must have the best views of any swimming pool in the world - you can see sights like the Sagrada Familia, Torre Agbar and the sea, while you're doing your lengths. Kylie fans might also be interested to know that this is where the video for her single, Slow, was filmed.  

A jar of tomato marmalade. It tastes like jam, but also like tomatoes

Something we have noticed about the Catalans is that they see absolutely nothing wrong with rooting through a bin. Everyone, from a grizzled curmudgeon to a dainty churchgoer, will stop and have a rummage now and then. This is partly because they are less fastidious, and partly because it's common practice here to dump anything unwanted but usable in the street, where passers-by can make off with it.

In Britain, the dumper of goods could be arrested for fly-tipping and the receiver of goods for stealing, so we use Freecycle, a network of internet groups which help people give stuff away for free. This is probably for the best, given that dumped goods will get rained on more quickly in Blighty, but I think it would be a good idea for councils to install weatherproof containers where usable things could be left for others to collect. It would save time, money and landfill, and it would re-connect us with the noble art of bin-diving.

I like new things as much as the next man, but people do buy an awful lot of needless crap: a new mobile phone every year, a new TV every three years. The UK throws away a third of all of all its food, uneaten. If people rooted through a bin more often, perhaps they'd start being more realistic about what they need, and what they throw away.
I've been trying to spend more time picking up stuff off the street, and my recent trash safaris have included some beautiful white orchids, which Christina thought were lovely until I revealed that I'd found them in a skip – she clings willfully to her wasteful consumerism, and stands by looking embarrassed when I stop to investigate a pile of 'treasure'.

Today, I happened across a real goldmine: several bottles of priceless vintage wine, there for the taking. I got two, but Christina's hoity-toity attitude prevented her from carrying off any more. Even so, we're both looking forward to enjoying these stunning vintages, which are probably worth at least a billion Euro each.

I'll probably be able to sell these and buy a massive house in Kensington and then do it up and sell it to some Russian oligarch and then buy two more even bigger houses in Mayfair and do them up and sell them to the Sheikh of Brunei and then I can buy BUCKINGHAM PALACE and do that up, cos its in a good location and I can put that on the market for twice what I paid for it so I can buy a MASSIVE GREAT BIG CASTLE ON THE MOON

Friday, 25 June 2010

On Wednesday night, we joined thousands of other people on the beach for El Noche de San Juan, the enormous party Catalonia (along with lots of other places) holds to celebrate the summer solstice. Anyone trying to get some shut-eye on El Noche de San Juan would be advised to try another country; not only is it a huge party – much bigger than New Year’s Eve – it is also the night of fireworks.
I absolutely love the fifth of November. Fireworks and bonfires look and smell brilliant, there’s lots of food and drinking, and it’s the night of the year on which we remember Guy Fawkes, the brave and sensible man who tried to blow up all of the country’s politicians. The fireworks displays I’ve seen in London are jaw-dropping displays of pyrotechnical expertise, but for sheer disregard for personal safety, the Catalans have us beaten hands down.
Your typical Catalan plan for the evening seems to be something along the lines of: start with a few beers, then wander down to the beach, carrying a huge bag of fireworks (while smoking, obviously), lighting them and throwing them at other people, all of whom are also carrying huge bags of fireworks. Arrive at the beach, where thousands of people are now randomly letting off fireworks in every direction. Continue drinking and letting off fireworks until midnight, when it’s time to drunkenly attempt jumping over a bonfire, for ‘good luck’. If you survive this and the ensuing four hours of Bacchanalian pyromania, celebrate by going swimming, drunk, at sunrise.
The best thing about is that it’s a family event. Everyone, from Nan to the toddlers, is armed to the teeth with explosives. Four-year-olds could be seen tossing lit fireworks up into the air, or at each other, while their mothers looked proudly on.
It’s a real pity that in the UK, you can’t throw a firework at someone else’s child for fear of being slapped with some sort of punitive lawsuit for frightening them, or causing them stress, or blowing a couple of their fingers off. This means that British children are growing up soft, while their Catalan contemporaries get a head start in the art of offensive fire. If you live in Britain and you care about your country’s future defence, it is your duty to go out right now and throw a lit firework at a small child. It’s the only way they’ll learn. 

Note the use of chiaroscuro in this picture of a small boy setting his dad on fire

After 10 months of living with Will, I'm a little worried that I'm turning into him. Perhaps it's inevitable that when you spend a lot of time with someone you start to take on their traits, much like dogs who resemble their owners.  
Here are some examples of my increasingly Will-like behaviours:

1. Complaining about the noise from TommyGun Sneakers. Initially, I didn't mind. It's cosmopolitan! I told myself good-naturedly. Now, after almost a year of incessant urban beats being piped into my brain from Monday to Saturday, I've realised it's not cosmopolitan, it's a bloody nuisance. But I haven't gone as far as using retaliation tactics. This week, the man downstairs turned up his music to drown out the music from TommyGun's. In turn, Will turned on our music, turned up the bass and placed a speaker on the floor. As I witnessed this spectacle, it afforded me a glimpse into the future. Today it's a speaker on the floor; in 10 years' time, he'll be furiously cutting down our next-door neighbour's tree because it's hanging over our garden fence in Surbiton.

2. Using the tablecloth to wipe food from my hands. I am ashamed to type this because when I first noticed Will doing it, I was livid.   

3. Picking my nose. 

It's just as well we're moving back to the UK in four weeks. I have friends there. Nice, fragrant female friends who will re-introduce me to The ways of Being a Lady. An evening with three excitable and/or pre-menstrual friends, a Sex and the City boxset and a Natasha Bedingfield CD should do the trick.   

I don't pick my nose actually, it's just Christina who does that

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Week 40

I have sad news: it seems that I am now too old to deal with the consequences of a night out and must resign myself to a lifetime of afternoon naps and BBC antique programmes. Where once a hangover was cured by a bacon sandwich and a can of Coke, now it drags on for days where I'm confined to my bed like a Victorian damsel, swooning as Will wafts smelling salts at me. Or fetches me a bucket.

I have just emerged from a three-day, pastis, absinthe and kebab-fuelled hangover. This looks quite rock 'n roll written down - like I'm Lindsay Lohan - but the reality is quite different. I had one pastis, two absinthes and one kebab*, and have been put out of action for 72 hours as a result. 

On Friday night, we visited two of Barcelona's drinking institutions. The first was Bar Pastis on Carrer de Santa Monica. As the name suggests, this is a watering hole dedicated to pastis, the anise-flavoured liqueur that was introduced to France in the 1930s after absinthe was banned (they thought it made people go mad). Bar Pastis opened in the 1940s with the intention of replicating the bars found in the old port of Marseilles and in Paris' Latin Quarter. It's a cosy affair, with walls and ceilings that are crammed with pictures of all things French like Edith Piaf and the Eiffel Tower. 

Next up was Bar Marsella on Carrer de Sant Pau in El Raval. This absinthe bar has been going since 1820 - absinthe was never banned in Spain - where the likes of Salvador Dali and Ernest Hemingway came to drink and think. Here we got chatting to some British people who were celebrating a 21st birthday party. Or rather, Will got chatting to them. I sat nodding mutely: I couldn't hear a word they were saying because of the noise. Another reason to stay at home with a mug of hot milk.

*Okay, I also had two beers while watching football and red wine with dinner. Sorry mum.  

 The Tower of King Alphabeticus, which Christina knocked over on purpose

Having snapped the neck of my old acoustic guitar in a French campsite, I tried to repair the wounded instrument during our first week here. Unfortunately, the glue I used was too soft. “This is not glue, this is shit,” said the man in the guitar workshop on Carrer del Regomir, which I thought was a little unfair. I might be an idiot, but I wouldn’t try to fix a guitar with a poo. Anyway, when I could afford it I bought myself a cheap classical guitar, and since then I have been trying to learn some pieces by composers from Barcelona.
Modern classical guitars follow a Spanish design: they are all based, broadly speaking, on the designs of a luthier called Antonio de Torres, from Almería. Torres is sometimes called the ‘Stradivarius of the guitar’, despie the fact that Antonio Stradivari did himself make guitars, but you get the idea. Only a handful of Torres guitars remain, but his best work spent most of its life in Barcelona. In 1869, a teenage boy named Francisco Tárrega travelled the 600 miles from Barcelona to Seville to buy a guitar from Torres, who produced a modestly-priced model for him to try. When Francisco began to play, however, Torres was so impressed that he gave the 17-year-old guitarist his own instrument, a masterpiece which he made for himself a few years earlier and which, if you could really calculate such a thing, was probably the most valuable guitar in the world. Francisco Tárrega did not disappoint his benefactor, and became one of the most celebrated and influential Spanish composers.
In fact, though you may never have heard of Francisco Tárrega, I can guarantee you have heard a little bit of his work. In 1993, two executives from the mobile phone company Nokia were going through famous pieces of classical music to chop up into ringtones, and they heard a phrase in Tárrega’s solo guitar piece Gran Vals that suited their purpose. Bars 13-16 of this beautiful little waltz, composed in 1902, became the Nokia Tune: “duh-duh-doo-dah, duh-duh-doo-dah, duh-duh-doo-dah-DEEE!”
If Franciso Tárrega was alive today and earned a cent each time his phrase was played, he would make 200 Euros a second, or 18 million a day. Although, of course, he wouldn’t, because Nokia have trademarked the hell out of that thing and any long-dead composer who tries to get shirty with them is going to find himself in a world of legal pain.

Bernard Crabbins, hand explorer

Weeks 38-39

We apologise, again, for not updating the blog. We have dropped the ball. Then we have picked the ball up and then dropped it again, repeatedly, until the ball became bruised and traumatised. The ball is now in care, where it will stay until it stops taking drugs and acting all mental.

Not only have we not EDIT updated our blog not often enough, but there have been compliiants that our writing is become sloppy, too. What started as a noble endaevour has been repeatedly placed on the EDIT backburner because of work and stuff TINA CAN YOU SORT THIS BIT OUT and stuff.

Normal service will be resumed probably

Friday, 4 June 2010

Week 37

Those of you who read the blog often will know that there’s a trainer shop downstairs from us that plays hip-hop, reggae and R&B, loudly, from 11am until 9pm. Here’s one they’ve been playing recently. I can write the lyrics out in full, because the same words are repeated all the way through:

Something about you girl that turn me on
Oh, something about you girl that turn me on
Yeah yeah yeah yeah, turn me on
You turn me o-o-o-o-n, o-o-o-o-n

I'd say they play this five or six times a day on average. The whole song is sung through an auto-tune (the computerised voice effect that you hear on most modern R&B). Now, I won’t deny that these lyrics have a certain subtle poetry, but what this bloke is essentially singing is:

I’ve got an erection
I find you attractive, so I’ve got an erection
Yeah yeah yeah, I don’t fully understand the process involved
But I’ve definitely got an erection

Initially, I chalked this up as another victory for the geniuses who make modern R&B. Any day now, I thought, they are going to discover their own bottoms, and then they’ll have another bodily function to sing about. But then I realised that this song is actually very clever. More than any other, it distills the central message of all popular music, which is: let’s have sex.

Take any pop song from the last fifty years, and think about what it means. Are You Lonesome Tonight – if so, I have some suggestions; I Wanna Hold Your Hand – as a prelude to taking off your clothes; Ain’t No Sunshine – when she’s gone, which makes me sad on account of there not being any sex involved; Don’t Stand So Close To Me – or I’ll try to have sex with you; Do They Know It’s Christmas – probably not as they’re mostly Muslims but hey, I gave to charity… reward me with sex?

The list is endless. In the light of what I have learned from Tommy Guns Sneakers, even Bob the Builder’s Can We Fix It?  becomes a saucy ballad intended to lull Wendy the Builder into a receptive state. By isolating the central theme of all pop music so effectively, Somethin About You Girl That Turn Me On holds up a devastating critical mirror to everything on the radio. What is the point of all this bland, genital-gazing dross, it asks? What kind of species would turn its back on complex aesthetic systems like European and Indian classical music, both of which took centuries to produce, to listen to the dull uh-uh-uh of a copulating moron?

On the other hand, maybe it's always been this way. Was Mozart's Oboe Concerto in C Major composed purely to lull a buxom fräulein into loosening her bodice? I must go down to Tommy Guns Sneakers at once, and discuss it with them. 

 At the end of the 18th century, French scientists calculated the distance from the castle on top of Montjuic to Dunkirk, as part of an effort to establish the distance between the North pole and the equator (the metre would then be calculated as one ten-millionth of this distance). This line, known as the Paris Meridian, was a contender for the status of Prime Meridian – a title which eventually went to the Greenwich Meridian, presumably once it was realised that if the French had their way, the basis for all time standards around the world would be not Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) but Paris Mean Time (PMT).

 (is currently involved in some sort of ludicrous dance craze, and could not be reached for comment)

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Weeks 33-35 (normal service to resume with another post tomorrow!)

(written Week 34)
Last Sunday, I said goodbye to Will for a few days when he drove to Marseilles for a work assignment. As much as I like my own company, I knew I was ready for his return when I actually enjoyed a 20-minute phone conversation with an employee from a mobile phone company.

Mobile phone lady: How are you today, Christina?
Me: Fine thanks. How are you?
Mobile phone lady: Good, thank you. How's your day going?
Me: Er ... yes, very well thanks. 

Will was due back on Thursday night but alas, I received a text from him that evening saying that he couldn't withdraw any money from his bank, meaning he was unable to pay for petrol and road tolls. Oh dear. After various frantic phone calls and money transfers which proved fruitless, it became clear that Will would be spending the night in his car.

The following day, I embarked on a mercy mission to Marseilles to secure his safe return with my trusty friend, Visa. This involved a 9-hour bus journey. It was all a bit of a rush and I just about had time to buy myself a bottle of water and a Twix before boarding.

Right, I said to myself as I settled into my seat. This journey is going to last nine hours and you only have a Twix to keep you going. Consume with caution!

I snaffled the entire thing before we had left Barcelona.

With the Twix taken care of, I spent the rest of the journey trying and failing to read my book, listening to the driver's choice of music - Haddaway, The Corrs, Spanish-sounding stuff - and looking at vineyards and the cities of Perpignan and Montpellier.

We finally rolled into Marseilles at 10pm on Friday night where I was greeted by a tired and hungry Will. I treated us to a McDonalds in the bus station, then we got in the car and drove straight back to Barcelona again. So just to clarify, I travelled 1000km in 18 hours to rescue my boyfriend from another night of sleeping in his car. I intend to use this as my Get Out of Jail Free card for some time to come.

The cleaning ladies make their presence known at a rally for workers' rights

(written yesterday)
        Imagine the look on a plumber’s face if he finished a job for you and you said “right, I’m happy with that, so send me your invoice and I’ll look into paying you around 45 days after I receive it. Unless I’m busy, or I make up some rule that says you have to wait longer.” You would, I think, end up with no water, and quite possibly a spanner where it wasn’t welcome.
                This, however, is exactly how the Finance People from publishing companies talk to freelancers: despite working for large organisations with high turnover, they’ll often hold off paying until they feel like it. I landed in Marseille the other week with three different companies owing me money, but none of them had paid on time. My meagre cash flow had dried up, and I had no money to buy petrol for the drive back to Barcelona. I also have no credit card. I ended up sleeping in my car twice and waiting under a flyover for 30 hours until Christina arrived with a working bank-card. She had to take the bus, a nine-hour journey.
               I know of one freelancer who tearfully phoned a company for whom she’d done a month’s work, begging to be paid (I believe she had invoiced some 6 weeks earlier) so that she could make her mortgage payment. I also happen to know that the finance director of that particular company had a rule that freelancers should not be paid if it meant the company going into the red at the end of the month, thereby saving the company the interest they’d have to pay if they went overdrawn. He probably earned five times what she did, and he put her home at risk to save a few quid. This is something a freelancer learns: finance people aren’t there to make sure you’re paid – they make sure you aren’t paid, or at least not until it’s convenient for them.
         What do finance people even do? I can see the need for an accountant, but what is the point of someone who takes six weeks to press a key to make a BACS payment? Wouldn’t a pigeon be more effective?
         Anyway, that’s why we haven’t posted in ages – I’ve gone insane with rage. I spent the last three weeks jumping up and down on the spot, my face a mask of beetroot-red apoplexy, screaming obscenities and punching myself in the nuts. It helps me to relax.

EDIT: I should just point out that it's only finance people I have a beef with. Editors and features editors are nice, hard-working people who are never any bother, and if it was up to the people who actually create the magazines, I'm sure they'd pay me bang on time. Please continue to commission me. Thanks. I love you.
Molasses and sugar in massive quantities. I want to get in there and muck about.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Week 32

 A few years ago I lived on a small alley off Shepherd’s Bush Road. There was a park nearby, which enjoyed a enviable location between a large police station and an extremely cheap off-license. This park was a must-visit destination for Gentlemen of Leisure who, having checked out of their accommodation at the police station, would head straight for Best Wine and then the park, the nearest spot where one could hold the sort of impromptu liquid-based picnic that these chaps seem to enjoy so much. While the park was obviously the place to be for al fresco drinking and goading one’s aggressive dog, it was lamentably under-equipped where bathroom facilities were concerned. Luckily our front door, situated as it was on a nearby alley with plenty of cover, provided a ready solution to their straining bladders. My flatmate and I used to fantasise (usually after picking up some urine-stained post) about running the leads from a car battery through the letterbox, electrifying any stream that touched the door, but we never went through with it; neither of us wanted to have to step over a dead tramp first thing in the morning.
    Here in Barcelona, we also live on a small alley, and again we are regularly visited by people who mistake our front door for a servicio. Everywhere in the winding streets of the gotico you’ll see the tell-tale streams, usually emitting from some shaded corner. Again, it’s an area that invites such activity: there are lots of nice bars, and plenty of cover for someone who is just at the right level – drunk enough to hose down a wall, but not so drunk that they’re not shy about someone seeing their little fireman.
          I’m not going to pretend that I’ve never done it myself and luckily we’re on the second floor, so it only bothers us when we’re going in and out of the building. However, the stench in the little porch where the post-boxes are was getting a bit much last week, so I went down to the bottom of the stairwell and began sweeping and mopping. A full two hours later, I had swept and mopped my way right up to our door, and the whole stairwell was clean as a whistle.
    Then, just ten minutes after I’d finished, Christina beckoned me to the front door. The old lady from across the hall was re-mopping the stairs! She cannot have been unhappy with the quality of my work – you could have eaten your dinner off those steps – so I can only assume that my neighbour was trying to mop up some of the credit for my labour. She thought she’d let some of the others in the building see her mopping, and they’d assume it was her that had done the lot! Well, I’m not having it. I want you all to know: it was me who did the stairs, not that bucket-come-lately from Flat 2.

 A modernist vase in the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya

You know those nights out where you spend a bit too much money and although it feels like someone is standing on your head for the entire following day, it was cash well spent? Well, Tuesday was not one of those nights. We did, however, manage to spend 100 Euros without leaving the building.    

It was 11.30pm and we'd decided to head out to a bar with my sister who was visiting. We closed the door to the flat and instantly realised that one set of keys was in the lock on the other side meaning that we couldn't get back in with the keys we did have. Thus ensued the following:

1. Will set about trying to lever the door off with a makeshift crowbar (a broken stair railing)/throwing himself at the door in a bid to break it down/trying to pick out the pesky key with a hairpin;

2. me wondering whether I was to spend another night in the youth hostel around the corner (see week 20) and angrily calculating how much this latest fiasco was likely to cost;

3. my sister feeling quite awkward.

After an hour we conceded that a locksmith would have to be called. Will did very well with his Spanish over the phone and a cerrajero was with us within half an hour. He prised the door open with a screwdriver and we parted with 100 Euros.

By this time it was almost 2am. We had a cup of tea and went to bed. But hey, at least we didn't have hangovers the next morning. We might have spent a lot of money, but we definitely had no hangovers and no fun. Yeah!   

I don't know what to make of this