Friday, 18 December 2009

Week 12

It’s Friday night and I’m waiting outside a bar in the Sant Pere area of Barcelona, nervously picking at my nail varnish. A man is pacing up and down on the pavement beside me. He looks like he’s waiting for someone, I tell myself. I eventually muster the courage to approach him.

Me: “Hola. Eres Jordi?”

Him: “Si. Christina?”

   It’s okay, I’m not having an affair; Will is by my side and Jordi is the organiser of the Barcelona English/Spanish Language Exchange Group, which Will and I are attending for the first time. The idea is that you go to a bar and chat to people you don’t know in an effort to improve your Spanish or English. Will and I deliberately sit at opposite ends of the table so that we don’t end up discussing utility bills, and I spend most of the evening talking to two lovely ladies from Barcelona.
   Topics of conversation include having a good moan about our respective city’s transport systems. It’s reassuring to find that wherever you’re from in the world, tutting about delayed trains, lack of information and exorbitant ticket prices can keep a conversation going for ages. Personally, I don’t know what they’ve got to complain about. In Barcelona it costs 70p for a single journey, anywhere on the network. 70p! That’s 1950s London prices! And you’re allowed to drink on the trains here; one station, Glories (it’s on the red line), even has a bar next to the ticket machines.
   I also chat to a sweet and eccentric Catalan man who tells me he loves 1970s British TV sitcoms like George & Mildred. His English accent is so good that I become suspicious he’s an undercover, er … English person. Undercover for what, exactly, I don’t know. But I’m a Londoner and it’s my duty to be deeply cynical; that’s what years of travelling on the London Underground does for you. 

Our Christmas tree, which I (Will) found in a bin. Observe how it is in 
danger of being crushed by a falling Christmas card 

The postal colour in Spain, as in France, is yellow. I enjoy the sight of a postman (or postwoman) anywhere I go, and the posties of Barcelona are no exception. They are often to be seen taking the tube with their trolleys full of post, but the area around our flat is particularly good ground for spying a postie or two, because we’re within a few minutes’ walk of the central post office on Via Laietana, the city’s main conurbation of carteros. From my observations, Barcelona’s female posties may not be as pulchritudinous as the street-sweepers (see my post for Week 2 for details), but they are punctual and well turned-out.
     I feel a duty to continue sending post, despite the fact that it is obviously stupid and outdated and irrelevant, because when society collapses and the internet explodes and we’re all clubbing each other to death with our own femurs, we may need them. Possibly. Although they may be on strike.
    Anyway, el correo is not the first species to arouse my interest of a morning. Many of the old buildings here (including the one we live in) have never been fitted for gas, central heating not being common. Instead, people use bottled butane, which is delivered by men with hand-trolleys. The butano-men make their rounds between 8 and 10 am, walking around the streets and shouting “butano!”. If you need a bottle, you shout down to them and they bring it up to your flat; one bottle will last a flat like ours two months, and I think they cost 11 Euro. The best thing about the butano-men is that each one has a different, distinctive way of shouting butano!, just as birds or squirrels or monkeys might use a distinctive cry to establish their identities. Our spare bottle ran out this week, so I am currently evaluating the cries of the butano-men who pass our flat in the mornings (there are four), and on Monday I will shout Sí! Sí! Butano, aqui! to the one I deem best. It’s a bit like the singing contests on TV at home, only it’s not a horrendous waste of everyone’s time and it won’t poison music for ever.

The Butano! Network Chart:
1. But-tan-noey! – Unidentified Butano Man A
2. Butaerno! – Unidentified Butano Man B
3. Peutahno! – Another Unidentified Butano Man
4. Beu-tar-noy! – Unidentified Butano Man With a Limp

There is a special pasta shape eaten here at Christmas, and large, illuminated pasta shells have been placed around the city to remind people which shape to buy

Friday, 11 December 2009

Week 11

If you come to visit Barcelona, your first concern will be to sort out the essentials of modern travel – a place to stay, a fistful of the funny foreign ‘money’ they use over here, and possibly some sort of amusing hat. Those sorted, you’ll probably want to try some local cuisine and have a drink or two before enjoying some drugs and, if you’re not too tired, the services of a prostitute.
   ‘Volem un barri digne’ is a phrase that can help you find these last two; in certain parts of town, the residents have taken to putting up flags bearing this phrase on their balconies. It means ‘we want a decent neighbourhood’, and it is intended to draw attention to the levels of drug dealing, prostitution and delinquency outside people’s homes. In the district of el Raval, where the flags first appeared, prostitutes and seedy bars have always been part of the landscape, but the locals say that huge increases in tourism and immigration have led to the development of a new underworld, one they find unfamiliar and threatening.
   You’ll also see home-made flags. Over by the Plaça de George Orwell, there’s a banner that goes up on Friday and Saturday nights imploring people (in English) to stop buying and selling drugs. I can see what he’s trying to do, but this banner merely confirms to the prospective drug-buyer that the shifty-looking individuals hanging around underneath it are in fact drug dealers. The people in this flat need to do some market research, to make sure they’re not providing free advertising.
   Speaking of terrible addictions, I have developed a mania for chocolate beverages. Very fine, thick, chilli-spiced cocoa is available from the various granjas, or milk bars. Most food shops sell three or four different brands of chocolate milk and chocolatey horchata. The churrerias sell churros y chocolata, deep-fried sugary dough strips that are covered in sugar and served with a cup of very thick hot chocolate, for dipping. For breakfast, only an all-brown cereal can satisfy me now, and I pace the room each morning like an expectant father, waiting for my Choco Krispies to turn the milk brown enough to slake my chocolatey thirst. It is only a matter of time before I am found roaming the streets, a brown moustache of shame upon my lips, belching cocoa at passers-by and roaring with choco-madness. Someone should put up a flag.

José, Ivan and Maria wanted the druggies out, but Gary wasn't too bothered.


Barcelona offers plenty in the way of retail therapy, thus keeping Barcelonians (Barcelonites? Barceloners?) looking stylish, from the jumper-clad dogs to the Penelope Cruz-alike women. Portal D’Angel is the city’s answer to London’s Oxford Street; head here if you don’t mind shuffling along in a big, noisy queue of dazed shoppers before hauling yourself into the safe embrace of H&M. Passeig de Gracia is a grand thoroughfare which runs north from Placa de Catalunya up to the smart neighbourhood of Graciá. This is where the designer shops are, but only 10 people in the whole world can actually afford to buy anything here. The Gothic Quarter is a mix of shops selling those trousers with pavement-grazing crotches that are favoured by many of Barcelona’s ladies, and beautiful vintage and antique shops where everything is so gorgeous that you’re absolutely terrified of touching anything. And El Born’s tiny streets are home to many independent, local designers whose shops are straight out of a fairytale.

But this all pales in comparison to the fact that Barcelona still has a C&A! Ten years ago, this budget retail mecca disappeared from Britain’s high streets to make way for the likes of Primark and its stampedes for 50p knickers. As a teenager, I loved C&A. I liked nothing more than spending a Saturday afternoon at the Ilford Exchange, trawling the Clockhouse section for something to wear to the school disco, such as purple Lycra bellbottoms which I sadly no longer have.

And the TV adverts! With the people skiing in the C&A ski wear! I had never even been skiing but those adverts with the jaunty music – which I’m sure was the Ski Sunday theme tune but internet research to verify this has proved fruitless - over images of happy people capering about in powdery white snow, made me want to tear myself away from the TV screen, go and buy a bright pink ski jacket and demand that mum and dad take me somewhere cold and snowy.

Christina's wardrobe is getting out of control.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Week 10

Apologies for my absence last week, but I returned home to attend my eighth wedding of the year. Well, not my wedding - it was that of my lovely friends Sam and Jon - but it’s the eighth time in 365 days that I’ve danced to Build Me Up Buttercup at a wedding reception. A message to The Foundations, the group responsible for this song: I don’t know why the buttercup builds you up, and quite frankly I don’t care, so stop whining.

After a couple of hours on a very busy and very orange easyJet flight, I was back on English soil. And how things have changed since Will and I departed in the Vauxhall Astra at the crack of dawn on 16 September. Mum and dad now have an even bigger flat-screen TV, a fruit war is being waged between two shops by Woodford tube station, Oxford Circus has a new pedestrian crossing and to top it all, the Circle Line isn’t even going to be a circle anymore when it gets a new branch that terminates at Hammersmith. It was lovely being home though, and I especially enjoyed not having to rehearse what I was going to say every time I went into a shop.

Since returning to Barcelona, my sleep has been disturbed by late-night ramblings from Will. This is not a new phenomenon; when he lived in Penge, he bolted up in the middle of the night, convinced there was a spider in the bed. Last night, just as I was drifting off to sleep, he leapt up and darted into the kitchen which is next to our bed. Apparently, the fridge was humming so he went to sort it out, but I was none the wiser which is one of the few benefits to being a bit deaf. On his return, he said, “remind me tomorrow to move the fridge into the spare room so the noise doesn’t bother me.”
"Mmm ... yes, goodnight," I replied. What I was really thinking, was, are you mental? A fridge in the spare room? What next? A stereo in the bathroom? This is not a Travelodge! 


Lying in the dark, I listen as the humming of the fridge gets louder and louder, developing into a whine, then a buzz.



Are you awake?

“Sfghesh. Hhnhnhn?”

Christina, I think I might move the fridge into the spare room.


I stumble, zombie-like, into the kitchen and give the fridge the sort of meaty, open-handed slap a Sicilian might give to a misbehaving donkey. The buzzing noise cuts out. I have about ten minutes to get soundly asleep, before the hum works its way back up to full volume. Christina has started snoring.

I envy Christina; she is just deaf enough that she can sleep through any amount of nocturnal noise, but not so deaf that it presents her with any problems during the day. I, on the other hand, can hear a mouse clearing its throat in a hurricane, so I get to stay awake all night listening to the fridge, and the people urinating in the street outside, and the quiet metallic farting of the boiler. Best of all, I get woken up a couple of times a night by a strange, demonic susurration on the other side of the bed. It’s a specialised sort of snore that Christina has developed, which combines breathing in with a sort of backwards whispering and smacking of the lips. It is genuinely terrifying. It sounds like she’s possessed. More than once I have awoken, confused and afraid, and thought to myself, run for the cathedral. There is Holy Water there, and a priest who may cast out the… oh, it’s just Christina’s Linda Blair impression.

Anyway, that’s my excuse for not getting up until half nine on a weekday.  

 Spongebob, aloft

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Week 9


In the square in front of the cathedral, the Christmas market has arrived. The Catalans are very keen on making small nativity scenes for their homes, and most of the stalls in the market sell little figures – the shepherds, Mary and Joseph, the wise men, baby Jesus and, of course, a man with his pants around his ankles and a warm smile on his face, cranking out a nice big poo onto the ground.
         This little chap is the caganer (in Catalan, or cagador in Spanish), meaning ‘the crapper’, and he has been a feature of the Pessebre, the Catalan nativity scene, for hundreds of years. Generations of children have looked at the nativity scene in each other’s homes and exclaimed “Look! There he is! The shitting man! Ha ha ha!” And their grandparents have smiled and given them sweets for being so clever.
       But the caganer is not the only wonderful Catalan tradition you can buy at the market. Many English people burn a large log, the Yule log, at Christmas time, and over here, too, they have a special log. The tió de Nadal (Christmas log) is hollowed, given legs and a smiling face and wrapped up a nice warm blanket. They then ‘feed’ this little chap every night from the 8th of December until Christmas Day, when he earns his more popular name: caga tió, the shitting log. In what must be one of the most beautiful Yuletide traditions of anywhere in the world, the log is sung to, threatened with fire and beaten with sticks until he shits out the delicious treats that have been hidden inside his hollow body – nuts, sweets and torróns, bars of Christmas nougat. When caga tió has nothing left to give, he craps out a salted herring.
        Apparently a massive caga tió is being constructed directly in front of the cathedral, and I literally cannot wait to join the crowds singing and beating him with sticks this year. It is heartwarming indeed to know that while endless incitements to go shopping and appalling music may have robbed Christmas of much of its magic, the simple joy of a nice big turd remains free to all*.

*Well, most of us – let’s not forget the faecally impacted this Advent, and pray that Baby Jesus brings them a movement, or at least a gifted bottom-doctor.  

There he is! And he's crapping like a champion!

The defecating log of Christmas

Friday, 20 November 2009

Week 8


After Will threatening to do away with me if I didn’t stop leaving dirty teaspoons in the sink, I’m sad to report there has been yet more cleaning-related conflict this week. On Sunday, we had a fight because I suggested (or ‘ordered’ as he puts it) that Will clean the kitchen while I took care of the other rooms; he was angry that I was being bossy, I was angry that he was angry and it resulted in an hour of door-slamming, furious mopping and heavy-hearted scrubbing from both parties. Yes, we argue about the really important stuff.
I eventually flounced out of the flat (more door-slamming) to go for a walk along the beach. Because if you’ve got a beach on your doorstep, that’s where you go when you’re in need of a think, isn’t it? Just ask anyone in Home & Away.
I’d just found a spot to have a nice sit-down and a meaningful gaze out to sea, when a man came into my line of vision. He was sitting a few metres in front of me, reading a paper and, apart from a shirt, he wasn’t wearing anything else. What is it with this incessant flesh-baring? I know it’s a beach but it’s not summer anymore, you’re not going to get a tan, you’ve gone to the effort of putting on a shirt, just put on a pair of trousers love, and stop terrifying the women and children!
I quickly moved on, but it wasn’t time to go home just yet. When you’re in a strop you want to string it out for as long as possible so I wandered around for a while longer, hungry as I hadn’t eaten since breakfast but adamant that I was far too furious to eat. I sat on the steps of Barcelona Cathedral, just around the corner from our flat, a bit like a child who pretends to have run away from home but who is actually hiding in an upstairs wardrobe. Eventually I returned, half-expecting the living room to be filled with heart-shaped helium balloons, roses and a string quartet. It wasn’t, but the kitchen did look really, really clean. Thanks Will.

A transparent cross-sectional model of Las Ramblas. I call him 'Lampy'.


Casa Batlló is a large house on the Passeig de Gracia, a long, wide street that runs north from the Plaça de Catalunya to the Avinguda Diagonal. It is instantly recognisable, because the windows are irregular, swooping and multi-coloured, flanked by bone-like struts and topped by a humped, scaly roof that looks like a dragon’s back. The inside of the house is an airy, spacious grotto of cool blue walls, swirling ceilings and abstract submarine forms. It’s a big place, but there are lots of nooks and crannies and clever cupboards, so it’s cosy, too. It is probably the nicest house I have ever been into, from a design point of view. The only thing ruining Casa Batlló, when we went there last Saturday, was me.
   “This must have been such an amazing place to live,” I droned, mooching from room to room with my audio guide stuck to my face like a big mobile phone. As the home of one of the city’s richest merchants, Casa Batlló was where the cream of Barcelona society came for parties and receptions, my audio guide told me. Wow! That must make me the cream of Barcelona society, because I was free to wander about the place as much as I liked, having paid my €16.50 at the door. I stopped to take a picture of the cosy, shell-like nook designed for couples who wanted to sit by the fire. Luckily for me, it is now roped off, and no couples will ever be allowed to sit there again, so I could get a proper photo. I shuffled into a small room which I think might have been a bedroom for one of Señor Battló’s ten children, but is now a gift shop, and then I wandered upstairs to take some more photos.
         Back in the good old days, Señor Batlló would probably have rolled up his sleeves and kicked this bimbling, camera-toting intruder out onto the Passeig de Gracia, but now any such behaviour would be recorded by the security cameras that adorn every wall in his old house, and I’d be able to sue him. The cameras are a feature Gaudí probably never thought about, along with the fire exit signs and the smoke alarms. That house was designed as a beautiful home for a big family and their friends, but now it’s full of berks like me. On the other hand, I got some cracking pics in there! Nice one!

A window. I call him 'Window-y'

Friday, 13 November 2009

Week 7

I have sad news: it looks as if I will have to kill Christina. I know, I know, she’s a nice girl, but once I explain, you’ll agree. You see, it has come to my attention that Christina is one of The Enemy. That’s right – Christina is one of those people who keeps all the unwashed dishes in the sink.

You know the people I mean: people who will put all the plates from lunch at the bottom of the sink, then put the previous evening’s curry pan on top, then run the cold tap on the whole mess for a bit, as if that’s going to help. You want to shout at them: stop, you fool! Those plates only had a bit of bread on them, and now you’re covering them with curry grease and bits of rice!  But they won’t listen, because they are The Enemy, and they want you to suffer. They want you to have to reach into a saucepan full of cold, eggy-smelling water in order to retrieve a teaspoon, which had only had a single tear of milky tea running down its surface, but was consigned to the manky egg-pan as part of some insane plan by The Enemy, a plan which has resulted in the teaspoon becoming dirtier than ever before! 

Worst of all, you both know that you’re going to have to remove all of this stuff from the sink in order to start doing the washing up, but The Enemy cares not a jot. All The Enemy cares about is short-term appearances: that the plates aren’t on a work surface. Why? Is the Work Surface Inspector going to fine me for a Cluttering Offence? The ineffective splash-baptism the plates receive is intended to make it look like the washing-up process is being taken care of, but all that’s happened is that the least dirty plates and utensils have been covered in the skanky stuff from the cooking pans.

In her defence, Christina tells me that she’s only adopted this practice because our kitchen is the size of one of Ronnie Corbett’s shoes. This is true. Also, she is a fine woman in every other respect, so perhaps I won’t actually kill her. Some sort of spring-loaded sink trap should do the trick.

Or I could just do the washing up.

This is going to be my lair once I'm evil

The trouble with working from home is that it’s easy to become lazy about your personal presentation. When I got up this morning I put on my running clothes and so I didn’t bother having a shower or doing my hair and make-up. It is now almost two in the afternoon, I still haven’t been for a run and I look like a sad ‘before’ picture in a magazine makeover. Will, too, is unwashed, unshaven and has just removed his glasses because his face is so greasy that they were sliding off his nose.

Happily, this isn’t always the case and we do make an effort when we venture outside. On Wednesday we visited Montserrat, a mountain with a monastery which is about 30 miles north-west of Barcelona. There are a few ways of getting up to the monastery - by foot, car, train or funicular. We decided on the Aeri de Montserrat, which transports you 544m upwards in a bright yellow cable car that dangles precariously over the river and valley below.

Reading the Wikipedia article now, I see that there are many fascinating things we could have done on our trip: we could have seen the world’s oldest printing press, works by Picasso and Dali or the Virgin of Montserrat. We didn’t see any of that but we did see a Spanish Ibex on our way back down from the mountain’s summit. This might sound like the name of a bank but it is, in fact, a wild mountain goat with huge horns. I have written that with an air of authority but at the time, I didn’t have a bloody clue and said to Will: “er, is that a ram?” Will replied, “no, it’s an Ibex. It’s a goat with massive horns!” We were both uneasy. Goats aren’t usually scary animals but you try remembering that when a be-horned beast is staring intently at you. We stood there gulping for a few minutes before deciding that the best thing to do would be to walk quickly and confidently past the animal. As we scuttled past, the goat gave a frightened little bleat and ran off, clearly more scared of us than we were of him. 

The monastery from above, some 4,500ft from the plain below. A place of goats. 

Friday, 6 November 2009

Week 6

You don’t see elderly people out and about that much in Britain unless you spend a lot of time on buses, in churches or shopping at Bodgers of Ilford. But old people are everywhere in Barcelona and in other parts of Spain as I discovered last week when I visited Rioja, in the north of the country. Its capital, Logroño, was swarming with good-time grannies and granddads out on the town quaffing wine and eating tapas with their children and grandchildren. And Barcelona’s streets and squares are home to benches-full of old folk watching the world go by through wise eyes and waving their sticks furiously as they make a point about something or other.

But it’s Barceloneta beach where they feel most at home: so at home, in fact, that they walk around practically starkers. On Wednesday morning, Will and I went for a run along the beach and we must have seen 20 old men wandering around in the tiniest swimming trunks imaginable: some of them were out for a swim, others were jogging or doing lunges, but most of them were just hanging out at the outdoor cafes, being very noisy, playing card games and drinking beer. This was at 9 o’clock in the morning. Will and I have just returned to the beach to try and photograph these scantily-clad octogenarians but sadly we were too late for them – they were probably on lunch or having a siesta – so you’ll have to make do with this fully-clothed old man’s club. The old ladies, too, are a source of inspiration and are snazzy dressers as demonstrated by this golden-shoed stylista (pictured).

It doesn’t feel very Christmassy here yet. It’s 6 November and I bet that back home in London, every shop you walk into has Jingle Bells blaring out at a hundred decibels and that shop workers are being forced to wear Santa hats against their will. I have seen none of this yet, but in a nod to all things festive, I have this week exchanged emails with a PR person named Natividad (Nativity) and met a man called Jesus.  

Those trainers are to die for!!!

    The first rule of Old Man Club is: you have to be an old man.
(Warning: the last word of this entry is a strong swearword.)

Last Saturday morning in the Plaça Carles Pi I Sunyer, the members of a local brass band were warming their instruments up in the fresh autumn air. Shoppers from the Portal del Angel stopped to look as they trilled up and down their scales. Some old ladies erupted into giggles when a tuba parped flatulently in their direction, the tuba-player waggling his eyebrows suggestively.
     But behind the band, a dull, aggressive music emanated from the Carrer dels Capellans. It was coming from Tommy Gun Sneakers, where the men in the shop had turned up their stereo to cut over the musicians. They weren’t happy that, for once, there was a sound louder than their stereo to be heard in the square. I don’t know what song it was; some American hip-hop, I think. To be honest, it sounded like a ringtone. The guys in the shop were doing their best to drown out the jolly, home-made music of the band, and draw attention to their display of Nike trainers. They were also standing in the street, jeering and gesticulating at the musicians.
    In the 1950s and 60s, while the rest of the world was undergoing a musical revolution, Spain remained under strict muscial censorship – even Cliff Richard was considered too risqué for Franco’s far-right regime. Back then, music-for-fun had to shut up in favour of music-for-your-own-good. Now, music-for-fun is blared over by music-for-money.
   After about fifteen minutes of my ruminating on the evils of American cultural imperialism and the like, I saw a young woman lean into the doorway of Tommy Gun Sneakers.

        “Shhh! Pajeros!” (“Shut it, wankers!”), she shouts.

And they did. So you can ruminate all you like, but if you want a pajero to shut up, you tell him.

    Incidentally, the fact that pajero is Spanish for ‘wanker’ is the reason that you’ll find it difficult to buy a Mitsubishi Pajero in the Spanish-speaking world. I love it when companies do that. Apparently the Honda Jazz was originally named the Honda Fitta, until it was discovered that, across Scandinavia, fitta is a popular slang word. It means ‘cunt’. 

Fans of last week's entry on specific shops will enjoy this, the globe shop.

There are drinking fountains all over Barcelona. You can drink from them, or just take a picture.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Week 5

“Do not worry about crime”, said our landlord, smiling, “there are murders in Barcelona, but normally they are… how is it… crimes of passion?”

We nodded.

“A man loves a woman,” he explained, “so he kills her. Or sometimes, a Morrocan will get you. Look out for the Morrocans.”

It was sage advice, but lovers and Morrocans aren’t the only criminals in Barcelona. There are also some complete idiots trying to get in on the act, as you’ll find out from Christina’s blog entry (below).

The shops in Barcelona are a similarly diverse bunch. Billions (yes) of people come here to go shopping, and there are almost no supermarkets, so the independent shops seem to do alright. There are mask shops, puppet shops, candle shops (chandlers?), ham shops; you name it, they've got a shop. There's a coat hanger shop. There are also quite a few independent toy shops, and a magic shop or two (which sell equipment for creating illusions, rather than magic itself, although I suspect if you knew the secret code, the old man in the magic shop in El Born would give you the power of invisibility, or the power to speak to animals in their own languages.)

The thing about going into a charming old toy shop is that it makes you realise you’re an adult. As an adult, you look at a charming old wooden toy car and you think, wow, that is so special. What a timeless, precious image of the innocence of youth. Whereas any normal child would look at it and think, that is a shit car.

There is also a shop around the corner called Happy Pills. It’s a pick ‘n’ mix shop done up to look like a pharmacy, and you put your sweets in a pill bottle before putting a prescription-ish label on it that says something like ‘Against Mondays’ or ‘Against the Unbearable Lightness of Being’. I would like to show you a picture, but I scoffed all the sweets I bought before my camera could turn on. Then I ate the bottle. This is pretty sweet, though:

An eight foot-high church organ, made entirely from chocolate, at the Museu de la Xocolata. 

Last Saturday, Will and I were on our way home from a stressful afternoon looking at a cocoa-based sculpture of Homer Simpson at the Chocolate Museum, when we were the victims of a shambolic attempted robbery. As we walked through the tiny cobbled streets of the Gothic Quarter, a man stopped and us and asked which street we were on. The first problem with this was that we were all standing under the street sign and secondly, he had a map so it wasn’t really too difficult to work out. But we gave him the benefit of the doubt and asked him where he was trying to get to. He told us the Sagrada Familia - which we were nowhere near – then asked where we were from, offered a handshake to Will and told us he was Portugese. Again, a bit suspicious considering his very un-Portugese fair hair, pale skin and milky blue eyes.    

Enter crook number two, a staggering, crumpled-shirted man masquerading as a police officer. At least I think that’s what he was supposed to be: our landlord had warned us about this kind of trick where pickpockets pretend to be law enforcers by showing some ID, asking tourists to produce documents which they then scarper with along with their money. I’d imagined such a criminal might hire a fancy dress police costume, or at least wear a shirt. But this guy was no Tosh from The Bill, he wasn’t even as good as Horatio from CSI Miami.

"We've been watching this guy," was his opening line, delivered with the kind of woodness that Keanu Reeves would be ashamed of. He then briefly wafted his ‘ID’ card at us which looked a lot like a library card or his Blockbuster video membership.

You’re probably wondering why we were still standing there, but this all happened more quickly than it looks written down. The ‘police officer’ then asked the first man to produce his passport - actually, scrap that, the first man had already got his passport out before he was even asked, so it was obviously a well-rehearsed routine. At this point, the charade became too much, so like a disgruntled audience, Will and I hurried off with all our belongings intact.

Giants are common in Barcelona; the locals pay them no attention.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Week 4

Another Sunday and another visit to the charming coastal town of Sitges. This time, we took the toll-free coast road: highly recommended as you’ll save €11.60 and it’s great fun pretending to be Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief as you cruise along winding, cliff-edge roads. That is, it’s great fun if you’re not a big bag of nerves like me. I should point out that my jumpiness in the car has nothing to do with Will’s driving, but while he pretends to be Jeremy Clarkson (“Hammond, the Astra’s purring like a canary”), I am grey-faced, crunching up my toes and clutching onto the suit-hanger thing on the passenger door. I’m the same with fairground rides which is just as well as we’re planning a visit Barcelona’s mountain-top Tibidabo Amusement Park. I just hope they have teacups or something similarly soothing.     

Continuing on the theme of transport, there’s an excellent cycling scheme in Barcelona whereby you pay around €30 a year to use public bicycles, which you pick up and drop off at one of many designated spots around the city. I intend to sign up, if only to experience the joy of being allowed to cycle on the pavement.

Cyclists back home will know that it’s illegal to ride on the pavements in Britain. I know it’s illegal because I was once arrested for it. That’s right, arrested. Alright, I wasn’t handcuffed and thrown in the slammer but I was stopped by three Metropolitan Police officers, told to dismount, given a lecture about pedestrians being mown down by cyclists and ordered to pay a £30 fine. Given the speed at which I was travelling – no more than 5mph – pedestrians would have been at greater risk from a particularly keen jogger or a low-flying pigeon. It’s a different story over here: pedestrians are definitely the inferior pavement-pounder, while cyclists of all ages ring their bells urgently and tear about the place like teenage boys. 

Gargoyle of the week

 The first time Christina and I walked to the Sagrada Familia, it took us well over an hour. It should have taken about ten minutes, but I chose to stop every few minutes to be noisily sick.
I say chose, but it was the ripe-smelling steak tartare I’d eaten the day before that made the decision for me. This was in March of last year, on a crisp, sunny morning, and I had formed an itinerary of places to visit before we returned to London; I wasn’t going to let a little stomach bug get in the way. So, our walk was punctuated by six or seven bouts of loud retching into the plastic bags that Christina had, with admirable foresight, brought with her. By the time we arrived, I had time for a quick look at Gaudí’s famous cathedral before collapsing, unconscious, in front of it. Yesterday, we went again, and I was sure it was going to be different. It was pissing with rain, for a start.

Last week, the first time it's rained properly, I was in El Raval: a trendy area with a big art college, and lots of people with improbably thin legs and skateboards. I was not there for anything trendy. I was on my way to Cash Converters. As soon as it started to tip down, the street-hawkers could be seen racing away from Las Ramblas in droves, then returning, from wherever they keep their wares, with armloads of umbrellas. I reckon it took three minutes from the heavens opening before fifty umbrella salesmen were out on the main tourist thoroughfare.

The Sagrada Familia is probably the best-known building in the city, and there were at least ten different people from whom I could have bought an umbrella before we went in. Gaudí’s final work is still being built, but I’m pleased to report that the roof is on, and watertight.

On our way back, we took the Metro, and I discovered why Spanish people aren’t all horrendously fat, like British people and Americans are. It’s because a Kit Kat will cost you a week’s wages, and you need to talk to your bank manager before buying a Kinder Bueno. See the pictures below, your eyes are not deceiving you – that Kinder Bueno costs ONE POUND FORTY. In England, you would never pay that much for a Kinder Bueno! Not if you were the King of the Moon.

Note to the inexperienced: A Kinder Bueno is a series of farts, emitted by a tiny, magical hippo, and encased in chocolate by Swiss gnomes.

The cost of machine-vended snacks on Barcelona's public transport system is an absolute bloody disgrace.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Week 3


The urgent need to improve my Spanish became apparent on Wednesday when I met our old lady neighbour, and we had a five-minute conversation in which I mainly grinned stupidly, repeating “soy inglesa, no entiendo”. Still, I’m sure relations will improve and we’ll soon be chugging back cava together every Friday night.

I’ve decided that the life of a freelance journalist is much like when you first start going out with someone: You obsessively check your inbox every 30 seconds to see if you’ve heard from any editors, your heart leaps when you see you’ve got a new message, then you plummet into despair when it’s a newsletter from Ticketmaster. However, I remain buoyant and I’ve resolved to look for bar work and I’ve also just filled out a form to get a refund for paying too much fuel tax on a Virgin Atlantic flight in 2005. If only they had Boots here, I could use my Advantage Card points to buy lunch.   

While money is tight, Will and I are doing our best to avoid Barcelona’s many tempting bars and restaurants. On Tuesday we decided to go for a post-dinner walk at around 11 o’clock (I’m getting used to Spanish hours and I’ll quite happily eat dinner at 10pm: this is from someone who has been known to fall asleep in a restaurant. Sorry Amy and Catherine). We wandered through the Gothic Quarter and ended up sitting in Plaça Sant Felip Neri. It’s my favourite thing we’ve done in the city so far: the square is a magical and ghostly place, especially at night when the tourists are safely tucked up in their hotel rooms or over on Las Ramblas. As we sat by the fountain, we noticed the damaged façade of the church which, it turns out, was hit by a bomb during the Civil War, killing many children who were taking shelter inside. The architect Gaudi was on his way to the church here when he was run over and killed by a tram in 1926.  

I don’t want to end this entry on a sad note, so I’ll finish by reporting that I bought some 3 Euro trousers yesterday.  

A gargoyle, yesterday.

 Last Sunday, I watched a man walking a small, hairy pig along the promenade at Sitges, a little town down the coast from Barcelona. The pig was wearing a collar and lead, as a dog would. But it was a pig.

This week, Christina and I have been doing our best to get some work done. Work is important, because I need to buy a new guitar – my old one received a broken neck during a late-night prancing incident in a French campsite – and Christina thinks we should have food and accommodation as well.

There are two kinds of work that I’m doing at the moment. The first is brilliant fun: I go to a café on a secluded alley in el gótico, where I am often the only customer, and I sit at a table outside with my notebook and work on a short story. The second is the business of freelance journalism, which involves sending out lots of emails and often being ignored. I take each rejection with all the pragmatism and sang-froid of a teenage girl, so I’m beginning to think it might be smart to get a trade. The following options are open to me:

Chauffeur: how hard can it be? You just drive around. I’ve got a sat-nav.
English teacher: I speak English. Not sure what else you need.
Guitar teacher/busker: also, this gives me a good reason to buy a new guitar.
Carpenter: I know the Spanish for glue (cola), and I like the smell of sawdust.

All these options became defunct, however, when I spotted the following advert in the classified ads pages of Barcelona Connect, an English language magazine, under ‘Sales and Marketing’:

Cabbage Sales
Looking for a door to door cabbage sales person. Previous experience not necessary, full training given.

I replied immediately. ‘Dear Sir,’ I wrote, ‘I have extensive experience with cabbages…’ I won’t reproduce my application here in full, in case some crafty vegetable-hawker tries to copy it, but let’s just say I’ve got a good feeling about this one. Within days, I will be riding a cartload of brassicas about the Old Town, singing a merry song and enjoying the heady life of an itinerant cabbage-trader. My parents are going to be very proud. 

'Your dog looks hot, Brian.' 
'Tell me about it... he's positively bacon!'

Friday, 9 October 2009

Week 2

 On Saturday, we gathered our bags together in the living room of the apartment we’d been staying in for our first week. As we were thanking our hosts, the largest and heaviest of my bags toppled over, causing a loud wail to emit from the toddler onto whom it had fallen.

My God, I thought, I’ve crushed their baby. Christina has given their house keys to criminals [see her blog entry for details], and I’ve murdered their son.
I hadn’t, as it turned out, but it was definitely time to move house.

Our flat is fairly small and ramshackle, but it is perched above a small street in the barrio gótico, the old city that has been the heart of Barcelona since the Middle Ages. In the evenings, we sit with the windows open, listening to the soft babble of voices from the bar on the corner and the tolling of the cathedral bells a few streets away. During the day, we sit with the windows open, listening to the R&B blaring out from the shop that sells trainers in the street below. Still, I suppose they were here first, and nothing can detract from the novelty of living in a maze of medieval alleyways, surrounded by nice little bars and old-man cafés, or of buying our bread from a baker and our food at La Boqueria, Barcelona’s famous market.

Living in the centre of town also gives me plenty of opportunities to pursue my new hobby: observing Barcelona’s unusually attractive bin-ladies. The beauty of Spanish women is a well-documented phenomenon, but their street-sweepers, often blonde bombshells who have clearly made an effort to look their best, really put the English ones to shame. Who are these comely broomsters? And how are the Barcelona waste disposal people recruiting all these good-looking women? Like some bird-watcher or collector of rare butterflies, I have become fascinated by them. I have been trying to get a good photo of one for our readers (there’s a real hottie who empties the bins over by the Jaume 1 Metro station), with Christina’s help. She finds the bin-ladies as interesting a species as I do, and gamely pretends to pose for a photo while I’m actually focussing over her shoulder for a shot of a dolled-up refuse collector. Not many girlfriends would be so open-minded and sensible, although she has made it clear that if I bother the bin-ladies, she will report me to the authorities. Fair enough.

Broom broom! Barcelona's garbage gals scrub up nice!

I once had the contents of my handbag analysed (I’m not sure what qualifications you need for that, but it’s nice to know there’s a career out there for everyone). After extracting enough pens to stock a small Paperchase store, notebooks, make-up, bank statements and other miscellany, the bag doctor’s diagnosis was no surprise: I am a hoarder. I’ve never minded being a bit Mary Poppins, until last Friday when my bag got stolen from a bar and with it, my bank card, mobile phone, our NIE papers, the keys to the flat we were staying in and the address. Will did a lot of tutting, which was fair enough I suppose. Did I really need to carry around photocopies of our passports while we were out on the town and under the influence of wine? Well no, but it’s a lesson learned.

So, as well as moving into our new flat on Saturday, I went down to the police station off Las Ramblas to report the incident. As I stood in line with dozens of other grim-faced Brits who’d suffered the same fate, I was cheered by the presence of a translator whose job it is to assist those who don’t speak Catalan or Spanish. He had the jauntiness of an X Factor contestant and when he saw I’d written my mobile phone’s IMEI number on my report form (I’m not sure what this is, but apparently it’s important), he gave a little cry of delight at how excellent this was. There was more entertainment in the waiting room, which had a big TV screen playing Living in America by James Brown. It’s nice to have an upbeat tune to tap your foot to when you’re contemplating what’s been stolen from you.

In other news, I made the mistake of pointing out to Will that Barcelona’s female refuse collectors are very glamorous (one of them wears red lipstick!) Like a low-rent David Bailey, he has taken to photographing them, and I’m acting as a foil: I stand there pretending I’m having my photo taken when in fact, he’s papping the hot bin ladies behind me.   

 Bruce Springsteen, earlier today.

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Friday, 2 October 2009

Friday, 2 October: Week 1

“I’m champing at the bit for a good ear-clean,” said Christina over breakfast this morning. “It’s starting to look like a candle factory in there.”
It’s funny, the things you miss when you’ve been away from home for a while.

Our first week has been, in a word, daunting. The ten days it took us to get here were were very much a holiday – a ruddy-cheeked, idyllic French camping holiday. On our first evening in Barcelona, we walked up to the Parc Güell, a short distance from where we’ve been staying this first week. You can see most of Barcelona from the Parc Güell, and it looked very big to us on that first night. We were two more tourists in a parkful, but we may have been the only ones thinking: Where are we going to live, and what the hell are we going to do for money?

After a week of filling in forms and traipsing the streets, the city seems a little less massive. We have been staying with a very friendly and helpful couple called Paco and Aura, who have made us feel at home in their flat. Spanish bureacracy is not all that bad, even if you don’t speak much Spanish. Estate agents are arseholes, wherever you go. I even negotiated a (small) reduction in rent with a wily Catalan, on a very Gothic flat indeed, so one of my questions from the first night is answered. As for the other – we have enough saved to tide us over for a while, and thanks to Christina’s organisational skills we seem to be doing quite a lot of work. We’ve even had a meeting with a lady from the tourist office – “the problem is that we are too close to Africa,” she informed us with a knowing look, “and so we have a lot of crime now” – who told us to look for jobs in something other than journalism. I thought about suggesting something in race relations, or motivational speaking.

Things I have seen this week:
An ocean sunfish (at the aquarium)
Lots of flats
The world’s tiniest language expert: Paco and Aura’s 16-month-old son, Luca, who speaks Italian, Romanian and Spanish. I normally despise small children, but Luca is quite the charmer.


 A man with a small dog, yesterday.

“Wouldn’t it be nice to live somewhere hot and sunny and do lots of writing?About a year ago, I uttered words to that effect to Will. Instead of leaving it at that and returning to gazing out of a drizzly train window, we quit our jobs, said adios to postal strikes and David Cameron, and headed to Barcelona for a year-long sun-and-sangria-fuelled knees-up.
We’ve been here for a week and this is what we’ve done:

1. Found a flat in the centre of town, not through an agency. Hurray! We move in tomorrow.
2. Queued for two hours outside the foreigners’ office to get some forms for our NIE numbers. This is a number that every foreigner (or extranjero, if you want to know some espanol) needs in order to live here. It’s a tedious process.
3. Connected to Skype. This is big news and yesterday, I received my first Skype call from my friend Catherine. I went into a spin as her expectant face popped up on my computer screen and I scrambled about for the headphones.Catherine’s calling! I can see her! She’s in Hull and I’m in Barcelona! Wow! I remember experiencing similar awe when mum and dad first bought a video player and we watched a recording of the Smurfs.

Will and I have also replaced sloppy text messages with a daily bicker about subjects as diverse as Scrabble, slippers and coffee. We haven’t lived together before and it’s quite a challenge spending all our time together in a city where we have no friends and speak little Spanish. As I type, Will is in a sulk because he can’t find the cable that connects his camera to his laptop. It’s my fault, of course, just like it’s my fault he keeps losing his slippers (the lovely couple we’ve been staying with while we flat hunt, have provided us with slippers so that their 16-month old child doesn’t feast on the dirt from our shoes). “Where are they? You’ve hidden them!, he bellows at me with predictable regularity. I roll my eyes as he tears around the room, before eventually locating his fluffy footwear. It’s going to be a long year. 

Apparently this is a statue of Colombo – they must really love their TV detectives over here.