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.