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