Friday, 29 January 2010

Week 18

Having broken our third coffee maker in as many months, I decided to improvise. It won’t be as good, I reasoned, but it’ll do until I buy another cafétiere. So, I heated some water in a saucepan, added a tablespoon of coffee, and poured it through the filter from our broken coffee machine, straight into the mug. And for this, I will probably be assassinated. Why?

Because all coffee makers are a scam!

Making your coffee as I’ve just described is quicker and easier than a cafétiere, not to mention an electric machine or one of those stove-top things. It also uses less ground coffee, and makes a nicer drink. The thing is, the coffee companies want you to waste ground coffee in their stupid contraptions. They want you to believe that coffee-making is a special, mysterious thing, that a barista is as profound a craftsman as a chef or perhaps a surgeon, and that only by spending all your money will you get the best flavour.

Coffee is a product with a proud history of oppression; the espresso everyone thinks is so lovely was designed by an Italian factory owner, who wanted to force his workers to take shorter coffee breaks (he should have called it opresso! Ha!) And the fact that some more expensive coffee is ‘Fair Trade’ (ie, you can spend more to buy coffee that is not morally wrong) says a lot about us. But the idea that I have for years been needlessly mucking about with different sorts of coffee apparatus – that just takes the cake.

Spanish coffee differs from other coffee in that two types are always available: regular coffee and mezcla, meaning mixed. Mezcla coffee uses the same beans, but some of the beans are roasted in sugar (and then mixed into the regular beans, hence the name). It mostly tastes like normal coffee but with a slight edge of burnt sugar and toffee.

So take it from me, a qualified freelance food journalist: if you’re buying cheap ground coffee in Spain, I think it’s better to go with mezcla, although it is important to note that buying a good-quality coffee maker will make absolutely no difference at all.

A head-on view of a wooden submarine.

Wandering off the beaten track is the ultimate ambition for the travelling type. You want to be able to say to others, “Oh god, I went to this AMAZING restaurant/shop/beauty spot. You’ll never find it in the guide books. You can try, but you won’t!”
               Lately, Will and I have been taking the paths less travelled in and around Barcelona and consequently, we have discovered there’s a reason for this. Because they’re a bit rubbish. A couple of Sundays ago we took the car to Vilanova i la Geltru, a seaside town about 40 km south of Barcelona. We packed a picnic and set off with visions of bracing walks along the sand before settling down to some nice food. As soon as we stepped out of the flat, it started raining and however nice Vilanova i la Geltru might be in the sunshine, it’s quite depressing when it’s bucketing down. Our day consisted of walking around for a bit, having coffee in a deserted café where we sat in silence watching a wildlife programme on the TV screen, eating our picnic in the car, playing I Spy (which was limiting because we couldn’t see much out of the rain-lashed car window) and observing a severed doll's arm that had been washed up on the beach, before Will turned to me and asked, “Can we go home now?”
           Last Saturday we went for a walk in the city and I picked Esquerra de l’Eixample as our destination. This is despite the guidebook describing it as “perhaps the least visited on any city sightseeing trip.” Again, the weather wasn’t great so perhaps it’s a little unfair to judge a place when it’s not bathed in a sunny glow. Anway, it wasn’t postcard material, that’s for sure. Among the sights we took in along Avinguda de Roma were high-rise buildings, plenty of concrete and a big train station. Oh, and a prison.
 The beach was also strewn with sanitary towels and fat, purple sea-slugs. If you can weep through a snorkel, Vilanova i la Geltru would be the place to do it

Monday, 25 January 2010

Week 17

Restaurants are generally pretty nice. You sit down, you eat, you have a couple of glasses of wine. You have a nice conversation. Someone does a shit next to you. No?

Oh, right, that’s because it’s rude to openly display faeces in a room where people are not only eating, but paying to eat. Still, that didn’t stop a Spanish lady from coming over to the table next to ours to change her baby’s nappy on Saturday night. I was just minding my own business, trying to eat a Peruvian goat, and there she was, cooing and fussing over the little mite as if it had done something unbelievably clever. If it’s so completely fine, I wondered, if it’s so normal and natural and fine, why have you come across the restaurant to our table? Eh? I am eating food here, you selfish, deviant maniac!

And with that, I resolved to take my revenge. While she bagged up the disposable nappy, I marched over to her table, sat on her chair and shat myself, as hard as I could. My red, shaking face was a mirror image of her child’s toilet grimace, but apparently not as adorable. Still, too bad.
Christina, understanding my protest, soon joined in. Hoisting me onto the table, she pushed my legs aloft and, borrowing a couple of wipes from the startled Spaniard, began industriously cleaning me. The job done, we returned to our seats, finished our meal and left.

Okay, we didn’t. We sat in outraged silence, shaking our heads in impotent disbelief. Don’t get me wrong, I like the fact that Spanish, French and Italian people take their kids to restaurants. Their kids are usually pretty well-behaved, and I don't mind a couple of little people running about while I eat. But a poo! A poo is too far, madam. Too far by half.

Handball: BCN take on a team from, er, somewhere else. Goooal! Or is it? Don't know.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Week 16

Living in the centre of Barcelona has given me a distorted image of the city’s population. While it’s true that, unlike the centre of London, central Barcelona is populated by people – normal people, rather than millionaires and beggars – the vast majority of people in the street have arrived from elsewhere. Living just off the Portal de l’Angel, perhaps the city’s busiest retail street, it’s all too easy to see the Barcelonians as a shopping people, mainly concerned with the acquisition of clothing from the ubiquitous H&M, Desigual and their beloved Zara. This is a false impression, and a negative one, because shopping is an inherently stupid activity.
       January is a prime month for observing how incredibly thick the shop-owners rightly suppose us to be. We have just spent all of our money on things for other people, because baby Jesus wanted us to, and now all that stuff is half price. Half price! So, that means it was never worth what they were charging, doesn’t it?  It means the prices were artificially inflated, weren't they, to take cynical advantage of our Yuletide munificence? But rather than marching into the shop and saying, ‘you scammed us, you snakes, and we want our money back’, we march into the shop and get in a queue, and hand over yet more of our money for a new jumper or some pants. What an unbelievably stupid thing to do.
     I should re-iterate that I am not saying that the Barcelonites are all shopping folk, much less that they are in any way stupid. It’s just that we live in an area frequented heavily by shoppers. Being constantly surrounded by shoppers makes it impossible not to notice that anyone who walks into a shop becomes a moron, for the time they are in there. It’s not our fault.
The shops have us beaten. They have strange hypnotic powers, vast resources, and technology beyond our imagining. They will spread and spread, until every person in the world works for, lives and spends all of his money in a branch of H&M.
                Having said that, living in an area where everyone comes to go shopping makes Sundays a real treat. All the shops being shut, everyone goes somewhere else and the wide avenues become empty but for a few families, strolling, devoid of retail intent. I love Sundays.

Some Reflections on a Bus


Last weekend a travel magazine editor who Will has been getting some work from was in town. It was the perfect opportunity for them to meet (I won't use the word 'network', I am not a contestant on The Apprentice). I tagged along and the meeting took place on Sunday. At 11pm. In a bar. These are either the best or the worst circumstances under which to present yourself, depending on your viewpoint.

Earlier that day, I had eaten some funny-tasting soup. I'd made it a couple of days earlier and I think the blue cheese had chemically reacted with the cauliflower because it tasted fizzy. I should have stopped after the first spoonful but I persisted for a bit longer, all in the name of frugality. Eleven hours later, my stomach began gurgling as we left the bar. It's okay, I thought. It's only five minutes on the metro, we'll be home in no time. But it was 2am and the metro was shut so I endured a 50-minute walk down Passeig de Gracia, with the onset of food poisoning creeping upon me. I said nothing of my predicament, lest I hamper Will's career.

"The first time we came to Barcelona, I got food poisoning," Will revealed to the editor. "We were on our way to the Sagrada Famila and Christina had brought some plastic bags for me to be sick in." When you're suffering from this kind of ailment, there is nothing worse than a) the smell of fried food or b) hearing someone else's food poisoning story.

We eventually reached Placa de Catalunya, where we would part company with the editor. By now, I felt delirious, faint, hot, nauseous and really, really in need of the loo. But there were no quick goodbyes. Will and the editor continued chatting for what was probably only a minute, but felt like an eternity. Come on! I wanted to shout at Will. I'm actually going to soil myself here! The editor turned to me and said "Christina, if you want to do any writing for us ..."

"Great, thanks," I said with all the enthusiasm of someone who asked for a Yorkie but got a Chomp. However, if it's a choice between sounding ungrateful and disgracing yourself in front of a potential employer, I know which one I'd rather live with. 

*Footnote: I made it home without incident. 

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Week 15

"I have never fixed a boiler", our landlord cheerfully announced yesterday as he arrived to fix our leaking boiler.

I get very nervous when it comes to home appliances. I'm the kind of person who thinks that unless I unplug everything and do a thorough safety check before going to put the rubbish out, I will return to a big ball of flames. So when a kindly, but evidently clueless, man turns up to do a bit of plumbing, my stomach starts to churn.

Of course, broken boilers are a common feature of the winter months but it's not so bad to be without hot water when you have central heating. If you're brave enough for a cold shower you can reward yourself afterwards with a nice radiator hug. This flat, like many of Barcelona's old buildings, does not have central heating. When we moved here in balmy September, I would boast to friends and family back home, "you know, our flat doesn't have central heating? That's right, I live in a country where radiators are not required. Radiators are for wimps! Enjoy the cold, losers!"

Well, I can inform you that Barcelona does get cold. Over the past weeks we've gaffer-taped the window seals like we're preparing for nuclear war, stuffed gaps in the windows with towels and used rolled-up duvet covers as draft excluders.

"Why do your arms look so big?", Will asked me over dinner the other night. Because I'm wearing three jumpers and a cardigan, that's why. For those of you planning to come and stay with us, please don't let any of this put you off.

Back to the boiler and my confidence in the landlord's handyman skills plummeted further when, by the end of the day, he had managed to turn a few drips into a full-on waterfall. Anyway, heís just been back with a new 'part' and after much faffing, grunting, to-ing and fro-ing, it's apparently fixed. Roll on summer. 

I may not be the best fisherman in the world. I may in fact be the worst, but at least I’m not cursed.

I was fishing down on the long sea wall that extends a few hundred metres in front of the Olympic port, when the weather suddenly turned nasty. A chill wind came up out of nowhere, the sea started to heave menacingly, and angry bruises appeared in the sky. She’s here, I thought. And sure enough, I heard a voice behind me.

“Hi! It’s me! How do I get down?”

She’s never told me how it happened but Christina, like Odysseus, has somehow incurred the wrath of Poseidon, or some other marine deity. As a result, fish instinctively flee from her presence, and fishing line loops wilfully into impossible knots. I am like a character in some forgotten shanty: Don’t ye let Will Dunn’s woman near yon boat, lad… storms roll in from the sea when’er she be near it.

Still, I kept on fishing, because only a small part of the activity of fishing has anything to do with catching fish. It’s more about doing nothing: sitting somewhere by the sea, staring blankly into the middle distance, listening to the cawing of gulls and doing bugger all. Because if someone asked you what you did on Sunday and you said, “oh, I sat on a wall”, they’d think you had failed to use your Sunday properly. Factor in a half-hearted attempt to kill a herring, and suddenly you’re a sportsman.
            There is a real air of contentment down on the sea wall, the quiet satisfaction of men getting away with not doing anything at all. Gardening? Car washing? Football? Sorry, I can’t. I’m going fishing.

Inside Barcelona Cathedral. I wonder if the font is warm enough for an armpit-wash?

Monday, 4 January 2010

Week 14

At six o’clock this morning, I drew back the covers and took a tentative sniff. It was even worse than I had imagined. As a gust of two-hundred-degree air may singe the eyebrows of a too-eager oven user, so my nasal hairs withered and crackled in the ghastly brimstone of my nocturnal flatulence.

I have been spending too much time in the company of vegetarians, three of whom Christina invited to spend New Year with us. In the last three days I have eaten nothing but spicy white bean chilli, cauliflower curry, eggs, spinach and falafels. As a result of this unfamiliar diet, I am now so flatulent that nearby offices have had to be evacuated. Birds drop dead in mid-flight and fall onto our roof, their eyes massive, their beaks twisted with disgust. The seagulls land with a crunch and ricochet clumsily into the street below, where children in gas masks give them solemn, inappropriate funerals. As far away as Tarragona, 100km to the south, people have reported that fresh milk turns to mucky Stilton upon contact with the polluted air.

With my bottom pouring forth a fresh miasma once every few minutes, every living thing in Barcelona is clearing out. Even the rats have fled. They emerged from the sewers last night and came streaming out of the Raval and up Las Ramblas, making for the hills. A scurrying brown river of nasally offended rodentdom, they crawled over the last few escaping tourists and headed West, where they hope to make a new existence, free from the terrible consequences of my misguided dalliance with meat-free dining.

It has to be stopped. If I continue to not eat sausages and burgers, all of Western Europe will fall. If there is anyone out there with a strong stomach, no sense of smell and their own scuba equipment, for pity’s sake, get me a mixed grill and restore the balance before it’s too late. We’re counting on you.

And a can of Coke, please. And a Twix, for pudding.

A band playing outside the cathedral on Christmas Day

And that was Christmas. Will and I stayed in Barcelona, making it the first Christmas either of us has had away from home. I had been feeling quite homesick thinking about my usual festive routine: Quality Streets for breakfast, a glass of Harveys Bristol Cream with mum while the turkey is in the oven, falling into an Eastenders-and-Coronation Street-induced coma before rising again for turkey sandwiches and a game of Absolute Balderdash.

By Christmas Day my homesickness had turned to actual vomiting. Admittedly, this was the result of too much booze the night before. In the absence of a traditional English pub, Will and I went for the next best thing: an Irish pub. There was lager, there was Guinness and then there was half a bottle of port at about 2am on Christmas morning back at our flat. I can’t decide whether my hangovers are getting worse with age, or whether it’s because I have taken to drinking like a sailor since moving to Spain. It’s not helped by the fact that the spirit measures are so liberal here and I have got it into my head that to drink lots of wine makes me terribly continental.  

Hungover or not, Christmas can be a stressful time. I think Will and I were both a bit nervous that, having spent the last 101 days exclusively in each other’s company, it might all become a bit much. Would my mounting resentment at him using our curtains as a tea towel result in me boxing his head with the Peep Show DVD boxset? Or would my crimes against washing up (see Will’s entry, week 7), culminate in strangulation by tinsel? No, we buttoned up and carried on. Once my hangover had worn off, we had a lovely time opening presents, walking around Barcelona Cathedral and the Parc de la Ciutadella, eating traditional Catalan food and drinking cava. I did miss the Quality Streets, though.

The fairground at Tibidabo, which looks out over the city